The Gulf War

Chapter Forty-Two


WHILE THE capitalists could rub their hands in glee over events in the former Stalinist states, their perspective for a “New World Order” was abruptly and rather rudely shattered when in August the tanks of the Iraqi military dictator Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait. 

US imperialism, with a little delay, responded by dispatching troops to Saudi Arabia. 

The events in the Stalinist world had an important effect on US imperialism’s decision to intervene. They could not have acted so brazenly or so precipitately without first of all receiving the benediction of Gorbachev. 

For the first time in the history of the United Nations, there was unanimity in the Security Council which resulted in the US being able to carry a resolution for a total embargo of Iraq: oil would not be exported from Iraq and imports (except food) would not be allowed in. 

Even the Chinese bureaucracy, eager to arrive at an agreement with imperialism, voted for the resolution. The British gutter press reacted in a predictable fashion with the Daily Star wanting the government to drop a “very big bomb” on Baghdad – never mind the fact that British nationals in Kuwait had just been taken hostage.

Against the war

From the outset, we made it clear where we stood:

We are not prepared to support any war aims of Bush or Thatcher, they can’t be trusted at home or abroad. They only defend the needs of the bosses. (1)

The paper also pointed to the hypocrisy of those who were calling for Saddam’s blood and yet backed him to the hilt in the bloody war between Iraq and Iran:

We won’t forget it was Thatcher, along with the French and American governments and the Soviet bureaucracy too, who financed the Iraqi military build-up. They armed Saddam to the teeth, creating the fifth largest army in the world. (2)

There was no widespread opposition from these governments when the Iraqi regime was pursuing its monstrous genocide against the Kurdish people, with the wiping out of whole villages through gas attacks. This was a war for oil in which workers

will pay the price. The big petrol companies haven’t wasted a second in pushing up prices by as much as 10p a gallon. But they have got 30 days’ stocks bought before the Iraqi invasion and the oil price rise. (3)

Clearly, in the past Saddam had been America’s man, armed to the hilt during the war with Iran. Saddam undoubtedly believed that he had the silent acquiescence of US imperialism in invading Kuwait. He had actually signalled his intention to invade. 

Glaspie, US Ambassador to Iraq, met Saddam Hussein on 25 July, just a few days before the invasion of Kuwait, and the transcript of that meeting showed that she turned a blind eye to Iraq’s claim to Kuwait. 

Glaspie had stated in that meeting: 

“The US has no opinion on an Arab/Arab dispute like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” (4) 

The clear implication was that Saddam was free to invade.

But by invading Kuwait Saddam gained control of 20 per cent of OPEC oil production, which gave him “at least a finger-hold on the lifeline of Western capitalism”. (5)

Because of this, Saddam undoubtedly evoked enormous sympathy from the masses in the Arab world, even those who viewed his dictatorship with distaste. At the same time, we did not hesitate to explain the bloody role of the Saddam dictatorship in suppressing the workers, peasants and national minorities within Iraq. We implacably opposed the pro-capitalist, role of the Labour leaders:

Even before the US had gone into Saudi Arabia or hostages had been taken, Kaufman [Labour spokesperson on foreign affairs] was calling for “unprecedented measures”, including a naval blockade of the Gulf and the UN intercepting tankers. (6)

Where the foreign policy of British imperialism was concerned, Neil Kinnock had become a tame pet. He assured the British people that as far as the Tory government was concerned “everything that can be done is being done”. And yet these “dedicated democrats” had not even recalled Parliament, nor had the Labour leaders requested this, for fear that the Labour left would embarrass them by opposing the war. Even the right-wing Tory, Rhodes Boyson, asked for Parliament to be recalled.

In fact it took months of mobilisation, reinforcements and the gathering together of the biggest concentration of fire power ever before imperialism felt confident to make its move.

The Gulf War and the important political and theoretical questions which it threw up for Marxists provoked intense discussion within our ranks.

Readers’ questions

In the meantime, the readers of Militant inundated the editorial board with questions about what position Marxists should take on the war. Militant replied to some important letters in its pages in order to open a dialogue with our readers. One letter was from Clive Jones in Oxford:

I believe that this is a completely different situation to the Falklands and that most people are aware that both the USA and Iraq are pursuing the interests of their own ruling classes but are fearful that Iraq’s military action could, if unchallenged, provoke a world war… Many workers have said: “I agree with what you say but how do we stop this madman?” (7)

The Editorial Board agreed that the situation in the Gulf was entirely different to that of the Falklands (see Chapter 20). In 1958, the Tory government had considered ousting the Emir of Kuwait and taking over the country in order to guarantee control of its oil supplies. This fact was sufficient to explode Bush and Thatcher’s defence of “poor Kuwait”.

The assembling of a massive war machine in the Gulf was not in defence of democracy or the peoples of the Middle East, but to uphold and reinforce the power of the US ruling class and that of Britain, France, West Germany and the rest. We argued that

if imperialism’s combined military might succeeds in crushing Iraq, not only Saddam or the Iraqi people will suffer. Imperialism and its stooges in the Middle East will use this victory to push back the Arab revolution and to cow, with the implied threat of similar military action, revolutionary movements of the impoverished masses in Africa, Latin America or Asia.

We therefore concluded that,

for the working class in Britain and throughout the advanced industrial countries, there should be implacable opposition to imperialist intervention. (8)

And yet it was indisputable that there were many workers who were repelled by the Iraqi dictatorship. Taking account of this, we declared that:

[We do] not give the slightest support to the Saddam dictatorship. We would support the Iraqi workers and peasants in fighting for a socialist and democratic Iraq. If imperialism was to succeed in overthrowing Saddam…

 the regime that such a defeat would usher in would be a new dictatorship utterly dependent on the imperialist powers… an imperialist victory would also reinforce the hold of reactionary feudal sheiks in the Gulf states. (9)

The conclusion was that opposition to imperialist intervention was necessary:

Let the peoples of the region, including Iraq, decide their own fate. Democracy will not be established in Iraq or Kuwait with imperialist bayonets. Only a socialist federation of the whole of the Middle East will allow the peoples of the region to really determine their own future. (10)

As to the rights of the Kuwaitis, the position of Militant was outlined in the paper.

Iraqis consider Kuwait to be historically part of Iraq but a socialist federation of the Middle East would give the Kuwaiti people the right to determine their fate in a democratic referendum. They could decide whether they remained separate or linked with Iraq, possibly with some form of autonomy. (11)

Withdraw Iraqi troops?

Another question which was posed was whether Militant stood for the withdrawal of Iraqi as well as US forces from the Gulf? 

The criteria for Marxists on this, as with all other questions, is what would enhance the position of the workers and peasants of Iraq, the peoples of Kuwait and the Middle East as a whole? 

Clearly, if US imperialism was successful in evicting Saddam from Kuwait then the consequences of this would be the return of Kuwait to the reactionary rule of the feudal sheiks. Its consequences for Iraq, as explained earlier, would be to replace one dictatorship by another, resting on imperialist bayonets. 

We therefore did not favour this option. On the other hand, a movement of the working class, mobilising behind the peasant masses of Iraq to overthrow Saddam and establish a democratic and socialist Iraq would undoubtedly lead to the withdrawal of Iraqi troops and the right of the Kuwaiti as well as the Kurdish people to determine their own fate.

Meanwhile, the Gulf conflict was coming to a head. The looming prospect of bloody carnage had resulted in early January in British public opinion swinging against the war. The idea that this was a war to protect oil and profits had taken firm root. We called on our supporters to

involve themselves as fully as possible in the Stop The War protests. Where local committees exist they should participate, putting forward the Marxist programme on this war. Where no committees exist they should set them up. Try to turn the campaign towards the working class movement in the workplaces, unions and Labour parties. Reach out to the youth in the colleges and schools.

We went on to declare:

Militant supporters are not pacifists. We would fight alongside the rest of our class against a threat from anyone to our democratic rights… We will agitate amongst the youth of Britain to oppose the Gulf War and oppose any idea of conscription. We will work to create such mass resistance that the Tories could not contemplate conscripting our young people for this dirty war. (12)

The anti-war movement in Britain did not reach the proportions that it did in other countries. Before the outbreak of conflict there was big opposition to the war, reflected in opinion polls and also in many comments in our pages. One correspondent wrote:

It reminds me of the Boer war. That was over gold; this is over liquid gold… We’re not fighting for democracy. Kuwait has never been a democracy… If you did a census of everybody in the country, no-one would have voted for war in the Middle East. But they would have voted for millions of homes for the homeless and hospital beds for those awaiting emergency operations. (13)

Another correspondent commented:

An oldish bloke at work said today that people he knew had gone to war to stop the Nazis taking over this country but this time it’s not to prevent something like that; it’s just for the oil companies. There’s no-one except for a few headbangers at work supporting the war. Even these people, once you say to them: “Are you prepared to fight in that sort of war?” soon shut up. (14)

Opposition to the war

However, opposition to the war was hedged around with concern for the soldiers in the Gulf. This was a factor in the swing of public opinion in favour of the government once battle commenced. Nevertheless, there was significant and growing opposition to the war. This was reflected in our pages and also in the speeches of left MPs in Parliament. On Monday 21 January, Dave Nellist, speaking in the House of Commons, said:

Those of us who vote against the war do not do so because we are against British troops… I have stayed up until the early hours to see what has been happening. I have seen American generals treating events as though they were a cross between an American football match and a video arcade. The Scuds versus the Patriots. 

One almost feels that the next thing to come on will be the ‘Bomb of the day’ competition… The Sunday Times quotes Pentagon experts saying that, within the first 36 hours, about 20,000 tonnes of high explosive were dropped on Baghdad and other towns and that it is estimated that between 100,000 and 250,000 people will lose their lives or be severely injured, suffering internal bleeding as a result of concussive forces.

Pointing to the hypocrisy of the government, he went on:

We do not support the Iraqi regime. But Iraqi pilots were trained in Britain. Perhaps the Republican Guards division is feared because its officers were trained at Sandhurst… This is supposed to be a war for democracy. The government talk of having the government of Kuwait restored. 

Last week the New York Times quoted someone saying that the Emir of Kuwait, once back in his palace, would still be a dictator. Who had that insight? It was Richard Nixon. He should know all about dictators – he propped up so many of them. (15)

Youth strike against the war in Spain

Throughout Europe, Militant’s sister organisations were to the fore in the anti-war movement. In Spain, for instance, the Spanish Students Union (SE) had organised and led a general strike of three million young people on Tuesday 15 January. Militant reported:

Young people in Spain responded marvellously. 90 per cent of secondary school students (1,700,000) and 70 per cent of university students (700,000) answered our call for a 48-hour strike. (16)

There were demonstrations in over 100 regions and cities of Spain.

Differences on the Militant Editorial Board

However, during the Gulf War differences within the Militant leadership over the war, which had been simmering behind the scenes, broke out into the open.

Militant had called a special conference to discuss the Gulf War in January 1991 (held at the London School of Economics). In the months leading up to this, a veiled ‘war’ of an ideological and political character was taking place within our ranks. 

On the one side, was the approach of the minority, typified by Ted Grant, wanting to predict exact time scales. Opposed to him was the majority, led by myself, Lynn Walsh, Bob Labi, Tony Saunois and others who proposed a more conditional approach. The changed world situation, dealt with earlier, demanded a changed approach on the part of the Marxists.

Ted Grant, at one meeting after another, said that if the war was to break out, it would last for a minimum of six months and probably for two years. In Spain, those gathered around El Militante, merely repeated this statement:

A war against Iraq cannot be brief or easy… Once it starts, a war would necessarily be a prolonged and bloody affair. It could last for months or even a couple of years. (17)

Militant in Britain, however, never once carried a statement of this character. There was no other member of the National Editorial Board who adopted this approach, apart from Ted Grant himself.


Nothing demonstrated Ted Grant’s false approach more clearly than his position on conscription. At the rally in the LSE which preceded Militant’s special conference, a Scottish comrade who was making the financial appeal stated quite correctly, that as an ex-soldier on the reserve list, if he was called up to fight in the Gulf, he would not go. This was denounced by Ted Grant. During his speech, he made the astounding statement:

If conscription is introduced, let us be clear, the youth must go into the army. Of course (directly addressing the youth in the audience) some of you will be killed. But for everyone killed, ten will take your place! (18)

This statement was greeted with stunned disbelief and anger. It was made despite the fact that a clear majority in the leading bodies of Militant disagreed with Ted Grant’s proposals and had attempted to dissuade him from making these ideas public. 

Ted was besieged by the youth in the pub after the meeting. Yet despite this, at the conference the next day, he made exactly the same points in the course of introducing the discussion on the Gulf War. This produced a near revolt from the floor with the majority clearly opposed to his statement.

I intervened in the discussion, pointing out that in the event of conscription being introduced, then Militant’s leadership would call a special conference to determine its attitude towards the issue. 

It was wrong to merely repeat Trotsky’s position at the time of the second world war, as Ted Grant and Alan Woods did. At that time the outlook of the mass of the working class was determined by the threat of invasion from a foreign fascist power, with all which that implied: the destruction of democratic rights and the workers’ organisations. 

In 1990-91 the Marxists were faced with a colonial war of intervention by imperialism in the Gulf. If Ted Grant’s position of, in effect, accepting the idea of conscription had become the public position of Militant, it would have made it virtually impossible for Militant supporters to participate in the growing anti-war movement. Such movements initially were bound to have pacifist overtones. Marxists are not pacifists. 

But at all times Marxists distinguish between the false hypocritical “pacifism” of the capitalists and their reformist shadows within the labour movement, which invariably acts as a cover for war, and the genuine anti-war mood of the youth.

In the course of the debate at the special conference, I argued that if conscription was introduced (highly unlikely in any case in Britain) it would not mean that young people would passively go into a conscripted army. A situation could well arise where half, if not more, of the youth, would refuse to be drafted.

A similar situation developed in the US at the time of the Vietnam War when thousands of youth refused to do the dirty work of imperialism in Vietnam. On this issue, Ted Grant found no support within the ranks of Militant.

This dispute was a skirmish between the growing divergent tendencies within the ranks of Militant, which was to break out into open divisions just a few months later (see Chapter 44). It did not, however, prevent a serious intervention in the anti-war movement both in Britain and internationally. In Germany, for instance, the forces of Voran carried out an enormously successful anti-war campaign with very limited resources.

Victory for Bush?

The overwhelming superiority of the imperialist forces resulted in a rout of the Iraqi army. A hundred thousand Iraqis were killed or injured in the 100 hours of the land war – 1,000 casualties an hour. The US-led coalition suffered just 300 fatalities. We reported:

In the sands of northern Kuwait, packs of wild dogs tore at the raw carcasses that were once Iraqi soldiers. Iraqi troops had been mercilessly bombed as they retreated, obeying Saddam Hussein’s final instruction to comply with UN resolution 660 and withdraw from Kuwait… 

Many of their officers had already got away, leaving the troops to fend for themselves… Tied down by Western forces and air assaults, they were stuck bumper to bumper in a ghastly traffic jam, 20 vehicles wide. There they perished in their thousands, defenceless, unable to resist. US bombers hardly had time to reload before they went back to join the “turkey shoot”. (19)

The collapse of Saddam’s resistance was itself a reflection of the internal weakness of his regime. This was something that we had not fully taken into account in our analysis of the situation leading up to the land war. Not only was Saddam confronted with the opposition of the Kurds, but the Shias also constituted a powerful force, demanding democratic reforms and the overthrow of his regime.

The Gulf War, imperialist ideologists argued, expressed perfectly Bush’s New World Order. The brutal treatment meted out to the Iraqis was intended to keep the masses in the colonial and semi-colonial world in a position of complete prostration before the economic and military might of imperialism.

To have entered the cities of Iraq could have embroiled US imperialism in a long drawn-out conflict resulting in high numbers of casualties. Not only would the coalition, painfully assembled, crumble but so too would the domestic support built up by US imperialism to justify its intervention in the Gulf. 

Moreover, US imperialism preferred Saddam in power to the alternatives which could follow his rule. This was clearly demonstrated when just a few weeks after the formal ending of the Gulf War Saddam’s tanks were unleashed in the south and also against the Kurdish north.

We quoted the statement of a US official who told Western journalists privately: 

“It’s easier to deal with a tame Saddam, than with an unknown quantity.” (20) 

US imperialism’s actions following the Gulf War revealed, particularly to the Arab peoples, its real purposes in intervening. It had allowed the Republican Guard of Saddam through US lines to crush the city of Basra, where the Shia population predominated, and assured Saddam that they would not intervene in the Kurdish north. Thus US imperialism gave tacit support to Saddam’s bloody repression.

On Trotsky in Russia

In Russia “the first ever meeting on Trotsky” (21) since the early days of the revolution had taken place, organised by Workers’ Democracy, the sister organisation of Militant. The small but growing forces of Trotskyism in Russia had been instrumental in getting Trotsky’s major work Revolution Betrayed published in the USSR. One hundred thousand copies went on sale, with an introduction by Elizabeth Clarke.

To launch these two publications Militant Editorial Board member Lynn Walsh travelled to Leningrad and Moscow to speak at public meetings about the importance of Trotsky’s ideas today.

In Leningrad 50 people gathered in the building from whose balcony Lenin addressed the city’s workers in April 1917. This tour took place at a time of further disintegration of the former USSR and with it the collapse in industry and the conditions of the people. 

A similar picture was evident in the states of Eastern Europe, formerly under the heel of Stalinism. The collapse of Stalinism had also led to a re-evaluation of the history of the regime and the suffering of millions of innocent people. 

Most accounts in the capitalist press concentrated on “dissidents”, largely involving the middle-class intelligentsia, but hardly ever touched on the original “dissidents”, the Trotskyists and Marxists who had opposed the Stalinist regime from the standpoint of defending the gains of the October revolution.

We sought to counter this in February with an interview with Alexander Tami, chairperson of Justice, a Russian organisation campaigning for the rehabilitation of victims of Stalin’s repression and supplying help for those still alive. 

At 84 he still retained his “boyish enthusiasm” when talking about the revolution and its leaders Lenin and Trotsky. Though he was not a supporter of Trotsky or the Left Opposition, he was arrested, spending 17 years in the camps and mines of Siberia. This did not destroy his faith in the revolution. Instead he and the other prisoners kept “the image of Lenin before us. We knew some of us would not survive but believed we’d get socialism in the end.” Tami went on

It was not a coup in 1917. Even historians today don’t understand that. The people were with the Bolsheviks. They were a small party but had authority. There was an armed uprising but no killing. 

In the February revolution people were killed but in October only six or seven died. People regarded Lenin and Trotsky as equals but thought Lenin was more theorectically developed. He was a lawyer by education and very logical. But Trotsky was next to him, so it was wrong that Trotsky’s name was deleted under Stalin.

He recounted a remarkable incident when Trotsky had spoken:

During the civil war I was part of a Komsomol [Communist Youth League] guard for deserters. Some were put in a barracks in Petrograd. Trotsky came to address them in the barracks square. 

When the chairman of the meeting introduced “Trotsky, the Commissar for War” there was a lot of shouting and swearing: “He’s a Jew, a Yid. What’s he doing here?” But Trotsky got up and said: “Yes, I’m a Jew. But what kind of Jew am I? One that gives land to the landlords? No, we give land to the peasants. One that gives factories to the big capitalists? 

No, we gave the factories to the workers”. They stopped shouting and started to listen. He was a real orator. When he finished the chairman asked: “Right, who’s for the front?” and all those deserters put their hands up! That was the kind of speaker Trotsky was. He could turn a whole meeting around.

He also recounted an incident involving Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, who Stalin had brow-beaten into submission.

She said: “You talk a lot but you should work as Lenin did. Yes, he was a simple, mortal person. You mustn’t make some sort of god out of him. It makes me ill how you smear his name.” Then she said: “You have to work. I’m afraid you’ll talk Lenin to death and not get down to work.” 

Of course she didn’t get on with Stalin. When he came into the hall we stood up and started to applaud. She said: “Idiots, idiots! They’re making a god out of him. Idiots!” She didn’t say it to me. I just heard and saw how she sat there modestly, simply dressed, not with all the pomp of Stalin. I even thought to myself: “How is it that the wife of Lenin is not up there on the presidium?” (22)