haiti, western intervention and the left

14 02 2010

by Rob Kirby

Tony Blair’s appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry brought up once again his hoary old argument that as Iraq is better off without Saddam, the invasion of British troops was a progressive thing for Iraqis.

Whilst Blair’s stance is clearly a self-serving attempt at justification for the barbarism that was unleashed on Iraq, the broader argument that Western troops can sometimes be a force for good does have currency for some on the left.

These tensions emerged recently on the issue of Haiti, as The Commune was criticised for articles on our website calling for “troops out” and accused of kneejerk anti-imperialism. It is worth examining the origins of these arguments, and restating the basic objections to the invasion and occupations of other countries by our own.

To give our critics their due, there has been a reflexive and ill-thought through aspect to some thinking on the left on this issue in recent years; they are right that each situation does need to be taken on its specificities – but they are entirely wrong on the specifics of this case and on the general principles underlying the attitude that communists have towards foreign intervention, which this article will seek to address.

Soldiers aren’t aid workers

The first and most superficial point to make is that soldiers and aid-workers aren’t the same thing. Whilst the role of NGOs is to tend to and help the victims of the earthquake, the role of the military forces sent to Haiti is generally recognised to be to “maintain order” over the people living there, to protect property rather than people, and to ensure the continuity of a widely discredited and authoritarian government.

To allow western governments to elide this distinction is to uncritically accept their narcissistic self-image as a “force for good” in the world, and to buy into the propaganda of “humanitarian” militarism that they successfully used to prosecute a succession of wars from the Balkans to Somalia in the 1990s.

Foreign intervention is undemocratic

In an independent country, the state requires the active or passive support of a substantial proportion of the population to be able to function effectively. The state, whether democratic or not, does have to have some kind of basis in the society it governs, even if that is with a section of the population we might have no sympathy with, such as the bourgeoisie or landlords.

A country under occupation, however, can be governed by appeal to the political desires and physical force of the occupying powers, essentially removing the state from any necessity to appeal its own population. A case in point is the recent rigged elections in Afghanistan; Hamid Karzai’s belated decision to undergo another round of voting had more to do with the desires of his external backers than any militancy on the Afghan street. The Afghans were entirely disenfranchised, in every way, reliant on external arbiters to keep their government in check. The sham “democracy” there, even if looked upon charitably, is still a gift of the west; freedom and democracy imposed from outside cannot be sustained by the societies on which they are imposed, and are perverted mockeries of the real thing.

Democracy is a relation between states before it can be a relation within them. The Chinese or Iranian working class, whilst living under harshly authoritarian regimes, can at least fight within their countries to further their positions.

Those under military occupation such as the Palestinians have no control over their own fate; that is why national self determination is so jealously and violently guarded by people around the world, and progressive struggle in subject nations generally takes the form of national liberation movements. To second guess and condemn the attempts of people to liberate themselves from foreign domination would be laughable if it were not so reactionary: support for national self determination requires no ifs or buts if it is to be consistent.

The state is not progressive

One of the critics of The Commune’s stance commented on the group’s “trajectory” from support for workers’ self-management to “idiot anti-imperialism”. In a certain sense this critic is correct – consistent opposition to imperialism is a natural development of The Commune’s anti-statist politics. The remainder of the British left’s fixation with and loyalty to state socialism means they are predisposed to see progressive potential in the actions of the state – even, occasionally, when they are military in nature.

Probably the clearest example of this blind spot was during the conflict in Northern Ireland. Groups perfectly willing to support any national liberation movement, no matter how brutal or bizarre, in faraway places in the third world, balked at providing consistent support to people struggling within their own borders.

When so much of the Labour-influenced left saw socialism as coming through state action, and supported the welfare state as truly progressive rather than just palliative, the existence of an armed organisation fighting against “their” state provoked the same kind of reactions seen amongst those socialists who supported war in 1914.

Resisting imperialism

In resisting imperialism, the labour movement does two things. Firstly, it provides consistent solidarity to workers and others abroad; aiming to make it impossible for our government to subjugate those peoples. Secondly, and equally importantly, it is about us here; by resisting the imperialist aspirations of our government, we develop the ideological independence from the state necessary to fight for our own class. Buying into the “white man’s burden” myths of Haitian savagery and western nobility do nothing to further either aim.

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4 responses

14 02 2010
Steven

Assuming there was a GCSE in anti-imperialism, you’d fail.
Troops aren’t aid workers? Mmm. Nice point.
Foreign intervention isn’t democratic? Yes, but it might have democratic outcomes. Eg. US occupation of Japan. Or West Germany.
Or be something to be happy about, eg. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia; USSR’s invasion of Poland at the end of WW2 (and don’t bang on about the Warsaw Ghetto, you’ll be missing the point).

Suggested programme of action: a) read books; b) write another article in 10 years.

[edited for (some of the) apolitical abuse, we don't have to put up with that - Ed]

15 02 2010
Rob Kirby

Hi Steven,

Its always great to come up against such a charming and respectful opponent in political debates :)

“Troops aren’t aid workers? Mmm. Nice point.”

I’m not the one who has mixed them up in the first place; any evidence (other than army recruitment adverts) that the two groups are actually the same? Gee, here’s me thinking that the army are actually the armed wing of the state.

“Foreign intervention isn’t democratic? Yes, but it might have democratic outcomes, thick-boy. Eg. US occupation of Japan. Or West Germany.”

Ah, yes, the thoroughly democratic government of Japan, ruled by one party continually until 1993? Following the profoundly progressive second world war, clearly fought for the good of the worldwide working class? (http://www.metamute.org/en/content/world_war_as_class_war).
If military occupation at the end of WWII was so progressive, why did pretty much everywhere else, from Vietnam to Korea to Greece to the entire Eastern bloc, end up with profoundly authoritarian governments that were violently resisted by the people who lived there?

“Or be something to be happy about, eg. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia; USSR’s invasion of Poland at the end of WW2…”

And of course the status quo ante in both countries was a total respect of the right to national self determination? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the original cause of the problem in both cases was a surfeit of intervention rather than a lack of it.

Cheers,

Rob

15 02 2010
c0mmunard

I think the fact that troops aren’t aid workers is an excellent point.

Apart from that, I disagree substantially with much of what is implied in the article. Rather than developing a consistently anti-statist position, the article ends up defending third world statism against imperial statism. Rob writes:

To second guess and condemn the attempts of people to liberate themselves from foreign domination would be laughable if it were not so reactionary: support for national self determination requires no ifs or buts if it is to be consistent.

Whilst I am not “against national self determination”, I understand nations as mixed class entities, which in almost all cases are under the control of the bourgeois ruling class. To talk about the nation as subject is to talk (in almost all cases) about a subject defined by bourgeois (or certainly non-proletarian) interests, which are necessarily statist, since the bourgeoisie needs a state for the defence of its own interests.

Communists have to argue that resistance to imperialism must take place on class lines, and this is not consistent with a “no ifs, no buts”. Rob implies “no ifs, no buts” support for group such as the IRA – a group which considered the random killing of scores of innocent working class people a legitimate tactic – he also uses the rhetoric of “consistent solidarity to workers and others abroad”? So what gives? How can you both have consistent solidarity with workers abroad and offer unconditional support to movements which frequently contain viciously, violently anti-proletarian elements? (The IRA and similar group are and were also totally statist, a fact Rob glosses over in the implicit support he gives to them.)

None of this means that I “support imperialism”, or am “against national self-determination” (although I am not necessarily positively in favour of national state-independence in all cases). It simply means that I refuse to place faith in nationalist elites of any sort; I want to defend an anti-imperialist perspective without falling into nationalist statism; i.e. the independent camp of the working class. Undoubtedly, imperialist occupation or other intervention needs to be resisted, but that does not mean abandonment of clear opposition to national bourgeoisies, and a critical position on the real class content of national movements.

21 07 2010
martin ohr

Rob:

Back to Haiti for a moment- do you still agree that the most important slogan for the left in Britain to raise at the time of the disaster was “US troops out now”?

It does undermine your argument that ” Firstly, it provides consistent solidarity to workers and others abroad; aiming to make it impossible for our government to subjugate those peoples.” when you took absolutely no notice of the arguments of BO (yet you republished them on this site) wrt to coming up with your anti-imperialist headline.

To repeat the charge orginally for a second, the point of the tag ‘idiot anti-imperialialism’ isn’t to suggest anything other than a damning critique of imperialism; it’s to say that some elements of the left simply follow the thought process US=imperialism therefore any anti-US slogan is anti-imperialist, moreover being an anti-imperialist simply means opposing US foreign policy.

Don’t you feel you’re guilty of this a tiny bit on the original Haiti article?

Secondly: “To second guess and condemn the attempts of people to liberate themselves from foreign domination would be laughable if it were not so reactionary: support for national self determination requires no ifs or buts if it is to be consistent”

If I understand this correctly I think it suggests the workers power type position of uncritical support for some of the worst political organisations in the world. I’ll pick one: Hamas. Is this what you meant by this paragraph?




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