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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008



Imperialism and democracy don’t mix

TARIQ ALI, longtime Pakistani-British radical, is a novelist, historian, and an editor of New Left Review. He is the author of Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (Verso, 2006) and The Clash of Fundamentalisms (Verso, 2003), among other books. He talked to the ISR’s SHERRY WOLF during his lecture tour of the United States while he was in Chicago on October 15, 2007.

In early November, Pakistan’s President Musharraf declared a state of emergency and blacked out television coverage as his troops arrested thousands of oppositionists. In an article written the day after, Tariq Ali called Musharraf’s maneuver a “coup within a coup,” based on a fear that “a Supreme Court judgment due next week might make it impossible for Musharraf to contest the elections.” Musharraf’s handpicked replacements on the court then dismissed the challenges to Musharraf’s elegibility to serve as president—freeing him to step down as army chief while holding onto power. Ali predicted in this case that “a totally rigged election becomes a certainty next January. Whatever the case, Pakistan's long journey to the end of the night continues.”

Ali notes that Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in late October because she had struck a U.S.-brokered deal to share power with Musharraf. But since the emergency decree, Bhutto has called off the “arranged marriage” and is positioning herself as a moderate opposition figure.

WHAT ROLE is the U.S. trying to play since 9/11 in Pakistan?

MUSHARRAF HAS succeeded in isolating himself from the population, including from sections of the elite, because he’s played his cards very badly. When he came in—like all these military rulers who run countries—he pledged a whole set of reforms. He was the first Pakistani military dictator who didn’t censor the press or ban political parties and trade unions. He said all that will carry on as before, which is unusual.

In fact, in the first years of his rule the media flourished. It was much freer than it had been even under civilian governments. A whole number of television stations sprang up, which are still in operation. This is one of the ironies of the situation. But he couldn’t deliver any reforms.

In his big speech upon coming to power he said the political class is totally corrupt and we are going to clean the stables. There was a commission of inquiry that came up with really strong evidence that Benazir Bhutto from the center-left Peoples’ Party and Nawaz Sharif from the center-right Muslim League certainly were corrupt. Nobody doubted it, but it became official.

Nawaz Sharif was spirited out of the country, with the U.S. embassy playing a central role. They asked the Saudis to provide him with exile so that he and his brothers would not spend time in prison. Benazir stayed in her exile living off her ill-gotten gains in her big villa in Dubai and going for weekend shopping trips to southwest London.

Then another big issue confronted Musharraf when the commission concluded that it wasn’t just the politicians who were corrupt, but there was corruption inside all the branches of the military. He then more or less shunted the accountability commission saying that we can’t go down that road. He then joined up with politicians from Nawaz Sharif’s party and they set up a new party called some other Muslim League and they started milking the country dry—so that within the country, the credibility of his regime began to go down.

One of the things that Pakistan has lacked, just in terms of bourgeois rationality, is land reforms. There are still landlords in parts of the country owning thousands and thousands of acres of land and treating their peasants like serfs and slaves, which is one thing that has held back even bourgeois modernization of that country.

Any regime that pushes through land reform would be incredibly popular overnight. No one does it because all the landlords are part of these parties. So nothing happens internally to change the country. Externally, it was after 9-11 that Musharraf decided that there was no way he could resist U.S. demands because the U.S. told him very bluntly that they would bomb him into the Stone Age. And secondly, they told him if you don’t supply us with your military bases we’ll use India’s. The minute they said that he totally capitulated.

The one thing they wanted to do that he totally resisted was to try and control the nuclear facilities and he said no, you don’t go near them. So the U.S. backed off of that one. Capitulation to the U.S. made him unpopular not just with the jihadi faction in Pakistan, which is actually quite weak, but also with the general population who felt this was making the country into a sort of U.S. colony. This was so blatant, and formally the country is meant to be independent. Even people who were quite hostile to the jihadis and to Islamic fundamentalist groups didn’t like that.

The people who backed Musharraf—for want of a better word, the Pakistani liberal elite—said he was going to wipe out all the jihadis inside Pakistan. None of that happened either.

My opinion is that the regime called in the jihadi group leaders behind the scenes—there had been three attempts on Musharraf’s life, and they almost got him on two of them—because most of these groups were created by Pakistani military intelligence to fight the jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan and the Indians in Kashmir. The military knows exactly who they are because they’ve been on their payroll for ages and the military has been funding the bulk of these groups. So they were called in, and, according to my informant, the military high command told them: we will not cut off your money, don’t worry, but we don’t want any actions as yet, you have to be patient. The time will come again when you will be needed in Afghanistan, but until then you will sit in camps. And I’m told that’s what a lot of them agreed to do.

THE U.S. media present an image of the tribal groups on the Afghan-Pakistan border as major players in that country’s domestic politics who can challenge Musharraf for power. How accurate is that picture?

THIS NOTION that is very widespread in the Western media that Pakistan is on the threshold of a jihadi takeover and all that stands between the jihadis controlling Pakistan’s nuclear facility is the wonderful, if beleaguered, General Musharraf is nonsense. There can be no jihadi takeover of Pakistan, full stop. They’re a tiny minority. The only way they could come to power is if the military wanted them to.

The U.S. State Department’s view is that Musharraf is too close to these groups and therefore they have to help him out a bit. That means helping him out by pushing through an arranged marriage with Benazir Bhutto. This whole thing was cooked up in Washington, D.C., because she’s been pleading with them to be allowed to come to power now for several years. Finally, they said, why not? Then we began to see big interviews with her on all the networks and in the American press. It’s so obvious, that it’s a joke. So she is now meant to be going off this month [October 2007] to Pakistan, and the deal is that she will be the next prime minister after the election.

But hang on a minute. Is she so convinced that the next election will vote her in? The very fact that this is a deal done before the next election indicates that they’re going to rig the next election just like they rigged the last one. And the military and civilian bureaucracy will ensure that she wins a fair number of seats so that they can keep their side of the bargain, if it reaches that far.

Meanwhile, totally outside all of this, another sort of mass struggle has been taking place in Pakistan to defend the rights of an independent judiciary. This struggle, pushed through by lawyers and law students and judges became very big in the country because people were not used to anyone acting on principle. People are just sort of alienated. I hate all of these reports that suggest that the Pakistani population is stupid. It isn’t. It’s in fact rather intelligent and knows exactly what’s going on and is alienated from the whole process for good reason.

The chief justice of the Supreme Court was dismissed by Musharraf for two reasons. One reason is that he’s accepted a petition challenging the privatization of the big steel industry, which is a joke. Here’s an industry worth $5 billion that was sold for $360,000. It really is a scandal. And the three companies that get it are a Saudi company close to Musharraf, a Pakistani company set up by the prime minister, and some big Russian company. So there was a petition before the Supreme Court and the chief justice said that he thought it was an illegal privatization. This created absolute havoc.

What made the government nervous is that unless they dealt with him, the chief justice might say that Musharraf’s position as both president of the country and chief of staff of the army is illegal. So they suspended the chief justice, thinking they could bully him into doing their bidding. But because they treated him so badly, the guy gets the bit between the teeth and says: screw you, I’m not going to do your bidding.

Gradually as word seeped out, the country was amazed and demonstrations were mounted and within two months the whole country was watching this drama take place. Even if they weren’t participating in it, the bulk of the country was with the chief justice. It became a constitutional struggle for the separation of powers.

Ultimately, the government was forced to retreat, the chief justice had to be reinstated, but not before they’d resorted to violence in the country’s largest city, Karachi, to try and kill his supporters, to try and threaten him using their own local groups. They didn’t use the official army. There was a general strike to protest the violence in Karachi, all the shops closed down the following day, and then the military realized they had to draw back. So the chief justice was reinstated.

The reason I’ve spelled this out at length is there are now five petitions before the chief justice saying that the deal done between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, which forgives her corruption, is no good. The petitions say they have no right to forgive the corruption. This is a legal issue and only a court can decide. The chief justice has accepted all these five petitions. So even if Benazir Bhutto gets back, there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court is going to let her off the hook.

Meanwhile, Musharraf and his backers are now tongue in cheek saying, well, the courts in our country are supreme and they will make the final decision. It’s all still up for grabs. It’s a very unstable situation.

To summarize, the tragedy is that there is no real alternative of any sort. There are small groups on the left like the Labor Party—they’re very decent comrades, they do a lot of good work. They’re the only people who attempt to do mass work. They’re widely respected because they are dedicated cadres, but one can’t pretend that they’re stronger than they are.

As far as the bulk of the country is concerned, there is no alternative. The military is very aware of this. The political parties are corrupt, collaborationist in most cases. There just is no alternative. They’re all on their knees before the U.S. State Department, saying please can’t you let us in too, we don’t want to be left out. Why have we been left out of this big settlement?

Then you have the moderate religious parties, which are also becoming increasingly discredited—they are also corrupt. These parties that have been opposing Musharraf half-heartedly and no one now takes them too seriously because their corruption has also come out.

I have never known such a bleak situation in that country. It’s obvious what needs to be done. You need massive structural reforms, leave alone talking about a revolution because there’s no force to carry that out. But anyone who would propose deep structural reforms, to provide education, health, water, electricity for the poor and the villages and in the towns, would win the elections.

I was there researching my book and I spoke to three different groups of people and asked if I could commission a large public opinion poll. I asked how much would it cost me. And they said first you tell us what you want to ask. And I said I wanted to go into four different parts of the country and ask the following questions: Would you rather your children be provided a free education or would you prefer the Shariah implemented? Would you rather you had a health clinic in each village or would you rather the Shariah laws be implemented? They said, you can’t do this—it’s a provocation. I said, well I’m going to pay for it.

They said, no, because they’d get into trouble. So I said, in other words, I can’t commission an opinion poll just to see what people want? I said, don’t you realize it’s for your own good—it will cut through all of this nonsense saying the country is on the eve of a fundamentalist takeover.

All the groups I’ve spoken to talk about how the country’s been looted and about corruption—people barely mention religion. They’re all Muslims and people take that for granted, but no one mentions it apart from that. So it’s a tragedy actually because there’s no doubt that people want massive change, but they also know that none of these jokers is going to deliver it. It’s a tense situation now.

I THINK you were in Pakistan this summer around the time when Senator Barack Obama made his speech threatening to bomb Pakistan unless Musharraf takes care of the situation in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. What was the response in Pakistan to the fact that the opposition candidate was threatening to bomb a U.S. ally?

THE RESPONSE was total bewilderment and astonishment from virtually every single layer of Pakistan society. I was asked to comment on it and I said this guy is striking a military posture because he’s seeking votes, but all he’s accomplished is flaunting his ignorance. I mean it’s grotesque that the so-called big hope of the Democratic Party is such a pathetic figure. Let’s assume he were to become president and he sent planes to bomb Pakistan—your ally— it’s a method ensured to drive people into the arms of the jihadis. This is too much! OK, they might be fanatical, but let them do what they do.

I remembered when he made that statement when he was campaigning during the last election period, and I happened to be in Urbana-Champaign giving a set of lectures and was switching through the channels when he appeared and the interviewer said, given what the Iranians are up to Bush says we might have to bomb Iran, would you support that? He said, yes, I would definitely support that if the president decided that had to be done. As far as I was concerned, I just switched off the television and I switched off him. So when he came out with that statement threatening to bomb Pakistan it didn’t surprise me. If he had a liberal past he’s trying to cover it up.

There’s another episode about this. He was photographed sitting next to Edward Said after Edward gave a talk on Palestine in Chicago and the photo appeared and was circulated—he was sitting on one side of Said and his wife on the other. They obviously went to the talk, liked it, and they were chatting to the speaker. He then said that they happened to be at the talk and dinner, but it was no big thing. He said he certainly hadn’t agreed with Said. He got the other professor, Rashid Khalidi at Columbia to back up this nonsense. But you know, that wasn’t enough, so off he went to the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] convention and licked ass sort of non-stop. Heaven help the United States is what I say.


OH MY God. We talk about Pakistan being depressing, but American politics is equally depressing. You have public opinion, which is against the war, which will soon be against the Afghan War, if it isn’t already. A public that wants some changes in the social system, the infrastructure in terms of health—there’s no doubt about it. But the politicians no longer represent these demands.

I think this is increasingly a problem with capitalism now. This notion that was very strong during the Cold War that capitalism and democracy go hand in glove—it was always nonsense—but we are now seeing that capitalism doesn’t need too much democracy. So you have a situation where European politics are becoming Americanized—where there’s no big difference between center-Left and center-Right in any Western European country. And of course, Eastern Europe is a big mess, but let’s not get into that now.

If you look at all the Western European countries you have coalition governments that just spell out how you don’t need an opposition party. At least in Germany, you have a small opposition party, the Party of the Left, which does challenge them on the war and other issues. Then you have in Italy a left-wing coalition with the Italian far Left, the largest party in the left coalition, pushing for right-wing policies, some of which in terms of the social measures are to the right of Berlusconi. Two members of parliament who refused to vote for the Afghan War were expelled from the party and a lot of nonsense was spoken about them. The social movements in Italy are certainly not dead, but are demoralized by this turn-around by Rifondazioni and get very little support from inside parliament. The situation is bad. In France, one of the first things Sarkozy does after winning the election is offer jobs to socialist leaders who accept them! Just to prove the point I’m making, that there’s really no big difference.

I wrote about this process starting ten years ago, of essentially the Americanization of politics, taking the tweedle-dum/tweedle-dee system which exists in the U.S. to Europe. This is now what the system needs, since you’re not permitted to offer any alternatives.

Then you have Britain, where the most grotesque events are taking place as we speak. Blair is forced out over troops in Iraq and his successor [Gordon Brown] says, all right, we’re withdrawing troops from Iraq but on virtually any other issue there’s no basic shift in policy. They still defend the war—they haven’t said the war was wrong—and his social and economic policies are totally Thatcherite. So you now have this irony that the conservatives on some issues are appearing to be marginally more progressive than Labor.

It’s a situation that is spreading. Spain is exceptional because of the role of the Catholic Church largely. So you still have the Socialists who represent something which is not religious, whereas the Right is still attached to the Catholic Church and opposes abortion rights and all that sort of business.

The overwhelming tendency is essentially—I put it like this sometimes and people are shocked—we have a dictatorship of capital. And this dictatorship tolerates some sort of freedoms, as yet, but it prefers its political parties to be virtually the same. And it has media networks, print and television, virtually under its control. You can even chart the decline from the nineties on by what happened to the media networks; not just about wars—you know wars are special, but even there the degeneration has been strong—but simply in terms of what is considered worth reporting. And I know we all talk about alternatives and it’s great that there’s the Internet, but, as far as the bulk of the population is concerned, they get their day-to-day news from the networks and papers. We get politics that don’t represent them and a media that certainly don’t represent them or what they believe.

I often make the point that we shouldn’t imagine people are so dumb that they believe everything they see on the media. If they did, you wouldn’t have 70 percent opposed to the war in Iraq in the United States. You would have a majority still supporting it. When people have to, they can see through it, which is encouraging. But the overall situation in the Western world in terms of the political mainstream is reaching crisis proportions. And some of the more intelligent theorists talk about this as a problem that the population is becoming alienated from the system.

I WANT to ask you about Iraq. The current policy appears to be to divide Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. How would the United States do this, if they were able to do this, and how would it be received in Iraq?

I THINK that the effect of the occupation of Iraq has been such a total disaster that what often happens with colonial occupations when the occupying power privileges some sides and not others is that people retreat to their very basic, primitive identities. It has happened before in the world. The British Empire didn’t leave any part of the world without dividing it, whether it was Africa, Cyprus, or India.

In Iraq all this has been refracted at a very, very rapid pace. You occupy a country, you totally dissolve its army—which is something the United States never did in post-fascist Italy, post-fascist Japan, post-fascist Germany—but in Iraq they do it. They try and create a new structure; the only people they talk to are the religious parties. The people they were negotiating with before like al-Hakim are very close to the Iranians. So what they do is try and create a new elite to collaborate with them, but its very tiny, so what they do is create a situation in which Iran becomes a major player inside Iraq, which it never has been because even between the Iraqi and Iranian Shia there are lots of divisions, including a linguistic one. Many Iraqi Shia regard themselves as Iraqis, but the occupation pushed them in another direction and the Iranian clerics, opportunists that they are, they gave a green light to the occupation in Iraq precisely because they knew it would bring down their old enemy Saddam Hussein; just as they did in Afghanistan and they told their people to cooperate. And they did. They have large swathes of the country under their control.

What’s happened is because some of these people organize as Shia in religious parties, because the Baath Party has been weakened and attacked, the Sunnis then mobilize under their own religious leaderships, with help from the Saudis. The Saudis are nervous that Iraq is going to become a Shia republic and the high command of Iran and Iraq are going to destabilize their own stranglehold in the Arabian Peninsula, so they’re extremely nervous about that. And the Kurds in northern Iraq have been a sort of Western outpost, they used to play one side off against the other and now they’re backed by the U.S. and Israelis. Unless the Iraqi parties rise above all of this and say come what may we are going to preserve the unity of our country, it’s not a done deal.

Southern Iraq is closely linked to Iran now; middle Iraq, Sunni Iraq, which is receiving money from the Saudis and the Egyptians is close to it as well; and you have northern Iraq, Kurdish Iraq, which is an Israeli-American protectorate. Institutionalizing this, which you can already see looking at the papers, would be a problem. The Turks, for their own reasons, are not going to permit a Kurdish state that could destroy the unity of their country as they see it. They’re a central pillar of the eastern flank of NATO, and if they walk into Iraq, or bomb their way in, it’s going to create a crisis that the United States realizes. Even as we speak, the Turkish army is amassed at the border, ready to go in, so it’s a very unstable situation.

The big hope is that the Sunni and Shia leaders are going to realize that the break-up of the country is not going to help them; it will weaken them, and they will become essentially protectorates of strong powers in the region—that is what looks most likely. You notice we’re talking about these parties because the Left doesn’t exist. The Communist Party of Iraq, which backed the occupation and carried out a few demonstrations on the streets celebrating the downfall of Saddam, has disappeared without trace. They had big hopes that this was how they were going to come to power. And we all argued that the only way they were going to re-win their big base in the country is by leading the resistance—that would have been something. They didn’t do that and left a big vacuum. So it’s not a happy situation.

On one level it’s been a total disaster for the United States and on another it’s been a total disaster for Iraq and its people. Two million refugees, a million Iraqis dead, the entire infrastructure of the country destroyed, and not enough of these refugees permitted to enter the Western countries. They made a war and killed people and made the country untenable and then they won’t let in the refugees. Not a good situation, but the United States will probably, along with their allies in the region—the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Israelis—will back these allies against the Iranians. They now realize they’ve made Iran too powerful and they’re wondering what to do next.

MANY PEOPLE on the left would argue that the disasters the U.S. has made in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Lebanon last year via Israel mean that the power of U.S. imperialism is on the decline. What do you think about that position?

I WOULDN’T say it is for the following reasons. These are severe setbacks, there’s no doubt about it. The American Empire has survived even worse setbacks in the past. We shouldn’t forget that.

The defeat they suffered in Vietnam in 1975 led many folks to say this is the end, they will never recover from this, there will never be more wars, because the Vietnam Syndrome is so strong. It turned out to be total nonsense. The fact that they’ve had these setbacks in this region shouldn’t lead people to think they’re out of action forever—I don’t think that is the case. The empire’s even stronger because they have no rival in the world today.

If you look at the American military, the defense expenditure in the United States is higher than their next eight rivals put together. The increase in U.S. defense expenditure over the last two years, just the increase, is the size of China’s entire military budget. It’s not that they’re in great shape—they’re not externally, or internally, where the economy is heavily reliant on credit, the level of debt inside the United States has reached astonishing proportions. And it’s not precluded that it could implode, that the economy could collapse. But if that were to happen I think you would see changes inside the United States. Something like a third party could emerge. Something like that could push it in that direction, possibly, but even then we should remember something Lenin wrote in analyzing what was going on in capitalist countries. He once wrote something that I’ve never ever forgotten from the sixties and seventies, and it’s very apropos today. Lenin said there is no final crisis for capitalism unless there is an alternative. It sounds like a sort of dogmatic statement, but in reality it’s a very pragmatic statement and very true. So they will carry on, unless something else emerges.

For the American Empire to suffer a real setback would mean you’d have some other power ready to take over or challenge them. Who can do this? Russia? No. China? No. They’re flexing their muscles, but they’re basically very weak. The European Union is totally and completely pathetic; it doesn’t offer—in imperial terms—any challenge or alternative to the United States at all. Surely people can’t believe that tiny groups of Islamo-anarchists (that’s what al-Qaeda reminds me of) are going to put up a real challenge to the American Empire. It’s not going to happen.

Latin America is doing very well at the moment, but you know they want to build a strong regional cohesion and challenge the U.S., which is tremendous, especially given that there is a large Hispanic population inside the U.S. now. It serves as a bridge. All good things going on there have a transmission belt into the country. There are interesting possibilities, but I don’t think we should jump the gun and say that this has already happened.

We should learn something from history. It’s too easy to say that the American Empire is finished. There’s a logic to that statement. Were that to be the case you would have big internal changes in the U.S. because it would be a mega-crisis for the system and so far we haven’t seen that. Look at how pathetic the Democratic Party is as an alternative to Bush and Co. It just goes to show you.

THE ANTIWAR movement, not just here but internationally, is quite weak. Why do you think this is the case?

I’M NOT one of those who think there is any single answer to the question. There is a big answer though, and that is that the decline of the large working-class parties and the trade unions in the Western world has made it very difficult to sustain a permanent opposition to the war. Against the Vietnam War, by comparison, a mobilization was kept going. In the European countries, just to remind you, the main trade unions in every single Western European country were opposed to the war in Vietnam. It doesn’t mean they mobilized permanently, but they were opposed to it and they encouraged their members to come out. Most of the social democratic parties and communist parties in Europe were opposed to the war in Vietnam. In Sweden you had an ultra example: the Swedish social democratic prime minister, Olaf Palm, led a torch-lit procession against the war in Vietnam outside the U.S. embassy in Stockholm. All this has disappeared and you cannot recreate that just like this.

In the U.S., one of the big reasons for the mobilizations in the Vietnam era was that you had conscription, so you had the entire population affected by the war; not just the poor, not just the Blacks, not just the Hispanics, but the entire layer of U.S. society, unless you happened to be from the very elite layer, in which case you could buy your way out. By and large, people couldn’t do that, and when it became clear that the war couldn’t be won and that casualties were increasing, the movement went up and up. That is not the case inside the U.S. today. You don’t have conscription, and casualties, while high, haven’t reached anything like the levels they were in Vietnam. The military families in the U.S. have done a very good job and it’s interesting that they are at the very heart of the movement and have had that impact. I think one has to see it on that level.

I think it was wrong of people—and I argued this at the time—that when you had the mass turnouts before the war began, millions all over the world, something that had never been seen before all over the world, I argued that this was an attempt by civil society to try and stop a war and had nothing to do with politics in any organized form. Their political instincts, weak though they might be, told them the war was based on a complete lie. Many thought that they could achieve their ends. Many thought they were going to really stop the war. It was not easy to tell them otherwise; many people were unhappy with what I had to say. I remember at the big antiwar demonstration in London, I said this is an amazing demonstration, we need regime change in Britain to stop this war. Whatever we do this war is going to happen. I did say that. And I said that we will need you out again and again. I could say that till the cows come home, but people didn’t like me saying that because they thought that it was sort of demoralizing. But you know, what’s demoralizing is not remarks like this, it’s the fact that the war happened. I’m convinced of that.

People can then say that if the resistance had been better organized, if it had more national flavor, they would get more international support, but I don’t think that’s it. They say there are too many suicide bombings, too much violence. But in the Vietnam War the NLF [National Liberation Front] was not a religious organization, but they used to blow up cafes in the middle of Saigon, they used to carry out acts that would be described today as terrorist —and were described by the U.S. then as terrorist. They used to blow up collaborators, they used to blow up places where soldiers gathered. No one blinked at that. Those who were opposed to the war backed them. Suicide bombing? What was the attack on the U.S. embassy in 1968? It was a suicide act. They knew they’d all die, but they felt that the symbolic value of capturing the American embassy in the heart of Saigon and putting up the NLF flag even for ten minutes was worth the suicide rate. So I don’t buy the argument that it’s just the tactics of the Iraqi resistance. I don’t think it’s helped, and I’ve criticized them myself, but I don’t think that is the central feature.

After all, you had a resistance against the Italians in Libya, which was a totally religious resistance, and all progressive forces backed it. Prior to that, the Mahdi, a big religious leader fought the British occupation of the Sudan. When he defeated General Gordon in Khartoum, the great English socialist William Morris called it a victory for the English working class! I just do not buy this argument that the reason there isn’t more support for the resistance is that they aren’t more like us. I mean they weren’t like you in the Sudan; they weren’t like you in Libya; they weren’t like you in Algeria, a resistance that is romanticized a lot; they weren’t like you in Vietnam. There, Vietnam was a one-party state, the Communist Party was in total control, there were no freedoms and the NLF was very violent, yet the American antiwar movement supported all that quite happily. So what’s the problem? I think one of the problems is what I said earlier—the big, big decline of the massive working-class organizations all over Europe which supplied people for all these mobilizations.

And in the United States there is a very different situation. It’s not that the population in any of these countries is for the war, but between the populations being against the war and the bridges that create mass mobilizations there isn’t anything, these bridges are missing. In Britain the demonstrations haven’t been too bad, but they’ve never ever approached anything resembling what happened before.

HERE IN the U.S., in 2004, the antiwar movement largely collapsed behind a prowar candidate. How would you counsel activists heading into the 2008 elections?

I THINK you can see that the surge that produced Democratic majorities in the Senate and House was brought about as a result of the hostility to the war in Iraq; no one even denies this now. And the people elected have done absolutely nothing in my opinion. So to be perfectly frank, since Bush is going out anyway, the demonizing of him as totally different from any other U.S. president (something I’ve never bought) needs to end. There is a continuity in imperial leadership from Reagan through Clinton to Bush. It’s true that he is less intelligent than Clinton, but so what? Basically, in terms of policies, they’ve not been that different. This argument that if Gore had been elected we might not have invaded Iraq is nonsense. People should read what Gore was saying about Saddam Hussein when he was vice president. He was to the right of Clinton if you read every single statement he made. And occasionally they were attacking the previous Republicans for not having been hard enough.

I think that the American political elite in charge of both parties is pretty corrupt and incapable of offering any serious alternative. I certainly wouldn’t plant my flag in the camp of either Hillary or Obama. There is no antiwar candidate in this election. It’s lesser-evilism that I suppose will count, and no one knows who the Republican candidate will be. If they were clever they’d get someone like Chuck Hagel and have a Republican opposing the war saying it’s gone all wrong and I’m going to withdraw the troops now. But I don’t think they’re capable of doing that. So I think it’s a mess.

I don’t know if there’s going to be a third-party candidate, but if ever a situation demanded it, it’s now. I don’t think it should be Ralph Nader—it’s time for him to rest, it’s time for him to write books and that sort of thing. But if a good third-party candidate could be found around whom people could coalesce that would be great. I can’t think of anyone. Whoever wins, the Iraqis will not benefit, nor will the other places where the U.S. has its troops.

Outside of the electoral arena a lot will depend on what happens after the next election. If the Democrats win, this whole argument that if we only had the Democrats in charge will go by the wayside. There will be more space that will open up for independent mobilization with the Democrats in power.

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