Resistance or retrogression? The battle of ideas over Iraq
by Peter Hudis
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has turned into a quagmire
of nightmarish proportions, with many now calling it the most serious setback
for U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam War. This is seen in everything from
the way western Iraq has come under the control of Taliban-like fundamentalists
to the fact that jihadists from neighboring lands are flocking to Iraq to take
advantage of hatred of the U.S. occupation and to further their effort to create
a reactionary "Islamic state" upon its ruins. Clearly, the U.S.
occupation of Iraq--which would have continued even if Kerry won the
presidential election--created fertile ground for reactionary and terrorist
forces to take root and flourish.
At the same time, many left-wing critics of the war have
fallen into an ideological quagmire by failing to acknowledge the reactionary
character of much of the Iraqi "armed resistance." Some are even
speaking out in its defense. The most egregious examples are recent comments by
Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy, long considered leading spokespersons of the
movement against global capital.
At the time of the protests at the Republican National
Convention in New York last August, Klein wrote in an article "Bring Najaf
to New York": "Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers are not just another
group of generic terrorists out to kill Americans; their opposition to the
occupation represents the overwhelmingly mainstream sentiment in Iraq."(1)
The statement is patently false. Al-Sadr's militia has fought U.S. troops in the
name of a reactionary, fundamentalist agenda that opposes womenís rights, gay
liberation, and workersí self-emancipation.
In April, when al-Sadr ordered workers in aluminum and
sanitary supply plants in Nasariyeh to hand over their factories for use as
bastions to fight the U.S. military, the workers refused, stating: "We
completely reject the turning of workers and civiliansí work and living places
into reactionary war-fronts between the two poles of terrorism in Iraq: the U.S.
and their allies from one side, and the terrorists in the armed militias, known
for their enmity to Iraqi peopleís interests, on the other."(2)
Klein and others fail to distinguish between the
fundamentalist agenda of the Shiíite and Sunni militias and the views of many
independent Iraqis. As Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has covered Iraq,
wrote, "Neither the resistance groups cheered by many on the American Left
nor the governing parties championed by the American Right seem to reflect the
views and aspirations of most Iraqi people, who seem to be hoping for the rise
of groups independent of both Saddamís regime and the increasingly dictatorial
Arundhati Roy has also fallen into the trap of failing
to distinguish between reactionary and progressive opponents of U.S. policies.
She recently wrote in her "Public Power in the Age of Empire":
"The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against
Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle...Terrorism. Armed struggle.
Insurgency. Call it what you want. Terrorism is vicious, ugly, and dehumanizing
for its perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. Terrorists...are
people who donít believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use
of violence." (4)
Nowhere does Roy mention that these
"terrorists" whose "battle is our battle" oppose womenís
rights, democracy and self-determination for national minorities. Nowhere does
she mention that they want to create a totalitarian religious-based state that
makes the reformists she rightly scorns, like Kerry in the U.S. or Lula in
Brazil, look like angels by comparison. And nowhere does she mention the genuine
liberatory forces inside Iraq, like the Federation of Workersí Councils and
Unions (FWCUI) or the Organization for Womenís Freedom (OWFI)--both of which
have come under increasingly sharp attack by both the U.S. occupiers and
How can such a vocal supporter of womenís rights
express virtually uncritical support for reactionary forces in Iraq? She writes
of the Iraqi resistance: "Like most resistance movements, it combines a
motley range of assorted factions. Former Baathists, liberals, Islamists, fed up
collaborationists, communists, etc. Of course, it is riddled with opportunism,
local rivalry, demagoguery and criminality. But if we are only going to support
pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity."
Liberation movements are never "pristine." But
that hardly defines al-Sadr, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the Jordanian-born terrorist
behind many attacks on U.S. forces) or Lashkar-e-Taybe--the Pakistani Sunni
group that in the past few months has sent hundreds of "holy warriors"
to Iraq. Their problem isnít (as Roy says) that they suffer from "the
iconization of leaders, a lack of transparency, a lack of vision and
direction." They know their "direction" only too well--they want
to destroy anything that comes in the way of a totalitarian control of society
by religious extremism. Which is why they target not just U.S. soldiers but also
Iraqi civilians, feminists, and anyone else who happens to oppose their
In this respect the fundamentalist militias fighting the
U.S. in Iraq closely resemble the Christian Right in the U.S., which wants to
roll the clock back on everything from womenís rights to freedom of
expression. One of the supreme ironies of our times is that many leftists who
are worried to death about the power of the Christian Right in the U.S. are
making excuses for forces in the Islamic world which share its basic agenda!
ALL ROADS LEAD BACK TO BOSNIA
Moreover, some of the same people now making apologies
for Islamic fundamentalists, on the grounds that "liberation"
movements are never "pristine," refused to solidarize with the
Bosnians and Kosovars in the 1990s against the genocidal policies of Serbiaís
Milosevic on the grounds that they were "nationalists" and "not
truly revolutionary." Where was the argument that liberation movements are
never "pristine" when it was time to defend the Bosnians and Kosovars
(or the Rwandans for that matter) from genocide?
It isnít that Klein and Roy are uninformed observers.
They are surely capable of understanding the reactionary nature of the Iraqi
militias. So why are they and so many others falling into such an ideological
quagmire? The answer is that they have one standard for judging those who openly
oppose the U.S. and another for those who do not. Overwhelmed and frustrated at
the failure thus far of mass protests to halt the U.S. drive for world
domination, they ally themselves with ANY force, no matter how reactionary, so
long as it opposes the U.S.
That such a standpoint is taken by figures who are
revered by many in the movement against global capital points to a serious
barrier WITHIN the struggle. The collapse of the state-capitalist regimes that
called themselves "Communist" between 1989 and 1991 disoriented many
radicals, but history didnít come to an end. New freedom struggles emerged,
even if they did not speak in the language of revolution. Of foremost importance
in this regard were the national liberation struggles in Bosnia and Kosova in
the 1990s. Tragically many anti-Stalinist leftists--from Noam Chomsky to Howard
Zinn--failed to support them. The crisis in the Balkans was hardly noticed by
the Western Left until the U.S. belatedly intervened in Kosova in 1998.
It may have seemed that the Seattle protests of 1999 put
such contradictions to rest. A large, multidimensional movement emerged that
challenged the idea that "there is no alternative" to capitalism. But
the failure of many in the movement against global capital to recognize what
happened in Bosnia and Kosova came at a great price. It left a festering
contradiction that has not gone away, but resurfaces every time a new political
crisis emerges--be it September 11 or the occupation of Iraq. By not taking
issue with the view that movements are to be judged solely by whether they
oppose the U.S., irrespective of their actual political or liberatory content,
many have left themselves open for the ideological quagmire that now defines the
positions of Klein and Roy.
In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, we
can expect such ideological pollution to get worse. The reason is the sense of
desperation that afflicts many U.S. radicals. Desperation over how many crimes
Bush has been able to get away with. Desperation over the failure of the
Democrats to project a principled opposition to U.S. foreign policy. Desperation
over the fact that even when mass protests do emerge (be it a Million Man March
or worldwide anti-war protests), capitalism still manages to maintain the
ideological initiative with its claim "there is no alternative."
The politics of desperation leads to the politics of
tailendism. It was bad enough in the days when that meant tailending repressive
state powers that claimed to be "socialist," like Russia or China. It
is far worse today when it means tailending Islamic fundamentalists and former
Baathists in Iraq who have nothing to offer in the way of an alternative to
The politics of desperation that leads many on the Left
to ally with any force that opposes the U.S. cannot even put a dent in
capitalismís ideological hegemony, because it skips over the work of
articulating a positive alternative. It only hands the Right the moral high
ground by presenting "anti-imperialism" as lacking any positive,
affirmative human dimension.
All that is left is mere empty negation, what G.W.F.
Hegel called in his PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT "a pure negation entirely
devoid of mediation, the negation, moreover, of the individual as a factor
existing within the universal. The sole and only work and deed accomplished...is
therefore death--a death that achieves nothing, embraces nothing within its
grasp; for what is negated is the unachieved, unfulfilled punctual entity of the
absolutely free self."(6)
Hegelís words not only anticipate the "empty
negativism" of a bin Laden or al-Zarqawi who "oppose" the U.S.
without the slightest alternative in view--unless by an "alternative"
one means the imposition of an authoritarian religious state aimed at opposing
individual freedom and collective self-development. Hegelís critique of
standpoints that "produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed; there
is left for it only negative action" is just as applicable to todayís
left-wing critics who are willing to ally with any force that tries to bring
down the U.S. "Empire." The only thing that will result from this is a
further discrediting of the Left and a strengthening of the power of the Right.
Those opposed to the kind of viewpoints articulated by
Klein and Roy need to realize that a merely POLITICAL response to such
ideological retrogression is insufficient. That is because the problem facing us
is not only political, but most of all PHILOSOPHIC--specifically, a lack of a
philosophically grounded concept of an alternative to capitalism. Those who want
to see Iraq--and the world--free of the forces of U.S. imperialism and religious
fundamentalism need to get down to the hard work of articulating a
comprehensive, detailed and positive alternative to this alienated, dehumanizing
world. If we fail to do so, we will cede the ideological ground to the Kleins
and Roys just as they, unwittingly, are conceding it to the Right.
1. "Bring Najaf to New York," by Naomi Klein,
THE NATION, August 13, 2004.
2. This is discussed in "World Crisis and the
search for alternatives to capitalism," NEWS & LETTERS, July 2004, p.
5. The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) should not be
confused with the Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (IFTU), which has compromised
itself by critically supporting the Allawi government.
3. See "Who
are the Progressives in Iraq? The Left, the Right, and the Islamists,"
by Frank Smyth.
4. "Public Power in the Age of Empire," by
Arundhati Roy, THE HINDU, August 2004.
5. For more on the Organization for Womenís Freedom in
Iraq, see "Eyewitness view of women in Iraq," by Yanar Mohammed, NEWS
& LETTERS, August-September 2004.
6. PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, by G.W. F. Hegel, translated by J.B. Baillie (London: Allen & Unwin, 1931), p. 605.
Published by News and Letters Committees