Not in your name, indeed
By Barry York
April 15, 2003
ALONG with thousands of Australians, I marched against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s. I became an activist and, like a few others, was arrested and jailed for my activities. My position on the Left meant that I also protested against the 1973 coup in Chile, against the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and against many other such injustices. I have no regrets about the stance I took back then.
I was a Maoist. I believed - and still believe - in the principle that it is right to rebel against reactionaries. It is this spirit of political rebellion that defined the Left and it is this spirit that has been betrayed by what passes for the Left today.
It is too late for the so-called Left in Australia to stand anywhere but condemned for its failure to support the successful war to liberate Iraq. It stood on the side of reaction, and the history books must place its leaders alongside the British pacifists of the '30s who, as George Orwell pointed out, gave comfort and objective support to Hitler. The pseudo-Left proved not just that it can be wrong but that in the name of anti-Americanism it can support fascism. The leaders of the anti-war movement predicted the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the war. They warned of ferocious resistance to US-led forces by a people whose opposition to Saddam Hussein would be displaced by hatred of the invaders.
I had a different view: I was confident the paper tiger would crumple. Faced with a choice between a fascist regime in Iraq or a bourgeois-democratic one, I retained enough Marxism to tick the right box. I have avoided association with today's anti-war movement and I do not wish to see its recent incarnation confused with the Vietnam protest movement. The form of the two anti-war movements may be similar -- people marching behind banners and placards ? but that's where any comparison should end. Indeed, some of the old moratorium leftists have established a website - http://www.lastsuperpower.net - which aims to initiate debate about the war, the region and globalisation. Vietnam protest legend Albert Langer is part of this pro-war group.
The essential differences between the Vietnam protest movement and today's anti-war movement relate to the nature of the struggle and the influence of the Left. During the Vietnam protests, the Left was a radical opposition within the movement, guided by Marxist theory. The Left identified the war in Vietnam as an act of US imperialist aggression and argued for support for the enemy, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. The struggle in Iraq is not a national liberation struggle but a struggle against internal oppression. With millions of Iraqis in exile and vast numbers killed and silenced by other means, it is hardly surprising that the opposition needed external support. The US-led war cannot guarantee long-term liberation of the Iraqi people but it has come close to removing the immediate obstacle to it. It also has ended the war waged by the Iraqi dictator against his people.
The present anti-war movement is proof that Australia really has no Left. The theoretical elements of Marxism that need revival include commitment to progress, modernity (the idea that bourgeois democracy is preferable to feudal and semi-feudal societies) and secularism (separation of church and state). Marxism also means historical materialism: understanding that the evolution of human society is determined by material conditions, relations of production and class struggle, and appreciating that having the right political strategy requires investigation of concrete conditions.
The last of these is particularly absent. Opposition to the US-led war in Iraq was instantaneous; few people bothered to study conditions in Iraq.
Anti-Americanism is the key to understanding the pseudo-Left, which is more akin to a subculture than a political movement: a mish-mash of Third World romanticism, pacifism, environmentalism and suspicion of progress and modernity. In this jumble of prejudices, the anti-war movement gained support from circles that would never have countenanced supporting the Left position during the Vietnam protest period. The claim that the war is all about oil is as much a catch-cry of the far Right as it is of John Pilger.
The anti-war movement made much of the hypocrisy of the US position on Iraq. Yes, Hussein was, to a significant extent, a creature of US (and French) policy. But why was any of this meant to dissuade the Left from wanting him overthrown? And what would such an approach have meant in Europe in the '30s? Could anyone argue that we should not have supported a British-led war against Nazi Germany because British and French policy had facilitated Hitler's rise or because the crimes of British imperialism in the colonies rendered any condemnation of Nazism hypocritical?
Writing in The New York Times in February, Jose Ramos Horta addressed the question of hypocrisy and motives extremely well. From the viewpoint of an oppressed people, anguish over hypocrisy and motives is the privilege of those who have not tasted the kind of treatment experienced by the East Timorese, the Kurds and the Iraqis. The anti-war movement's feel-good slogan "Not in our name" contrasted sharply with Ramos Horta's warning that
"if the anti-war movement dissuades the US and its allies from going to war with Iraq, it will have contributed to the peace of the dead".
The slogan "Not in our name" remains pertinent, for the overthrow of this tyrant has been accomplished and - anti-war movement, let me tell you -- the victory is indeed not in your name. Now, if all goes well, the democratisation and modernisation of the entire region will also take place not in your name. Hussein fell faster than most people predicted. This was partly because he was outgunned and partly because he was a reactionary. And, lest we forget:
All reactionaries are paper tigers.
(Barry York was an activist against the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1975.)
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