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May 2004 • Vol 4, No. 5 •

From Winning in Vietnam to Winning in Iraq

By Rod Holt

Subsequent to the April uprising in Iraq, there have been dozens of articles comparing the U.S. situation in Iraq now with that in Vietnam 35 years ago. The flurry of interest has given all the major Western leaders opportunities to explain to the public that thinking about Iraq as a replay of Vietnam is misleading, not appropriate, and certainly not in the national interest (as they see it).

Some honest leftists have taken the opportunity to ask for a comparison of American imperialism’s grab of Iraq in the 21st Century and its defeated attempt to take over South East Asia. One such article is by Annis and Riddel, “Is Iraq the New Vietnam?” and it is printed immediately above.

Their piece raises the question of whether the course of the Iraq war will, in some sense, parallel that of the Vietnam War. But I am not sure what Annis and Riddel think the answer is. As they say, bringing Vietnam into the discussion around the Iraq war does underline the severity of the war for both sides. That is a useful comparison in itself.

On other aspects of the current situation, they seem more hesitant. “The Iraqi people, by comparison [with the Vietnamese], are only now setting out on the long road to liberation. … they have not yet established an authoritative, progressive leadership.” The Vietnamese very definitely had a progressive and authoritative leadership and the Iraqi do not. There is no parallel here.

Is there more to be learned? Yes, they answer, “But the comparison is helpful only if we understand how the Vietnamese won their long struggle for independence.”

Although they give us a good compact history, Annis and Riddel do not tell us how the Vietnamese won, which I think is the key item.

Class consciousness as the ‘how’ of the Vietnamese victory

Really, how did the Vietnamese win?

• Wasn’t the anti-capitalism foundation of the Vietnamese liberation movement as essential for its victory as its anti-colonialism?

• Wasn’t the example of the Vietnamese workers state in the north essential for the continuing inspiration of indigenous support?

• Wasn’t the core of the worldwide opposition to the war nourished by the prospect of a completed workers’ revolution in Southeast Asia as much as it was by a revulsion against American imperialism? In my opinion, the most dedicated antiwar activists were inspired more by a vision of Vietnam’s socialist future than by hatred of the oppressors.

In short, the Vietnamese won largely because they were fighting for a bright future as well as against oppression. The Vietnamese had a decisive ingredient in their history—class consciousness. That is the “how” of the Vietnamese victory.

Missing in Iraq

At this time, we see no social program and its corresponding leadership behind the Iraq uprising comparable to those of Vietnam.

Is it nevertheless possible to mobilize a resolute war against American imperialism in Iraq only with nationalist goals? No. I think it is not possible to win without in addition fighting for a workers state and an end to the exploitation of man’s labor power. Considering the ferocity and one-sidedness of the fighting, the Iraqi fighters face defeat unless they soon find the inspiration and support that the Vietnamese had.

At this time the insurgents have placed the expulsion of the Americans first on their agenda. Close behind that is the determination of the masses to prevent cooperation with the occupier, to prevent a puppet government.

There have been repeated attacks on collaborators, particularly those Iraqis accepting jobs with the police force the U.S. is organizing as part of its future neocolonial apparatus. U.S. recruiting offices have been bombed several times and the first week of April saw the vast majority of Iraq’s police stations abandoned or in the hands of the insurgents. It is clear that the vast majority of Iraqis will not peacefully stand by and watch the U.S. resurrect a Saddamist repressive machine.

This agenda is progressive and all socialists support it. But it is an insufficient base for founding a new, independent Iraq. First it lacks a defense against the powerful forces of imperialism, which intends to mercilessly exploit both the oil resources and the labor power of the people. The U.S. as the imperialist in charge has already gathered a compliant, imitation bourgeoisie with Iraqi names to oversee this. This is a very unstable state of affairs.

Second, today’s agenda lacks a program for the future of the masses, a program they will fight for, one that promises them and their families, their society, the kind of life they really want. What is in the air now substituting for a program are the promises of clerics. With the long history of Iraq as the most secular of the Muslim countries, I doubt that the leadership of even a coalition of clerics could substitute for a legitimate program assuring the people that they could attain a thoroughgoing victory over imperialism.

The bourgeois democratic program outworn

The days are gone where Nasser, Nkruma, Sukarno and their ilk can inspire national and international support. More to the point, the days are gone when the bourgeois democratic programs of these leaders would today inspire people to wage war against the naked force of the American military. The failures of old “victories” in Algeria, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq itself (in 1958), and South Africa, etc. are fresh in people’s minds. The masses experienced their newly minted nationalist, “socialist” states being transformed into neocolonial, autocratic bureaucracies. Those experiences place severe limits of how long and how hard they will struggle for the sake of their own petty bourgeoisie.

In Iraq, the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist sentiments of the masses will not for long be a substitute for leadership even when those sentiments are backed by extraordinary, courageous militants. Palestine has proven that there must be more to the equation. If there is a parallel for the U.S.-Iraq war, it must be the Israel-Palestine war. The latter has exhaustively demonstrated the futility of petty bourgeois leaders whether with the vision of a storekeeper or the faith of a cleric. For its part, Israel, of course, has murdered every member of authentic revolutionary socialist organizations they could track down (often, it must be said, with the aid of petty bourgeoisie Palestinians).

The developing answers

Socialists, particularly those from the Trotskyist tradition, will fight with all their resources for the realization of the Iraqi’s right to self-determination. We know, as all Marxists should, that in this stage of imperialism, self-determination and a liberal democracy cannot be won without struggling for the establishment of a workers’ state.

This is not the application of a formula. Look again at events. Requests from the Iraqis for jobs, for food and clothing, for medical care, etc. were answered with indifference by the American occupiers. Massive protests by workers expressing these demands were met with bullets. When it came to making the country livable after the destruction of American munitions, the occupiers failed. The Americans allowed only their own contractors to do the work and they didn’t know what to do or how to do it. They would not hire Iraqis to rebuild their own country. More protests. The Americans became increasingly hostile and arrogant and infuriated the entire population. More protests and they became increasingly bloody. The people responded with weapons in hand while checkpoints sprung up everywhere and civilian casualties mounted. Open war broke out the first week of April. The Iraqi people had given the Americans one year to pick up the ball and run with it; they had not. The impression was that they had picked up the ball and just put it in their pocket, so to speak.

But from the American point of view, what they were doing was perfectly logical. They first seized the oil wells, refineries, and pipelines and guarded them, then brought in U.S. experts to get them running again etc. Isn’t that perfectly correct? They found enough Iraqis to form a ruling council and then put an American in charge of everything. He announced that everything would be “privatized,” that foreign businesses were more than welcome (provided they had supported the U.S.), removed all taxes on imports and exports (particularly exports), printed new money, put 8,000 potential trouble-makers in jails and started rebuilding the Iraq army and police force—making sure that each knew which side of the bread had the butter. All the moves the Americans made were to provide profits for their U.S. backers, place the U.S. in the best possible position for negotiations with other imperialist powers, and minimize the costs to Washington. The people of Iraq would have to get along on their own.

These are two realities!

First and last, American imperialism is in Iraq only to exploit its natural resources—oil, Iraqi labor, and its markets. This takes time. It takes General Motors five years to build an auto plant. I G Farben will need at least three years to build a fertilizer plant. All these things take time and someone is going to have to fix the electrical power grid first, of course. In the meantime, you workers, make rugs, or baskets, or whatever.

What is really going on is the U.S. supervised transformation of a once prosperous Middle East country which had managed for nearly 20 years to stay out of the orbit of any one imperialist power, and consequently did have a measure of independence, into a willing servant of the American capitalists. The Iraqi people want a return to independence and the prosperity they believe will follow, and all this under their own democratic government.

The goals of the occupier and the occupied are diametric opposites. The world will see a resolution of this conflict only with the emergence of a socialist Iraq.

It is not essential today’s slogans reflect this fact nor today’s Iraqi leaders be conscious of it. In fact, the slogans for national independence and democracy are beyond the limits of U.S. tolerance. However, it is essential that socialists clearly see the level of the class struggle, seek facts and talk freely about this aspect of the insurrection. All of us should expect new leaders, new tactics, and new demands appearing as the April insurrection develops.

We have all been subject to years of propaganda so that we will imagine Iraq as a land of deserts, camels and dates; of women in burquas and the men lying about smoking whatever they smoke. All we hear in the media concerns religious and ethnic groupings—even “tribes”—and not a word about workers assembling as workers or small farmers organizing against their landlords and against the employers of rural labor. All overtones of class struggle are absent. This is an abysmal state of affairs.

Iraq is seventy-five percent urban. The vast majority of the population worked for wages and, even though as much as one-fifth of these were privileged bureaucrats and military officers, the remainder, about 9 million people, made up the educated working class. After years of strangling sanctions, war and now occupation, the economy is destroyed and the workers are desperate. The real struggle of Iraq is the struggle of the workers to support their families in a decent and fair manner.

Most Americans are workers who can be sympathetic to others who face problems like their own. One task socialists in the antiwar movement can shoulder is to convince the American worker that the Iraqi people are forthright, capable working people who want the same opportunities that any worker wants, neither more nor less. Our explanation of the fact that the worker in Iraq cannot succeed without “going socialist” is very educational.






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