For communists there can be no question of ?defending? the Taliban, writes Ian Donovan
The September 11 outrages in New York and Washington, apparently carried out by islamicist followers of the Saudi dissident and multi-millionaire, Osama bin Laden, have rightly been the object of revulsion for most of the left. Yet they have also sparked political debate about the attitude of Marxists to terrorism, and to the growth of fanatical, ultra-religious movements with ?anti-imperialist? pretensions, particularly in the muslim world. These debates will be crucial in determining how effectively the left is able to lead opposition to the new imperialist offensive that has been brought together using these attacks as a pretext.
Getting it wrong can only serve to limit our potential influence as an independent force, as opposed to merely an adjunct of either the imperialist war machine, or - equally as bad - a tail of the ultra-reactionary ?radicals? who brought about this physical and political blow against the working class. For that is what it was - the action of the suicide hijackers not only directly murdered hundreds on the aircraft that were aimed as makeshift bombs, and not only slaughtered thousands of ordinary workers who were buried or burned alive in the World Trade Center itself. They also have created a political situation where the imperialists see an opportunity to exploit these acts of barbarism as a pretext for a massive increase of militarism, for acts of savagery in ?retaliation?: in short an opportunity to sweep aside opposition to the policing of the world on behalf of capital.
However, weakness and incoherence mar the left?s response. In part this reflects political softness on one or another form of nationalism. In some cases, the overt influence of Stalinist ideology or ?left? anti-American chauvinism have led some of the most odious ultra-Stalinist currents to overtly hail these bloodthirsty, reactionary attacks (though this has proved too much even for many of these types to stomach). The rantings of such people aside, some of the programmatic errors that lead to such deranged conclusions have a wider influence on elements with very much more contact with social reality. They have not produced the kind of nonsense peddled by one ardent Stalinist and Socialist Labour Party member, who loudly called for ?two, three, many New Yorks? on the UK Left Network internet discussion list.
Nevertheless these kinds of weaknesses - eg, Stalinism and ?left? anti-Americanism - lead to a perspective that seems ?radical?, but is really bankrupt and amounts to a guilty liberal softness on reactionary actions directed at the working class of the imperialist countries, particularly, of course, the United States. A form of politics that implies that it is somehow permissible, or at least not an outright crime, to seek to kill many ordinary members of the working class in the guise of conducting some kind of ?struggle? against the imperialists. Such an approach, it should be said, is hardly likely to attract the sympathy of masses of workers. In reality, this is not working class politics, but a variety of liberal moralism, that apologises for reactionary ideologies among peoples generally (and often rightly, though not always) regarded as oppressed, as opposed to a politics that uncompromisingly proposes working class, socialist solutions for that oppression.
The criticism by the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party of the use of the word ?condemn? in the Socialist Alliance statement to describe our attitude to the bombings in the US is an example of this kind of liberal moralism. There are a number of legitimate criticisms that could be made of the SA statement from the standpoint of Marxism: in particular of the remark that, ?The most fitting memorial to those who died or suffered in New York and Washington would be the complete reversal of these policies [ie, imperialism?s warmongering and oppression of the masses of the underdeveloped world] and their replacement by policies that promote peace, democracy, cooperation and sustainable egalitarian economic development.? This is reformist utopianism - imperialism is not merely a set of policies, but an entire social system synonymous with advanced capitalism. These policies cannot be ?reversed?, but rather the system of which they are an integral part must be uprooted by means of a social revolution of the working class.
But the fact that the SWP leadership does not see fit to criticise this error in the statement, instead focusing on the entirely correct use of the word ?condemn?, indicates its disorientation and its liberal tendency to simply tail third world nationalism (and ultimately its most anti-working-class manifestations) in place of a consistently working class perspective.
The SWP is not the only organisation whose classless ?anti-imperialism? leads it to this kind of evasion. The Socialist Labour Party?s official statement, penned by Arthur Scargill himself, carefully avoids using the word ?condemn?: ?The Socialist Labour Party deplores the loss of life in the United States as in other countries, where bombing raids have brought countless tragedies to the families and loved ones of those who have been killed.
?However, we fear that the world could see more of this type of attack. The devastation and death that descended on the United States on September 11 is a direct consequence of global capitalism, and of the determination of the US - and Nato - to try to dominate the world by force? (emphasis added Socialist News October-November). Presumably, then, the terrorists who actually carried out the atrocity were not ?directly? responsible for the deaths, did not exercise any free will or conscious choice in deciding to kill thousands of people. This is borne out by Scargill?s remark that ?? there are groups ? which believe they have no choice but to hit back at a superpower that ignores United Nations resolutions and international law, and has indiscriminately bombed countries including Libya, Iraq and Yugoslavia ??
Once again, the message is clear - the bombers had no choice in the matter: their actions were simply an automatic, unavoidable product of the actions of US imperialism. Scargill?s ?deploring? of the loss of life in the atrocities of September 11 is redolent of the response you might expect in the aftermath of a natural disaster - his whole thrust is to utter not one word of criticism or condemnation of the actions or motivations of the perpetrators.
Despite the very different origins of the SWP and SLP - the one originating in critical Trotskyism, the other being now more or less a Stalinoid personality cult around Scargill - they have crucial areas of overlap in dealing with events like this. From different theoretical bases and traditions, they arrive at similar conclusions. Stalinists at times differ among themselves, of course, over whom they regard as ?progressive? and ?reactionary? - in more ?glorious? times these designations tended to depend on the fluctuating interests of the various bureaucratic elites that ruled the state a particular organisation was loyal to. These days, with the USSR gone and the remaining ?socialist? states (North Korea, China, Vietnam, Cuba) rather less than riveted by the potential influence (or rather lack of it) of necessarily tiny and impotent pusillanimous sects in the advanced capitalist countries, guidance as to who is ?progressive? and ?reactionary? is a bit hard to come by.
So the likes of Scargill have to make it up as they go along. This lack of criticism of the suicide hijackers by Scargill is unbecoming of someone who, after all, was militantly pro-Moscow in the cold war, and who might be expected to stand up and shout, ?I told you so? at the western powers, not least the American bourgeoisie, who funnelled billions to Afghan fundamentalists in the 1980s to exploit what some called ?Russia?s Vietnam?, and arguably have now been badly bitten by their own hell-hounds.
But then Scargill also has a problem with shouting too loud about that - his SLP retains a slender hold on organisational existence thanks partly to the efforts of the Maoist/Stalinist current led by London regional president Harpal Brar. And, as ought to be well known, these kind of people were furious in their denunciation of Soviet ?social-imperialism? in Afghanistan during the Cold War, and no small amount of ?socialist? Chinese military aid went to the ?holy warriors?, even as they routinely murdered and mutilated any secular elements within Afghanistan they could lay their hands on.
For the SWP, of course, very different considerations apply. They did not learn their politics from the corrupt elites of the official ?socialist? states. On the contrary, they rejected not only Stalinism: they also rejected the position of ?military? defence of these states propagated by the orthodox Trotskyists. Tony Cliff?s tendency did not come up with an explanation of the nature of the USSR under Stalinist rule that was more convincing in describing and projecting its evolution than that of the orthodox Trotskyists, but at least it partially broke from ?defencism? of any and every social formation or force that talks the talk against ?imperialism? while offering only tyranny and death to the workers at home. Unfortunately, Cliff and co did not break from the method of tailing anti-working class forces, but only from one aspect with regard to Stalinism.
With regard to other anti-democratic or reactionary forms of ?anti-imperialism?, the SWP was just as tailist as the worst of them. Indeed, ironically, in the context of the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979, some ?orthodox? Trotskyists, such as those from the Spartacist tradition, had a qualitatively more accurate understanding of the real role of islamicist ?radicalism?. Though they were still bound to the most important aspects of Trotskyist ?anti-imperialist? dogma, (which means today that even the tiny Spart and neo-Spart sects will all have to hold onto their noses and their stomachs, and line up to defend the odious Taliban butchers ?against imperialism? if and when armed conflict breaks out,) nevertheless they understood in 1979, as the SWP did not, that the coming to power of Khomeiniite islamism in Iran was a massive defeat for the working class.
Likewise, during the war of the mujahedin ?holy warriors? against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the SWP was firm in support of the ?national liberation struggle? led by elements that included as their most ?radical? pole the Taliban. The SWP?s insight that the USSR under Stalinism was no ?lesser evil? to the western imperialists in this case became transmuted by means of the other key Trotskyist dogma - ?anti-imperialism? without an identifiable democratic or working class content - into support for the ?anti-imperialist? struggle of the mujahedin against Russia. In reality, the mujahedin were no more capable of waging a progressive struggle against Russia than the Taliban are capable of waging a progressive struggle against US/Nato imperialism today. The mujahedin/Taliban are in no sense, and never were, any sort of national liberation movement.
They are a movement, on the contrary, that is counterposed in reactionary terms to even the bourgeois achievements of the nation-state, which has long since ceased to be progressive. Come to think of it, many medieval monarchs in Europe - Louis XIV of France, Henry VIII of England or Peter the Great of Russia, for example - would have regarded them as black reactionaries. They are the opposite of even the bourgeois ?revolutionary? figures of the 20th century - Kemal Ataturk suppressed their kind mercilessly. The ?modernising? king Shah of Afghanistan of the 1920s, who allied with Soviet Russia, could probably have expected a similar fate to the former Peoples Democratic Party president Najibullah - brutal torture and murder - at their hands if the conditions had existed for their like to come to power in those days.
It should go without saying that those who stand in the progressive traditions of genuine communism, on the shoulders of the best aspects of the Russian Revolution, which in turn incorporates the most consistent expression of the secular and progressive-democratic aspects of the French Revolution, can have nothing in common with the Taliban whatsoever. This kind of ultra-clerical, fundamentalist, anti-culture is the most barbaric by-product of a world capitalist system which long ago exhausted any ability to come up with progressive politics within the framework of the established order.
Whether in the United States, the heartland of imperialism, or in the muslim world, there is a curious symmetry between the different forms of extreme, fundamentalist reaction - christian or muslim. Indeed, the similarity of the actions of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City killer of hundreds, and the killers of thousands in New York was so striking that in the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was anyone?s guess whether the culprits were islamic fundamentalists or supporters of the native christian fundamentalist far right.
Both the ?official? communists, and to a very great extent their critics among the Trotskyist movement, have unfortunately been instrumental in distorting key aspects of the communist attitude to anti-colonial struggles. The result is a dogma that baldly states that any armed struggle by any armed formation in a backward country which in some measure is also directed against an advanced capitalist country is necessarily a progressive struggle. This is irrespective of whether the social and political aims of the forces waging the struggle have any progressive, democratic or (heaven forbid) working class content at all.
This logic has been stretched in pretty bizarre directions recently - the Kosova war in 1999 is a case in point, when much of the left found themselves calling for the ?victory? of Serbian forces over their mainly Albanian victims, simply because the Albanians had, in their desperation at a decade of overtly chauvinist, apartheid-style oppression, turned to the western powers for ?help?. Now we see many of the same people jumping to the defence of the Taliban, and preparing to delude themselves that these counterrevolutionary, tyrannical scum, whose social programme is distinguished as undoubtedly the most backward-looking on the whole planet, are capable of waging an ?anti-imperialist? war, a war with ?revolutionary? implications!
You can almost hear the arguments being rehearsed even now. Sacred works of ?communist? scripture are no doubt being gone through, in a search for out-of-context quotes that can be used to justify ?military?, not ?political? support for the Taliban. The example of Mussolini?s 1934 colonial occupation of Abyssinia will be dusted off, along with various quotes from Lenin about the need to side with ?dependent?, formally independent states such as Iran in wars with the colonial powers, in a world the bulk of which was then ruled by mainly European colonial empires. We will be lectured that it is an ?obligation? for revolutionaries to support the ?imperialised? Afghanistan of the Taliban against the imperialist west. The holy words of Lenin and Trotsky will be brandished by the biblicists and sectists to ward off all rational criticism grounded in contemporary social reality.
Of course, the quotation-mongers miss the point that what Lenin and Trotsky were most concerned to defend was the right of national self-determination, a right that was then denied by the colonialists to the bulk of the oppressed peoples of the world. The fact that this is no longer the case, that the colonial empires have long since disintegrated, and that contemporary capitalist imperialism in general no longer rules by denying the formal right to independence to the peoples of the ?third world?, makes no difference to much of the left. Confronted with contemporary late 20th/early 21st century social and political reality, Trotsky would have assailed his modern-day epigones with one of his characteristically sharp expressions. Such as, ?Learn to think!?
The essence of the early Comintern?s attitude to the colonial question, and therefore the question of colonial wars, was determined by the need to overcome key obstacles to the realisation, by the oppressed masses of those countries, that the ultimate barrier to their emancipation was the ?indigenous? ruling classes of those countries. National oppression - rule by a foreign imperialist occupier was the key obstacle to this understanding. The removal of this obstacle, insofar as this is possible without the overthrow of the entire worldwide system of capitalism, required support for the democratic demand of national independence. A key task of communists was therefore to be the most consistent fighters for the national rights and self-determination of colonial peoples, precisely to strip away the masses? bourgeois-democratic illusions that, if only they had their ?own? national state, they would also become emancipated from poverty and oppression.
Self-evidently, a rather different situation exists today. The major powers have no ambition and no need to even attempt to reconquer the colonial empires that dominated the world in the first half of the 20th century - not even Tony Blair?s ?plans? for Africa propose that. Indeed, the very idea is absurd - such an attempt to roll back the tide of history, as is obvious to the most block-headed imperialist strategist, would be a recipe for a pointless, destabilising series of losing colonial wars of attrition, whose only beneficiaries would be those who wish to see the destabilisation of the imperialist countries themselves. Such a course would be political suicide for imperialism - which of course has no intention of hastening its own demise.
Imperialism today dominates the world through its economic and military-strategic might, not through colonial conquest. Its military interventions are of a more measured and limited kind, aimed at controlling a number of different kinds of threat to the ?equilibrium? and stability of the world it dominates. Obviously, this can be disrupted in a number of different ways, from a number of different directions. One potential source of such disruption is a progressive, revolutionary movement, fighting for the emancipation of the exploited and oppressed masses of the underdeveloped world. The job of communists is to aid such developments with all our resources.
But there are other forms of destabilisation of the imperialist world order which communists have no interest in helping. Imperialist capitalism is a decaying system that is incapable of providing a progressive solution to the problems of wide areas of the world. This very incapacity can also give rise to barbaric, retrograde movements and forces that seek a road out, not on the path of social progress and revolution, but rather by trying to roll back the wheel of history to some imagined golden age before capitalism. The Taliban, and indeed islamic fundamentalists in general, are a prime example of this, seeking a return to the Caliphate of over a thousand years ago.
Such reactionary ?anti-capitalists? are the latter-day analogues of the kind of ?feudal socialists? that Marx polemicised against in the Communist manifesto. The imperialist bourgeoisie of today, of course, is not the semi-revolutionary bourgeoisie of Marx?s day - it has long since ceased to play a progressive role in history and therefore the proletariat cannot consider it an ally against the reactionary forces. Nevertheless the left has no interest whatsoever in aiding these kinds of reactionary forces against the imperialist bourgeoisie.
Indeed the communist movement, in its classical, revolutionary period in the early 20s, recognised this historic possibility, of reactionary opposition to imperialist - ie, reactionary - capitalism. Lenin wrote: ?Imperialism is as much our ?mortal? enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism? (VI Lenin, ?A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism? CW Vol 23 Moscow 1977, p63).
And indeed the Communist International itself, with its wide involvement in anti-colonial struggles, was confronted by the attempts to exploit the masses? discontent at national oppression for reactionary ends. The Comintern drew a line between the liberation movements and such elements: ?With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal or patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind ? the need to combat pan-islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc ?? (emphasis added Preliminary draft theses on the national and colonial questions June 1920).
The inability of the epigones of Lenin and Trotsky either programmatically or in practice to distinguish between progressive and reactionary forces in conflict with imperialism leaves them in an odd dilemma. Since this line is repellent to most progressive-minded workers, there are only two options for those who uphold it. That is, sectarian braggadocio on the one hand, and opportunism on the other. With regard to the former, one can easily imagine the likes of Workers Power, with the fragmented remnants of the Spartacists in close pursuit, glorying in their bravado on the fringes of some anti-war demonstration earnestly chanting, ?Victory to Afghanistan. Victory to the Taliban? (which at least rhymes quite well).
On the other hand, there is opportunism, coming from those elements concerned to build a mass anti-war movement while at the same time being stuck within the same programmatic and theoretical framework as the sectarian ultras. The SWP and the International Socialist Group spring to mind - their ?principles? will remain in the pages of obscure theoretical journals, or firmly tucked away on the inside pages of their press - the mass anti-war movement they will really try to build, if they are allowed to get away with their retreat into their old ways, will be simply on the political foundations provided by pacifists and reformists, to whose politics they generally defer in practice.
For communists, our political standpoint is not a sectarian catechism, nor an embarrassment to be hidden away lest the reformist and pacifist-influenced anti-war movement be shocked by its irrationality. It is the axis of our intervention in the mass movement. We are confident that a genuine communist perspective, of militant opposition to imperialist war, combined with not even a nuance of softness on or support for the virulently reactionary aims and actions of imperialism?s current antagonists, can gain considerable influence in this period. Indeed, the Socialist Alliance is the natural repository for such a rational, genuinely socialist perspective.
For workers in the advanced capitalist countries, the main enemy is at home. For the oppressed masses in Afghanistan and elsewhere under the thumb of fundamentalist islam and reactionary tyranny, likewise. It would be fatal to tie their fate to their oppressors - their main enemy is also at home.
For class war against imperialist war!