From order to chaos
Why has so much of the left collapsed into social-imperialism? Why the continued illusions in US intervention? Mike Macnair talked to Hands off the People of Iran in a meeting hosted by Yassamine Mather
In this series of talks for Hopi we want to address various aspects of the development of the protest movement in Iran, but inevitably we also have to consider what is happening with the left. One of my concerns, shared by other comrades, is the fear that the Iranian left is increasingly becoming what I would call liberal pro-western, pro-Nato, pro-US, pro-imperialist. This is not accidental; I think it is a global phenomenon.
After the 1979 revolution some of these groups did support the Islamic Republic on the basis of supporting the Soviet Union. There have been defeats and so on, but I think that this recent turn to the right is also rooted in what the Iranian left reads in US and UK international journals. I emphasise these two countries, because inside Iran most people do not speak French, Spanish or other foreign languages, apart from English. It would be good to understand how we have reached this stage, where there are people who consider themselves on the left, yet can support Nato or imperialism - and the lessons we can learn from the mistakes of the international left in that respect.
Thank you, Yassamine, for inviting me to talk about this. I begin with the effects of the United States’ overseas interventions since 1975. I say 1975, because that was the moment to which the US was run out of Saigon in a humiliating way and effected a turn in policy. The new policy had in some respects begun before, but it became overt following Vietnam (and also with the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76). The US turned at this moment to deploying diplomatic, financial and special forces assistance to various sorts of guerrilla forces aimed against third-world nationalist movements. We begin with US backing for South African action in support of the Unita movement in Angola, which aimed to neuter the fact that the country had obtained independence as a result of the Portuguese revolution. There was a very similar operation directed against Mozambique, ultimately sponsored by the US.
At the same period the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war was initiated by the Maronite Christian far-right Phalange, but with US and Israeli covert backing, followed up by Israeli direct military intervention in 1978 and 1982. The USA’s own military intervention in 1982-83 produced the truck bombing of a marine barracks, which gave rise to a US grudge against Hezbollah and its backers in Iran, and against Lebanon as such, which has continued to inform US policy to the present day. The upshot is that Lebanon, which before the initiation of the Israeli-backed Maronite civil war operation was the one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, has been reduced to a paralysed state with militia control of different localities and a government totally mired in corruption and unable to act effectively.
The US backed the Khmer Rouge as a government against the Vietnamese in 1975-78 and after the Vietnamese invasion as a terrorist formation operating out of Thailand. The effect was simply the massive impoverishment of Cambodia relative to what went before.
As soon as the Saur revolution in Afghanistan took place in 1978, the US began to back what was later called the Mujahideen, initially with financial aid run through the Pakistani secret service. Before the 1980 ‘Soviet invasion’ the US had already started supplying arms to the Mujahideen. The result was again state failure and general disorder.
Against the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution the US-sponsored the Contra insurgents, and in the mid-1980s conducted the extraordinary Iran-Contra operation, whereby it supplied arms to the Contras (which the US Congress had actually prohibited), paid for by sales of arms to Iran’s Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, there is good reason to suppose that the United States ‘green-lighted’ Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti in his 1980 invasion of Iran; and the US certainly supplied military materiel to the Iraqis, and took direct military action against Iran. Again, the overall effect was destruction and impoverishment.
The collapse of the Somalian state began with the opportunist foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy, leading it in 1975 to betray their old friends in the Somali left-nationalist Bonapartist regime of general Siad Barre in favour of their new hoped-for friends in the Ethiopian Derg regime. After the fall of the USSR, however, the USA intervened in Somalia without success in creating a new order, merely preventing the victory of any group in the multi-sided civil war.
The effect of US and European intervention in the break-up of Yugoslavia and after has been the creation of a series of UN protectorates, and again sectarian paralysis and economic degradation.
After the first US-Iraq War in 1990-91 the system of siege warfare sanctions was left in place all through the 1990s, producing massive impoverishment of Iraq. And then, of course, the 2003 invasion produced another paralysed and half-broken state, like Lebanon, with massive impoverishment, very substantial deindustrialisation, a weakening of infrastructure and so on. For all the pretences of creating democracy, the upshot is an unstable block of parties dependent on the Islamic Republic, together with the Kurds in a semi-autonomous state.
The Iraqi Kurds had great hopes in the US and Israel backing their demands for self-determination - and perhaps even for a greater Kurdistan. But the reality is that the US’s alliance with Turkey at the end of the day was rather more important to America than that with the Kurds - regarded as useful idiots by the US, which deployed them against Iraq, and then against the Ba’athist regime in Syria in 2014. In Syria too the intervention of the US and its Gulf and Saudi proxies has not created democracy, but merely ruin and paralysis.
Imagine that the US succeeds in its efforts to defeat Russia in the Ukraine war: the Putin administration is overthrown and a ‘new Yeltsin’ put in place; Russia’s arms, nuclear and aerospace industries are closed down; Russians are pulled out of Syria. But what will you get under US control? Something like Libya after 2011: again, state failure, militias controlling blocks of territory in conflict with one another and massive destruction.
The illusion that imperialist intervention could create stability and modernisation is derived from the nature of the European empires in the 19th to early 20th centuries. The British empire was barbaric. Karl Marx commented in the 1850s that it employed torture as an ‘instrument of tax policy’. It was an institution which sabotaged the Indian cotton industry for the sake of its British counterpart. Nonetheless, even in the relative decline of the British empire in the second half of the 19th century, it did actually succeed in creating railway infrastructure and industrial capabilities in India and an increased degree of order.
There is a chapter in Jonathan Parry’s book Promised lands about British policy towards the Ottomans in the early 19th century, which describes the British as having been characterised by “a passion for order” - which led them to support Mehmet Ali’s regime in Egypt (until the man got too big for his boots and the British intervened against him). There was a genuine increase in public order; which is a dynamic of rising capitalism more generally. When we compare capitalist regimes to those before them there is generally less banditry, extortion by local officials and so on. Capitalist productive industry needs such an increase in order (financial capitalist operations perhaps less so).
But why does the US not strive for that today? Because the US today, like Britain in the late later 19th century, is in relative decline. Relative decline is not the same as absolute decline, but it means that other states are catching up in industry - the working-through of the consequences of world ascendancy. US military world ascendancy since 1945 makes the dollar the ultimate reserve currency, as the pound was before 1914. The result is that people who are seeking safe investments do so in the USA, whereas people in the US who are seeking higher-return investments do the opposite. The flow of investment funds into the US, just as happened in the Netherlands in the 17th-18th century and in Britain in the 19th century, drives land prices up, which also drives rents up. That, in turn, drives wages up too. Wages go up relative to profits without the position of the working class dramatically improving because the money is going into rents and interest payments.
But the fact that wages and rents have increased drives productive investment overseas. In the late 19th century productive investment from Britain largely went into the US, into Germany - into the ‘white colonies’ rather than to India (although it also went there to some extent). From the US it has gone to a variety of places: to Latin America and the Middle East in the 1950s and 60s. Then from the 1980s that investment was pulled out and transferred to the ‘Asian tigers’. In reality all that happened was that the radical growth of east Asia corresponded to the partial deindustrialisation of Latin America and the Middle East, and that of the US itself.
Decline, then, means that the US remains dominant militarily and financially, but industrially it is less so. How is the US to respond to this phenomenon? The response of Britain was to tie the colonial territories to the home territory, primarily by using what are called ‘non-tariff barriers’: the regulatory measures of one sort and another, which pushed the colonial territories into trade primarily with the metropolis. In India a substantial element was that Indians themselves were supposed to pay for the army which held them down, for example. That meant that India had to export primary-product raw materials to the British; and in industry it had to buy British rather than, say, German.
This policy of the British government of tying the colonies (and also the British semi-colonies in Latin America) to itself through non-tariff barriers and indirect trade controls drove the enormous expansion of European territorial empires. Because once the British pursued this policy, everyone else needed their own protected imperial territories. Hence the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century and other forms of imperial expansion.
So why does the US not follow this policy today? The answer, I think is that the relative decline of the US takes place in the context of the decline of capitalism as such. That means that the growth of working class organisation forces the core capitalist states to make major concessions to workers - Medicare in the US, the NHS in the UK, social security arrangements both in the US and Europe, free public education and so on, as well as concessions in terms of wages and conditions in employment. Subsidies were also supplied to agriculture - both for geostrategic reasons (after the near-starvation of Europe in 1914-18) and to preserve the rural classes as a counterweight against the urban working class.
During the 19th century Britain was a major exporter of population - it was not so great to be a worker (or indeed a middle class person) in Victorian Britain and several of my own ancestors were middle class, imperialist emigrants. Emigration did not merely populate the ‘white’ settler-colonies (and contribute to the population of the US). The exported people from Britain constituted the imperial cadre, the officers and tech ranks of the colonial armies, though the lower ranks were largely raised in, say, northern India. That emigration enabled the British - and also the French - to hold the colonies in subordination in the later 19th century, in a way which directly imposed order, and so created the conditions for investment and infrastructure in the colonial world.
Capitalism was still in the process of converting a largely agricultural workforce - still characterised by the tendency of peasants to overproduce children as a form of savings - into an industrial workforce. When that process was completed, we saw in France first - then in Britain not long afterwards and the US somewhat later - what is called the ‘demographic transition’: people stopped having so many children. This implies both that there was no great pressure from below to export population and that major concessions had to be made to the working class. Such was the dynamic of migration shifts. Britain was roughly in balance between immigration and emigration between the mid- and very late 20th century.
Hence, the cadre is no longer available for the imperialist powers to sustain permanent occupation forces, colonial civil services, and so on. That was already the case in relation to the US empire at its height in 1945-75. So the US operates in this period through episodic direct interventions, coupled with support for local military regimes or pseudo-traditionalist regimes such as the Saudi monarchy, the shah of Iran, the Jordanian monarchy or similar establishments in various Gulf states. I say ‘pseudo traditionalist’, because these dynasties have very shallow historical roots. The model is Britain’s semi-colonial control of Latin America in the 19th century - or, before that, Dutch operations through semi-client states in the Baltic and eastern Europe in the 17th.
This was linked to the cold war and the ‘containment of communism’. But by the late 1960s this policy was visibly failing and the US had entered into relative decline. In response to these problems, the US began gradually to take back the economic concessions to the working class, to the European and east Asian vassal states, and to semi-colonial nationalist regimes, which had been established as part of this policy. But the absence of substantial emigration from the US meant that it could not take and maintain direct imperial control in order to exclude competitors. What came to be on offer was instead - as indicated above - mere destruction inflicted on arbitrary targets which might be supposed in some way to have ‘dissed’ the US.
From 1975, and especially from the Carter administration in 1976-80, the US made a major political-ideological turn. Stability and material progress ceased to be on offer. In its place came ‘human rights’ and ‘self-determination’, so that the US promoted secessionist movements like, in its own past, the Confederacy. This was positively advocated by Nato strategy-writers as a technique to break up the Soviet bloc; it has been applied repeatedly in practice - notably in the break-up of the USSR and of Yugoslavia. An early-2000s example is Bolivia, where the left won an election mainly based on votes from the highlands and with a significant ‘Andean rights’ aspect to the campaign; Bolivian lowlanders, who were in reality the latifundista agri-capitalists backed by the US, launched a self-determination movement - a trend which the American right still backs.
But actually what lies beneath these doctrines of ‘self-determination’ and ‘human rights’ is deindustrialisation. And in the Middle East, the US indirectly sponsors Islamist political trends, since after the 1973-74 ‘oil price shock’ funds got fed into Saudi and Wahhabi versions of Islam all across the Muslim countries, including in countries which have Muslim migrant populations.
In short, we cannot in the least imagine any return to the sort of imperialism which promotes ‘order’ and ‘development’, because the underlying dynamics are those of the overall decline of capitalism, and its effect on the relative decline of the US. So that the US in decline cannot practise the development-promoting sort of imperialism that Britain and France did. I am not saying capitalism is about to collapse: merely that capitalism is past its peak, and the consequences mean that the US lacks the capability to impose order worldwide. Instead, in order to protect the ‘American way of life’, it simply exports destruction.
Now we come to the left, which has had an element of social-imperialism for a long time. The 1950s-60s Shachtman tendency in the US and trends derived from it called themselves ‘third campist’, but were in practice inclined to prettify the operations of the US in eastern Europe and the third world. Similarly the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has since the 1980s been an ‘anti-anti-imperialist’ organisation - in effect a pro-imperialist one.
This approach obtained a degree of plausibility in the cold war period, because of the system of concessions, discussed above. It was pushed into the background by the events of 1967-68 and the following years. When it resurfaced in the 1980s-90s, it was already a politics of nostalgia for the 50s-60s, though the collapse of the ‘Soviet bloc’ aided it. That this trend should promote illusions in the US-led ‘west’ recreating order is unsurprising, but shows a remarkable degree of refusal to face the ruinous facts of US interventions since 1975.
What is new in recent years is the sudden shift of the Mandelite Fourth International - the main historic Trotskyist organisation - and various people who are influenced by it into social-imperialism around Ukraine. How I think this has happened is in the first place that they fetishised street demonstrations - with the result that they are unable to distinguish between those organised by progressive forces and by reactionaries. In turn, they are also unable to distinguish between a genuine mass movement and something which is ‘a well orchestrated swell of public outrage’.
The 2014 Euromaidan in Kiev started with a demonstration of a size which the Socialist Workers Party could have mobilised on its own in London, and it was dominated by the far right. There was then a ‘false flag’ attack on that demonstration carried out by the far right itself. This operation, blamed by media on police supporters of the president, triggered real (but ephemeral) mass protests, which were then used by the state core to oust the elected government. It is clear that the US was hands-on throughout.
The Fourth International thought this orchestrated event was a genuine revolution! And, as a result, now they think of the war in Ukraine as simply about self-determination against Russian invaders. It is like those in the British and French labour movements in 1914-18 who argued that World War I was all about the self-determination of ‘bleeding Belgium’ and ‘plucky little Serbia’ being overrun by the terrible ‘Hun’ invaders. In reality what was happening was a conflict between the great powers for the redivision of the world.
And when self-determination reappeared in Versailles at the end of the war, it was very clear that it had limits. It applied to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire - at an enormous cost in suffering to the inhabitants, because it destroyed a custom union and split an existing economy into eight different territorial entities. It did not apply to the territories of the British and French empires, or the territories they had just taken over from the Ottoman empire. Indeed, the approach was pretty selective: Czech Bohemia got given Slovakia as an internal colony, for example.
Back again to Parry’s book Promised lands. There is more than one episode in the first half of the 19th century where the British promised the Kurds support for an autonomous state. How much truth was there in that? None. Everybody who places faith in the perfidious Albion or Washington will be betrayed.
The predominance of social-imperialism at present is enormously misleading. In the ‘west’ it turns organisations of the left into a tail end for the manoeuvres of their own governments. For people in the targeted countries, like Iran, Syria or Iraq, believing these arguments and imagining that ‘the west’ will bring democracy and spaces for trade union organisation, and so on, is like turkeys voting for an early Christmas - or the bizarre 1937 poem of John Betjeman, ‘Slough’, beginning “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough” - not an image which would have been quite as attractive after 1940.
I’m just going to make a couple of very short points so you can answer all of them in one go. First of all, before Ukraine, some of these social-imperialists were supporting any opposition in Syria and Libya. The experience of both of those places, as you alluded to, has not been the achievement of ‘human rights’ for anyone. Can the social-imperialists point to any example where there has been at least the appearance of improvements in terms of such human rights? Are there any exceptions to this destructive trend?
Secondly, part of the problem is that for sections of the left, while it is true that they made demonstrations central, there was always the illusion of another big power that would help them. I think, for example, those who believed that the Soviet Union was a ‘deformed workers’ state’ that could be transformed through a ‘political revolution’ hoped for support from this pole. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we have seen a shift in pro-imperialist thinking; instead of saying, ‘Well, actually, now we can think independently and organise independently’, they seem to have gone for soft support for the other major global force: the hegemon power. Is this too simplistic or am I mistaken?
First, are there any examples of an actual improvement in human rights? That is difficult to pin down. Certainly, the fall of the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe produced for a period of time a significant degree of gains in terms of political liberties. That continues to be the case in the Czech Republic. But the underlying trend is different. In Poland the Law and Justice party is basically a far-right Catholic clericalist group, similar to the far-right clericalist parties of the inter-war period.
In Hungary Viktor Orbán started out as a liberal. The US and Europe massively supported Hungary in the first period of the collapse of the eastern bloc and Hungary was lent vast sums of money. But, once the Soviet collapse was complete and it looked as though with Yeltsin the east was ‘safe’, the loans were foreclosed. The substantial impoverishment produced the rise of a far-right party, Jobbik - and then Orbán’s Fidesz stole Jobbik’s ideological clothes and became a far-right party. There was a similar dynamic across eastern Europe - indeed, it is present in the ‘west’ as well. Neoliberal financialisation and corruption, going along with deindustrialisation, naturally gives birth to far-right populism.
Similarly, from the time of the Carter administration, there was, with US support, a shift to constitutionalist forms of government in Latin America, away from the former military strongmen. But the level of corruption was so severe, along with deindustrialisation, when people were thrown on the scrap heap, that is not clear that there have been great advantages for anyone other than the bribe-payers within such ‘liberalisation’.
Secondly, yes, there were people who held illusions in the Soviet Union. For example, Mario Roberto Santucho was a leader of the Revolutionary Workers Party/Popular Revolutionary Army in Argentina, which was formed by a regroupment between Trotskyists and other far-leftists, and attempted to apply Guevara’s guerrillaist ‘foco’ project. Santucho argued that we had to see the Soviet Union as the ‘rear guard’ of the global movement, even though it was deformed and defective, and hence the RWP became subordinated to Soviet foreign policy and the idea of the anti-imperialist ‘camp’. I think that we should perhaps also see Cuban and Nicaraguan influence on the US Socialist Workers Party after 1979, and hence on its supporters in Iran in the Hezb-e Kargaran-e Enghelabi (Revolutionary Socialist League), producing analogous reasoning.
But this was not the case in relation to the Mandelites. If anything, they did the opposite. Though they were formally Soviet-defencist and for political revolution in, not the overthrow of, the Soviet-bloc regimes by the ‘west’, nonetheless they were not careful about the politics of what they were trying to build in eastern Europe and the resourcing of this clandestine work. They moved the concept of political revolution away from Trotsky’s idea, in which it essentially means a coup d’état, as in France in 1830. In the 1977 Theses on socialist democracy (eventually formally adopted in 1985) the Mandelites began to tailend Eurocommunism. Indeed, they characterised it - and later Gorbachev and even Yeltsin - as part of a move to the left, which was the opposite of the reality.
As to why this happened, I think the Trotskyists were effectively ‘sat on’ by the enormous weight of ‘official communism’ from 1945 through to 1989 - it appeared as though ‘official communism’ had been enormously successful. During this period, Trotskyists were more or less forced either to become what Trotsky called ‘capitulators’ - left ‘official communists’, which is what happened to Santucho and the American SWP - or to become ‘third campists’, seeking shelter from Stalinism under the wing of the US. It is only when the Soviet Union and the east European states collapsed that things became more obvious. But then we saw many former leftists heading straight to neoliberalism: Eurocommunists became Blairites, for instance.
The Mandelites hoped that some revolution, somewhere, could offer a more attractive image than the USSR. Argentina was one of those hopes, then France, Spain, and so on. Quite a lot of that hope was just illusory. In the first place (and this is what is wrong with the Theses on socialist democracy), it was illusory to suppose that a post-revolutionary regime could be substantially less repressive than the post-1688 Williamite and Hanoverian regimes.
Secondly, capitalism involves a global material division of labour. Hence socialist construction in a single country is also illusory: the USSR could get as far as it did because what it held was most of the former tsarist empire - and even that was not enough. Hence an isolated revolution would be very rapidly starved out. During the cold war, if you did not take sides with the USSR, the US would just squash you very quickly. Cuba and South Yemen were able to make limited progress because of alliance with the USSR. But the USA’s turn in policy and the war in Afghanistan meant that the Soviet leadership was not able or willing to do for Nicaragua what it had done for Cuba - and Nicaragua fell.
But then, if you were onside with the USSR, you were stuck with creating your own KGB, etc. Even if you were just ‘half onside’, like the Ba’athists in Iraq and Syria, you could get your policemen and so on trained in the USSR - and adopting Soviet political culture (and, along with that, all the ‘planning irrationalities’ that that regime produced).
So it was not the Mandelites’ hope in the USSR as a rearguard whose collapse led them towards liberalism: it was their utopian hope in a revolution which could avoid the question of the USSR.
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