TB #2: Reuben’s Tangled Web
[From ET Bulletin No. 2, January 1984]
On the Slogan “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive”
“O what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive.”
The key to understanding Reuben Samuels’ convoluted article “Imperialist War, the Armed Forces and Revolution” (Young Spartacus No. 113, November 1983) in defense of the “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!” slogan is to recognize that it is deliberately intended to obfuscate, not to clarify, the question. It is literally crammed with distortions, false assertions, inaccuracies and faulty logic.
Let’s take a look at some of the strands of Reuben’s tangled web.
(1) The article begins with a restatement of the standard Leninist attitude toward imperialist military adventures: defeats for “our” imperialists are, in general, a good thing. Cde. Samuels then devotes several paragraphs to the differences between the American intervention in Lebanon and Vietnam. Yet, as we pointed out in our statement of 12 November, the British intervention in Ireland is a far closer analogy. As the resident expert on the question of interpenetrated peoples, Reuben knows this full well. The reason that the SL does not take up the Ireland analogy is that it would expose the political implications of the “Marines Alive” demand. Imagine the SL/B marching on a Bobby Sands demonstration with the demand “British Troops Out of Ireland, Now, Alive!”
Revolutionists oppose U.S. (or any) imperialist intervention in any “third world” country regardless of the nature of the domestic political/military forces. When the imperialists threatened to intervene in Uganda, WV correctly called for “Hands Off Uganda” This no more implied any kind of military support to Idi Amin than the call for “U.S. Out of Lebanon, Now” implies support to Jumblatt. If the U.S. intervened in Iran tomorrow, Trotskyists would have a side. We would militarily support Khomeni’s reactionary “Revolutionary Guards” against the American invaders.
The corollary of this position is that we defend any military actions by the oppressed aimed at the imperialist presence, regardless of the political character of those who launch them. This does not imply any kind of political support to the forces which carry out such attacks. Again the example of Ireland is pertinent. The iSt has historically defended only those actions of the Provisional IRA which are directed against the imperialist “peacekeepers.” It has condemned as criminal sectarianism Provo attacks on the Protestant civilian population. And the Spartacist tendency has never called for the military victory of the Provos over the Protestants in Northern Ireland. There is no legitimate reason for revolutionaries to take a different position on Lebanon.
(2) As for his incredibly nonsensical assertion that in Lebanon today “there’s no side that’s fighting the Marines,” we wonder how cde. Samuels accounts for the demolition of their headquarters? Who fired the shell that killed eight more of Reagan’s stormtroopers on December 4? Why has the U.S. Air Force and Navy been retaliating against the Syrians and the various Muslim militias and hapless villagers in the Shuf mountains for the losses that the Marines have suffered to date? Facts can be stubborn things and the fact is that Reagan’s imperialist “peacekeepers” are in Lebanon to prop up Gemayel’s “government” and everyone knows it. This has naturally brought them into conflict with Gemayel’s domestic opposition (which is currently aligned with Syria). Hence a lot of the Muslim population of Lebanon would like to drive the Marines (and the French and Israelis) out. Ergo the attack on the Marine headquarters and on the French paratroopers. (The latter have been strangely absent from the coverage in WV and YSp. Is the lack of concern for their safety and well-being perhaps because they are not Americans? We look forward to the next issue of Le Bolchevik.)
The Marine encampment in Beruit represents an American toehold in the Near East. The SL leadership can pretend that the bombing of the headquarters was an act of god (or allah) if they like but everyone else in the world sees it differently. The White House blamed Shi’ite fanatics, backed up by the Syrians. So the U.S. struck back at the Syrian positions and tightened up its military alliance with Israel, Syria’s chief regional rival. But ultimately, it is not the Syrians that Reagan’s Near East strategy is aimed at–it’s the Soviets who stand behind (and beside) them. Revolutionaries cannot be neutral toward the presence of U.S. military personnel in Lebanon. We want them all out, now, dead or alive!
“Frenzy” on Warren Street
(3) The core of Samuels’ presentation is the argument that the social-patriotic demand to save the Marines was a “smart” maneuver. But to prove this, he must first attempt to establish that the domestic political situation in the U.S. was so turbulent in the aftermath of the bombing that the question of state power was placed on the agenda. He asserts that “the American people were driven into an anti-government frenzy and outrage.” Proof of this “frenzy?” According to the SL one could see it in a few “interviews with Marines, their families, [and] in polls that were taken.” That’s all! Of course, the surviving Marines and their families are worried about their skins. As for the dip in Reagan’s ratings in the polls, well, losing military ventures are never popular. (The converse is also true–as Reagan’s rebound in the wake of the Grenada invasion demonstrated.)
But where is the evidence of the “anti-government frenzy” which supposedly swept America? To our knowledge the “frenzy” seems to have been pretty much confined to Warren Street and its environs. No one else noticed it.
(4) What about the “tactic” of orienting to the Marines in their hour of crisis as they picked through the smoldering remains of their former headquarters looking for bits and pieces of their former comrades? Samuels seeks to alibi this by the abstractly correct observation that one of the preconditions for a successful seizure of state power by the working class is that large sections of the capitalist armed forces must be paralyzed or neutralized, if not won to active sympathy with the insurgents. He goes on to point out that one means by which a revolutionary leadership would attempt to accomplish this would be by agitation aimed at turning sections of the plebian ranks against the officer corps.
It is true that in the event of a massive proletarian upsurge, some elements of the Marine Corps might well be open to revolutionary propaganda–but to orient to them today is worse than a stupidity. In the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the bulk of the police force went over to the strikers. Should we therefore change our attitude toward the cops? Of course not. The cops are the relatively lightly armed bodies of men who are trained and paid to protect capitalist property at home. The Marines are more heavily armed colonial troops chiefly used to protect American capitalist property overseas. With the regular army they also constitute the capitalists’ last line of defense against the working class domestically. (In 1967, for example, the 82nd Airborne was dispatched to Detroit to impose martial law in the ghetto.) Neither Marines nor cops are part of the working class–a point which Samuels attempts to get around with all his talk about the “links” they retain to their plebian origins. Both are the sworn enemies of the workers and the oppressed.
The connection, of course, between Samuels’ ramblings on tactics for a hypothetical future scenario of social upheaval and the actual situation in the U.S. in October 1983 is provided by the phantom “mass anti-government frenzy and outrage.” In order to justify their gutless programmatic betrayal, the SL leaders invoke a fantasy in which their social-patriotic flinch becomes a brilliant tactical maneuver opening the road to proletarian revolution. Do Robertson et al actually believe it? Of course not, they’re not stupid. But they presumably hope that some others are.
(5) To explain the disparity between the attitude to the Marines in Lebanon and those in Grenada, Samuels stoops to a kind of crude “lesser-evil” theory of imperialism. The Marines in Grenada, you see, are malignant. They “are the baddest, they’re the worstest, they’re the personification of evil … and that’s why we have [the] slogan ‘U.S. Out of Grenada, Dead or Alive!’” The Marines in Lebanon, by contrast, are benign: “they’re not fighting at the moment.” (Tell that to the Muslim villagers and militiamen who live within range of the Marine encampment and the U.S. flotilla off the coast!) So long as imperialist troops are not engaged in combat (“at the moment”), the SL leadership does not favor attacks on them! Kautsky was more subtle.
The real difference between the SL’s positions on Lebanon and Grenada is that Grenada was a cheap victory for Reagan. It didn’t cost a lot in terms of casualties and nobody is very worried about what a small socialist propaganda outfit has to say about it one way or the other. So it’s easy to be principled on that one. Lebanon is a different story. The demolition of the Marine headquarters was the biggest military blow to U.S. imperialism since Vietnam. And Reagan didn’t like it. It might look “unpatriotic” to be seen applauding that action. So the SL leadership, despite all its huffing and puffing about hanging tough in the crunch, flinched and adjusted the program of the organization to make it more palatable to the bourgeoisie. A “profile in cowardice.”
Who Are the Marines?
(6) In order to rationalize the SL’s benevolent attitude toward the Marines in Lebanon, Samuels tries to blur the class line between the working class and the members of the cops and Marines. He purposely obscures the very important distinction (from the point of view of Bolshevik tactics) between a volunteer for the relatively elite Marine Corps and the “workers in uniform” who make up the bulk of every conscript army. Once again we are dealing with a deliberate attempt to confuse the unsophisticated reader. Who are the Marines?
“Surveys conducted between 1971 and 1973 indicated that among male civilians between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who wanted to enlist in the military services, about 10 percent indicated that the Marine Corps would be their first choice. In this group, the two positive characteristics for which the Marine Corps rated highest among the services were ‘proving manhood’ and ‘attractive uniform’, it ranked third among the services for ‘exciting life.’ In all other characteristics listed–‘pay,’ ‘family living conditions,’ ‘chance to get ahead,’ ‘learn useful skills,’ ‘use skills and abilities,’ and ‘foreign travel’–the Marines ranked lowest.”
–Where Does the Marine Corps Go From Here?, Brookings Institute, 1976
Here’s how General Robert H. Barrow, former Marine Corps commandant put it:
“I think there are two things that motivate a young man to want to become a marine, both of them probably in his subconscious mind: One is he wants to prove his manliness… Second, the Marine Corps is not a religion, but it’s sort of religiouslike. And I believe that self-denial is the basis of all religious life. People really want to believe in something, make a commitment, a sacrifice. So they come to us and they make a sacrifice. They give up all that long hair and their funny clothes and their loud music and their civilian kind of freedom–to be a marine. They make a commitment .”
–U.S. News and World Report, 10 September 1979
In other words, you’ve got to be pretty “gung-ho” to join the Marines in the first place. People join the Marines for roughly the same reason that they join a street gang, or the Hells Angels, or the cops–to be one of a bunch of “tough guys” that go around and blow away other people. Marine recruits do not represent a cross-section of the plebian population of the U.S. They don’t even represent a cross-section of those who seek a career in the military. As WV No.137 noted: “the whole Marine ‘esprit de corps’ as an elite unit of marauding imperialist killers fosters… racist reactionaries.” Consequently they are likely to be among the last of the units of the bourgeois armed forces to disintegrate in the event of mass political upsurge of the working class.
Samuels’ depiction of the typical enlisted Marine as spending just “a few years” in the Corps while retaining his links to the social strata from which he came is simply false. According to Michael Wright (New York Times Magazine, 20 June 1982): “… nearly 80 percent of all eligible Marines who have completed at least two tours of duty have been re-enlisting, as have almost half the young first-termers.”
In other words, the Marine Corps is largely composed of “lifers!” In fact the Corps doesn’t make it easy to stay in. In order to be able to re-enlist:
“The enlisted marine must have no reenlistment restrictions in his contract and must not show a negative trend in his disciplinary record or have committed any serious offenses. For a first reenlistment, he must not have been convicted of a court-martial offense or have been awarded nonjudicial punishment more than twice. The individual marine must meet Marine Corps appearance and physical standards and must have achieved certain minimum conduct and proficiency marks…. Finally, for an individual to qualify for retention in either the Navy or Marine Corps, he must be recommended by his commanding officer.
“In addition, each service has ‘up-or-out’ promotion criteria that career personnel must meet in order to reenlist. For example, Marine corporals and below may not reenlist for a period resulting in more than ten years of active service. If an individual has not been promoted higher than the rank of corporal after eight years, then he is not eligible for reenlistment. Sergeants, except those who have not yet been considered for promotion, may not reenlist for a period resulting in more than twelve years’ total service. Sergeants who have failed promotion twice are not eligible to reenlist without the Marine Corps commandant’s approval.”
–H.R. Northrup et al, Black and Other Minority Participation in the All-Volunteer Navy and Marine Corps (1979)
And how to get promoted?
“Because of the importance of commanding in combat–it is all a part of having your ticket punched, advancing your way up the M.M.’s [Men Marines] career ladder–there is a discernible yearning among young marines for a chance to mix it up in Nicaragua, Aden, anywhere.”
–Michael Wright, op.cit.
Of course the Marines don’t sign up to get blown away–they’re in the business of blowing other people away. The reason that morale began to crack during Vietnam was mostly because they were losing. Thirteen thousand Marines were killed in action in ‘Nam. In the post-Vietnam era, the population as whole, perhaps even including a few Marines, is less willing to uncritically accept presidential policies. Revolutionaries must seek to exploit this erosion of bourgeois authority–but not by cowardly social-patriotic calls for preserving the lives of imperialism’s thugs! Communists welcome defeats inflicted upon the bourgeoisie’s gunslingers. Only cringing, social-patriotic cretins could even talk about the destruction of the Marines’ Beruit headquarters as a “stupid, senseless waste.”
It is grotesque and obscene that cde. Samuels and the SL leadership attempt to hide their social-patriotic demand for the preservation of Reagan’s trained killers behind cynical talk about Bolshevik tactics and the “road to power.” With this betrayal of Leninist principle the SL has taken a big step down the road–but it’s not the road to workers power. It is the road to accommodation with U.S. imperialism.