Sinking into the Iraqi quagmire


An exchange on Marxmail, April 8-19, 2004

The spread of military opposition from the Sunni areas into the Shiite areas in Iraq is having a spectacular impact in Australian politics. The prospect of a Vietnam-like quagmire, into which Australia is drawn, haunts all political figures and forces.

Some conservative individuals such as John Valder and the former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who was foreign affairs minister during the Vietnam conflict, are speaking out against Howard over Iraq, as Tom O’Lincoln has pointed out.

Nevertheless, current Liberal and National party politicians in the federal parliament are unanimous in their continuing support for the war, and their financially well-placed backer, Rupert Murdoch, has just served notice on them that they had better stick to their guns with a statement treated prominently in today’s Australian.

Of considerably greater significance, however, is the lengthy statement on foreign policy by Labor leader Mark Latham at the Lowy Institute seminar last night.

While he couched his speech in a conservative, reformist, nationalist framework, Latham nailed his flag to the mast, deliberately reiterating that Australia will withdraw its troops from Iraq by Christmas if Labor is elected to government.

Latham seems willing to risk the antagonism of powerful figures such as Murdoch, and in fact the antagonism of the whole of the conservative political and media establishment, in the expectation that an antiwar mood will build up in the middle sections of the population between now and the elections.

Latham’s stance flies in the face of the fact that the Murdoch Newspoll suggests his honeymoon personal polling, which took him to an unreal 64 per cent approval rating, has been brought back to the more realistic low 50s, as some basically conservative voters desert him over Iraq.

This division between the Labor leader, backed by just about the whole labour movement, on one side, and the whole of the conservative establishment on the other side, underlines the gross political stupidity of most of the far left in Australia who purport to believe that the Labor Party, with its trade union mass base, is an Tweedledum eqivalent to the governing Liberal-National conservative Tweedledee.

The coming elections will be very hard-fought, bitter and divisive, and the Tories and the media will use every trick in the book to avert the prospect of a Latham Labor government, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate.

This underlines the need for all conscious socialists to campaign in these elections for the election of a Latham Labor government, with a large number of Greens senators.

A fundamental division on the war

April 8, 2004

Tom O’Lincoln feels obliged to turn my careful political assessment of Latham’s statement into Latham being my “hero”. That’s insulting, but its par for the course from Tom whenever he refers to me, and I’m used to it.

More importantly, its a diversion from the general point that I made, and Tom’s further development of his original point about John Valder marks a political difference between us. Tom asserts that there’s some silent force in the Liberal government that may come out against the occupation relatively soon. He’s having himself on.

The Tories in Australia, all of them in the parliament, stuck to the Vietnam War to the bitter end, even after it had become clear that the ALP under Whitlam would be swept into power, partly on the basis of rejection of the Vietnam War and despite Whitlam’s earlier ambiguous attitude to the war.

By about 1970 Whitlam was doing what Latham is doing now, although it took him some years to reach that position. Latham has reached a position of opposition to the Iraq War much more quickly than Whitlam did over Vietnam, one of the reasons being that there is a substantial folk memory through the whole of the Australian labour movement about the Vietnam experience.

In addition to this, Australian society and Australian politics is, as it has always has been, divided into two broad currents. On one side is the organised working class and recent non-English-speaking background migrants, together with a big slice of the new social layers and a section of the literate middle class.

This half of Australian society votes Labor or Green, and is overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq involvement, with some in the centre wavering. In his stance on Iraq, Latham (who is in no sense my hero) is responding to his base and covering his left flank a bit in relation to the Greens at the same time as taking a punt that, in the middle ground of Australian society, the Iraq quagmire will rapidly become unpopular.

Latham may not be my hero, but he’s no mug politically, and he has taken a fairly calculated gamble on the social forces in play.

In the other, more conservative 45 per cent of Australian society who vote Liberal, National or One Nation there may be some people opposed to the war. Nevertheless, the bulk of the active bourgeoisie, even if they’re uneasy about the war, are locked into the conservative political structures supporting the war, and are unlikely to change in the short term.

O’Lincoln and the DSP overstate the direct physical influence of the antiwar movement in this respect. The antiwar movement rose and then fell, and I was up to my ears in it, and I will continue to be active in it, but the notion that it’s a direct physical pressure right now is a bit romantic.

What it expressed, and still expresses, was the underlying rejection of imperialist wars by the left half of society. Rather than the size of demonstrations, etc (which are at the moment modest) it is these social facts to which Latham and the ALP leadership are reacting.

That’s a pressure from the side of society that is their base. In Britain, Blair is up to his eyebrows in shit because he persists in a headlong collision with the traditional social base of the British Labor Party, which is clearly against the Iraq War. Blair does this for the most reactionary ideological reasons, and has decided to respond to the pressures from the most reactionary elements of the bourgeoisie — and he hopes to get away with this by a crude appeal to traditional British chauvinism.

Latham and the Australian Laborites, thankfully, from the point of view of defeating the imperialist war in Iraq, aren’t such ferocious ideological loyalists to the direct interests of the most reactionary sections of the Australian bourgeoisie.

Blair, may in due course be destroyed by the way that his ultra-reactionary posture on the Iraq War collides with the social base of British Labourism.

The practical and operative political point I was trying to make, as against people like the DSP, and it would appear also Tom, was the fundamental division in Australian society between the left side to which Latham is clearly responding, and the conservative side.

It’s from this fundamental division that any useful Marxist tactical orientation must flow in current Australian conditions.

It’s not a question of who is or isn’t a hero, it’s a question of the class forces at play in political life in Australian society, and this is one of those moments when a Marxist has to be particularly sectarian or particularly thick not to be able to spell out a sensible strategic orientation in the short term.

In particular, I think Tom’s formulation about how we may see a sudden emergence of significant forces on the Tory side of politics against the Iraq War is delusional. The hysteria of the bourgeois press, which even includes the traditionally liberal Fairfax papers, against Latham over Iraq, suggests the unrealistic nature of anticipating a sudden weakening about Iraq on the conservative side of politics in Australia.

Labor, Iraq and the wars of the 20th century

April 10, 2004

Tom O’Lincoln is being very summary and very demagogic in his response to my proposition that the Liberals stuck to the Vietnam War in the Australian parliament to the bitter end. It’s true that there were some defections from the Liberal ranks towards the end of the war, but the Liberal-Country Party coalition continued, as I said, to defend the war in the parliament until their election defeat in 1972.

They did withdraw some troops in 1971. Tom doesn’t even refer to the framework of those early withdrawals. The framework was, of course, the beginning of the US winding down of the war — the so-called process of Vietnamisation.

The Australian Liberals, while insisting they still supported the war, withdrew some troops in lockstep with their US senior partners.

The military historian, Frank Frost, in the chapter “Conflict and Withdrawal” in Vietnam Remembered (Kevin Weldon and Associates, 1990), puts it this way:

“The army felt that a complete Australian withdrawal was desirable with the departure of the task force, but the Government felt that there were political and military advantages in retaining a presence. On the December 9, 1971, the Government decided that an Australian Army Assistance Groups in Vietnam (AAAGV) would remain, composed mainly of AAAGV members, conducting training in Phuoc Tuy. A small group remained until after the elections in 1972, after which the incoming Whitlam Government withdrew the remaining 40 men.”

In addition to this, the government maintained the conscription arrangements right to the bitter end, and they were still chasing conscientious objector conscripts such as Mike Matteson in Sydney up to the elections.

It was left to the incoming Labor Government to amnesty all the conscripts on the run, and promptly end conscription.

It’s quite clear from Frank Frost’s comments that the Liberal government maintained some military presence even despite Vietnamisation, hoping to gain some chauvinistic advantage from a perceived residual sentiment in support of the war in some sections of society, which might be mobilised by rhetoric about supporting Australian troops. The similarity with the current demeanour and rhetoric of the Howard government is striking.

The Howard government is trying very hard to get some political advantage out of the relatively small Australian troop commitment in Iraq, using nationalist sentiment about not “cutting and running” and about supporting Australian troops.

Tom and others may think that at some time in the future elements of the Australian ruling class may feel compelled to adopt a different stance, but there’s nothing in the political tradition of the Liberals and Nationals, and nothing in their current political demeanour to suggest that is likely in even the medium term.

The Liberal-Nationals and the Australian media, more or less as a whole, are settling in to slug it out with Labor leader Latham and the Labor Party on the question of “political responsibility” about Iraq. It’s true, as Denis Berrell points out on the Green Left list, that working journalists Alan Ramsey and Margo Kingston are against the Iraq involvement, but they are minority voices even in the more liberal Fairfax press. In fact, they are among the few surviving publicly vocal liberal-left journalists in a media that has mostly swung over to the far right.

Alan Ramsey’s useful article yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald sticking up for Latham is offset by a very hard editorial line in the SMH supporting the Iraq war and Howard’s stand on keeping the troops there.

It’s worth pointing out the different standpoints of the conservative and Labor sides of politics on the wars of the 20th century.

The conservatives supported every war and every use of military conscription in an ultra-patriotic way, always to the bitter end.

Labor, on the other hand, played a contradictory, and sometimes very progressive, role on a number of wars.

The Laborites were split on the Boer War, with a number of Labor politicians and leaders opposing it.

Labor, by and large, supported World War I, although a few radicals such as Frank Anstey, MHR, and Hugh Mahon, MHR, were critical of it.

However, the whole labour movement opposed conscription in 1916, and Labor expelled the Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes and several state premiers who tried to support conscription. The Labor Party split after the reactionary prime minister and premiers and their supporter were expelled, and the labour movement played a big role in defeating conscription in the two referendums, in 1916 and 1917.

The defeat of conscription in the two referendums was a unique event in the capitalist world.

Labor by and large supported World War II, but when Curtin tried to introduce conscription for overseas service he was bitterly opposed by a minority in the Labor Cabinet, led by E. J. Ward and Arthur Calwell. Several Labor figures such as Maurice Blackburn, MHR, and former NSW Labor premier J.T. Lang were expelled from the Labor Party for opposing conscription.

(I know a bit about this issue because my father, a one-armed survivor of Gallipoli, who had been a supporter of Lang on the NSW state executive of the Labor Party for a number of years, was expelled along with Lang for opposing conscription.)

Labor vigorously supported Indonesian independence against the Dutch colonialists. It supported the Korean War, but it vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, initially under the courageous leadership of Arthur Calwell, even in the early stages when the Vietnam War was popular.

When it came to Iraq, Labor supported the first Gulf war, but opposed the second.

Phillip Ferguson chimes in, claiming the New Zealand Labourites are more gung-ho militarists than the Tories in that country, based on a new book.

I’m not as familiar with New Zealand as Ferguson is, but his thesis even about New Zealand seems to be contradicted by the agreement between Latham and Helen Clark last week that both Australia and New Zealand will withdraw from Iraq by December if Labor is elected.

Applied to Australia, Ferguson’s thesis is nonsensical, as demonstrated by my little potted history of Labor’s stance on 20th century wars.

Of course, the political structures of different countries are not identical. Anyone trying to understand the persistent hegemony of the Labor-trade union continuum on the left of Australian society has two choices:

  • 1. To deny that it exists (as Ferguson tends to do).
  • 2. Or treat is as an imponderable, reactionary mystery that can be solved by a process of pure exposure and propaganda, as the Australian DSP tends to do.

The problem with those approaches is that they don’t take account of either the current grip of Laborism or its historical origins, part of which is in things like the defeat of conscription in World War I, the opposition to the Vietnam War, and the current opposition to the Iraq war.

When Mark Latham takes his risky punt, electorally and politically, on continuing to insist that he’ll withdraw the troops from Iraq if elected, he’s calculating that the Iraq war will become electorally unsupportable, but he’s also clearly recognising the relatively strong antiwar tradition of the left side of society, on which Laborism is based, and he’s carefully covering his left flank against the Greens.

As well, he’s probably sincere, personally, in his opposition to the Iraq involvement, in the way that he outlines, just as Arthur Calwell was personally sincere in his opposition to the Vietnam War. Latham is clearly a conservative, reformist Laborite, but why is it necessary for Marxists to exclude the possibility that he’s personally sincere in opposing the Iraq war?

Why is any of this worth arguing about? There are a couple of reasons:

  • 1. The defeat of the imperialist invasion of Iraq is highly desirable from a socialist point of view.
  • 2. It’s also desirable for the small Marxist forces in Australia, which are weaker than they’ve been in the past 100 years, to try to get some audience in the broad labour movement.

Both these factors come together in the proposition that the left should campaign vigorously for the defeat of the Liberals, the election of a Latham Labor government with the obvious corollary that the Greens will have the balance of power in the Senate, etc, etc, as I’ve argued.

If Marxist proceed in this spirit, they may even help in getting a Labor government elected, with the Greens having the balance of power, and they may even broaden their audience.

Concentrating at this point, strategically, as the DSP tends to do, on the exposure of Latham and the Laborites as a primary current tactical objective is reactionary political lunacy from a Marxist point of view.

Grasping at straws about Labor and Iraq

April 19, 2004

Tom O’Lincoln has managed to find, out of all the to-ing and fro-ing in the Australian media in the past couple of weeks, one instance of Kevin Rudd apparently qualifying the Labor Party’s pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, and he posts it with a sideswipe at me, implying overconfidence on my part about Latham nailing his flag to the mast.

This sectarian reflex of Tom, and GLparamatta, who immediately cross-posted Tom’s comment on the Green Left list, displays a blindness to the actual crisis in political life in Australia and the responses of the various political forces.

The Liberal-National coalition, with the backing of almost all the media, particularly the hysterical backing of the Murdoch media, is sticking rabidly to support for Bush. On the other hand, generally speaking, the Labor leadership is sticking to its assertion that if elected later in the year Labor will withdraw the troops by Christmas.

As late as this morning (Monday, April 19), Labor deputy leader Jenny Macklin is reported in the Australian Financial Review as sticking firmly to the Latham line of withdrawal and Latham has himself stuck to his position firmly despite a near-universal battering from the media.

Kevin Rudd, the foreign affairs shadow minister, is the most conservative figure in the Labor leadership, and he has tended to qualify the withdrawal commitment in some public statements.

Rather than seizing upon Rudd’s wobbling to imply inevitable betrayal, it would be much better to fall in behind Latham and Macklin with critical support for their withdrawal stand. This is the appropriate stance for serious socialists who recognise that the withdrawal position of the Labor parliamentary leadership is considered and real, with a substantial basis in the tradition of Laborism in Australia.

Such a strategic stance by Marxists is consistent with a serious attempt to get an audience for socialist politics among the overwhelming majority on the left of Australian society who vote for Labor or the Greens.

Labor has also, obviously, calculated that the withdrawal stance will prove electorally popular as the situation Iraq inevitably worsens for the imperialist invaders.

Marxists who seize on Rudd’s wobble without noting the considered, stubborn insistence of Latham and Macklin on the withdrawal stance are driven by their own schema that Labor will “inevitably betray”, which for them is more important than any considerations of current mass politics.

Politically speaking, the O’Lincoln-GLparamatta posture is a hopeless dead end. In this context it’s very worth noting that the equally historically opportunist mass Social Democratic parties of Spain and Norway, which we were told in the last few weeks on Marxmail — in relation to the Spanish Socialist Party — would “inevitably betray”, appear to be on the verge of immediately withdrawing their troops from Iraq.

Propositions about inevitable betrayal by mass Social Democratic parties such as those of Spain, Norway and Australia, in this kind of dynamic political context, always exclude the material fact that parties of that sort, having some relationship with a plebian electorate, are often forced into more progressive political behaviour than the schemas of some Marxist sectarians allow for.

From those historic circumstances and from the current stance of some of the parties of Social Democracy on Iraq flows the strategic necessity of a critical united front with those Social Democratic parties willing to commit, in general, to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Discussion, Discussion


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