Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left

By Peter Taaffe on behalf of the CWI.

The following is a lengthy article written in February 2002. We are publishing it now because the issues it analyses, of war, Islam and the approach of Marxists, are relevant to the new world situation of increased imperialist intervention in the neo-colonial world and the continued threat of a US invasion of Iraq.

July 2002

1) War is an acid test for the programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics of all political formations, particularly those that stand on the left. Everything which is positive, which in action shows a way forward for the working class, is revealed. Conversely, everything that is rotten, which is false, is also laid bare. So it was in the Gulf war, in the conflict in Kosova/Kosovo and now also in the war in Afghanistan.

2) The Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida have suffered a severe military and political defeat. The scale of their defeat is heightened by the fact that there was virtually no resistance on the ground to the imperialists and the Northern Alliance. We have analysed this elsewhere (see the CWI’s previous statements) and wish here to compare the positions taken by the CWI and its sections with those of other organisations, particularly those who claim to stand on the revolutionary left. This approach, the method of contrasts, was deployed by Leon Trotsky, particularly in the 1930s, as a means of educating the revolutionary cadre. Most of the revolutionary left erred, and sometimes quite grossly, during the war. Some were opportunist; mostly however they were ultra-left and sometimes managed to combine both opportunism and ultra-leftism.

Misuse of Trotsky’s writings

3) The theoretical underpinning for the positions of some of these organisations during this war is, according to them, ironically, comments made by Trotsky on wars and armed conflicts in the 1930s in particular. A Marxist approach for them is to merely repeat by rote Trotsky’s phrases. His fragmentary and undeveloped comments, particularly in relation to Brazil, Ethiopia and the war between Japan and China in the 1930s are used to justify their arguments. They use the letter of Trotsky’s writings without understanding its spirit or his method. Above all, they completely ignore the historical context in which these remarks were made.

4) Trotsky, perhaps anticipating the future misuse of his writings, comments appropriately in relation to the Chinese-Japanese war in the 1930s: “Genuine internationalism does not consist of repeating stereotyped phrases on every occasion but thinking over the specific conditions and problems”, particularly those thrown up by wars and revolutions, it could be added. The most important law of the dialectic is that truth is concrete. A rounded out analysis involves understanding the specific conditions, above all the historical background against which a war takes place, and the objective factors involved, which for us includes the consciousness of the working class, both in the industrialised and the neo-colonial world.

5) The world has undergone colossal changes since Trotsky wrote. The reality which confronts us is entirely different today. Therefore, it would be completely mechanical to simply apply remarks made in the 1930s to the current situation. World relationships and particularly the relationship between the ‘advanced’ imperialist countries and the neo-colonial areas of the world have undergone immense changes. In the past, imperialism exercised direct, military domination of many – but not all – areas of what is now the neo-colonial world. This has been largely replaced by indirect economic control. Undoubtedly, the effects of this are, in general, no less oppressive for the masses. Nevertheless, independence for the former ‘colonies’, the development of new states and with this a national consciousness, as well as the relative strengthening of these regions vis-à-vis imperialism – at least of the larger states – has considerably changed the position.

6) Marxists have to implacably oppose the continued imperialist domination and the obscene use of overwhelming military might to maintain their power against the masses in the neo-colonial world, as in the case of Afghanistan. But the profound changes which have taken place mean that it is ludicrous today to compare, for instance, the regime of the ‘emperor’ of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, in 1935 with the phenomenon today of bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. The colossal development of the means of worldwide communications – TV, radio, newspapers, Internet, etc. – is one of the most obvious differences between now and then. In consequence, there is a heightened awareness of what is happening internationally.

7) The masses in the 1930s would have understood little of the precise detail of the Haile Selassie regime. Moreover, Ethiopia was under attack by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini at the time Trotsky was writing. Given the democratic illusions of the working class of Europe or the US in particular, together with the recent bloody example of what fascism would mean for them in the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, it was natural that the sympathies of the masses in the 1930s would be with Ethiopia against fascist Italy. The British and most of the European bourgeoisie together with the US, for their own imperialist strategic interests, also played on this sympathy for Ethiopia. It is nonsense to imply, however, as the sectarian organisations do by quoting these remarks of Trotsky, that the mass of the populations in most industrialised countries could take the same attitude today towards bin Laden and the Taliban.


8) This does not mean to say that we have to revise the past positions of Marxism, particularly elaborated by Lenin and Trotsky. We clearly differentiate between the advanced imperialist countries and those in the colonial or the neo-colonial world. In general we still support the peoples in the neo-colonial world in the struggle against imperialist domination, particularly when this takes on the form, as it did in Afghanistan, of military intervention. In this case we were clearly on the side of the Afghani people and in the imperialist countries we opposed the war. Support for the Afghani people and their resistance against the armed incursions of imperialism is not the same as support for the Taliban, even if this support is ‘critical’, as some left organisations have posed it.

9) Moreover, to call baldly and crudely for the ‘defeat of US imperialism’ and its coalition allies as an agitational slogan is wrong. When Lenin used the term “revolutionary defeatism”, as Trotsky subsequently explained, it was in order to clearly delineate revolutionary Marxism from opportunism following the betrayal of the German social democracy and their opportunist international co-thinkers at the beginning of the First World War. It was primarily a policy for the cadres to draw a clear line of separation between the revolutionaries and the opportunists. It was not a policy that could have won the masses to the banner of Bolshevism or to the revolution. It was the programme of the Bolsheviks and everything that flowed from this, including the taking of power by the working class in alliance with the peasantry, which guaranteed the success of the Russian Revolution.

10) Many ultra-left organisations are organically incapable of understanding the approach of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. They take what have been essentially formulations used within the Marxist movement to sum up, delineate and clearly differentiate one idea or conception from another as an expression of what should be stated publicly. Consequently they have been unable to pass from a circle mentality and intervene successfully in mass movements. Even worse, they have miseducated a layer of young people and occasionally workers, who otherwise could play an important role in strengthening and building Marxism.

11) How we relate to the consciousness, which can be different in the industrialised world compared to the neo-colonial world, whilst still maintaining a principled Marxist position, is the key to finding a road to the working class and the youth. This is not an easy task; a correct position can only be arrived at through analysis and discussion, sometimes of the most painstaking kind. Such an approach is, however, foreign to many organisations of the revolutionary left. For them it is merely a question of presenting a ‘programme’, usually sucked out of their thumb or drawn out of the writings of Trotsky or Lenin from a different period, and mechanically applied to the situation irrespective of the ebbs and flows in the mood or understanding of the masses.

12) This was not the approach of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. The mood of the masses was a vital issue which was crucial in determining tactics at different turning points in the nine months between the February and October Revolutions. For instance, in July Lenin opposed the seizure of power by the Petrograd working class who were ready to take this step because it was premature, given that consciousness lagged behind throughout the rest of Russia and particularly amongst the peasant masses who formed the bulk of the Tsarist armies at that stage. A serious attempt to seize power would have risked the crushing of the Petrograd working class, and therefore the vanguard of the revolution, with the possible complete derailment of the revolution. In the event, the decision of the Bolsheviks to go along with the demonstration, but stopping short of an insurrection, lessened the repression which inevitably followed the July events. Similar care in gauging the mood of the working class in the three months before the October Revolution was a key, hotly disputed issue within the ranks of the Bolshevik party.

13) We have always taken the consciousness of the working class, which is not a static thing, into account in formulating demands and an approach towards issues such as war. This is not an easy task and even in a healthy Marxist organisation can provoke controversy and differences.

The Gulf war and September 11

14) In the Gulf War some took the position in the first, initial phase of the war that it would be necessary to give ‘critical support’ to Saddam Hussein in the intervention in Kuwait. We were in this war on the side of the peoples of the Middle East, Iraqis, Kurds and others against the armed and subsequently brutal intervention of US imperialism in the region. However, in the industrialised countries, where the consciousness was different to that which existed in the Arab world, for instance, then our support did not take the form of support for the Saddam regime and its armed intervention in Kuwait. We implacably opposed the US, Britain and their allies going to war against Iraq. We demanded the end of the war, the withdrawal of US, British and other troops and put forward the slogan of let the Iraqi people, the Kurds and even Kuwaitis decide their own fate.

15) When our public representatives were challenged on TV or radio along the lines of ‘Are you in favour of the withdrawal or forcing out of Iraqi troops who have intervened in Kuwait against the wishes of the people of that state,’ we could not reply in a bald unskilful fashion. Our answer, in general, was to say, ‘Yes, but not by US or British bayonets but through a successful uprising of the workers and peasants of Iraq against Saddam, which could effect such a withdrawal and allow the peoples of the region to decide their fate democratically’. This was the only way that we could approach such an issue in the industrialised capitalist countries, given the repulsive, undemocratic and viciously dictatorial features of the Saddam regime, not least of which was the brutal suppression of the Kurdish people in the north and the Shias in the south. We could not take any responsibility during the Gulf War for Saddam Hussein, his regime or actions. We sought to separate this from our open support of the Iraqi and other peoples of the area in the resistance which they put up to imperialism’s ‘war for oil’ in the region.

16) At the same time, the difference in the outlook towards the Gulf conflict meant that revolutionary Marxists in the neo-colonial world would have somewhat different tasks, would have to pose things differently from the way this was done in the advanced industrial countries. There was a common position of all members and sections of the CWI in whatever sphere of the world they operated in expressing opposition and fighting against the imperialist attacks on Iraq. In the neo-colonial world, while there was distaste for the dictatorial features of the Saddam regime, nevertheless the hostility to imperialism meant that there was greater sympathy for Iraq on the principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

17) This was enormously heightened in the Arab world where Saddam’s actions were also seen as a blow not only against imperialism but its local allies in the form of Israeli ruling class. Moreover, the justification by Saddam for the take-over of Kuwait – a legacy of the artificial Balkanisation of the Arabian Peninsula by imperialism – found a certain echo. This undoubtedly tended to push the disquiet felt towards the dictatorial Arab regimes into the background in mass consciousness. There was, in a sense, ‘critical support’ for Saddam because he appeared to be striking a blow against imperialism. For instance, rockets were fired from Iraqi territory which struck Israel. This was a reversal of what normally happened in the Middle East up to then, with Israel devastating Palestinian areas and Arab targets with their superior military hardware.

18) The slant of propaganda, the agitational demands that would be raised in this situation would be different to the way that Marxists would approach it in the advanced industrial countries. Even in the neo-colonial world however, including in the Middle East, it would have been wrong to give unqualified support to Saddam, who was seen by sections of the Arab masses as a ‘progressive dictator’, in this conflict. It would have been even worse to do this in the case of bin Laden and the Taliban, who could not be described as even ‘capitalist’. If anything, they were tribal or feudal in their outlook, programme and fantastical schemas for the world. Despite this, a somewhat different attitude did exist towards the attack on the twin towers in the neo-colonial world compared to Europe, Japan and the USA. Even in some industrialised countries like Greece, which in a sense because of its past and its location straddles the industrialised countries and the neo-colonial world, the attitude towards 11 September was different.

Attitude to US working class

19) Regret at the loss of innocent lives went together with a feeling that the arrogant US ruling class ‘brought this on themselves’. Marxists understand the reasons for this, the oppression and super-exploitation of the masses in the neo-colonial world, but we do not condone this attitude. We need to re-emphasise the fact that it was not the US capitalists who were, in the main, the victims of 11 September. In the main, it was ordinary US workers and middle-class people who perished. Our comrades in the neo-colonial world also have to counter the attitude that does exist amongst sections of the workers and peasants in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that the US population is one reactionary mass, that the working class does not exist or even if it does is complicit in the crimes of US imperialism worldwide. The terroristic acts of 11 September have provided the pretext for US imperialism to rampage through Afghanistan, to prepare for a possible invasion of Iraq, and to reassert its wounded power and prestige with the support, at least at the beginning, of the majority of the US population.

20) However, Marxists in this war do not have one programme in one country or sphere of the world and a different one elsewhere. In Britain, Europe, the US or in Afghanistan we are opposed to the war. In Afghanistan, it is necessary, of course, to resist the military attacks of the imperialists. The workers and peasants’ resistance would be separate and apart from the Taliban and even against it. The approach, the slant of the propaganda may differ, according to the different consciousness which exists in different countries.

21) After the attack on the Twin Towers, imperialism stoked up the fear of the US population for bin Laden and al-Qa’ida. They felt that these organisations threatened their existence. Moreover, this idea was reinforced in the interview that was given by bin Laden to a Pakistani journalist, reprinted in the Western press during the war, in which he ascribes to the whole of the US population the crimes of the US ruling class. “As ever [bin Laden] denied, and did not deny, involvement in the 11 September hijackings, saying that all Americans were responsible for the ‘massacring’ of Muslims in ‘Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Iraq’ and that Muslims have the ‘right to attack… in reprisal’. ‘The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president, their government manufactures arms and gives them to Israel and Israel uses them to massacre Palestinians. The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America [sic] is responsible.’” [The Observer, 11 November 2001]

22) Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida were pictured by Bush and Co. as a mortal threat to the very existence of the US. However, mere propaganda by the bourgeoisie is not enough to shape public opinion. The actions and statements of bin Laden and al-Qa’ida reinforced in the minds of the US population that they did indeed pose such a threat. Consequently, there was a profound patriotic wave during the war. But in its aftermath, as we predicted, there has been a growing questioning that US foreign policy and the actions of the US government, and by implication the US capitalists, created the conditions which led to the catastrophe of 11 September. Undoubtedly, this critical mood will grow but in no sense is there sympathy or support for al-Qa’ida or bin Ladism. They are perceived as a terrible and frightening result of US policy in the neo-colonial world.

23) And yet, the small, ultra-left groups would seek to convince us that during this war Marxists should advocate ‘critical support’, including common military action, with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, in confronting US imperialism. They may say that this is a policy to be applied in the neo-colonial world but this idea is advocated in their journals which are sold primarily, in the case of some, in the advanced industrialised countries. Moreover, it is also wrong from a Marxist point of view to advocate this in the neo-colonial world as well. This is a programme not for the masses, not to reach workers and convince them of the ideas of Marxism, but to drive them away from Trotskyism. It is a programme for the small (often very small) meeting room and not for reaching and convincing workers.

War and Marxism

24) What is required today is not a simple repetition of ideas which fitted the conditions of 60 years ago or even 20 years ago. The development of independent states and national bourgeois regimes is a big change compared to when Trotsky wrote on these issues. Some of them, like that of Saddam Hussein, have the most hideous and repulsive features of dictatorship. They suppress the working class and deny national and ethnic rights. This has changed the circumstances, to a great extent, in which Marxists work today. It means that we cannot simply imitate the approach of Trotsky at the time of the Chinese/Japanese war in the 1930s, in Ethiopia in 1935, or base ourselves upon the hypothetical situation sketched out by Trotsky in relation to Brazil. We will comment further on these issues a little bit later on, but they are related to the approach that we adopt to war and, specifically, the war in Afghanistan, as well as Islam in general.

25) Marxism does not have a ‘general’ position on wars. We have never put all wars on the same plane. There are ‘just’ wars, in which Marxists and Trotskyists have given critical support to one side against the other in the course of a war. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against British imperialism in the 19th century, as they did also in the struggle of the Poles against the Russian tsar. This was despite the fact that, in the words of Trotsky, “These two nationalist wars and leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even, at times of the feudal aristocracy… at all events, Catholic reactionaries”. We ourselves gave support, both political and material, to the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the nationalist war waged against French imperialism in Algeria, which culminated in its liberation and the evacuation of French forces in 1962.

26) But there was nothing ‘progressive’ or ‘just’ in the brutal war of the US, Britain and the ‘coalition’, which they have waged against the Afghan people under the false banner of waging a ‘war against terrorism’. The perceived ‘war aims’ of eliminating bin Laden and al-Qa’ida have still not been achieved at the time of writing. Our position has been explained very clearly in CWI material we have produced on the war. This was primarily a war to restore the wounded prestige and power of US and world imperialism. Moreover, given the capitulation of the Taliban (if not yet of the ‘Arab Afghans’) imperialism has succeeded temporarily in strengthening its own position and altering the relationship of world forces to its own advantage. (This was shown by the bellicose words and actions of George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and even the previously ‘dove-like’ Colin Powell in giving the green light to Ariel Sharon and the Israeli ruling class to launch its 2001 offensive against the Palestinian people. The aim of this was to seriously undermine the already fragile authority of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA). [See previous CWI documents on the Middle East.])

27) This was followed by US government officials declaring that Iraq would be the next target, and ‘military-police’ type operations were in preparation against Somalia and possibly Sudan. This is a war to root out and allegedly crush al-Qa’ida once and for all. In the bloody equation of war, it is not possible to accurately predict the precise outcome. However, the outcome of a military conflict between US imperialism, the mightiest military power the world has ever seen, and the feeble Taliban was from the outset equivalent to a contest between an elephant and a flea, which the elephant could not fail to win. However, what could not be predetermined were the kind of social reserves the Taliban could call on given foreign intervention in Afghanistan. Events illustrated the very narrow basis for the regime, which ensured victory for imperialism in the main through the use of air power backed up by the ‘ground troops’ of US imperialism.

28) What was unexpected from all sides was the rapid capitulation of the Taliban in the north and the minimal resistance in the south. This has had important consequences. Victory to imperialism, combined with the complete capitulation without real struggle by the Taliban, has had big repercussions worldwide, particularly in the neo-colonial world. It is perceived that US imperialism has once again been militarily victorious. This is the third military victory in a little over a decade – the Gulf war, Kosova/Kosovo and now Afghanistan. However, even more than in the previous two conflicts, the rampant triumphalism of US imperialism is open and unrestrained, with one of their representatives openly declaring, “We are on a roll”.

29) Mistakenly, imperialism now believes it can impose its power with minimal resistance anywhere on the globe. Ultimately, all its problems will be compounded. It has undoubtedly strengthened itself temporarily while the confidence of the world working class and labour movement, particularly in the neo-colonial world, has suffered a blow. How long lasting and how severe this will be is not possible to say at this stage. It was for all these reasons that we implacably opposed US imperialism and its war. Strip away all the ‘democratic’ phraseology and camouflage and what we had was a new version of an imperialist war, not just against Afghanistan but the whole neo-colonial world and, therefore, the majority of humankind.

Not a traditional colonial war

30) But it was not, as the ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (USFI) argued, simply a new version of a traditional colonial war, motivated primarily for economic reasons: “A war for oil”. The reality of US imperialism’s aims in Afghanistan is more complex than this. Ultimately, of course, economic power, the financial stake of imperialism and the source of its profits and income are all-important, even decisive, factors. It was for these reasons that US oil companies feted the Taliban and took them on lavish trips to the US in the 1990s. Their perception of Afghanistan at that stage was as an important area for a possible pipeline for the as yet largely untapped oil and gas riches in the Caspian Sea and the Transcaucasus. However, given the organic instability of Afghanistan, let alone the Transcaucasus region, the site of this country as a possible pipeline was problematical to say the least. Even in the post-war situation, such is the likely chaos dislocation and anarchy that it would be a very big gamble for the oil companies to engage in such a risky venture.

31) The resources of the Transcaucasus and the Caspian could be important issues for imperialism in the long run. They were not, however, the immediate cause of this war. Prior to 11 September a mighty tussle was taking place between Putin’s Russian capitalism, which still considers the Caucasus as a vital component of its ‘sphere of influence’, and the US oil companies, backed up by the Bush administration, which were struggling to supplant it. After the attack on the Twin Towers, which revealed the involvement of Saudi nationals and also some of the figures in the Saudi regime, at least financially, much discussion ensued in the US bourgeois press about a switch in US interests from Saudi Arabian oil to a possible alternative supply in the Caucasus. However, this is still the music of the future, given the increased dependence of US imperialism on Middle Eastern, particularly Saudi, oil since the Gulf war. The motivating factor, therefore, in the first instance, for US imperialism’s intervention was to restore its power and prestige, which was severely dented by the attacks of 11 September. Any increased income flowing from this victory was to come at a later stage.

32) If, therefore, we perceive this war as thoroughly reactionary on the part of imperialism, does this mean that we throw in our lot, albeit ‘critically’, with those who have allegedly ‘resisted’ the US juggernaut, namely bin Laden, his al-Qa’ida and the Taliban government? Unbelievably, this is the position of some small Trotskyist groups, such as Workers Power and the Morenoite LIT. The latter is largely based in Latin America. Their approach will find absolutely no echo amongst the world working class, particularly the proletariat in the developed capitalist countries. Nevertheless, because they utilised some of the past writings of Trotsky to justify their position during the war they could, and did in some instances, confuse and befuddle some young people and workers who came into contact with them. It is necessary, therefore, to deal with their arguments here as a means of clarifying the issues within our own ranks. They also show utter confusion on developments within ‘Islam’.

Islam – radical and right-wing

33) Therefore, before proceeding to analyse their positions, it is necessary to clarify our attitude to ‘political Islam’. What is sometimes called ‘fundamentalism’ is often referred to within the Moslem world as ‘political Islam’. This is adequate for bourgeois professors and commentators, as well as some on the left, but for the CWI it does not accurately describe the political antecedents as well as the position of different Islamic groups within the current political spectrum.

34) Some of the trends and organisations within the mass movement which led the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah were examples of what we mean by ‘radical Islam’ or ‘radical Islamic fundamentalism’. Those who supported these ideas when questioned as to what kind of society they were fighting for usually said they wanted a ‘republic of the poor’. However, the world background against which the Iranian revolution took place was entirely different to the present one. Then, the Stalinist states – with a planned economy and the totalitarian regime – existed. This, together with the evident bankruptcy of landlordism and capitalism in the neo-colonial world, radicalised the oppositional movement to the tyranny of the Shah and the Iranian elite who had fattened themselves on Iran’s huge oil reserves. This opposition was largely based among the urban poor in Tehran in particular, as well as the half-starved Iranian peasant masses. The ‘model’ of a planned economy in the background gave the movement a pronounced radical and ‘left’ character.

35) So powerful was this trend that it compelled the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in its first stage to adopt a very left radical phraseology and a virulent hostility to imperialism, particularly US imperialism. This was matched by actions which led to the taking over by the state of a majority of industry. There appeared at one stage the possibility of Iran establishing a deformed workers’ state in the image of Moscow, with a planned economy, albeit with a totalitarian political regime where power was concentrated in the hands of the mullahs and the Moslem clergy. However, the revolution stalled. An incipient civil war has ensued between different factions of the Moslem clergy. The centre of gravity gradually moved in a rightward direction. This in turn has led to the privatisation of formerly nationalised sectors.

36) Today in Iran, there is a ferocious struggle between different wings of Islam. At the bottom of this is a conflict between a right-wing clergy which is determined to hold on to the levers of state power and sections of the bourgeoisie, probably supported now by a majority of the population and those who wish to move in a more ‘modern’, that is Western capitalist, direction. Young people in particular are in open revolt at the suffocating conditions imposed upon them by the mullahs and their ‘religious’ police.

37) In contrast to the early radical phase of the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islam and what is now called ‘political Islam’, particularly in the Arab world, in the last decade is mainly a right-wing phenomenon. The development of these organisations, and their embrace by more and more sections of the population including big sections of the middle class in countries like Egypt, is partly a reflection of the failure of earlier Arab movements, and partly a conscious effort on the part of imperialism and their local satraps – the feudal, dictatorial Arab regimes – to use Islam against the left and radical forces within the Middle East.

38) In a searching article in the New York Times (carried in the International Herald Tribune on 3 December 2001), Saad Mehio gave a graphic description of how the past use of Islam by these regimes, fully supported by US imperialism in particular, had recoiled on them with fatal consequences. Posing the question of what comes after bin Laden and the Taliban, he concluded: “Probably more Talibans and new Osama bin Ladens.” And the reason for this phenomenon “involves the immoral, unscrupulous and irreligious exploitation of Islam as a political weapon – by everyone. The West, the United States, Arab and other Moslem tyrannies have all used the weapon of Islam. And they are all paying their different prices for it.”

39) He describes how Islam was conscripted to combat ‘communism’ – a broad definition to include anybody who was on the left or a socialist, not just Stalinists – during the Cold War. The ability of imperialism and its local Arab agents was enormously facilitated by the failure of Arab nationalism and of Stalinism. Mass communist parties, in countries like Iraq and the Sudan, had the opportunity of taking power but failed because of their false Stalinist policies. This together with the collapse of the ‘socialist model’ in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, symbolised by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, led to the rise of the right-wing Islam. Mehio comments: “The policy of using political Islam as an anticommunist tool was a crucial reason why so much of the Moslem world came to be dominated by stagnant, undemocratic but stable (or so it seemed) and adequately pro-Western governments, on the one hand, and the traditional forces of political Islam reconfigured for the latter half of the 20th century on the other.”

40) He goes on: “The crowning achievement of such a party was the defeat of the modernising alternative: those movements that hoped to avoid aligning with either the Soviet Union or America to develop their societies along secular lines by, ideally, even more democratic means and to substitute nationalism for colonial humility and Islamic traditionalism. Such movements were sometimes called Nasserite, after President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. He struggled against the Moslem Brotherhood for most of his political life. The Nasserite space has been shrinking in the three decades since his death.”

41) Nasser’s heir, Anwar Sadat, and the Egyptian ruling class as a whole, decided to move in a directly opposite path of his patron and predecessor. He consciously fostered the growth of Islam, as a counterweight to nationalism and the left, and also sought the embrace of US imperialism. The Egyptian regime is propped up to the tune of $3 billion of US subsidies every year. Sadat’s actions recoiled on him in the most deadly fashion; he perished at the hands of the very fundamentalists he had helped to foster, because of his agreement with Israel.

Israel fosters Islamist groups

42) To a greater or lesser extent the Arab elites followed in the footsteps of Sadat in nurturing their own native breed of Islamic fundamentalism, exemplified in the financing (with petro-dollars) of about 7,500 religious schools in Pakistan, India and the Arab world. These schools taught the most backward isolationist interpretation of the Qur’an and Islam and were the bases from which the Taliban sprang to wreak such havoc in the lives of the Afghani people, which has resulted in the present catastrophe. Even the dictatorial regime of Pervaiz Musharraf, after witnessing the deleterious effects of the obscurantist mullah-dominated madrassahs, made noises during the conflict about the need to curtail them. Mehio comments: “The regional system [in the Arab world] that Washington had nurtured during the Cold War but then left to its own devices after 1989 was seen to have turned into a hatchery of human missiles and suicidal rage directed against the United States itself.”

43) However, it was not just the US but its local Middle East agents, the Israeli ruling class, which also fostered Islamic groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as counterweights to what it perceived in the 1970s and 1980s as the more radical, secular Palestinian organisations, such as Fatah or the PFLP. Robert Fisk underlined this point when he wrote in The Independent: “Hamas, the principle target of the Sharon ‘war on terror’, was originally sponsored by Israel. Back in the 1980s when Mr Arafat was the ‘super-terrorist’ and Hamas was a pleasant little Moslem charity, albeit venomous in its opposition to Israel, the Israeli government encouraged its members to build mosques in Gaza. Some genius in the Israeli army decided that there was no better way of undermining the PLO’s nationalist ambitions in the occupied territories than by promoting Islam.

44) “Even after the Oslo agreement, during a row with Mr Arafat, senior Israeli army officers publicly announced they were chatting to Hamas officials. And when Israel illegally deported hundreds of Hamas men to Lebanon in 1992, it was one of their leaders, hearing that I was travelling to Israel, who offered me Shimon Peres’s home telephone number from his contact book” [5 December 2001].

45) Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza are of a pronounced right-wing political persuasion. They are very different to the Islamic militants who fought the Shah of Iran and who existed in the immediate period after the Iranian revolution. The same goes for the bulk of the Islamic political organisations throughout the Middle East – in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and, above all, Saudi Arabia. The growth of right-wing ‘political Islam’ in these and other Arab countries is due, for the reasons described above, to the failure of other models, but is also a direct result of the involvement of an estimated 30,000 Arabs who fought with the mujaheddin in the struggle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan between 1983-89.

46) Many of these believed that their support for the mujaheddin was crucial in setting in motion a movement which culminated in the defeat of ‘communism’ and the humbling of one ‘superpower’, the Soviet Union. Many US Cold War strategists reinforced this idea and are paying the price now in the activities of al-Qa’ida against all aspects and symbols of US power. However, it was not the mujaheddin or the 30,000 Arabs who fought with them that led to the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

47) This was the result of the atrophy, the slow decline, of the ‘Soviet Union’. The tendency in the 1970s and 1980s was for the planned economy to disintegrate under Stalinist, obsolete bureaucratic rule. However, the support of world imperialism, particularly US imperialism, was the crucial military factor. This was facilitated by massive airlifts of weaponry, supplied by the US and financed by $2 billion of Saudi and US funds. Arab fighters were also offered discounts by Saudi Arabian airlines on the Riyadh-Peshawar route.

48) This Arab ‘foreign legion’ had nothing in common in its social composition and ideology to the International Brigade which fought on the side of the republicans in Spain in the 1930s. One expert on al-Qa’ida comments in the Financial Times: “Some came [to Afghanistan] with the intention of staying one month. Quite a lot of Saudis would come for their holidays. If you had spent some time with a whore in Bangkok, you could come to fight the jihad to purify yourself.”

49) The social origins of the leading group which formed al-Qa’ida are crucial because of the role that it played in sustaining and organising the Taliban. This in turn is important because of the mistaken idea, perpetuated by some on the left, that in some way the Taliban and al-Qa’ida reflect the national liberation struggle of the Afghani people and the Arab peoples.

50) Yet, as has been well documented, bin Laden comes from a rich Saudi/Yemeni family. He inherited $300 million at the age of ten – on the death of his father – as his share of what is today a $36 billion family business, the Saudi bin Yadin group. Some of this personal fortune was used in the war against the Soviet Union to finance Arab fighters. In addition to this, the Islamist organisations which are linked to bin Laden can today draw on funds estimated at between $5-16 billion. The Financial Times comments: “Much of this has been donated, particularly from Saudis and from Kuwait, the source of millions a month.”

51) This money has not come from the most oppressed strata of the Arab world but from the Islamic elite. Again, the Financial Times comments: “A lot of his money comes from disgruntled Saudi merchants.” A former Gulf banker, Jean-François Cesnec, an expert in Arab politics and finance, has also pointed out: “A ‘mule’ will draw sympathetic merchants in Jeddah, collecting $5,000 from each. They never give more than $5,000 a time so you have to go and see them regularly.”

Al-Qa’ida – not a genuine national liberation movement

52) This is part of a requirement under Islam for rich Moslems, that of zakkat – charitable donations calculated to 2% of a person’s income – which are made to ‘good causes’. This has redounded to the benefit of bin Laden. And it is not just rich Saudis or Yemenis who form the ruling group of al-Qa’ida but similar types were drawn into its ranks from nationalist Islamist movements in the Arab world and elsewhere. Thus Ayman al-Zawahari was a surgeon from a rich Egyptian family in Alexandria. He had fought in Afghanistan and had become leader of Jihad, the Egyptian Islamist group which was responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

53) After the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many of the victorious Arabs went back to the Middle East and North Africa where they were greeted as ‘Islamic heroes’. This in turn led to the filling out and growth of Islamic organisations of a right-wing character, such as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, as well as the Islamic Group and Jihad in Egypt. Their fire was also now directed against their own governments, the ‘godless bedfellows of the ultimate enemies, the US and Israel, the crusaders and the Jews’. However, a ruthless repressive policy was pursued by these regimes and, particularly, by the army and their secret services, typified by the brutal civil war in Algeria which has resulted in over 100,000 people being killed.

54) These facts underline the conclusions made in previous CWI statements that bin Laden and al-Qa’ida do not represent a genuine national liberation movement even in a mangled, distorted fashion. They are from the rich, semi-feudal elite in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world and their ‘programme’, in so far as they have one, means turning back the wheel of history to the 7th century. Their particular obscurantist brand of Islam, Salifism (also known as Wahhabism), which developed in the 18th century, sees ‘unbelievers’ as all whom do not subscribe to their narrow definition of Islam, including other Moslems. These are, therefore, candidates for ‘elimination’.

55) One of bin Laden’s early mentors was the Palestinian, Abdul Assam, who saw Afghanistan as the vortex of militant Islam. It was an obligation, according to him, that every Moslem should fight there. But this was only the first step: “Jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Moslem are returned to us so that Islam will rein again; before us lie Palestine, Bokara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalucia.” As Justin Marozzi comments: “Never mind whether the peoples of those countries actually want such a return to Islam. Why consult when Allah is on your side?”

56) This messianic, almost pre-medieval, philosophy is at the heart of bin Ladism and al-Qa’ida. Ultimately, of course, bin Laden is an expression of the Arab world’s oppression at the hands of imperialism, which even affects, psychologically at least, those from privileged layers. But his movement is not a real bourgeois-national liberation movement.

57) In some senses his ideals and recipe for the ‘future’ are a return to pre-capitalist forms of society. His opposition to the House of Saud, fellow members of the Wahhabi Islamic sect, and his determination to overthrow the Saudi regime has as its aim the replacement of the present theocratic ‘fundamentalist’ Saudi regime with an even more ‘fundamentalist’ one.

58) When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, for instance, in 1990 bin Laden offered his armed militants to the Saudi royal family to defend the kingdom if Iraq invaded his ‘homeland’. Instead, foreign troops – US forces in the main – were stationed on ‘Islam’s holy soil’, which contains the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi regime, at the highest levels of the military and particularly the intelligence service, sponsored bin Laden but his movement has inevitably been turned against them: “The Saudi policy of riyalpolitik was intended to shore up the kingdom’s legitimacy through the funding of militant Islamic groups. Since these very organisations are dedicated to the overthrow of the Saudi royal family, which they regard as guilty of apostasy, it has been a policy as hollow as the regime which embraced it. How long before the mobs tear down the palace gates in Riyadh and beyond.” [Financial Times, 17 November 2001]

Right-wing ‘political’ Islam

59) The CWI’s opposition to the ideas of right-wing ‘political Islam’, and particularly the variant of bin Ladism, is absolutely clear. However, this does not in itself solve the problem of how to reach and convince workers who are presently under the banner of Islam. Many of these workers in key areas of the Arab world or in Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines are attracted to Islamic ‘fundamentalism’. Even the defeat and death of bin Laden, or the ignominious capitulation of the Taliban, will not automatically or immediately lessen the grip of Islamist ideas on big sections of the masses and, particularly, on frustrated poverty-stricken youth.

60) In South Asia, home to 40% of the world’s estimated 1-1.2 billion Moslems, millions of young students are imbibing the teachings which helped to give rise to the Taliban in the early 1990s. Indeed, the number of madrassahs in Pakistan, which ideologically fuelled the Taliban movement, is dwarfed by the more than 15,000 madrassahs – up from about 9,000 in the late 1960s – throughout the world.

61) However, in approaching the masses influenced by these ideas, as in all questions, socialists and Marxists must avoid the pitfalls of opportunism or ultra-leftism. Our approach, following that of Lenin and Trotsky, is not to attack Islam or other religions in our day-to-day work from a philosophical point of view, but to point towards the class contradictions in ‘Moslem societies’. A picture of class divisions in society can be drawn out of the Qur’an, as much as out of the Bible.

62) On the other hand, we should avoid an opportunist adaptation to Islamic ‘leaders’, particularly to self-appointed ‘community leaders’ in many countries in the industrialised world and in ‘Moslem societies’ who very often are drawn from privileged layers, merchants, the middle class and bourgeois elements. We also oppose aspects and interpretations of Islam which maintain and justify the ruthless oppression and subordination of women to men, even if this brings us into confrontation with ordinary Moslems as well as Islamic leaders.

The SWP and Islam

63) This is certainly not the approach of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). For instance, in the anti-war movement in Britain, for fear of confronting some of the prejudices in the Moslem population, including sympathy for ‘fundamentalist’ ideas, they initially and wrongly refused to condemn the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September. They tried to justify this by arguments like the following: “The rest of the left have an undialectical understanding of religion in practice [which] is resulting in a pandering to Islamophobia, where they are more fixated with ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ than with US imperialism.” [SWP pre-conference bulletin, 2001, p5]

64) In reality, the SWP has sought to opportunistically adapt to the existing consciousness of workers in Britain and elsewhere who are under the sway of Islamist ideas. They state the following in the same bulletin: “It [Islam] can be a motivating force for the masses to fight back against imperialism and poverty.” This statement is completely unqualified, without any evidence being produced to show where and how Islamist organisations fulfil the ‘anti-imperialist’ tasks allotted to them by the SWP. Do they mean that the different Islamist organisations and parties in the Middle East, or the Taliban, effectively fight back against imperialism? Do they think that the methods employed by the Palestinian Islamic organisations, Hamas or Jihad, are effective in fighting imperialism?

65) In the past, the SWP, on many occasions, cheered on organisations uncritically which used the methods of terrorism, as with the IRA in Northern Ireland. Today for instance, they do support and report uncritically the methods of the suicide bombers used against the Israelis within Israel itself. We understand that the horrendous social conditions in the Palestinian areas, which have been enormously worsened in the past few years and particularly since 11 September (reinforced now by Israeli occupation), have produced a mood of absolute despair amongst big sections of the youth. This is compounded by the stance of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. They are prepared to bend the knee to imperialism and arrest Islamic fighters while Israel pounds hell out of the West Bank and Gaza towns. At the same time, Hamas, which began as a charity organisation, has emerged almost as a parallel administration to the PA, providing the most comprehensive social safety net in the West Bank and Gaza. The mood of revenge for Israel’s crimes, together with the discrediting of the PA, has led to a rapid increase in support for Hamas and other Islamist groups to an estimated 27% in late 2001, as support for Fatah and Arafat diminishes.

66) It is one thing to understand how sections of the youth are driven to deploy terroristic methods, which they see as a legitimate part of resistance against Israeli occupation of Arab lands. It is entirely different for Marxists to give support, by omission as well as commission, to such methods. In a sensitive way, it is necessary to explain to the young people attracted to this course of action that it plays into the hands of the Israeli ruling class. It drives sections of the Israeli population into the arms of their own worst enemies, the Israeli bourgeoisie. It is used to introduce further repression and the result is a further, almost endless, cycle of violence in which the working class on both sides, and particularly the Palestinians, pay the main price.

67) The minuscule grouping, Workers Power, also made blunders in the course of the war, as has one remnant of the Morenoites, the LIT, in Latin America. If anything, their errors are of a more grotesque kind than the SWP. This basically involves giving ‘critical support’ to the Taliban in the war. For instance, the following is the advice which Workers Power gave to the world labour movement in the midst of the war: “Without giving an iota of support to the arch reactionary Taliban government in Afghanistan or the movement of Osama bin Laden, we call for and support the united action of all Afghan forces – including Islamist forces – to repel the imperialist assault.” [Stop Bush and Blair’s Bloody War! Defend Afghanistan! Defeat Imperialism]

68) Their ‘advice’ did not register on the radar screen of the world labour movement, but it did confuse a few young people. They would not give “an iota of support” to the Taliban and yet call on workers and peasants in Afghanistan to engage in “united action” with them. Why not also support, under the heading of “Islamist forces”, the Northern Alliance who are only separated by degree from the Taliban, as we have subsequently seen following its victory. Which is the progressive force here? To merely pose the question shows how absurd the approach of these groups is. Both are reactionary forces. The Taliban wish to force the Afghan masses back to the past. The Northern Alliance was the ground troops of US imperialism in its onslaught against the Taliban.

69) Yet the LIT also states: “From our point of view, in this confrontation [the Afghan war] the ‘barbarian’ Taliban represents progress precisely because they challenge the imperialist barbarism. If imperialism wins this war, they will feel free to colonise the world.” [LIT letter criticising the Labour Party Pakistan over the Afghan war.]

70) But, if anything, the Northern Alliance, on the issue of women, for instance, in words at least, was more ‘progressive’ than the Taliban. Why not then support these ‘barbarians’ as well? The unconscious humour of the LIT is shown when it declares: “This is not a simple discussion [tactics in the war] but it is not easy to confront the fundamentalists daily, knowing that they on several opportunities… solved their conflicts with the opposition with the simple resource of killing the opponent. This fact, however, cannot become a stumbling block on the way towards a Marxist analysis and policies.”

71) In other words, any attempt to link up ‘militarily’, as suggested by the LIT, with the Taliban would result in the slaughtering of any left forces, let alone Trotskyist or Marxist forces, which tried to pursue this tactic. And this is not an accident because, as we argue above, neither the Taliban nor bin Laden are genuine national liberation fighters. Nor are they anti-imperialist, as the switch of the bulk of the Taliban forces showed, from opposition into supporting the Northern Alliance and, thereby also becoming the ‘proxy’ of imperialism. The Taliban, al-Qa’ida and the Northern Alliance are counter-revolutionary forces which Marxists should completely oppose.

Marxism and the Taliban

72) The LIT, Workers Power and many others on the revolutionary left argue that if the Taliban had won this would have weakened imperialism and enormously encouraged the peoples of the neo-colonial and semi-colonial world and, above all, in the Middle East. This at bottom is also the reasoning behind the attitude of the SWP. It, in effect, opposed any criticism of the perpetrators of the attacks on the Twin Towers. It was compelled to abandon this by the pressure of those like the CWI within the anti-war movement in Britain. Their method of reasoning is not a Marxist approach, which takes phenomena and events and analyses them from all sides.

73) They do not even pose the question of whether the Taliban could have militarily won the war. The contest right from the beginning was an unequal struggle. There could only be one outcome of the war, the military victory of US imperialism and its allies. The Vietnam War was entirely different. That was a war for social and national liberation, which meant that a country with a small population defeated the mightiest military power on the globe. However, what could not be predetermined was what the character of the Afghan War would assume, the degree of resistivity of the masses of Afghanistan, how long and bloody it would be and what effect it would have on world public opinion.

74) But in the unlikely event that the Taliban would have won, would this have been a victory for the world working class and poor peasants? On the contrary, it would have enormously strengthened the backward, theocratic religious ideas which would have kept Afghanistan, and others which followed in their footsteps, under the domination of right-wing political Islam.

75) Even in Iran, where Islamist ideas initially took on a left or radical hue in the struggle against the Shah and in the first period of the Iranian revolution, the position of the Communist Party in Iran, the Tudeh, under the sway of Stalinist ideas, represented a baleful example of precisely ‘critical’ support for the forces of the ‘barbarian’ Khomeini. The consequences were absolutely disastrous for the Iranian revolution. No warnings were given to the left and the working class by the Stalinists about the ingrained hostility to them of Khomeini and his movement. In Iran it was correct to participate in the mass movement alongside all kinds of radical Islamist forces, but without giving a shadow of support to the leaders of this movement, like Khomeini. There was no comparable movement in Afghanistan. The small left forces which existed scorned the idea that they could fight alongside the Taliban.

76) The day after the overthrow of the Shah, the suppression of the left began in Iran, leading to the hanging of the leader of the Tudeh and the subsequent massacre of many of the best militants of the Iranian Communist Party and others on the left. No doubt Workers’ Power and the LIT can object that, unlike the Tudeh, they are critical of the Taliban and bin Laden. However, there is no justification, given the context in which these forces acted and the character of the movement described above, to give even ‘critical support’ to these movements.

Trotsky on Ethiopia and Brazil

77) In order to justify their false position they quote some fragmentary remarks of Trotsky on the Italian/Ethiopian conflict in 1935. They do this without explaining the entirely different historical context in which that struggle took place. Moreover, they are incapable of understanding the masses’ different attitude at the time towards that conflict and the entirely different view of the Taliban and bin Laden. We will not skate over or ignore what Trotsky said in the 1930s. We give the full quote of what he said about Ethiopia and also his comments about Brazil in 1938.

78) On Ethiopia Trotsky wrote: “Far too little attention is paid to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict by our sections, especially by the French section. This question is highly important, first for its own sake and second from the standpoint of the turn by the Comintern. Of course we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia, and therefore we must do everything possible to hinder by all available means support to Italian imperialism by the other imperialist powers, and at the same time facilitate the delivery of armaments, etc., to Ethiopia as best we can. However, we want to stress that this fight is directed not against fascism, but against imperialism. When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is ‘better’, the Negus or Mussolini; but rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism. The Italian comrades might give us a short historical summary indicating how Crispi’s defeat had a positive effect on the further development of Italy.” [The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36) (italics in original).]

79) While on Brazil he wrote: “In Brazil there now reigns a semi fascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally – in this case I will be on the side of ‘fascist’ Brazil against ‘democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.” [Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39).]

80) The clear implication of Trotsky’s words, contained in an interview with him in 1938 and not in an article by him, was that in the event of an armed attack on backward, semi-colonial Brazil by British imperialism he would be on the side of the former not the latter. He would support the people of Brazil against an imperialist attack on them and their territory irrespective of the political regime. This is the meaning of Trotsky’s words. The Malvinas/Falklands War was different and much more complex. If, in the Malvinas/Falklands War, an attack had been made on Argentina by British imperialism along the lines suggested by Trotsky in his article on Brazil, all Marxists would have opposed this. We would have been on the side of ‘Argentina’, the people, not the hated Galtieri regime, against British imperialism. But the presence of 2000 Falkland islanders, and no Argentineans, made this conflict much more complex than the hypothetical situation sketched out by Trotsky on Brazil. Their democratic rights had to be taken into account by Marxists. We opposed the war but we could not just give carte blanche support to the Galtieri regime’s invasion.

The Malvinas and the CWI

81) And yet, this quote from Trotsky on Brazil was used by the LIT quite wrongly, to justify its opportunist adaptation to the Argentinean Galtieri dictatorship in the 1982 war with Britain over the Malvinas/Falklands. We opposed British imperialism in this war and the sending of the “British task force”. Genuine Marxists in Argentina or Latin America as a whole would also have opposed the Galtieri dictatorship in Argentina’s drive towards a war over the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982, as we opposed Thatcher’s war preparations in Britain. However, once the war had begun, Marxists in Argentina would go into the army if called up, at the same time advancing a revolutionary programme. They would have demanded the expropriation of British investments. But why stop there? All imperialist assets should be nationalised, which in turn would pose the need for the state take-over of Argentine capital. Not an atom of support – ‘critical’ or otherwise – would have been given to the Galtieri dictatorship, which the LIT unfortunately did. In effect, a revolutionary war against the British would have been advocated by real Argentine Marxists.

82) This was the programme advocated by us at the time of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. This was not a classic conflict between an imperialist power and a ‘colony’ in which Marxists were called upon to ‘critically’ support the latter. Argentina was a relatively developed capitalist power. It was not a feudal or semi-feudal regime in which the bourgeois-democratic revolution needed to be completed (apart from freeing Argentina from the economic vice of US imperialism and the world market, which is a socialist task). It was itself ‘imperialist’ towards other countries in Latin America – exporting capital and exploiting them – as well as being ‘exploited’ by the major imperialist powers. Moreover, it had a more developed capitalist structure than pre-1917 Russia, for instance. The latter, according to Lenin and Trotsky, was both a ‘semi-colony’ of Anglo-French imperialism and, at the same time, an ‘imperialist’ oppressor of the 57% of the population of the Tsarist Empire who were non-Russians. Lenin and the Bolsheviks never supported Russia, a ‘semi-colony’, in the wars against Japan in 1905, for instance, or German imperialism in the First World War.

83) It is true that the past super-exploitation of Latin America by British imperialism and then particularly US imperialism has heightened the sensitivity amongst the masses to any incursion from outside, particularly direct military intervention. This was the case in the Malvinas/Falklands conflict with overwhelming opposition in South America towards the sending of the British military ‘task force’ to the region. Latin American, and particularly Argentine, Marxists, were compelled to take account of this, to be sensitive to the mood in their approach, propaganda, demands put forward, etc. But this would not involve supporting the war which was an adventure by the Galtieri dictatorship in a desperate but futile attempt to avert its overthrow by means of a successful military attack on the Malvinas/Falklands. The approach of the LIT was to bow to the pressure of Argentine nationalism and support the Galtieri regime’s war, albeit ‘critically’.

84) They freely confess that, at this time: “Our international trend issued the statement entitled, In the Military Camp of the Dictatorship, which, among other things said: ‘In accordance with the Leninist/Trotskyist tradition which supports the nationalism of the oppressed countries, regardless of their regime and government, against imperialism, the International Workers’ League – Fourth International – proclaims that we shall fight, if it were necessary, in the battlefield of the Argentinean government. But this was not a mere statement. Our militants, running the risk of being killed by the dictatorship (over 100 of our comrades have already been killed) went out to organise a great anti-imperialist movement while our comrades who were in prison at the time from their cells, demanded to be freed so that they may go to the Falklands and fight there together against the oppressing army.” (Letter from LIT to the Labour Party of Pakistan on the issue of Afghanistan.)

85) It was wrong for the LIT to put itself in the camp of the dictatorship and to line up with the policies of the Argentinean junta in this war. Even if a decision is made to join in the war against British imperialism on the issue of the Malvinas – which was understandable in the Argentinean context – nevertheless, this should be done entirely independent of, and not part of, the hated Galtieri dictatorship.

86) Trotsky’s remarks on Brazil were obviously in the context of a hypothetical attack being made, an invasion in effect, by British imperialism on Brazilian territory. This was not the case, we repeat, in the Falklands/Malvinas War. This was not an attack on the Argentinean mainland. Moreover, the 2000 Falklanders wanted to remain under British rule. The right of self-determination applied to the islanders, despite their small number. It was correct to suggest, not just for the Brazilian workers but for the British workers and workers worldwide, opposition to British imperialism and to ‘support’ Brazil, the Brazilian people not the government, in this conflict. In no way was Trotsky here outlining a clear programme, and particularly agitational demands, but the broad position that would be adopted by revolutionaries. We have dealt with the Malvinas/Falklands conflict above (see also The Rise of Militant and our material at the time of the 1983 conflict) and it is not possible to re-rehearse all the arguments on this issue here.

87) But one thing was absolutely clear, we did not adopt a ‘neutral’ position, as suggested by LIT, but opposed the war. We opposed the Thatcher government but, at the same time, once the war was taking place, raised democratic demands for the army ranks and a radical programme to be taken by sections of the working class and the youth who would be involved in the event of a long drawn out conflict.

88) On the other hand, we did not support the Argentinean military dictatorship as the LIT did. Its support for Galtieri on the Malvinas fitted in with their false theory of the ‘enclaves’. This meant that Malvinas/Falklands, with a tiny population of 2,000 largely British people, together with Israel, Northern Ireland, etc, were ‘outposts’ and ‘enclaves’ of imperialism – relics of the past – and should be dissolved. By this logic, Northern Ireland should be returned to the South of Ireland in a ‘united Ireland’ against the wishes of the loyalist population if necessary. The Israeli state should be dismantled and in its place a new Palestine should be constructed and, by military means, the 2,000 Falkland Islanders should have been driven out by the Galtieri dictatorship from this imperialist ‘enclave’.

The National Question

89) This abstract, false idea, which is entirely removed from the objective reality which exists today, will lead – and, unfortunately in the case of the LIT, led – the forces of Trotskyism into a theoretical swamp. They invariably limit their demands on the national question to ‘independence’, never putting this in a socialist context. The only conclusion which could be drawn from the LIT’s position is that it is based on a geographical concept and moreover comes very close to a ‘stages position’ on the national question. According to their approach, it is bits of territory, which may at one stage have ‘belonged’ to a particular state, which is decisive.

90) This is irrespective of the consciousness of the population which may inherit such a territory and may implacably reject, for historical, social, national and even psychological reasons, returning to the embrace of such a state. This would particularly be the case for one dominated by bloodthirsty military dictators who had slaughtered 30,000 of their own citizens in a ‘dirty war’ against the left and the working class as had the Argentinean junta.

91) Indeed, the issue of the consciousness of a population, whether it be in Israel, Northern Ireland or the consciousness of the ‘settlers’ in the Malvinas/Falklands, let alone the worldwide consciousness of the proletariat, is of secondary importance to this organisation. We, on the other hand, take into account territory, culture, history and language, and above all the consciousness of any nation, would-be nation, grouping, etc. A study of Lenin and Trotsky on the national question shows how carefully they analysed the consciousness of populations inheriting a particular territory and, moreover, the way consciousness changes under different historical circumstances.

92) For instance, Trotsky and those who followed him, to begin with, set their faces against the creation of an Israeli state in the Middle East, with Trotsky correctly describing it as a ‘bloody trap’ for the persecuted Jewish population throughout the world. How apt is that phrase now in the context of the murderous cycle of mutual slaughter which takes place between the Israelis and the Palestinians today? But the development over time of the consciousness of a settled population in Israel, specifically a national consciousness, the evolution of a new nation since 1948, changed the situation fundamentally. Not just the PLO but bin Laden in his first video implicitly accepted the fact of an Israeli state.

93) The irony is that it is the sectarian organisations – the self-proclaimed ‘vanguard of the vanguard’ – who reject the existence of this state and the national consciousness which goes with this, rather than the Palestinians themselves. They consequently demand that it be replaced by a secular Palestinian state with democratic rights for Israelis. Confronting the reality ‘on the ground’, something which these ultra-left organisations fail to do, the Palestinian leaders abandoned their previous approach. This is not just because they opportunistically adapt to the situation and the power of imperialism but because it is unattainable now, and particularly on a bourgeois basis, given the resistance of the Israeli population and the massive financial and military assistance by imperialism itself which underlines this.

Two states

94) In other words, the LIT and others pick up the discarded ideas of the Palestinian leadership of yesterday which does not apply to the present reality. They effectively propose that the Israeli population accepts that it should comply with the liquidation of ‘their own state’. Needless to say, the Israeli population will fight tooth and nail against such a proposal as they did when it was the policy of the Palestinian organisations and leaders themselves. The CWI’s ‘two-state’ solution, an Israeli and a Palestinian state within the context of a socialist federation of the region, is the only way to approach both the Israeli and Palestinian masses, which seeks to satisfy their national aspirations and cement an alliance of the working class and poor in the region.

95) The counter-argument to this, put forward even by some more open-minded comrades coming from the LIT tradition in discussions with the CWI, is that this programme is ‘for the future’. It is exactly the opposite. The only way to approach the Palestinian and Israeli masses today is to put forward a programme on the national question which begins to satisfy their national aspirations. A proposal for a ‘Palestinian state with democratic guarantees for the Israelis’ will be completely rejected by the mass of the Israeli population. This is even more the case when a new state and a new national consciousness have been created, as is the case in Israel, albeit on the basis of the gross violation and repression of the Palestinian rights 50 years ago and since. On the other hand, to propose to the Palestinians that they accept minority status within a ‘democratic Israel’ is equally unacceptable to them.

96) The idea of a separate Palestinian state is now supported by the mass of the population in the West Bank, Gaza and, probably, in the Palestinian Diaspora as well. On the basis of capitalism, however, it is impossible for this to be fully established as we have explained in our previous material. So our programme, rather than being ‘for the future’, as some of our critics have argued, is for the here and now.

97) Paradoxically, the idea of a ‘two-state’ solution may not be realised in the ‘future’. After the socialist revolution, the Israeli and Palestinian masses may decide to live in a combined state with autonomous rights for both. There will be no compulsion. It will be left for them to decide democratically what the character or borders of a future state or states will be, and the national and social composition in population terms, etc. So, the CWI’s programme is not ‘for the future’. Both Palestinian and Israeli workers may decide democratically that separate states are not necessary in the future. But today, this programme is an important weapon which allows us to approach both the Israeli and Palestinian masses, to win their confidence and forge an alliance between the working class and the poor in the region.

98) The dialectical, extremely sensitive, subtle approach of Lenin and Trotsky – who did not hesitate to change policy, demands, or even the emphasis of their programme depending on the circumstances – is foreign to these organisations. The struggle in the 1930s between imperialism and the masses in the neo-colonial world was quite clearly one between an oppressing foreign power and countries that were clearly still ‘colonies’ or semi-colonial, most of them under the direct military domination of one imperialist power or another. It was quite clear that Marxists gave unconditional support to these colonies in the struggle against imperialism irrespective of the political regime. We still did this in the sense of supporting the people of Afghanistan against imperialism in the current war.

99) But neither Lenin nor Trotsky advocated unconditional support of any bourgeois regime, or aspiring bourgeoisie, in the colonial world. Lenin insisted on the separation of the proletariat, even when it was in an incipient stage, and in its organisations from even radical national bourgeois politicians who struggled against imperialist domination. Yet the task was simpler then. The consciousness of the advanced layer, of instinctive support for the colonial peoples against imperialism, made the approach of Marxists clear.

The Vietnam War

100) Since the time that Trotsky wrote, however, particularly in the post-1945 period with the growth of Stalinism and the influence of Stalinist ideas in the neo-colonial world, it was not as simple. Separation of any colony from imperialism represented a step forward, as with the Algerian liberation struggle against French imperialism, in which we gave not just political but very practical support. However, we did this without entertaining even the slightest illusions as to what would happen almost on the very next day after the victory of the National Liberation Front. We predicted it would become, in all probability, a bourgeois Bonapartist regime, but with some radical features at its base. (In fact, we saw examples of ‘self-management’ of abandoned French farms in Algeria in the first period after the defeat of France in 1962.) The USFI, on the other hand, entertained illusions in the ‘socialist’ character of the Algerian regime.

101) In the Vietnam War, as well, we were for the defeat of US imperialism and for the victory of the Vietnamese revolution which, in practice, meant the coming to power of the NLF (Viet Cong). But we never put this forward as a mass slogan as others did. Never on demonstrations did we, as the USFI did, chant, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ (Ho Chi Minh was the president of North Vietnam and leader of the liberation forces as a whole in Vietnam).

102) Why did we adopt this approach? Because of the consciousness of the working class worldwide and in the advanced industrial countries, with their suspicion of Stalinist regimes, their lack of democracy, suppression of workers’ rights, etc. In our propaganda, theoretical and public analysis, we explained that the victory of the NLF would represent a victory. Nevertheless, because of the social forces involved in the Vietnamese revolution – largely a nationalist, peasant-based movement – the regime that would issue from this would be a one-party regime. This would be in the image of North Vietnam or Moscow. Politically, it would be a one-party regime but resting on a nationalised, planned economy. This, we argued, would in one way represent a big step forward for the Vietnamese people and would detonate movements elsewhere. It would strike a blow against imperialism and, above all, of US imperialism. But, because of the one-party regime which would be established, it would mean that a new political revolution would be necessary in the future for Vietnam to move towards socialism.

103) The movement in Vietnam was progressive but the demand for ‘victory to the NLF’ and similar slogans would never attract the support of the mass of the working class, particularly in the US, for a mass anti-war mass movement. Therefore, the more correct position from a Marxist point of view, as opposed to the stand of many groups, was mass agitation for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and, specifically, of US troops. In the context of the Vietnam War this was a ‘revolutionary’ demand because US bayonets alone propped up the rotten landlord/capitalist regime in South Vietnam.

104) We correctly anticipated that the withdrawal of US forces would lead to the collapse of this regime and the triumph of the revolution, which is what subsequently happened. It was the combination of the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants with the mass revolt of the US workers and population, on the very simple premise that the war was unwinnable, which led to the first military defeat of US imperialism in its history. But the forces of the Vietnamese revolution could not attract, in the same way as the victory of the working class in Russia in 1917 did (the ‘ten days that shook the world’), the conscious support of the American working class.

Relate Marxist ideas to the level of understanding

105) It does not even enter the minds of the sectarian left of how to take an idea and relate it to the existing level of consciousness of the working class, seeking to change it with skilful propaganda and slogans. Bin Laden and the Taliban, as a political formation, are entirely repulsive to the overwhelming majority of the working class worldwide. The growing anti-war movement during the war did not express support for these figures – unlike in the Vietnam War for the NLF – and was largely of a pacifist character, of opposition to bombing, of ‘let the Afghan people themselves decide’, etc. There was nothing in the medieval obscurantism of Islamic fundamentalism that could possibly attract the mass of the proletariat in the advanced industrial countries. Moreover, as was subsequently demonstrated, support for the Taliban rested on chickens’ legs, which folded at the first serious challenge.

106) Therefore, ‘political Islam’ or Islamic fundamentalism, which is now of an overwhelming right-wing character, offers no way out to the oppressed and enslaved peoples of the Middle East, Africa or of parts of Asia. It would, therefore, have been wrong for a Marxist organisation both in the industrialised countries and in the neo-colonial world to give political support to their reactionary ideas.

107) We clearly differentiate between support for the Afghan and Iraqi peoples, and for all peoples in the neo-colonial world under attack from imperialism, and support for quasi ‘liberation’ organisations such as the Taliban and al-Qa’ida organisations. Even where they are temporarily successful, according to their own lights, as in the case of 11 September, the net result is reactionary.

108) It lowers the level of consciousness of the peoples in the Middle East, seeking to teach them to look for salvation from lone fighters, or a group of avenging angels in the form of al-Qa’ida, rather than the mass activity, demonstrations, the arming of the masses, the general strike and insurrection, to overthrow landlordism and capitalism. War is a crucial test for Marxists and revolutionaries. Once more, the small ultra-left groups, like Workers’ Power, the LIT and larger organisations, like the SWP, have failed this test.

109) During the war the CWI provided timely slogans – through a process of discussion and dialogue. This allowed us to intervene very effectively in the war. This is a harbinger for the future when all ideas will be put to the test, before massive audiences of workers.

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