Over the last few weeks, people across the UK have been taking to the streets to voice their anger at massacres happening in the Middle East. Some of these people have been protesting against Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, a relatively common sight which is well-worn territory for the left, and these demonstrations have been full of familiar faces and slogans. But there’s also been protests organised by the Kurdish community against the rise of ISIS, and here we’re on far less familiar ground.
Across the political spectrum, there’s been some fairly predictable responses: pro-war conservatives like Breitbart have eagerly backed the protests, while Lindsey German has jumped at the chance to trot out her standard simplistic “everything that Western governments do is bad, things that aren’t done by Western governments aren’t worth caring about” line once again, refusing to engage with the protesters on any real level, and the EDL’s leadership have declared their support for the demonstrations, although it remains to be seen whether many of their supporters will actually manage to restrain themselves enough to stand near non-white people without abusing them.
So far, so predictable: but for those of us who want to try and form a response that acknowledges the complexity of the situation, rather than just repeating dusty old one-size-fits-all slogans, where to begin?
First of all, I think it’s worth addressing the question of whether this issue is worth engaging with at all. There is a position, and it’s one I find myself increasingly sympathetic to, that says our political activity should always be based on our everyday lives and the concrete problems that we face, and abstract political protest should be avoided entirely in favour of direct action. For people who take this attitude, the whole question can safely be ignored; in any given situation, the most useful thing to do is just to carry on with our own struggles, and hope that in some minor way our activities can begin to make a contribution toward a future international wave of revolt.
That’s a legitimate attitude, and one I respect, but it’s not the only perspective on what anarchists “should” be doing. There is also a position, broadly but not exclusively associated with the platformist tradition, that says anarchists should be active wherever movements against injustice exist. For instance, looking at the Anarkismo statement, they say that:
“We oppose imperialism but put forward anarchism as an alternative goal to nationalism. We defend grassroots anti-imperialist movements while arguing for an anarchist rather than nationalist strategy.”
So, even if there’s no need for a syndicalist group like SolFed or the IWW to engage with anti-ISIS protesters, it is certainly justifiable that others might want to do so. Certainly, there’s a long tradition of anarchists being involved with protests against Israel’s massacres, and it seems hard to give any good reason why a murder carried out by the IDF is inherently more objectionable than one carried out by ISIS. Our solidarity should not be selective and self-serving: oppression and injustice are oppression and injustice, and they don’t suddenly become alright just because our rulers happen to condemn them.
Having said all this, it’s hard to endorse the solution being pushed by the anti-ISIS protesters, who are essentially calling for the UK to intervene in one way or another. But anarchists have always joined protests to express a common opposition to a problem, even if we don’t share the strategy being pushed by the main organisers, whether it’s marching against austerity policies alongside people who want to see Labour elected, or standing against Israel’s attacks on Gaza together with supporters of Palestinian nationalism. The goal has always been to find common ground based in our shared anger at injustice, and then to argue for a solution that’s compatible with our basic principles. But then the question becomes: faced with a situation like the rise of ISIS, what would that solution look like?
Of course, there are some things that no-one could object to: in the wake of the Kony 2012 campaign, Invisible Children’s critics suggested ways that people who cared about the situation could contribute to humanitarian assistance for Kony’s victims without backing military intervention, and I’m sure it would be possible to help send humanitarian aid to ISIS’s victims in a similar way. But the protesters are explicitly saying that supplying sticking-plasters to put on the wounds is not enough, and they want to see ISIS defeated outright.
Personally, I don’t think I could ever back call for “our” ruling class to sort the problem out: I don’t think US/UK intervention has a very good track record of making the situation in Iraq better, to put it mildly. Calls for the state to arm anti-ISIS fighters might seem less obviously problematic, but I still don’t think they’re supportable: military aid always comes with strings attached, and would only be supplied as part of a deliberate policy of creating a force that would act as a proxy for US/UK interests in the region.
One good anarchist principle that I think it’s worth bearing in mind is that, rather than appealing to our rulers for help, it’s better to make links directly with other working-class people across national borders. I don’t think this aim is any less “pragmatic” or “realistic” than calling on the state for help: it’s not easy to influence foreign policy, and any movement that was powerful enough to have any real impact on government policy (as opposed to just providing a convenient excuse for something the government wanted to do already) would also be powerful enough to act directly for itself. But this then raises the question of what forces, if any, we could try and make these connections with.
I should admit here that I’m not an expert on Kurdish, Iraqi, or Syrian politics by any means, and it’s very possible that there are forces acting in the area that I’m completely unaware of. But, to the best of my knowledge, while Kurdistan’s recent history certainly contains examples of mass autonomous class movements that overshadow anything seen in the UK, I’m not aware of any force resisting ISIS that could be described as a genuinely working-class movement, rather than a nationalist, capitalist faction of one shade or another. Even as I type this, I can feel a certain discomfort with my own conclusions: am I really saying that we can’t show any support for attempts to stop a massacre until there’s a sufficiently pure force opposing it?
But the path of lesser evilism is a dangerous one to go down: saying “No war but class war” may sound like a rigid dogma, but any attempt at a more flexible, realistic politics always seems to end up sooner or later by making excuses for terrible bastards. To silence our criticisms of the peshmergas, or any other nationalist force, on the grounds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is to follow the same logic that led the US and UK to supply arms to Islamist fighters resisting Assad in the first place.
So, do we have anything to say to those who’ve been taking to the streets protesting against ISIS? Repeating the basic internationalist principles of class solidarity across all national borders may not be terribly helpful, but then it’s worth remembering that, as a small, marginal movement on the other side of the world, nothing we do is likely to have that much direct impact on the situation: it’s better to put across a principled position, and be aware of how little we’re doing to help, than to express a more populist, unprincipled position, and delude ourselves into thinking we’ve done something practical.
It’s possible that there’s a force somewhere in the area that we should be expressing our total support and solidarity with – if anyone does know of such a movement, please let me know in the comments. But if there’s not a simple side to pick, we can at least stand in solidarity with those who are opposing ISIS’s oppression, and try and make space to argue for internationalist, anti-state politics. It won’t change the world tomorrow, but it’s better than either closing our eyes to all suffering that can’t be directly blamed on our own rulers, or dropping our own principles to join in demanding solutions that we know won’t work.