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'Left-wing' dogmatism and the East Timor crisis
Green Left Weekly - September 15, 1999
Doug Lorimer – The Democratic Socialist Party has called on supporters of democracy in Australia to mobilise to demand that the UN and/or the Australian government immediately send troops to East Timor to help the East Timorese people resist and defeat the Indonesian occupying army's genocidal campaign to physically extinguish the East Timorese people's struggle for liberation from Indonesian rule.
The DSP has raised this political demand because, firstly, it is a clear and immediate practical answer to the question of what should be done to assist the East Timorese.
Secondly, mass mobilisations around this demand will help sharpen working- class opposition to the policy of the Australian ruling class on East Timor, which is to maintain its alliance with the Indonesian military.
We have also raised this demand because it indicates how the DSP would solve the problem of stopping the Indonesian army's genocide in East Timor if our party were in power.
Some others on the left, however, have implicitly or explicitly argued against this demand. For example, an editorial in the September 10 issue of Socialist Worker, fortnightly paper of the International Socialist Organisation, acknowledges: "The people of East Timor are facing the most desperate circumstances and there are mounting calls for Australia or the UN to intervene.
"But the Australian government had been complicit in the oppression of East Timor since Indonesia invaded in 1975."
The Socialist Worker editorial correctly observes that Prime Minister John "Howard insists that the Indonesian military and the Indonesian police 'must do the job' when he knows that it is precisely these forces that are behind the killing".
It goes on to point out: "The hypocrisy of Howard and the West has outraged thousands upon thousands and fuelled the protests.
"The West bombed Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 'because big countries can't invade small countries and get away with it.' A massive bombing campaign was unleashed on Serbia in the name of democracy.
"But just as with the Kurds, the West has turned it back on East Timor."
Why, then, is the ISO opposed to demanding that Howard and the West cease their hypocrisy and militarily intervene to stop the Indonesian army drowning in blood the aspirations of the East Timorese?
Socialist Worker offers no explanation as to why it does not agree with the demand for Australian troops to be sent to East Timor, other than to remind its readers of the indisputable fact that all Australian governments, including the Howard government, "have been complicit in the oppression of East Timor since Indonesia invaded in 1975".
Put demands on Howard
But at the present time, Howard claims to be against the present terror campaign in East Timor and to support the agreement made by Jakarta with the UN to grant East Timor independence if the majority of East Timorese rejected autonomy in the August 30 referendum. Why, then, can't supporters of the East Timorese nation's democratic right to self-determination demand that Howard "put his money where his mouth is" and use Australian troops to halt the terror campaign and help realise East Timor's freedom from Indonesian rule?
The only explanation offered by the editorial is: "In any case, Howard says there won't be a peace-keeping force without Indonesia's permission and that has been ruled out at least until the new Indonesian parliament meets which could be as late as November".
In other words, Howard has stated he doesn't want to send Australian troops without Jakarta's agreement, and since Jakarta won't agree, opponents of Indonesia's genocide shouldn't bother demanding that Howard break his alliance with the Indonesian generals and act immediately to save the East Timorese from the campaign being organised by these generals.
The Socialist Worker editorial, however, is not very consistent in this capitulationist line of argument. Later it tells us:
"Without military support from Indonesia, the militias would dissolve or be quickly disarmed.
"But the Australian government refuses to call on the Indonesian government to withdraw or to deny them military aid."
The editorial does not use this fact to argue that there is no point in demanding that the Australian government call on the Indonesian government to withdraw its troops.
Instead, it correctly calls on the "movement here" to demand that the government call for the immediate withdrawal of Indonesian troops and end military ties with Indonesia. Why, then, can't the East Timor solidarity movement demand that the Howard government immediately send Australian troops to act directly to stop the bloodbath?
The reason is that the ISO is opposed on principle to Australian troops being sent to East Timor. But they know that openly saying this and giving their reasons would completely isolate them in the East Timor solidarity movement. Therefore, they hide behind an expression of abject resignation to Howard's desire not to take any action that would seriously threaten Australian imperialism's alliance with the Indonesian generals.
The real argument
The ISO's real argument for its refusal to support the immediate sending of Australian troops to East Timor was articulated in an internet posting by David Camfield, a co-thinker of the ISO in Canada. Camfield wrote:
"Socialists should not call on imperialist armed forces to intervene (whether under the UN flag or not) in East Timor any more than we did in Kosova. There was overwhelming support for NATO intervention among the Kosovar Albanians.
"Although we supported them against the violence of the Serbian army and paramilitaries, we argued against NATO or UN involvement as imperialist intervention in the Balkans that wouldn't advance peace, democracy and social justice in the region.
"The same should apply in the case of Australian and/or other UN troops and East Timor."
The assumption behind this argument appears to be that, because the Australian armed forces are imperialist armed forces, any military intervention by them - regardless of the concrete circumstances and regardless of what policy objectives they are asked to achieve - would be "imperialist interference" that "wouldn't advance peace, democracy and social justice".
Such an outlook is nothing more than "left-wing" dogmatism, which refuses to take into account actual circumstances, instead simply repeating old formulas laid down for different conditions.
The Marxist approach to foreign military interventions and wars was explained by Lenin in his writings during World War I. In his 1916 article "A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism", Lenin explained that Marxism "requires an historical analysis of each war in order to determine whether or not that particular war can be considered progressive, whether it serves the interests of democracy and the proletariat and, in that sense, is legitimate, just, etc."
Foreign military interventions and wars, Lenin explained, are the continuation of a state's foreign policy by violent means.
"Consequently", Lenin argued, "we must examine the policy pursued prior to the war, the policy that led to and brought about the war. If it was an imperialist policy, i.e., one designed to safeguard the interests of finance capital and rob and oppress colonies and foreign countries, then the war stemming from that policy is imperialist. If it was a national liberation policy, i.e., one expressive of the mass movement against national oppression, then the war stemming from that policy is a war of national liberation."
The NATO and Australian armed forces are certainly imperialist armed forces; i.e., their primary purpose is to safeguard the general interests of the different financial oligarchies that dominate the economy and political life of each of the developed capitalist countries. But that, in and of itself, does not provide an answer to whether any particular military intervention or war they carry out is the continuation of the imperialist policy of oppressing other nations.
"For the Marxist", as Lenin explained, "the important thing is what issues are at stake" in each war.
Thus Lenin himself, while analysing the first world war as an imperialist war on the part of all of the major powers because they were fighting over the redivision of colonies, did not exclude the possibility of socialists supporting a war by imperialist states that was aimed solely at the liberation of another imperialist state from an invasion by a third imperialist state.
In his 1915 pamphlet Socialism and War, for example, Lenin cited the hypothetical example of a German to invasion of Belgium, in which this invasion was not simply a subordinate part of a struggle between the "great powers" over the division of colonies:
"Let us suppose that all states interested in the observance of international treaties should declare war on Germany with the demand that Belgium be liberated and indemnified. In that case, the sympathies of socialists would, of course, be with Germany's enemies."
The DSP opposed NATO's military intervention in the Balkans, i.e., its bombing campaign against Serbia and its military occupation of Kosova, not because the NATO armies are imperialist armed forces, but because their war against Serbia was a continuation of NATO's policy of opposing the Kosova Albanians' democratic right to national self-determination.
When the 90% of the inhabitants of Kosova voted in favour of Kosova's independence from Serbia in a referendum in 1991, the NATO powers ignored the wishes of the Kosova Albanians and supported the Serbian state's repression of the independence movement.
It was only when the Kosova Albanians launched an armed resistance struggle against Serbian repression, i.e., in 1998, and the US government lost confidence in the ability of the Serbian occupation forces to crush the Kosova Liberation Army, that NATO decided to intervene militarily under the cover of claiming to "protect" the Kosova Albanians.
Belgrade's refusal to allow NATO armed forces into Kosova led to the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. The goal of this bombing campaign was to force Serbia to agree to a NATO military occupation of Kosova so that NATO could contain the KLA and block the Kosova Albanians from achieving an independent state.
Australian capital's interests
What are the issues at stake in the present East Timor crisis? For 24 years, Australian governments have supported the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor and opposed the East Timorese nation's struggle for independence. They have done this because, as Downer so bluntly put it recently, "in geopolitical terms" (i.e., in terms of the interests of Australian finance capital) they considered that an independent East Timor would be an "inconvenience".
That is, they have considered that the exploitation of the working people of the Indonesian archipelago by Australian finance capital is best served by a political arrangement in which all of these people, regardless of their wishes, are placed under the rule of a single state power - a power exercised by the Indonesian generals.
That is why the Australian imperialist state supported the Indonesian army's 1975 invasion of East Timor, and why it gave legal recognition to Jakarta's annexation of East Timor in 1976.
However, the inability of the Indonesian army to extinguish completely the struggle of the East Timorese for independence has been a running political sore in Canberra's relations with Jakarta. This is because the big majority of Australian working people have sympathised with the East Timorese people's desire for national self-determination.
Last December, Howard proposed to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie a "solution" to this problem: Indonesia should agree to a UN-organised referendum in which the East Timorese people would vote on whether to remain under Jakarta's rule.
Howard evidently expected that Jakarta would be able to "persuade" the East Timorese to vote for integration with Indonesia. Right up to the August 30 ballot, the Howard government expressed its opposition to a vote for independence.
In July of this year, the Indonesian military, which has no intention of relinquishing its control over East Timor, drew up a plan to "persuade" East Timorese voters to vote against independence. It funded, organised and armed pro-integration "militias" to coerce voters to reject independence.
If this didn't work, then the plan called for the launching a genocidal scorched-earth campaign to destroy East Timor, deport the majority of its people and resettle East Timor with people from other parts of Indonesia. On September 4, this campaign was put into effect.
This is an excruciating political problem for the Howard government: the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that the Australian government should act to ensure that Jakarta respects the expressed will of the East Timorese for national independence. But the Howard government does not want to take measures that will undermine its collaborative alliance with the Indonesian military.
To retain its political legitimacy in the eyes of Australian working people, the Howard government has to present itself as a defender of democracy in East Timor. At the same time, in serving the interests of its real masters, the Australian financial oligarchy, it must do nothing that would jeopardise the political power of the Indonesian generals.
That is why Howard has to appease public opinion in Australia by saying he is for Australian troops being sent into East Timor, while at the same time protecting the political power of the Indonesian army generals by insisting that this can happen only if the Indonesian government (i.e., the Indonesian generals) agree to let them in.
Demanding that Howard send Australian troops to East Timor to help the East Timorese resistance defeat the genocidal campaign, far from supporting the continuation of Australia's imperialist policy toward East Timor, is the sharpest and most concrete way, in the current conditions, of opposing this policy.
By contrast, by opposing this demand, the "left-wing" dogmatists, despite their evidently sincere anti-imperialist intentions, are in practice helping the Australian government in its efforts to preserve its imperialist policy toward Indonesia and East Timor.
[Doug Lorimer is a member of the National Executive of the Democratic Socialist Party. Please note that the link below referrers to the location of the article before the Green Left Weekly website was redesigned. The article is no longer available on the Green Left Weekly website.]