The following is a reply to an article by Eric Lee, originally posted on a LabourStart discussion board

Winning Wars and White Man’s Burden
Two Traditions Live to Fight On Once Again

by Bill Onasch 

Working class attitudes in the industrialized countries toward war and self-determination have revolved around two broad currents initially shaped by the First World War. 

Some union federations and socialist parties took the resolutions of the Socialist International opposing war and colonial conquest seriously. This included the IWW and the Socialist Party of Debs in the USA. So did the Serb, Russian, and the majority of the Italian parties. 

But the most decisive sections in Germany, Austria, Britain and France found good “moral” reasons to set aside their basic principles and to support their respective ruling classes on the battlefield. These same leaders who supported war not surprisingly also accepted the imperialist argument for White Man’s Burden—the obligation for Europeans to “civilize” the more “backward” people of the colonies, preparing them to ultimately rule themselves at some distant future point. 

In his article entitled, perhaps  prematurely, The War Is Over, Eric Lee frankly lays out positions that clearly indicate which tradition he follows. His views are consistent with the heritage of Ebert, Briand, Attlee, Gaitskill—and Blair. I will look at his article as one who embraces another legacy, personified by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Debs, Mandel—and Benn. 

Eric accepts at face value the media accounts that make Kabul sound like Paris on Liberation Day. Clean shaven old men dance in the streets to long banned tunes while their grandchildren, clad once again in bluejeans hidden away from the Taliban, merrily fly their once contraband kites. 

In reality there is little such joy among Afghans. Most are more concerned about getting enough calories to survive the coming winter rather than going to the disco or shopping for western fashions. 

Most Afghan women are ambivalent at best about the Taliban being replaced by the Northern Alliance, remembered for their widespread use of rape as a military tactic. 

Eric says the Northern Alliance gives millions of Afghans new hope. But there’s nothing new about these drug dealers, war lords, and serial rapists. The Afghan peoples have been there and done that before. Many cheered—though without benefit of music or bluejeans—when the Taliban kicked their butts out of most of the country a few years back. 

Eric is spot on with one statement about the Alliance victory: “It is entirely thanks to US and British cruise missiles, B-52s, daisy cutter bombs, the CIA, and special forces troops that this is happening.” Eric seems to think we should be dancing in the streets as well. “This is all cause for celebration by all human beings…” 

Eric thinks it’s time for the nay-sayers to repent. “Those of you who think that everything the US and Britain do is morally wrong, who believe that Osama bin Laden is innocent, who claimed that  the bombing would lead either to thousands of deaths or a strengthening of the Taliban, or both—shouldn't you concede that maybe—maybe!—you might have gotten something a bit wrong?” 

Actually I think few opponents of war would categorically condemn every conceivable action by Washington or London as morally wrong. Probably even fewer would argue that bin Laden is some kind of misunderstood victim of a frame-up. Most of us support efforts to apprehend terrorists and bring them to justice. I, for one, predicted that U.S. military might, with some token assistance from their ever loyal junior partner, could be expected to destroy the Taliban. As far as casualties I don’t have a count that I am confident is accurate—and neither does Eric. The bombing and casualties continue. 

After celebrating his announcement that the war is over thanks to Anglo-American imperialist efforts, and after suitably chastising those of us not having the sense to anticipate and embrace this victory, Eric lays out a post-war perspective for “SERIOUS trade unionists.” He enumerates six points dealing with how the victors will determine a line of march for Afghanistan and also raising questions of how to achieve stabilization is several other Islamic hot spots. He even timidly suggests that perhaps we ought to discuss whether all those attacks on civil liberties in the U.S., U.K., and Canada are completely justified. 

Sorry Eric. Serious trade unionists who are genuine internationalists are not going to discuss what kind of Afghanistan we want to see come out of this war. It’s none of our business. It’s not the business of Bush, Blair, the United Nations, clergy of any faith. It’s the business of the peoples of Afghanistan—and no one else. 

Eric’s position is a reversion to White Man’s Burden, that “we”—that is SERIOUS trade unionists in cooperation with our bosses—must determine how to civilize these poor wretches who can’t seem to get things right without “our” intervention. 

No, if you truly believe in international labor solidarity you must support the right of self-determination for every nation. You must oppose any attempts by imperialist powers to impose their will on other countries. It is a special obligation to oppose such military action when it is being carried out by “our own” government that speaks in our name. That’s a big difference in our two traditions. 

Of course if workers in other countries ask for our assistance we support them. The few Afghan working class leaders in exile in Pakistan have consistently opposed the bombing and invasion. The women’s movement in Afghanistan has also opposed the war and denounced the war lords being installed by Eric’s heroes. 

And Eric, I believe every SERIOUS trade unionist should oppose any and all infringements on civil rights and liberties. The fullest possible democracy for the working class needs to be a vital component of our perspective. 

There is nothing to celebrate, nothing to recant. The War on Terror is not over. The victories that impress Eric are victories for our ruling class, not for working people anywhere. Right now those in Eric’s camp are feeling the wind in their sails. Whether their gloating will still be in order further down the road of this war is another question yet to be decided. 

But even if their cruise missiles and cluster bombs prevail in the end our position will remain unshaken. It is not based on expediency but on the principles of working class internationalism.  Eugene Debs once said, 

“Years ago I declared that there was only one war in which I would enlist and that was the war of the workers of the world against the exploiters of the world. I declared moreover that the working class had no interest in the wars declared and waged by the ruling classes of the various countries upon one another for conquest and spoils.” 

That’s the heritage we identify with, that’s the tradition that we are proud of, that’s the principle that guides us through war today.

November 17, 2001