Imperialism Nationalism & Class Struggle in the Middle East

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Mar 23 2007 00:55
Imperialism Nationalism & Class Struggle in the Middle East

Imperialism, Nationalism, and Class Struggle in the Middle East-Text of Speech from EKS Public meeting in Prague

‘The Middle East’, the very words today conjure up images of violence, and war. When one talks about the Middle East the images that enter the mind are those of the horror that is Iraq today, the barbaric violence of the Israeli state against the Palestinians, and the Lebanese as well as the countless other massacres which are taking place with increasing frequency across the entire region. The perspective that the media offers to people is one of hopelessness, of a never ending spiral of religious, sectarian, and ethnic violence from which there seems to be no escape.

Many people instinctively oppose the Bush regime, and its solution of bringing ‘democracy’ to Iraq by sending in more troops. The horror of the last two weeks alone gives the lie to the latest American answer to the Iraqi ‘question’. The Americans are completely unable to control Iraq. The addition of more troops leads to more dead civilians. That nothing positive can come from the ‘west’ is very clear.

There are people, who rightly disgusted with the hypocrisy of the west gravitate automatically to the other side. The Iraqi resistance is idealised as a group of courageous fighters against imperialism, bravely fighting back against American occupation. During the recent Israeli attacks on Lebanon, leftists paraded through western cities shouting that they were all Hezbollah.

I think that this comes from a general tendency to side with the oppressed. That in itself is not a bad thing. The problem is that in the Middle East today siding with the oppressed is merely to take one side in the ethnic/sectarian conflicts that are leading the entire region deeper, and deeper into chaos, and civil war.

As an example of this we will start by looking at the Kurds in Turkey. It is very clear that Kurds in Turkey have been subjected to terrible oppression at the hands of the State. I remember talking to a comrade from Halabja in Iraq. She had been bombed with chemical weapons, seen half of her family die, been temporarily blinded, and lived in a tent in a refuge camp in Iran for two years. When I asked her why she had refused our invitation to come to Turkey, she replied that they really treat Kurds badly there. In the war, which has been raging in the South East since 1984, over 36,000 have been killed, 3,000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed, and nearly 400,000 people have been displaced. On the cultural side use of the Kurdish language was illegal and punishable by a prison sentence even in the privacy of your own home, and there are many people especially among the old who can only speak Kurdish.

These sort of things lead people to take the side of the Kurdish nationalists, in Turkey represented by the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, nowadays known as Kongra-Gel. Despite these people having a ‘socialist ideology’, they are a actually a deeply anti-working class organisation. I think that this is best exemplified by its campaign of killing school teachers, mostly young girls from a working class, or peasant background who have been sent to the South-East to work there by the state, because they are spreading ‘Turkish culture’, i.e. teaching the Turkish language. On the other side of the boarder, the PUK shot down 17 striking workers only last July.

The problem is not ‘only’ one of shooting workers though. The problem is that these groups are leading the workers into ethnic war. The Kurdish militants who are dying in the mountains are mostly poor peasants, and workers. The Turkish conscript soldiers who are dying alongside them are mostly from exactly the same background. I can remember when I was living in Istanbul in the 90’s, and my next door neighbour lost two sons in the same week, one of them fighting in the Turkish army, and one of them fighting in the PKK. The real question is what do workers have to gain from the continuation of this war.

Turkey is an extremely nationalist country. The walls of public buildings are covered with political slogans as they were here in Stalinist times, things like ‘How happy I am to be a Turk’, and ‘One Turk is worth the world’. Yet recently, there has been the beginnings of a class reaction against the war. Leaders of the mainstream political parties have been heckled by people at public meetings asking why it is the children of the workers who are dying in the South-East, and not the children of the rich. Yes, the ideology of nationalism is not being explicitly challenged here, but in recognising that the working class, and the bourgeoisie have different interests, people are beginning to take the first step towards challenging the hold that nationalism has over the working class. When workers begin to realise that they have common interests as workers, and not as members of some ‘national/religious/ethnic’ group, it is the beginning, however small, of breaking the hold of nationalism.
That is why, for us, the recent struggles in the public sector offer a positive perspective to the working class. On December 5th, a quarter of a million public sector workers staged a ‘not going to work day’ (It is illegal for public sector workers to strike) in support of their pay claim. Here workers are recognising that they have common interests as workers, independent of whether they are Turks, or Kurds, Alevis, or Sunnis. The thing that unites them is their own class interest. Nationalism, on the other hand, can only offer more division, more ethnic/sectarian tensions, more war, and more working class mothers crying over the coffins of their sons.

And in the middle of all this the left tells us that we must support the Kurds ‘right to national self determination’. I think that it is quite instructive that these people are always talking about the ‘rights’ of nations, and of the ‘people’, but very rarely if ever mention the problems that are faced everyday by workers as workers. What does the ‘right of self determination of nations mean’? Who is the nation? As soon as one starts to categorise oneself as a member of this or that nation, or ethnic group, or religious sect, or tribe, instead of as a member of the working class, one starts to walk down the road that leads to massacres, ethnic cleansing, and war. Recently, one of the Turkish ex-Maoist groups, who used to support the PKK has decided that Turkey is an ‘oppressed nation‘. Due to this they have started to collaborated with the fascist MHP. Oh, and when we talk about fascists in Turkey, we don’t mean small groups of racist skinheads. This Party was in the last Government, and I expect it to be in the next one. At their height in 1980 they had 200,000 members, and over a million supporters. The number of worker militants, political activists, and members of ethnic minorities, killed by them is unknown, but their members, and supporters were actually charged in 1981 with 694 murders. And now the ‘Worker’s Party’ in Turkey are actually working together with these people, all of course because in their eyes Turkey is an oppressed nation. It would be nothing more than a comic parody of the pro PKK left if it wasn’t so deadly.

The way forward for the working class is different though. It is not a way of choosing, which nationalism to support, but of workers fighting for their own interests. The struggles of the public sector movement is not only about fighting for a pay rise, but also shows the way forward in opposing war. A working class that will fight for its own interests is one that will be less easily prepared to die for its bosses interests, be they Turkish, or Kurdish. It also evokes the spectre of the massive struggles of 1989 when a strike of 30,153 public sector workers unleashed a massive strike wave of over 1,500,000 workers in both public and private sectors, unionised, and non-unionised, who formed independent factory committees to resist attacks on working class living standards.

Turning away from the Turkey, now to the region as a whole, we see the working class being pulled deeper, and deeper into war as workers give up fighting for their own interests, and start to fight for the interests of their clan, tribe, sect, ethnic group, or nation. This is a road, which leads to workers seeing members of different groups, not as fellow workers, but as enemies.

When we look at Iraq, we can see the end result of this process. There is a civil war in Iraq. Sunnis, and Shia are locked into a fratricidal sectarian struggle against not only the Americans, but also against each other. Even in Iraq though where the working class are most atomised, there are signs of encouragement.. Workers have been involved in struggles, stretching the entire length of the country from Basara to Kirkuk. That at least offers the beginnings of an alternative perspective to workers. A perspective of not seeing the other person as an Arab, or a Kurd, or a Sunni, or a Shia, but as a worker, who has the same class interests as your own.

Iran too was shaken by a wave of strikes last year. While the state tries to unite the ‘people’ in a struggle against the ‘Great Satan’ over their ‘right’ to have nuclear power, Iranian workers were struggling for their own interests against unpaid wages, and for wage increases. A strike started by Tehran bus drivers last January led to massive struggles in many sectors including mining, car manufacturing, and textiles.

In Palestine the struggle by teachers, and other public sector workers over unpaid wages last year showed that even in the worst of conditions, and when surrounded by the most vicious nationalist ideology, the working class doesn’t completely lose its class instinct. A spokesperson for the HAMAS government said that the strike “was against the national interest”. The government were very clear on this, but so are we. The interests of the working class, are diametrically opposed to the national interest.

In Lebanon there was a general strike against government austerity measures at the end of January, showing once again that even in the worst of situations the working class maintains the ability to struggle. This struggle, however, was diverted into a faction fight between Hezbollah, and the government razing fears of another civil war. It is all to easy for workers’ struggles to get pulled off a class terrain, and dragged into sordid faction fights between different capitalist groups. A similar thing happened in Palestine when teachers demonstrations became the scene of gun battles between HAMAS, and FATAH supporters. The nationalism, and sectarianism that is rampant through out the region means that these type of things are always possible. Against this workers must be clear in identifying what there own interests are, and how they are different from those of groups like Hezbollah, and the Lebanese ‘resistance’.

In Turkey today, the main issue that confronts the working class is not the Kurdish issue, or the headscarves issue. It is the attack on its living standards since the large scale class struggles in 1995. These are the same problems that workers face across the entire region, and the same problems that workers face throughout Europe, and here in the Czech Republic.