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Marxism and Anti-Imperialism

Robert Wilkins

THERE USED to be a time when socialists took a clear position on wars between major imperialist powers and poor “third world” countries. It was generally recognised that military victories for the former over their victims were a political disaster – partly because defeat for the oppressed would weaken all those forces across the globe that were resisting imperialism, and also because a victorious imperialist power would be encouraged to launch further attacks on peoples and governments who stood in the way of its economic, political and military-strategic interests.

The war against Afghanistan has seen many on the left back away from a consistent anti-imperialist position. Their argument has been that it was impossible to feel any kind of solidarity with the Taliban regime whose overthrow US military intervention was intended to secure.

For example, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Ken Livingstone explained that he had campaigned against the Vietnam war but not against that in Afghanistan because Ho Chi Minh was a progressive figure who fought to win independence for and modernise his country, whereas the Taliban are just "religious nutters". (The possibility that taking a principled stand against an imperialist assault on a small poverty-stricken country might undermine Ken’s prospects for re-election as London Mayor was no doubt an entirely secondary consideration.)

This was perhaps a predictable reaction from someone who makes no claims to be a Marxist. What is less understandable, or forgivable, is the response to Bush’s "war on terrorism" by some leftists who do claim to take their inspiration from Marxism. Even those who opposed the war have in many cases baulked at actually taking sides in the conflict. Some of them, quite disgracefully in my opinion, have even raised the slogan "no to Islamic fundamentalism" alongside the call to "stop the war" – as if militant Islamism, which at least in part represents a confused stand against US imperialism, is somehow on a par with US imperialism itself as a threat to humanity.

This is a particularly inexcusable response when it comes from groups and individuals originating in the Trotskyist tradition. Trotsky himself was adamant in rejecting neutrality in such conflicts, and famously poured scorn on the leaders of the ILP when they refused to back Abyssinia in its war with Italy. His stand on this issue did not imply any political agreement with the Abyssinian regime, which was a feudal monarchy. "When Italy attacked Ethiopia", Trotsky explained, "I was fully on the side of the latter, despite the Ethiopian negus [Emperor Haile Selassie] for whom I have no sympathy. What mattered was to oppose imperialism’s seizure of this new territory." Elsewhere, he underlined this point – that defence of an oppressed country against imperialist aggression was obligatory for socialists, irrespective of the political regime in that country – by stating that, in the case of a war between Britain and a "fascist" regime in Brazil, he would be "on the side of ’fascist’ Brazil against ’democratic’ Great Britain".

It should be added that this position is shared by hundreds of millions of people across the "third world". The reason, it is not hard to work out, is that they suffer directly from the economic, political and military domination of the United States, whereas those leftists who have taken a "plague on both your houses" line towards the war on Afghanistan are, generally speaking, the white inhabitants of "advanced" western countries where imperialist oppression is something that happens to other people.

Anyone who wants an illustration of the confusion resulting from the rejection of an anti-imperialist position should consult the editorial in the 28 November issue of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s paper Action for Solidarity.

Summarising an earlier political statement, the AWL tells us: "we wrote that ’smooth and quick victories’ for the US/UK war would increase the chances that the views of those government officials who talked, after 11 September, about ’ending states’ and attacking ’a whole series of countries’ – specifically, Iraq – would ’prevail over more cautious counsel’." From which one would presumably draw the conclusion that a speedy victory for US imperialism in Afghanistan would be a bad thing. Not the AWL. The Action for Solidarity editorial states unequivocally that they "welcome" the "quick collapse of the Taliban"!

So there we have it. A group of self-styled Marxists openly supports an outcome to the war against Afghanistan which, by their own analysis, will encourage the most hawkish elements in the Bush administration to attack further countries, with the inevitable bombing and killing of many more thousands of innocent civilians. Needless to say, these countries will not include the one in which Action for Solidarity has its editorial office.