Monday, 13 June 2011

From The Hope Of Spring To The Danger of Conflagration

Its now five months since the “Arab Spring” burst forth. Like every Spring it carried with it the hope of renewal and rebirth. All was new, all was vibrant. New forms of organising, using “social media” seemed to challenge, old orthodoxies about how mass protest and change had to be organised. It was not just old regimes, but old ideas of hierarchy, structure and organisation that were challenged and tested. But, now things begin to look different.

The revolt in Tunisia, removed the old dictator, Ben Ali. Yet, five months on, it is difficult to see that much has changed in Tunisia. The new broom is cleaning the Augean stables, but it appears only to create a more benign environment for its own residence. In Ancient China, this kind of change was a regular occurrence, as one Dynasty gave way to another, in violent uprisings that brought a change of personnel at the top, but kept the underlying social relations stagnant for millennia.
In Egypt, a similar uprising of the masses took longer to bring about the downfall of Mubarak, despite increasing pressure behind the scene from the US, via its contacts with the Egyptian Generals, for him to go. But, in reality, Mubarak's departure was as superficial as that of Ben Ali. It was not the action of the masses that had forced Mubarak or Ben Ali, to go and to be replaced by a bourgeois Provisional Government – let alone anything more radical – as happened in Russia in February 1917. On the contrary, the process in Tunisia and Egypt was more akin to if Kolchak and Kornilov had been brought to power rather than Kerensky.

In its early bud, the Arab Spring, appeared to hold out the perspective of a flowering across the whole vista of the Middle East and North Africa. From a Marxist perspective that was always an impressionist view that disappeared on closer inspection.
These were all different countries, whose only common element was the Arab language, and a common history in the distant past. They all had different economies, having diverged according to their material conditions and endowments in conformity with the law of combined and uneven development. All of these countries had a multitude of other cleavages such as tribe, religion etc. as well as many other differences based on their more recent history, and external allegiances. Egypt, for example, had some similarities with countries in Latin America, which had achieved national independence from former Colonial rulers in the 19th Century. Indeed, under the rule of Muhammed Ali, Egypt engaged in its own Colonial expansion, into Northern Sudan, Syria, and parts of Arabia and Anatolia, though European powers, concerned that Egypt might actually threaten the Ottoman Empire, and the political and strategic implications that might have for Europe's Southern flank, forced him to hand most of them back to the Ottoman's.

Egypt underwent some considerable development, but at the expense of racking up huge foreign debt. The Ali's descendant Ismail stated in 1879,

"My country (Egypt) is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social conditions",

and having been educated in Paris it was no wonder that he maintained a close relation with France, including the joint venture for the establishment of the Suez Canal.
The extent of modernisation that was undertaken can be summarised by the fact that under the latter the railways in Egypt, and Sudan, which had remained in Egypt's control, increased from virtually none to, “the most railways per habitable kilometer of any nation in the world.” (Wikipedia) And demonstrating that the world is far more complex than the idea that it can simply be divided into Imperialist and Non-Imperialist camps, under Ismail, Egypt itself resumed its own expansionist and Colonialist ambitions by expanding its control into Dharfur, and attempts to colonise Ethiopia. Indeed, it was these Imperialist ambitions in Ethiopia that, as much as the extensive plans for economic and social modernisation, left Egypt with massive debts, and ultimately led to the introduction of the British Protectorate.

But, it is precisely these internal differences and cleavages, along with the varying external alliances that present the possibility of the current situation exploding into a conflagration. After all, the Revolutions of 1848 were themselves accompanied by a spate of European Wars, through the Crimea to the Franco-Prussian that ultimately led up to 1914.
The conditions, which facilitate Revolutions and Civil Wars are the same conditions that facilitate national wars. And, we should remember that the spark the ignited the conflagration of 1914 came from within the relatively insignificant arena of the Balkans, but spread like a Summer grassfire due to all of the varying external alliances that the contending forces there had with the European Big Powers.

It was this kind of recognition of the danger of external intervention by those Big Powers that led those such as Lenin and Trotsky to oppose it, and to focus upon the need to build working-class alliances across national borders. Opposing the kind of Opportunism and Moral relativism we see from sects such as the AWL today, who pick and choose, which moral outrage they wish to see its champions from “Democratic Imperialism” intervene in, Trotsky wrote in response to their Russian counterpart Miliukov,

“An individual, a group, a party, or a class that ‘objectively’ picks its nose while it watches men drunk with blood massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive...

“On the other hand, a party or the class that rises up against every abominable action wherever it has occurred, as vigorously and unhesitatingly as a living organism reacts to protect its eyes when they are threatened with external injury – such a party or class is sound of heart.
Protest against the outrages in the Balkans cleanses the social atmosphere in our own country, heightens the level of moral awareness among our own people… Therefore an uncompromising protest against atrocities serves not only the purpose of moral self-defence on the personal and party level but also the purpose of politically safeguarding the people against adventurism concealed under the flag of ‘liberation’.”

(Trotsky On the Balkan Wars)

Both Lenin and Trotsky understood that the Imperialists would use all such pretexts of “liberation”, or “humanitarianism” as cover for their wars. Indeed, the British involvement in WWI was covered under such stories of atrocities committed by Germany against Belgium.

Today, we see something very similar in MENA. The revolution in Tunisia and Egypt appears if not stalled then in a dangerous pause, during which the old regimes may once again assert themselves. In Libya, what appeared to be a popular revolution turns out to be, a Civil War, with those within the rebel Camp, now wholly dependent upon the European Imperialist intervention, and even with its overwhelming military firepower ranged against the Libyan people, wreaking havoc upon the Libyan infrastructure, the Imperialists have been unable to install its chosen representatives.
In Syria, the popular masses have risen in what does appear to be a real popular revolt extending across the whole country in its major conurbations, despite even worse brutality being unleashed against it than Gaddafi has done in Libya. Where in Libya, it is Imperialism that is the external influence, in Syria, the external allegiance and support for the regime comes from Iran, which has its own expansionist agenda for the region.
In Libya, tribal cleavages appear to play a part alongside the external influence on events. In Syria, a minority Shia elite, dominate a largely Sunni population. In Bahrain, the opposite is the case, with a Minority Sunni elite closely tied to a similar elite in Saudi Arabia, in turn tied to Imperialism, oppressing a Shia majority, which is being supported by the Shia dominated regime in Iran.

Meanwhile, the tensions and disputes between Iraq and Kuwait over oil, and control over the Gulf, which led to the first Gulf War, have opened up again. In 1982, with the Thatcher regime looking set to be kicked out, and the likelihood of a similar fate befalling the regime of Galtieri in Argentina, the Falklands War seemed a way out for both leaders, even if they did not originally intend for things to go that far.
It is not the first or last time that regimes have sought to divert attention from the domestic problems by wrapping themselves in the flag. The Imperialist intervention in Libya, has probably provided Gaddafi and his regime with added support on that basis, just as the continual threat of external intervention in Iran strengthens the regime, enabling it to brand its opponents as traitors and in league with foreign forces. As Trotsky put it, when the Stalinists were calling for Imperialist intervention against Hitler,

“The democracies of the Versailles Entente helped the victory of Hitler by their vile oppression of defeated Germany. Now the lackeys of democratic imperialism of the Second and Third Internationals are helping with all their might the further strengthening of Hitler’s regime. Really, what would a military bloc of imperialist democracies against Hitler mean? A new edition of the Versailles chains, even more heavy, bloody and intolerable.
Naturally, not a single German worker wants this. To throw off Hitler by revolution is one thing; to strangle Germany by an imperialist war is quite another. The howling of the “pacifist” jackals of democratic imperialism is therefore the best accompaniment to Hitler’s speeches. “You see,” he says to the German people, “even socialists and Communists of all enemy countries support their army and their diplomacy; if you will not rally around me, your leader, you are threatened with doom!” Stalin, the lackey of democratic imperialism, and all the lackeys of Stalin – Jouhaux, Toledano, and Company – are the best aides in deceiving, lulling, and intimidating the German workers.” (p21)

(Trotsky - “Phrases & Reality” in Writings 1938-9)

Already, we have seen proxy wars fought in the region between US Imperialism and Iran. In Lebanon, Hezbollah acted as proxy for Iran, whereas Israel acted as proxy for the US. Even in the Palestinian Civil War, Hamas was backed by Iran, whereas Fatah was backed by the US. The potential for conflict in the Gulf is serious as Iran now has considerable influence inside Iraq, whereas the US still has three massive strategic bases there plus a considerable number of troops, as well as troops in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and its naval base in Bahrain.
It is for these kinds of reasons that Marxists have always opposed the intervention of other states in internal affairs, except in the case of revolutionary wars, even when the immediate fate of a particular working-class is concerned. As Lenin put it, in The Question of Self-Determination Summed Up

“The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement.
In individual concrete casts, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement, but it would be ridiculous to delete the demand for a republic from the programme of international Social-Democracy on these grounds...

But we cannot be in favour of a war between great nations, in favour of the slaughter of twenty million people for the sake of the problematical liberation of a small nation with a population of perhaps ten or twenty millions!” Of course not! And it does not mean that we throw complete national equality out of our Programme; it means that the democratic interests of one country must he subordinated to the democratic interests of several and all countries. Let us assume that between two great monarchies there is a little monarchy whose kinglet is “hound” by blood and other ties to the monarchs of both neighboring countries. Let us further assume that the declaration of a republic in the little country and the expulsion of its monarch would in practice lead to a war between the two neighboring big countries for the restoration of that or another monarch in the little country. There is no doubt that all international Social-Democracy, as well as the really internationalist section of Social-Democracy in the little country, would beagainst substituting a republic for the monarchy in this case. The substitution of a republic for a monarchy is not an absolute, but one of the democratic demands, subordinate to the interests of democracy (and still more, of course, to those of the socialist proletariat) as a whole. A case like this would in all probability not give rise to the slightest disagreement among Social-Democrats in any country. But if any Social-Democrat were to propose on these grounds that the demand for a republic be deleted altogether from the programme of international Social-Democracy, he would certainly be regarded as quite mad. He would be told that after all one must not forget the elementary logical difference between the general and the particular.”

It is necessary to bear this in mind when looking at particular, concrete instances. At a superficial glance the intervention of Imperialism to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi might seem justified.
But, that is only so if we view this particular instance in complete isolation, if we only focus on the immediate interests of workers in Benghazi. But, as Marxists our concern is with the interests of the working-class globally, and clearly the ability of Imperialism to intervene as a global policemen is strengthened on each occasion that it is allowed to do so without protest by workers. That is all the more true when such intervention has the possibility of leading to a much larger conflagration. The attitude that “something must be done” every time some crisis arises somewhere in the world is not a Marxist response. We have to be realists recognising that even when the forces of Socialism were much stronger than they are today, it was not possible to respond to every situation. That is no reason to look to or remain silent about the intervention of our class enemies, as Trotsky sets out in the quote on the Balkans above. He makes the point more precisely in his response to the Palestinian Trotskyists where he wrote,

“That policy which attempts to place upon the proletariat the unsolvable task of warding off all dangers engendered by the bourgeoisie and its policy of war is vain, false, mortally dangerous. “But fascism might be victorious!” “But the USSR is menaced!” “But Hitler’s invasion would signify the slaughter of workers!” And so on, without end. Of course, the dangers are many, very many. It is impossible not only to ward them all off, but even to foresee all of them. Should the proletariat attempt at the expense of the clarity and irreconcilability of its fundamental policy to chase after each episodic danger separately, it will unfailingly prove itself a bankrupt. In time of war, the frontiers will be altered, military victories and defeats will alternate with each other, political regimes will shift. The workers will be able to profit to the full from this monstrous chaos only if they occupy themselves not with acting as supervisors of the historical process but by engaging in the class struggle. Only the growth of their international offensive will put an end not alone to episodic “dangers” but also to their main source: the class society.”

A Step Towards Social-Patriotism

The AWL and other Social patriots adopt precisely this kind of position. They see the devastation and misery caused by Capitalism and Imperialism, and yet having lost faith in the working-class, look to precisely that same Democratic Imperialism, and Bourgeois Democracy to act in the stead of the proletariat to provide an immediate fix. (That is the truth about their example of not protesting police intervention to stop them getting beaten up by fascists, for how many times do they have to refuse to oppose police intervention before "No State Bans" is seen as just another piece of meaningless hot air, in their Programme for fighting Fascism?)
Even then, like Miliukov, criticised by Trotsky in relation to the Balkans, their moral indignation is not expressed equally. They support Imperialist intervention to oppose Serbian agression in Kosovo, but oppose Russian intervention to stop Georgian agression in South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. They argue its not possible to call for Imperialist troops to leave Iraq, but call for Soviet troops to leave Afghanistan. And in truth, having set out why there should be no opposition to Imperialist intervention in Libya, on what basis could they then oppose Iranian intervention in Bahrain, or in Palestine?

As Marxists our task is not to pick sides in such conflicts between competing fractions of Capital, but to remain on the side of the working-class. That means unflinching opposition to the intervention of the Big capitalist powers, even when they try to cover their actions with the appearance of "humanitarianism", or "liberation".
There is nothing humanitarian in the 10,000 bombing runs that the Imperialists have inflicted on the people of Libya, destroying much of its infrastructure, poisoning its water table with depleted Uranium munitions, and, having run out of military targets, started openly bombing civilian and commercial targets, such as commercial shipping, and the airport. But, Marxists have to oppose such actions for much bigger reasons than the immediate consequences in Libya itself. Our focus must be on what such action implies for the global working-class, and its struggle against that same Imperialism. It also has to look at the wider implications in the understanding of the potential for global conflict between competing Imperialist nations and blocs.

As I wrote in my bog Third World War?, there are many similarities now with the period at the end of the 19th Century and leading up to WWI. The US has established strategic bases in the Middle East, and throughout the “Stans” of Central Asia, located not just so as to protect its access to oil and strategic minerals, but also to encircle its main potential opponents in China, India and Russia.
Meanwhile, China as the world's most dynamic economy, and soon to be largest economy, has built a large new naval base in the Pacific where it has stationed a new submarine fleet to control the Pacific Area, and is now building a fleet of Aircraft Carriers, vital for any military power that wishes to establish global reach in its ability to intervene, quickly to ensure its interests are defended.

As tensions mount in the Middle East, and the potential for a string of external relations to come into play, with Iran, perhaps responding to internal opposition with an external adventure, or Syria following a similar path in promoting infringements of Israel's borders – it has already made suggestions that Israel is behind unrest within Syria – in an attempt to mobilise populist nationalist sentiment, sparked from an uprising in Palestine, or renewed border fighting with Lebanon, or maybe on the back of a more open Iranian intervention in Bahrain, using the Imperialist intervention in Libya as cover, the potential also exists for those big powers such as China and Russia with links to Iran, Libya, Syria etc. to be drawn into such a conflict.

Already, a number of market analysts are looking at the potential for at least a considerable ratcheting up of tensions in the area, with forecasts that oil could rapidly rise to $200 a barrel if conflict erupts in the Gulf. Even without it, there are forecasts that Oil could rise to around $130 a barrel in a few months time, hence the pressure on the Imperialist friendly nations in OPEC to vote through an increase in output at its last meeting.
That failed, but it can also be seen why, with reports that Saudi oilfields have been damaged as a result of over-producing, and the real reserves being much lower than the official estimates, Imperialism needs as many friendly regimes in OPEC as possible, in order to ensure that such votes go its way in the future.

At the moment, outside the Imperialist heartlands Capitalism is booming. High commodity prices are in part a consequence of that. The other cause is the massive amounts of paper money that western Capitalist economies have pumped into the global economy – commodity prices, are not so inflated if priced in Gold, and priced in Gold, most Stock Markets are actually in a Bear Market. But, that dichotomy is a crucial element in the dangers that exist. At the end of the 19th Century, it was such a global expansion, and its effects on the emergence of new industrialising economies such as Germany, the US and Japan which created the dynamic towards the wars that broke out in 1914, and 1939. It was the decline of British and French Imperial power, whilst those countries still had massive military might that meant War was virtually inevitable.

Marxists have to look beyond the immediate horizon. We should not base ourselves on “practical politics” of responding to each issue as it arises, but on the basis of Marxist principles and strategy. In particular, we have to stress the importance of building an independent working-class response, on rebuilding the Labour Movement as an independent political force, in militant opposition to bourgeois democracy, and Democratic Imperialism, as much as to other forms of Imperialism and Capitalist oppression.

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