Ditch the strategic illusion

Pro-Tehran apologetics in the Stop the War Coalition represents a kind of nostalgia for the 'anti-imperialist front', writes Mike Macnair

A number of recent letters to the Weekly Worker, as well as the arguments of opponents of Hands Off the People of Iran (like Andy Newman, writing on his 'Socialist Unity' blog), have argued that it is only possible to oppose imperialism by 'siding with the oppressed', or with the enemies of 'imperialism' - meaning governments and movements currently at odds with US imperialism. When comrades are pushed on their justifications for this view, they are usually unwilling to quote the Moscow Stalinist and Beijing Maoist bureaucrats who were its main authors. Instead, we get stories from Trotsky. There are, in substance, three of these.

The first is that when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Trotsky argued that the workers' movement should favour the victory of the Ethiopians, led by emperor Haile Selassie.1  The second is that in the Japanese invasion of China, Trotsky argued in 1937 for the Chinese workers' organisations to pursue a defencist policy: "the duty of all the workers' organisations of China was to participate actively and in the front lines of the present war against Japan ..."

The third is that in 1938 Trotsky argued that in the (highly unlikely) event of a military conflict between Britain and the Vargas dictatorship in Brazil, the international working class movement should "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."3 

In fact, all of these arguments were wrong.

Defeatism, not victoryism

Before 1935 Ethiopia was a semi-colony primarily in the British sphere of influence.4  'Ethiopian defencism' by communists in Britain would therefore have amounted merely to demanding a more aggressive defence of British imperial interests against Italy - just as 'Serbian-defencism' in 1914 amounted to defence of British and French imperial interests.

Military conflict between Britain and the Vargas regime in Brazil in the late 1930s was in the highest degree unlikely, since the Vargas period was one in which British capitalist interests in Brazil were displaced by US capitalist interests, with the British voluntarily divesting their interests, while Brazil had in 1937 entered a formal alliance with the US.5  Hence, a British war with the Vargas regime in the 1930s, which was never remotely in question, would have amounted in substance to an attack on US imperial interests and precipitated a British-US inter-imperialist war. 'Brazilian defencism' by communists in the United States in the highly implausible circumstance of a British attack on Brazil in 1938 would thus have amounted to defence of US imperial interests.

Trotsky cannot be very much blamed for these errors. He was making polemical points without careful study of either of the countries involved; and, as is commonly the case with semi-colonial or 'neo-colonial' relations, the dependency relations and inter-imperialist conflicts involved commonly only become transparent after the fact.

In other words, for the workers' movements in imperialist countries not immediately involved in the colonial war to argue for 'victory to' the semi-colony involved can all too easily be merely to fall in line behind their own governments. Thus 'Iraqi defencism' in Germany and France in 2002-03 could similarly amount to defence of German and French commercial interests in their companies' contracts with the Ba'athist regime.

Equally, defeatism in the imperial countries directly involved in a colonial war no more needs to imply 'defencism of the other side' than, for example, defeatism for Russian workers in 1914-18 meant 'victory to the kaiser'. On the contrary: the anti-war movement in the US in the Vietnam war was effective precisely because it did not call for 'Victory to the NLF', but simply opposed the war. As that simple message of opposition to the war spread into the ranks of the US armed forces, the anti-war movement made a real and substantial contribution to the defeat of the US.

Communists in the imperialist country or countries involved should be defeatist - that is, fight against the war - including by agitation as far as possible in the armed forces: ie, in the same way that Lenin urged 'defeatism' in relation to the 1914-18 war. In relation to what should happen 'on the other side', their primary approach should be one of solidarity with the workers' movement and communists in the 'target' country.

Defencism and colonial communists

Hence, the argument for 'defencism' or 'victoryism' for the colonial country in colonial wars, if it means anything, is a policy for communists in the colonial countries. It is an argument about the road of the working class to power in a colonial or semi-colonial country under attack from an imperialist power.

In this context, the false character of Trotsky's 1937 line for China is a particularly clear instance. Trotsky's line at this moment happens also to have been Moscow's line for the Chinese Communist Party. Mao, while remaining a Stalinist, insisted on maintaining the autonomy of the Chinese CP's military forces, and, indeed, has been plausibly accused of subordinating the anti-Japanese struggle to this goal. The upshot was the victory of the Chinese communists in 1948.

The point of this statement is not to give any sort of political endorsement to the tyrannical regime the Maoists created in northern China before their victory or in China after their victory. Objective political-military dynamics in wars and revolutions are no respecters of good or bad moral or political intentions. We cannot expect to build bridges without attention to the strengths and weaknesses of materials, and for this purpose we have to be willing to learn from people whose political values and/or personal conduct we despise. The same is true of warfare and the ability to grasp political-military dynamics.

The Kuomintang regime was a government in form, which in practice presided over warlordism: not an effective coherent state. In this context, in order to defeat the Japanese invasion, what was needed was to create a state alternative to the KMT pseudo-state - the policy followed by the Maoists, who fought on two fronts both against the Japanese and against the KMT, and as a result in 1949 were able to take power. To "participate actively and in the front lines" of the KMT's war effort, as Trotsky argued, would not open the road to the masses. It would merely identify the communists (in this case, the Trotskyists) with the failing KMT regime.

A smaller-scale negative example is more recent. The Argentinian Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores (PST) led by Nahuel Moreno was a substantial organisation, and it survived the Argentinian military dictatorship of 1976-82 better than some parts of the left, re-emerging after the fall of the dictatorship as the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) still a substantial organisation. But the Morenistas, like most of the Argentinian left, took the 'colonial-defencist' line of backing the nationalist military adventurism of the generals in the South Atlantic war. In doing so they were tying themselves politically to a dying regime. The fall of the regime thus left the political initiative wholly in the hands of the pro-US liberal Union Civica Radical, and the 1983 elections were a disaster for the MAS. The denouement had to wait for Moreno's death in 1987, after which the MAS disintegrated.

In some cases it clear that revolutionary defencism will be the appropriate stance of communists in the colonial country. In others - as was the case in China in the 1930s and is again the case in Iraq today - the right approach of communists would be to create a 'third military camp'. In yet others - as was fairly clearly the case of the Argentinian invasion of the Malvinas in 1982 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 - the right response is a kind of revolutionary defeatism: ie, to denounce the irresponsible adventurism of the invasion.

In the wake of the fall of France, Trotsky was to return to revolutionary defencism in his 1940 proposals of the "proletarian military policy": 'The capitalists and their state will sell you out to the Nazis, so you need to arm yourselves' (and, by implication, soldiers need to take action against defeatist officers, and so on).7  But this was not Trotsky's 'defencist' line for the colonial countries in the passages quoted above. On the contrary, these passages show a merely moralising defencism which demanded that the working class 'supported' the weaker side. This is perhaps understandable in the Ethiopian case, given the marginality of the proletariat in Ethiopia as of 1935. For China, it was Stalin's line, which Mao and his co-thinkers refused to follow. It would have been complete nonsense in the unlikely event of a British attack on Brazil.

What these case studies should show us is that political line cannot be translated immediately from general principles into simple general rules like 'Always support the target of imperialist military action'. The specific political application of general principles is dependent on the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

Anti-imperialist front

Behind the attempt to create a simple general rule is the line of the 'anti-imperialist front' developed by the Comintern in 1920-21, and behind this in turn is Lenin's arguments against Pyatakov and others (including Trotsky) about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, and the support given to these arguments by the course of the Russian Revolution.

Before World War I and the Russian Revolution, the general understanding of Marxist socialists was that their job was to pursue the independent interests of the working class; and that any political alliance of the working class with the peasantry and other elements of the petty proprietors (peasants, artisans, professionals and so on) was necessarily limited in character. It might specifically be posed, as Marx and Engels argued, to support a bourgeois revolution in the countries of surviving feudalism. But for the strategic goal of workers' power and socialism the political independence of the working class from the middle classes was essential.

The grounds of this understanding are the same as the very basic elementary reasons to be Marxists rather than Proudhonists, Bakuninists or whatever. It is because the working class is not tied to private property in the means of production that this class is capable of introducing socialism, while the petty proprietors, who are tied to private property in the means of production, cannot do so.

This understanding remained the common frame of Lenin's, the Mensheviks' and Trotsky's arguments in response to the Russian revolutionary crisis of 1905. Lenin, like the Mensheviks, argued that peasant dominance of the country meant that the revolution against tsarism would necessarily be 'bourgeois democratic': it was only in its international context that it might open up the way to socialist revolution in western Europe, where the proletariat was strong. It is only necessary to read Results and prospects (1906) to see that Trotsky did not then propose the sort of strategic alliance of the working class with the peasantry which the Russian Bolsheviks pursued in 1917 and after, which the Comintern theorised in 1920-21 and which is also central to Trotsky's own reinterpretation in The permanent revolution (1930).

What made the difference was the war and Lenin's interpretation of imperialism. The war appeared to pose immediately the global seizure of power by the working class and socialist revolution. The theory of imperialism explained that this was the case because imperialism - in the full sense of the division of the world between the imperialist powers - was the terminal stage of capitalism and the war its natural outcome.

If this was true, the global working class was in the same strategic position as the Russian working class within the Russian empire: a small minority in a vast sea of peasants (mostly in the colonial world), which nonetheless very urgently needed to seize power and begin the socialist reconstruction of society. Hence a strategic alliance with the middle classes was essential to the, immediately posed, international proletarian socialist revolution. This is precisely the meaning of Lenin's arguments on Easter 1916, and in particular the famous passage that:

"To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc - to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution."9 

This policy became generally plausible because of the Bolshevik-led alliance of the Russian working class with the Russian peasantry and to some extent with the national movements in the former tsarist empire in the course of the Russian Revolution and the civil war. It had a certain added plausibility, though this is not, I think, documented as an argument for it, in the fact that the resistance of the Turks, led by Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, to the Entente-backed Greek attempt to partition their country, the national movement in Ireland and colonial movements in several countries in the wake of World War I helped made it impossible for the Entente powers to deploy their full military strength in intervention in the Russian civil war.

The underlying general proposition, that imperialism was the terminal stage of capitalism and immediately produced war and economic delay, remained plausible until the restabilisation of capitalism around 1921. It was then given renewed force by the crash of 1929, the ensuing depression and the drive towards a new world war which was evident from the time of the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933. Hence the title of the Trotskyists' Transitional programme of 1938, beginning with "the death agony of capitalism".

I have argued at a theoretical level against this line in my 2004 series on imperialism.10  The basis of the argument is two-sided. The first side is the evidence of the course of history since 1917: not a terminal crisis. The second is that it is possible to predict these events better with a theory of imperialism which can explain the evidence of the course of capitalist history both before the late 19th and early 20th century apogee of colonialism and through the two wars into the later 20th century. I argue there that imperialism is not a symptom of acute capitalist decay, but a normal feature of capitalism.

Hence, the idea of an anti-imperialist bloc or front of the working class with the 'national bourgeoisie' or 'patriotic forces' is a strategic illusion. We have seen the results of this illusion repeatedly since the 1940s: in the fate of the Indonesian, Iraqi, Chilean and relatively recently the Iranian workers' movements. The class contradictions are paramount and the national contradictions, though real, subordinate, in the behaviour of the colonial bourgeoisies and state apparatuses.

Cold war

By the middle 1950s it was clear that the idea that imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th century type was the terminal stage of capitalism and immediately produced war and economic delay had been falsified: global economics and politics had settled into a sharply new pattern - that of the 'cold war'. In this context ideological producers in the interests of Moscow and, after the Sino-Soviet split, Beijing placed the idea of the anti-imperialist front on a new basis.

Now it was to be understood that the pattern of the worker-peasant alliance in the Russian Revolution was normal, and to be understood as a particular instance of the idea of the 'people's front' developed around the 7th Congress of the Comintern (1935). On a world scale, this was to be the anti-imperialist front of peoples and governments, which united the oppressed with the USSR (or, if you were a Maoist, with the People's Republic of China). The strategic road to socialism led through the accumulation of forces and countries to this front; and the attitude of communists to national movements was to be governed by these considerations. 'Good' 'anti-imperialist' national movements allied with the USSR (or China); bad, pro-imperialist, ones did not.

The vast majority of the leaders of today's organised and unorganised left grew up and entered political life in the high period of this Soviet (and later, to a lesser extent, and shorter-lived, Chinese) policy: Khrushchev's decision to back the Cuban revolution in 1960-61; the Vietnam war and the global movement around that war; Che Guevara's and others' abortive attempts to create a 'new front' in continental Latin America, which found a belated issue in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1978-79; the colonial nationalist movements against Portuguese rule in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, which led to the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76; and so on around the world.

It is necessary to accept that this was a plausible strategy for socialism - provided you were prepared to believe that the Soviet bloc countries were on the road to socialism. You could argue, as Stalinists proper do to this day, that there were inevitably 'negative features' and inevitably a class struggle within the regimes between 'revisionists' and 'anti-revisionists'. But it could only be seen as a strategy for socialism if this was the case. Otherwise, it would be merely manoeuvres within the global capitalist order, with no more real legitimacy than the manoeuvres of non-socialist nationalists or of social democrats.

The fall of the Soviet bloc and the political collapse of the Chinese and Vietnamese regimes into marketised 'communist' sweat-shop operators has made this approach indefensible as a strategy for socialism or even for 'progressive' change. The 'anti-revisionists' lost the battle; and they lost it precisely because their own political assumptions - 'socialism in a single country', 'national roads', the people's front and bureaucratic centralism - made it impossible for them to wage an effective political fight against the pro-capitalist 'revisionists'. The 'Soviet road', and with it the 'anti-imperialist front', turned out to be a long and bloody detour on the road from feudalism to capitalism.


The 'war on terror' has stimulated the old nerve-endings of middle-aged former communists and new leftists, and produced a knee-jerk response: let's revive the idea of the anti-imperialist front of peoples and governments. In some cases, like that of the British Socialist Workers Party, this involves going against their whole history before the late 1960s. It is very striking that many opponents of the affiliation of Hands off the People of Iran to the Stop the War Coalition describe the CPGB as a "Trot" group. It is striking because of the sheer amount of print the Weekly Worker has devoted to polemics against 'Trotskyism' (meaning the Trotskyism of the groups, as well as some aspects of Trotsky's theoretical arguments). The accusation that we are "Trots" in this context is one that we are proud of. It means that we are advocates of democracy, and working class internationalism, and working class rule; and that our opponents have chosen to identify themselves with nostalgia for Stalin and Stalinism.

Let us be blunt. This politics of nostalgia leads nowhere. We have seen the results of Stalinism and Maoism in the 20th century. We do not need to try it again.