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Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left

By Peter Taaffe

War and the Revolutionary Left

This is certainly not the approach of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). For instance, in the anti-war movement in Britain, for fear of confronting some of the prejudices in the Moslem population, including sympathy for ‘fundamentalist’ ideas, they initially and wrongly refused to condemn the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September. They tried to justify this by arguments like the following: "The rest of the left have an undialectical understanding of religion in practice [which] is resulting in a pandering to Islamophobia, where they are more fixated with ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ than with US imperialism." [SWP pre-conference bulletin, 2001, p5]

In reality, the SWP has sought to opportunistically adapt to the existing consciousness of workers in Britain and elsewhere who are under the sway of Islamist ideas. They state the following in the same bulletin: "It [Islam] can be a motivating force for the masses to fight back against imperialism and poverty." This statement is completely unqualified, without any evidence being produced to show where and how Islamist organisations fulfil the ‘anti-imperialist’ tasks allotted to them by the SWP. Do they mean that the different Islamist organisations and parties in the Middle East, or the Taliban, effectively fight back against imperialism? Do they think that the methods employed by the Palestinian Islamic organisations, Hamas or Jihad, are effective in fighting imperialism?

The SWP and Islam

In the past, the SWP, on many occasions, cheered on organisations uncritically which used the methods of terrorism, as with the IRA in Northern Ireland. Today for instance, they do support and report uncritically the methods of the suicide bombers used against the Israelis within Israel itself. We understand that the horrendous social conditions in the Palestinian areas, which have been enormously worsened in the past few years and particularly since 11 September (reinforced now by Israeli occupation), have produced a mood of absolute despair amongst big sections of the youth. This is compounded by the stance of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. They are prepared to bend the knee to imperialism and arrest Islamic fighters while Israel pounds hell out of the West Bank and Gaza towns. At the same time, Hamas, which began as a charity organisation, has emerged almost as a parallel administration to the PA, providing the most comprehensive social safety net in the West Bank and Gaza. The mood of revenge for Israel’s crimes, together with the discrediting of the PA, has led to a rapid increase in support for Hamas and other Islamist groups to an estimated 27% in late 2001, as support for Fatah and Arafat diminishes.

It is one thing to understand how sections of the youth are driven to deploy terroristic methods, which they see as a legitimate part of resistance against Israeli occupation of Arab lands. It is entirely different for Marxists to give support, by omission as well as commission, to such methods. In a sensitive way, it is necessary to explain to the young people attracted to this course of action that it plays into the hands of the Israeli ruling class. It drives sections of the Israeli population into the arms of their own worst enemies, the Israeli bourgeoisie. It is used to introduce further repression and the result is a further, almost endless, cycle of violence in which the working class on both sides, and particularly the Palestinians, pay the main price.

The minuscule grouping, Workers Power, also made blunders in the course of the war, as has one remnant of the Morenoites, the LIT, in Latin America. If anything, their errors are of a more grotesque kind than the SWP. This basically involves giving ‘critical support’ to the Taliban in the war. For instance, the following is the advice which Workers Power gave to the world labour movement in the midst of the war: "Without giving an iota of support to the arch reactionary Taliban government in Afghanistan or the movement of Osama bin Laden, we call for and support the united action of all Afghan forces – including Islamist forces – to repel the imperialist assault." [Stop Bush and Blair’s Bloody War! Defend Afghanistan! Defeat Imperialism]

Their ‘advice’ did not register on the radar screen of the world labour movement, but it did confuse a few young people. They would not give "an iota of support" to the Taliban and yet call on workers and peasants in Afghanistan to engage in "united action" with them. Why not also support, under the heading of "Islamist forces", the Northern Alliance who are only separated by degree from the Taliban, as we have subsequently seen following its victory. Which is the progressive force here? To merely pose the question shows how absurd the approach of these groups is. Both are reactionary forces. The Taliban wish to force the Afghan masses back to the past. The Northern Alliance was the ground troops of US imperialism in its onslaught against the Taliban.

Yet the LIT also states: "From our point of view, in this confrontation [the Afghan war] the ‘barbarian’ Taliban represents progress precisely because they challenge the imperialist barbarism. If imperialism wins this war, they will feel free to colonise the world." [LIT letter criticising the Labour Party Pakistan over the Afghan war.]

But, if anything, the Northern Alliance, on the issue of women, for instance, in words at least, was more ‘progressive’ than the Taliban. Why not then support these ‘barbarians’ as well? The unconscious humour of the LIT is shown when it declares: "This is not a simple discussion [tactics in the war] but it is not easy to confront the fundamentalists daily, knowing that they on several opportunities… solved their conflicts with the opposition with the simple resource of killing the opponent. This fact, however, cannot become a stumbling block on the way towards a Marxist analysis and policies."

In other words, any attempt to link up ‘militarily’, as suggested by the LIT, with the Taliban would result in the slaughtering of any left forces, let alone Trotskyist or Marxist forces, which tried to pursue this tactic. And this is not an accident because, as we argue above, neither the Taliban nor bin Laden are genuine national liberation fighters. Nor are they anti-imperialist, as the switch of the bulk of the Taliban forces showed, from opposition into supporting the Northern Alliance and, thereby also becoming the ‘proxy’ of imperialism. The Taliban, al-Qa’ida and the Northern Alliance are counter-revolutionary forces which Marxists should completely oppose.

Marxism and the Taliban

The LIT, Workers Power and many others on the revolutionary left argue that if the Taliban had won this would have weakened imperialism and enormously encouraged the peoples of the neo-colonial and semi-colonial world and, above all, in the Middle East. This at bottom is also the reasoning behind the attitude of the SWP. It, in effect, opposed any criticism of the perpetrators of the attacks on the Twin Towers. It was compelled to abandon this by the pressure of those like the CWI within the anti-war movement in Britain. Their method of reasoning is not a Marxist approach, which takes phenomena and events and analyses them from all sides.

They do not even pose the question of whether the Taliban could have militarily won the war. The contest right from the beginning was an unequal struggle. There could only be one outcome of the war, the military victory of US imperialism and its allies. The Vietnam War was entirely different. That was a war for social and national liberation, which meant that a country with a small population defeated the mightiest military power on the globe. However, what could not be predetermined was what the character of the Afghan War would assume, the degree of resistivity of the masses of Afghanistan, how long and bloody it would be and what effect it would have on world public opinion.

But in the unlikely event that the Taliban would have won, would this have been a victory for the world working class and poor peasants? On the contrary, it would have enormously strengthened the backward, theocratic religious ideas which would have kept Afghanistan, and others which followed in their footsteps, under the domination of right-wing political Islam.

Even in Iran, where Islamist ideas initially took on a left or radical hue in the struggle against the Shah and in the first period of the Iranian revolution, the position of the Communist Party in Iran, the Tudeh, under the sway of Stalinist ideas, represented a baleful example of precisely ‘critical’ support for the forces of the ‘barbarian’ Khomeini. The consequences were absolutely disastrous for the Iranian revolution. No warnings were given to the left and the working class by the Stalinists about the ingrained hostility to them of Khomeini and his movement. In Iran it was correct to participate in the mass movement alongside all kinds of radical Islamist forces, but without giving a shadow of support to the leaders of this movement, like Khomeini. There was no comparable movement in Afghanistan. The small left forces which existed scorned the idea that they could fight alongside the Taliban.

The day after the overthrow of the Shah, the suppression of the left began in Iran, leading to the hanging of the leader of the Tudeh and the subsequent massacre of many of the best militants of the Iranian Communist Party and others on the left. No doubt Workers’ Power and the LIT can object that, unlike the Tudeh, they are critical of the Taliban and bin Laden. However, there is no justification, given the context in which these forces acted and the character of the movement described above, to give even ‘critical support’ to these movements.