Politics of despair and reactionary anti-imperialism

Eddie Ford discusses the Bali bombing and the communist approach to those fighting imperialism

Communists utterly condemn the Bali bombings which killed 27 people last weekend. We do so for two main reasons. First, and foremost, because such acts by their very nature are barbaric and inhuman, bringing totally unnecessary suffering, they can never further the cause of human emancipation - means are not unconnected with ends. Secondly, the bombers who commit these atrocities give ideological succour to the forces of reaction, inviting state repression and a general crackdown on democratic rights - not to mention opening up the possibility of further imperialist intervention in Indonesia and elsewhere. Frankly, anyone who attempted to justify or provide apologias for this heinous crime would fully deserve to be branded with infamy - or worse - by the workers' movement. By all accounts, the perpetrators of this latest terrorist outrage were Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the organisation responsible for the October 12 2002 bomb blasts in two Balinese night clubs, which killed over 200 people and seriously wounded scores of others. Just like the attacks on the Egyptian tourist town of Luxor, the Bali bombs were aimed not just at 'decadent' tourists, but also at the local workers employed in the tourist-based section of the economy - with many thousands of jobs put at risk. Unsurprisingly, if only for this reason alone, the terrorist actions in Indonesia have inspired mass revulsion and feelings of incomprehension. It is a little disturbing, then - though not in the least bit surprising - that the latest issue of Socialist Worker does not feel that the Bali bombing merits even a mention (October 8). Talk about a significant silence. We have been here before, of course. After September 11 2001, the Socialist Workers Party refused to condemn that terrorist atrocity, and it continues to evade or fudge the whole issue of reactionary anti-imperialism - though, to be fair, it is not alone in this practice. For many on the left, the islamists are basically supportable simply by virtue of their anti-imperialism - however backward-looking and retrogressive. With regards to JI, there does not appear to be any credible evidence that it is in any way the 'south-east Asian wing' of al Qa'eda - it seems to be operationally and organisationally distinct. But equally there seems little doubt that there is considerable 'cross-fertilisation' between senior JI and al Qa'eda operatives - even if only at the ideological and propaganda level. This hardly makes JI unique in south-east Asia, of course - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which fights for a separate muslim homeland or statelet in southern Philippines, draws from the same ideological well as al Qa'eda. There are several other islamist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, etc, that to one degree or another share similar aims and objectives to the likes of the bin Laden and al-Zarqawi. So, clearly, it is impossible to disconnect the question of how we view groups like JI from the broader - and more contentious - issue of the Iraqi islamists. Naturally, the Bali massacre raises the question of how communists in general view terrorist operations carried out by groups that purport to be conducting an 'anti-imperialist' struggle. And that brings us directly to the pressing issue of how communists view, and relate to, the continued imperialist occupation of Iraq and, in turn, to the actions and stated programme of the resistance - in particular, those of the various islamist groupings: al-Qa'eda, al-Zarqawi, Muqtada al-Sadr, etc. Most readers of this paper will be aware that there is an ongoing debate on the left about what attitude to adopt to what is often called the Iraqi 'resistance'. As if there existed a political and military singularity. Unconditional support? Unconditional but critical support? No support? Some comrades begin with one or another of these answers, rather than go to the bother of concretely analysing the various and often bitterly opposed elements that in fact operate in Iraq. This leads to all manner of errors, if not total incoherence. So, for example, we have been loftily told that communists have a duty to publicly campaign in support of the 'Iraqi resistance'. And yet when al Qa'eda follower Abu Musab al-Zarqawi calls for "all-out war on the rafidha [a pejorative term for shias - EF], wherever they are in Iraq", this is brushed aside by the very same comrades as an example of 'false' anti-imperialism (http://english.aljazeera.net). Others from the same 'unconditional' school implied, or even denounced, the Zarqawists as agents or assets of the CIA, George Bush, Zionism, etc - which, very conveniently, means that there can be no question of offering them support, obviously. However, when these very same 'imperialist agents' strike out against military or 'hard' targets, they suddenly become part of the 'resistance'. To put this schizophrenic approach at its crudest, 'genuine' anti-imperialist actions are those which lead to the sending home of United States or British troops in body bags - irrespective of who is responsible or, more pertinently, in the furtherance of whose programme. Translated into practical terms, the support for or solidarity with the 'resistance' envisaged by such comrades must take highly unusual, or novel, forms. We can only assume - if they want to be consistent - that if and when it comes to raising a collection for the islamist fighters, the comrades sternly stipulate beforehand that all or any arms purchased from the proceeds must only be used against 'hard' military targets. Following on from this perspective, it is proclaimed - with a certain warped logic - that organisations like the CPGB are guilty of a gross betrayal of socialism by their refusal to support, or embrace, those real or purported forces that are doing the fighting 'on the ground'. To make amends, and become a principled organisation again, the CPGB has to proclaim - 'Victory to the Iraqi resistance!' But of course the CPGB has no intention of adopting such a position, or muting our opposition to the political islamists and other reactionary anti-imperialists. If tomorrow JI pulled off a 'spectacular', resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Australian troops - undoubtedly imperialist though the latter are - that would not mean that they suddenly became our comrades or allies. JI, like al-Qa'eda, Zarqawi, etc, is and will always remain an elitist and thoroughgoing counterrevolutionary organisation, which seeks to kill, enslave and subjugate the working class and all those whom it deems to be enemies of its islamic ideal. We do, however, recognise that an imperialist defeat would objectively open up possibilities for the working class, and we would therefore welcome it even if it came at the hands of reactionary anti-imperialists. But that is not an outcome we seek. Communists do all in their power to support, defend and advance all progressive and working class organisations and movements that promote secularism, democracy and socialism. In the case of Iraq, we certainly call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all US-UK forces. The occupation is feeding the fires of communalist and sectarian fanaticism and social disintegration. Imperialism cannot bring democracy and civilisation to Iraq - quite the opposite - a fact that must only bring joy to the rotten hearts of people like Osama bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, etc. So what does Socialist Worker have to say about the rival Iraqi forces? On the front page is an essentially non-contentious article entitled, "Occupation fuels Iraq's civil war - United Nations report exposes murderous 'shadow war'" (October 8). Nowhere does this article by comrade Simon Assaf take a concrete stand on the "civil war", and tell us what it thinks will happen to the Iraqi working class if the islamists (Iran-style) assume state power. For our SWP comrades, there is only one enemy: imperialism. There are no secondary or tertiary enemies. If so, then maybe the Bali bombers were 'unconscious' or 'deflected' anti-imperialist revolutionaries - like the 7/7 suicide bombers in London? But for genuine communists this programmatic perspective is hopelessly muddled, and in reality represents just another version of the politics of despair - not the politics of the working class. Self-evidently, political islam is a near textbook case of reactionary anti-imperialism, which leads its followers to look back to an imaginary idyll of pre-capitalist contentment. Any cooperation with such forces would be temporary and episodic. Reactionary anti-imperialists may be fighting imperialism. But theirs is a combined war. Against imperialism, against the working class. As enemies of the working class, we want them defeated as well as imperialism. Our position is hardly a new one. For example, in his 'Preliminary draft theses on national and colonial questions' (June 5 1920), prepared for the 2nd Congress of the Third International, Lenin was quite clear in his opposition to reactionary anti-imperialism. Having emphasised that "the duty of rendering the most active assistance [to those resisting imperialism] rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on", Lenin immediately went on to stress "the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries". He specified "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 positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc" (www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jun/05.htm). Thus, for Lenin, it "follows" from these "fundamental premises" that the communists' "entire policy on the national and the colonial questions should rest primarily on a closer union of the proletarians and the working masses of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landowners and the bourgeoisie". It is "this union alone", Lenin concluded, that "will guarantee victory over capitalism, without which the abolition of national oppression and inequality is impossible". In other words, if communists today want to defeat the imperialist occupation of Iraq, we must look to "a closer union" between the international workers' movement and those in Iraq who are committed to a struggle against medieval reaction: ie, primarily the forces of democracy and socialism. So, yes, the CPGB would prefer the victory of the islamists and Ba'athists to that of imperialism - the occupation is, after all, overwhelmingly responsible for the brutalisation of Iraq. We are for the defeat of the US war drive. However, the islamists are also vicious enemies of the workers' movement and of socialism in general. History has told us nothing else. The victory of either the salafi jihadis or the Sadrist movement would in all likelihood lead to the 'Talibanisation' of Iraq. Nor would a restored Ba'athist tyranny - even if such a thing was possible - prove to be any better for the working class. For communists, the islamist enemy of our imperialist enemy is not our friend. Only an independent working class path can bring real freedom and democracy to the Iraqi masses.