Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left
By Peter Taaffe
Trotsky on Ethiopia and Brazil
In order to justify their false position they quote some fragmentary remarks of Trotsky on the Italian/Ethiopian conflict in 1935. They do this without explaining the entirely different historical context in which that struggle took place. Moreover, they are incapable of understanding the masses’ different attitude at the time towards that conflict and the entirely different view of the Taliban and bin Laden. We will not skate over or ignore what Trotsky said in the 1930s. We give the full quote of what he said about Ethiopia and also his comments about Brazil in 1938.
On Ethiopia Trotsky wrote: "Far too little attention is paid to the Italo-Ethiopian conflict by our sections, especially by the French section. This question is highly important, first for its own sake and second from the standpoint of the turn by the Comintern. Of course we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia, and therefore we must do everything possible to hinder by all available means support to Italian imperialism by the other imperialist powers, and at the same time facilitate the delivery of armaments, etc., to Ethiopia as best we can. However, we want to stress that this fight is directed not against fascism, but against imperialism. When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is ‘better’, the Negus or Mussolini; but rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism. The Italian comrades might give us a short historical summary indicating how Crispi’s defeat had a positive effect on the further development of Italy." [The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36) (italics in original).]
While on Brazil he wrote: "In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally – in this case I will 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. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat." [Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39).]
The clear implication of Trotsky’s words, contained in an interview with him in 1938 and not in an article by him, was that in the event of an armed attack on backward, semi-colonial Brazil by British imperialism he would be on the side of the former not the latter. He would support the people of Brazil against an imperialist attack on them and their territory irrespective of the political regime. This is the meaning of Trotsky’s words. The Malvinas/Falklands War was different and much more complex. If, in the Malvinas/Falklands War, an attack had been made on Argentina by British imperialism along the lines suggested by Trotsky in his article on Brazil, all Marxists would have opposed this. We would have been on the side of ‘Argentina’, the people, not the hated Galtieri regime, against British imperialism. But the presence of 2000 Falkland islanders, and no Argentinians, made this conflict much more complex than the hypothetical situation sketched out by Trotsky on Brazil. Their democratic rights had to be taken into account by Marxists. We opposed the war but we could not just give carte blanche support to the Galtieri regime’s invasion.
The Malvinas and the CWI
And yet, this quote from Trotsky on Brazil was used by the LIT quite wrongly, to justify its opportunist adaptation to the Argentinean Galtieri dictatorship in the 1982 war with Britain over the Malvinas/Falklands. We opposed British imperialism in this war and the sending of the "British task force". Genuine Marxists in Argentina or Latin America as a whole would also have opposed the Galtieri dictatorship in Argentina’s drive towards a war over the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982, as we opposed Thatcher’s war preparations in Britain. However, once the war had begun, Marxists in Argentina would go into the army if called up, at the same time advancing a revolutionary programme. They would have demanded the expropriation of British investments. But why stop there? All imperialist assets should be nationalised, which in turn would pose the need for the state take-over of Argentine capital. Not an atom of support – ‘critical’ or otherwise – would have been given to the Galtieri dictatorship, which the LIT unfortunately did. In effect, a revolutionary war against the British would have been advocated by real Argentine Marxists.
This was the programme advocated by us at the time of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. This was not a classic conflict between an imperialist power and a ‘colony’ in which Marxists were called upon to ‘critically’ support the latter. Argentina was a relatively developed capitalist power. It was not a feudal or semi-feudal regime in which the bourgeois-democratic revolution needed to be completed (apart from freeing Argentina from the economic vice of US imperialism and the world market, which is a socialist task). It was itself ‘imperialist’ towards other countries in Latin America – exporting capital and exploiting them – as well as being ‘exploited’ by the major imperialist powers. Moreover, it had a more developed capitalist structure than pre-1917 Russia, for instance. The latter, according to Lenin and Trotsky, was both a ‘semi-colony’ of Anglo-French imperialism and, at the same time, an ‘imperialist’ oppressor of the 57% of the population of the Tsarist Empire who were non-Russians. Lenin and the Bolsheviks never supported Russia, a ‘semi-colony’, in the wars against Japan in 1905, for instance, or German imperialism in the First World War.
It is true that the past super-exploitation of Latin America by British imperialism and then particularly US imperialism has heightened the sensitivity amongst the masses to any incursion from outside, particularly direct military intervention. This was the case in the Malvinas/Falklands conflict with overwhelming opposition in South America towards the sending of the British military ‘task force’ to the region. Latin American, and particularly Argentine, Marxists, were compelled to take account of this, to be sensitive to the mood in their approach, propaganda, demands put forward, etc. But this would not involve supporting the war which was an adventure by the Galtieri dictatorship in a desperate but futile attempt to avert its overthrow by means of a successful military attack on the Malvinas/Falklands. The approach of the LIT was to bow to the pressure of Argentine nationalism and support the Galtieri regime’s war, albeit ‘critically’.
They freely confess that, at this time: "Our international trend issued the statement entitled, In the Military Camp of the Dictatorship, which, among other things said: ‘In accordance with the Leninist/Trotskyist tradition which supports the nationalism of the oppressed countries, regardless of their regime and government, against imperialism, the International Workers’ League – Fourth International – proclaims that we shall fight, if it were necessary, in the battlefield of the Argentinean government. But this was not a mere statement. Our militants, running the risk of being killed by the dictatorship (over 100 of our comrades have already been killed) went out to organise a great anti-imperialist movement while our comrades who were in prison at the time from their cells, demanded to be freed so that they may go to the Falklands and fight there together against the oppressing army." (Letter from LIT to the Labour Party of Pakistan on the issue of Afghanistan.)
It was wrong for the LIT to put itself in the camp of the dictatorship and to line up with the policies of the Argentinean junta in this war. Even if a decision is made to join in the war against British imperialism on the issue of the Malvinas – which was understandable in the Argentinean context – nevertheless, this should be done entirely independent of, and not part of, the hated Galtieri dictatorship.
Trotsky’s remarks on Brazil were obviously in the context of a hypothetical attack being made, an invasion in effect, by British imperialism on Brazilian territory. This was not the case, we repeat, in the Falklands/Malvinas War. This was not an attack on the Argentinian mainland. Moreover, the 2000 Falklanders wanted to remain under British rule. The right of self-determination applied to the islanders, despite their small number. It was correct to suggest, not just for the Brazilian workers but for the British workers and workers worldwide, opposition to British imperialism and to ‘support’ Brazil, the Brazilian people not the government, in this conflict. In no way was Trotsky here outlining a clear programme, and particularly agitational demands, but the broad position that would be adopted by revolutionaries. We have dealt with the Malvinas/Falklands conflict above (see also The Rise of Militantand our material at the time of the 1983 conflict) and it is not possible to re-rehearse all the arguments on this issue here.
But one thing was absolutely clear, we did not adopt a ‘neutral’ position, as suggested by LIT, but opposed the war. We opposed the Thatcher government but, at the same time, once the war was taking place, raised democratic demands for the army ranks and a radical programme to be taken by sections of the working class and the youth who would be involved in the event of a long drawn out conflict.
On the other hand, we did not support the Argentinean military dictatorship as the LIT did. Its support for Galtieri on the Malvinas fitted in with their false theory of the ‘enclaves’. This meant that Malvinas/Falklands, with a tiny population of 2,000 largely British people, together with Israel, Northern Ireland, etc, were ‘outposts’ and ‘enclaves’ of imperialism – relics of the past – and should be dissolved. By this logic, Northern Ireland should be returned to the South of Ireland in a ‘united Ireland’ against the wishes of the loyalist population if necessary. The Israeli state should be dismantled and in its place a new Palestine should be constructed and, by military means, the 2,000 Falkland Islanders should have been driven out by the Galtieri dictatorship from this imperialist ‘enclave’.
The National Question
This abstract, false idea, which is entirely removed from the objective reality which exists today, will lead – and, unfortunately in the case of the LIT, led – the forces of Trotskyism into a theoretical swamp. They invariably limit their demands on the national question to ‘independence’, never putting this in a socialist context. The only conclusion which could be drawn from the LIT’s position is that it is based on a geographical concept and moreover comes very close to a ‘stages position’ on the national question. According to their approach, it is bits of territory, which may at one stage have ‘belonged’ to a particular state, which is decisive.
This is irrespective of the consciousness of the population which may inherit such a territory and may implacably reject, for historical, social, national and even psychological reasons, returning to the embrace of such a state. This would particularly be the case for one dominated by bloodthirsty military dictators who had slaughtered 30,000 of their own citizens in a ‘dirty war’ against the left and the working class as had the Argentinean junta.
Indeed, the issue of the consciousness of a population, whether it be in Israel, Northern Ireland or the consciousness of the ‘settlers’ in the Malvinas/Falklands, let alone the worldwide consciousness of the proletariat, is of secondary importance to this organisation. We, on the other hand, take into account territory, culture, history and language, and above all the consciousness of any nation, would-be nation, grouping, etc. A study of Lenin and Trotsky on the national question shows how carefully they analysed the consciousness of populations inheriting a particular territory and, moreover, the way consciousness changes under different historical circumstances.
For instance, Trotsky and those who followed him, to begin with, set their faces against the creation of an Israeli state in the Middle East, with Trotsky correctly describing it as a ‘bloody trap’ for the persecuted Jewish population throughout the world. How apt is that phrase now in the context of the murderous cycle of mutual slaughter which takes place between the Israelis and the Palestinians today? But the development over time of the consciousness of a settled population in Israel, specifically a national consciousness, the evolution of a new nation since 1948, changed the situation fundamentally. Not just the PLO but bin Laden in his first video implicitly accepted the fact of an Israeli state.
The irony is that it is the sectarian organisations – the self-proclaimed ‘vanguard of the vanguard’ – who reject the existence of this state and the national consciousness which goes with this, rather than the Palestinians themselves. They consequently demand that it be replaced by a secular Palestinian state with democratic rights for Israelis. Confronting the reality ‘on the ground’, something which these ultra-left organisations fail to do, the Palestinian leaders abandoned their previous approach. This is not just because they opportunistically adapt to the situation and the power of imperialism but because it is unattainable now, and particularly on a bourgeois basis, given the resistance of the Israeli population and the massive financial and military assistance by imperialism itself which underlines this.
In other words, the LIT and others pick up the discarded ideas of the Palestinian leadership of yesterday which does not apply to the present reality. They effectively propose that the Israeli population accepts that it should comply with the liquidation of ‘their own state’. Needless to say, the Israeli population will fight tooth and nail against such a proposal as they did when it was the policy of the Palestinian organisations and leaders themselves. The CWI’s ‘two-state’ solution, an Israeli and a Palestinian state within the context of a socialist federation of the region, is the only way to approach both the Israeli and Palestinian masses, which seeks to satisfy their national aspirations and cement an alliance of the working class and poor in the region.
The counter-argument to this, put forward even by some more open-minded comrades coming from the LIT tradition in discussions with the CWI, is that this programme is ‘for the future’. It is exactly the opposite. The only way to approach the Palestinian and Israeli masses today is to put forward a programme on the national question which begins to satisfy their national aspirations. A proposal for a ‘Palestinian state with democratic guarantees for the Israelis’ will be completely rejected by the mass of the Israeli population. This is even more the case when a new state and a new national consciousness have been created, as is the case in Israel, albeit on the basis of the gross violation and repression of the Palestinian rights 50 years ago and since. On the other hand, to propose to the Palestinians that they accept minority status within a ‘democratic Israel’ is equally unacceptable to them.
The idea of a separate Palestinian state is now supported by the mass of the population in the West Bank, Gaza and, probably, in the Palestinian Diaspora as well. On the basis of capitalism, however, it is impossible for this to be fully established as we have explained in our previous material. So our programme, rather than being ‘for the future’, as some of our critics have argued, is for the here and now.
Paradoxically, the idea of a ‘two-state’ solution may not be realised in the ‘future’. After the socialist revolution, the Israeli and Palestinian masses may decide to live in a combined state with autonomous rights for both. There will be no compulsion. It will be left for them to decide democratically what the character or borders of a future state or states will be, and the national and social composition in population terms, etc. So, the CWI’s programme is not ‘for the future’. Both Palestinian and Israeli workers may decide democratically that separate states are not necessary in the future. But today, this programme is an important weapon which allows us to approach both the Israeli and Palestinian masses, to win their confidence and forge an alliance between the working class and the poor in the region.
The dialectical, extremely sensitive, subtle approach of Lenin and Trotsky – who did not hesitate to change policy, demands, or even the emphasis of their programme depending on the circumstances – is foreign to these organisations. The struggle in the 1930s between imperialism and the masses in the neo-colonial world was quite clearly one between an oppressing foreign power and countries that were clearly still ‘colonies’ or semi-colonial, most of them under the direct military domination of one imperialist power or another. It was quite clear that Marxists gave unconditional support to these colonies in the struggle against imperialism irrespective of the political regime. We still did this in the sense of supporting the people of Afghanistan against imperialism in the current war.
But neither Lenin nor Trotsky advocated unconditional support of any bourgeois regime, or aspiring bourgeoisie, in the colonial world. Lenin insisted on the separation of the proletariat, even when it was in an incipient stage, and in its organisations from even radical national bourgeois politicians who struggled against imperialist domination. Yet the task was simpler then. The consciousness of the advanced layer, of instinctive support for the colonial peoples against imperialism, made the approach of Marxists clear.
The Vietnam War
Since the time that Trotsky wrote, however, particularly in the post-1945 period with the growth of Stalinism and the influence of Stalinist ideas in the neo-colonial world, it was not as simple. Separation of any colony from imperialism represented a step forward, as with the Algerian liberation struggle against French imperialism, in which we gave not just political but very practical support. However, we did this without entertaining even the slightest illusions as to what would happen almost on the very next day after the victory of the National Liberation Front. We predicted it would become, in all probability, a bourgeois Bonapartist regime, but with some radical features at its base. (In fact, we saw examples of ‘self-management’ of abandoned French farms in Algeria in the first period after the defeat of France in 1962.) The USFI, on the other hand, entertained illusions in the ‘socialist’ character of the Algerian regime.
In the Vietnam War, as well, we were for the defeat of US imperialism and for the victory of the Vietnamese revolution which, in practice, meant the coming to power of the NLF (Viet Cong). But we never put this forward as a mass slogan as others did. Never on demonstrations did we, as the USFI did, chant, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ (Ho Chi Minh was the president of North Vietnam and leader of the liberation forces as a whole in Vietnam).
Why did we adopt this approach? Because of the consciousness of the working class worldwide and in the advanced industrial countries, with their suspicion of Stalinist regimes, their lack of democracy, suppression of workers’ rights, etc. In our propaganda, theoretical and public analysis, we explained that the victory of the NLF would represent a victory. Nevertheless, because of the social forces involved in the Vietnamese revolution – largely a nationalist, peasant-based movement – the regime that would issue from this would be a one-party regime. This would be in the image of North Vietnam or Moscow. Politically, it would be a one-party regime but resting on a nationalised, planned economy. This, we argued, would in one way represent a big step forward for the Vietnamese people and would detonate movements elsewhere. It would strike a blow against imperialism and, above all, of US imperialism. But, because of the one-party regime which would be established, it would mean that a new political revolution would be necessary in the future for Vietnam to move towards socialism.
The movement in Vietnam was progressive but the demand for ‘victory to the NLF’ and similar slogans would never attract the support of the mass of the working class, particularly in the US, for a mass anti-war mass movement. Therefore, the more correct position from a Marxist point of view, as opposed to the stand of many groups, was mass agitation for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and, specifically, of US troops. In the context of the Vietnam War this was a ‘revolutionary’ demand because US bayonets alone propped up the rotten landlord/capitalist regime in South Vietnam.
We correctly anticipated that the withdrawal of US forces would lead to the collapse of this regime and the triumph of the revolution, which is what subsequently happened. It was the combination of the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants with the mass revolt of the US workers and population, on the very simple premise that the war was unwinnable, which led to the first military defeat of US imperialism in its history. But the forces of the Vietnamese revolution could not attract, in the same way as the victory of the working class in Russia in 1917 did (the ‘ten days that shook the world’), the conscious support of the American working class.
Marxist ideas and consciousness
It does not even enter the minds of the sectarian left of how to take an idea and relate it to the existing level of consciousness of the working class, seeking to change it with skilful propaganda and slogans. Bin Laden and the Taliban, as a political formation, are entirely repulsive to the overwhelming majority of the working class worldwide. The growing anti-war movement during the war did not express support for these figures – unlike in the Vietnam War for the NLF – and was largely of a pacifist character, of opposition to bombing, of ‘let the Afghan people themselves decide’, etc. There was nothing in the medieval obscurantism of Islamic fundamentalism that could possibly attract the mass of the proletariat in the advanced industrial countries. Moreover, as was subsequently demonstrated, support for the Taliban rested on chickens’ legs, which folded at the first serious challenge.
Therefore, ‘political Islam’ or Islamic fundamentalism, which is now of an overwhelming right-wing character, offers no way out to the oppressed and enslaved peoples of the Middle East, Africa or of parts of Asia. It would, therefore, have been wrong for a Marxist organisation both in the industrialised countries and in the neo-colonial world to give political support to their reactionary ideas.
We clearly differentiate between support for the Afghan and Iraqi peoples, and for all peoples in the neo-colonial world under attack from imperialism, and support for quasi ‘liberation’ organisations such as the Taliban and al-Qa’ida organisations. Even where they are temporarily successful, according to their own lights, as in the case of 11 September, the net result is reactionary.
It lowers the level of consciousness of the peoples in the Middle East, seeking to teach them to look for salvation from lone fighters, or a group of avenging angels in the form of al-Qa’ida, rather than the mass activity, demonstrations, the arming of the masses, the general strike and insurrection, to overthrow landlordism and capitalism. War is a crucial test for Marxists and revolutionaries. Once more, the small ultra-left groups, like Workers’ Power, the LIT and larger organisations, like the SWP, have failed this test.
During the war the CWI provided timely slogans – through a process of discussion and dialogue. This allowed us to intervene very effectively in the war. This is a harbinger for the future when all ideas will be put to the test, before massive audiences of workers.