The Left

The Third Camp?

Thanks to reader Richard Bayley who sent me a link to a very interesting article by Alan Johnson in the American magazine New Politics.

It is a long piece, clearly written for those familar with debates on the left, but it is worth a read if only for being proof that there are people on the ‘anti-war left’ who do not fit the identikit description of the knee-jerk oppositionist.

This may be rather predictable but I find the strongest part of Johnson’s argument when he takes on those on the left who have fallen for the illusion that Islamic fundamentalism is part of a ‘resistance’ to global capitalism.

WHEN ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM first emerged, sections of the left defined it as analogous to fascism. The Arab Trotskyist Salah Jaber wrote in 1981 that “Islamic fundamentalism is one of the most dangerous enemies of the revolutionary proletariat.” He pointed out that “the fundamentalist movement shares many of the characteristics of fascism outlined by Trotsky: its social base, the nature of its political ideology, its fierce anti- communism and its totalitarianism.”

But there were also differences between classical fascism and fundamentalism. In some respects “the fundamentalist movement is, in fact, more backward than was fascism.” It drives the historical clock backward to a reactionary utopia with more faith and zeal than the classical fascists. But the fundamentalists, as part of this “more reactionary” drive backwards, can also challenge big private capital. This contrasts to the role of classical fascism as the brutish guarantor of big capital in the face of a mass workers movement. All this means socialists will find themselves on the same demonstration, protesting the same social ill, from time to time. However, “any compromises proposed by the fundamentalists as a result of this type of situation pose enormous dangers for all sections of the left, both moral and physical.”

Tactical flexibility must be balanced against the overriding political conclusion that it was “absolutely and under all circumstances necessary to combat its ‘reactionary and medieval influence.'” Even the so-called “anti-imperialism” of the fundamentalists, Jaber pointed out, does not amount to what socialists mean by that term. It represents only an inchoate reactionary hostility to “the hated ‘west’ . . . all the political and social gains of the bourgeois revolution.”

However, once fundamentalism gained a mass base and, all-importantly, came into conflict with the U.S., then some parts of the left (forgetting that the possession of a mass base was also typical of classical fascism, forgetting that totalitarian Russia was also in conflict with the U.S.) allowed their rhetoric about the U.S. being “the heart of the beast” to merge with the political Islamists’ talk of “the Great Satan.” Reactionary Islamic fundamentalism was now redefined as “radical Islam” and the anti-Semitic zealots of Hamas, for instance, were redefined as bona fide “anti-imperialist” forces.

This redefinition was part of a wider collapse of independent working class socialist politics. There is very little positive support for regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, of course. We are not repeating the Stalinist experience in that sense. But to register only that is to miss a certain collapse of the sensibility of parts of the left. Too often leftists halt at a merely negative and inchoate oppositionism to whatever the U.S. is doing. A complex world is reduced to a face-off between two camps, “imperialism” versus “the resistance.” These leftists define the political Islamists as part of “the resistance,” and, of course, in that act redefine themselves as the critical supporters of the political Islamists. Clifford Geertz is a little over the top when he says “Marxist thinkers of every stripe began to credit Islamic activists with socialist virtues,” but only a little.

The price paid in the West has been the loss of independent political judgement and much idiocy about, for instance, the “anti-imperialism” of groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Elsewhere the price has been much higher. In 1977 in Pakistan the left sided with Jamat al-Islami against Bhutto, imagining a tactical alliance against a common enemy. They were used and then jailed. During the Iranian Revolution negative oppositionism and inchoate “anti-imperialism” pushed the left into the arms of Khomeini, the so-called “objective anti-imperialist.” They were led to his gallows.

Our job is to push on past a stalled modernity and a demented reaction. How? By a consistent and principled fight for democracy.

Great stuff and the last line is absolutely on the mark. Johnson is a ‘third campist’, part of the Trotskyist tradition which in the past rejected any sort of illusion in the ‘progressive character’ of the USSR and argued that it was necessary to oppose both capitalism and Stalinism with the same vigour and the same demand for workers rights and democracy.

In the current situation the ‘third camp’ defines itself by a clear rejection of those on the left who see Islamic fundamentalism as in some way progressively anti-capitalist.

There is little to object to in this line of thinking as a global outlook. Anyone who believes that capitalism is not the peak of human achievement but who wishes to build upon the benefits of liberal democracy to create a better society, is in some senses part of the ‘Third Camp’.

The problem though comes when situations emerge in which the Third Camp is not in a position to carry out a progressive solution to a crisis. (click below to read on)…


Take Iraq – Johnson opposed the invasion of Iraq but was a genuine opponent of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. He wanted to see that regime overthrown by Iraqi workers and other independent Iraqi forces.

But didn’t we all? The problem, as has been highlighted frequently, was that the ‘third camp’ in Iraq had been utterly smashed. It was in no position to carry out any progressive solution. Now it has a chance and Johnson is absolutely right to urge that leftists should not be cheerleading the reactionary remnents of Saddam’s regime in their so-called ‘resistance’ but should focus their attention on:

long-term practical solidarity with the organized Iraqi working class and with pro-democratic Iraqi civil society as the rational basis of peace, democracy, and progress. Out of that soil a new socialism could emerge. The third camp will not mistake the remnants of the old regime as “objectively anti-imperialist” as they seek to re-impose the old Baath dictatorship, nor imagine its role is to cheer on clerical reactionaries as a “national liberation movement.”

Again spot-on, yet Johnson and other third campists, such as the Alliance for Workers Liberty in the UK, remain unable to view the overthrow of Saddam, which has given renewed life to Iraqi civil society, as a progressive act worthy of, if not their support, at least their acceptance as a necessary move.

The decline of the traditional working class organisations in the west and their retreat in the face of reaction in other areas of the world, does leave the radical left with a problem. Who exactly are this ‘third camp’ who will consistently fight for democracy?

The brute fact is that the best hope for democracy and progress in the world — for winning, not just bearing witness to our dissent or living out a personal ethic of refusal — is the global working class leading a broad alliance of progressive forces.

Lets put the phrase ‘working class’ on one side for the moment (it is another discussion in itself) and accept that Johnson is bascially right. A global progressive alliance for change is, to any leftist, clearly a desirable goal. But again the problem, in the here and now, is that there are many situations where such an alliance either does not exist or has been beaten into submission.

It would have been great if the Afghan left had overthrown the Taliban and then been able to rebuild their country with the help of socialist governments in Europe. But the Afghan left had already been destroyed.

It would have been great if the left-wing workers of Kosovo had united in Pristina to drive Milosevic’s thugs off the street, if Bosnian civil society had been able to defeat the Serbian snipers, if there had been a third camp in East Timor and Sierra Leone capable of bringing peace.

But the reality, as we all know, was somewhat different.

Those on the left who supported the war in Iraq did so, not only because it was a humanitarian act, but also in a belief that the liberation of the country would open up a space, a potential arena for change that was being denied to Iraqis by Saddam’s regime. I certainly took the view that military action was a substitute for an Iraqi revolution.

Johnson takes Christopher Hitchens as the most obvious spokesman for this viewpoint and says: “Today Hitchens would prefer a revolution from below across the Middle East but he is educating his reader to view the unilateral assertion of U.S. military power as an acceptable substitute, ignoring the fact that this power works to extinguish any hope of revolution from below.”

Here we get to the crux of the matter. No serious left supporter of the war believes that the US invasion was going to introduce a socialist economy, yet frequently we stand accused of such ridiculous fantasy.

On the contrary, I would think, most left supporters of the war were quite well aware that the US would seek to impose an economic system on Iraq that it would feel most comfortable with and yes, probably one that it might be able to profit from. But that does not mean that the overthrow of Saddam was not revolutionary.

The invasion overthrew a despotic regime and eventually it will introduce some form of representative democracy to Iraq. That in itself is a democratic revolution, one that will only be complete of course when the Iraqi people take full control of that democracy. To use the more classic Marxist phrases of Johnson, the invasion will bring about a bourgeois democratic revolution in Iraq.

Those who believe that socialism has to emerge out of democracy and as an extension of democracy, must surely welcome the removal of Saddam who was clearly an obstacle to any progressive change in the country.

The likes of Johnson and the AWL do welcome the downfall of Saddam but are unable to admit openly that the war was a positive step forward for Iraq.

There is no need for illusions about America’s aims in the world, no need for the ‘Third Camp’ to merge itself into the ‘First Camp’ and raise the Star Spangled Banner.

But there is a need for accepting that sometimes a revolution from above is preferable to no revolution at all.

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