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Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left

By Peter Taaffe

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. CWI online, July 2002


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.

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

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.

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.

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-visimperialism – at least of the larger states – has considerably changed the position.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.