Document: Modern imperialist domination and Islamic fundamentalism

Posted: December 7, 2015 in Political Views

In June 2007 the two Israeli members of the International Marxist Tendency supported Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip going so far as to call it a “victory against imperialism” and a “liberation” (Yehuda Stern, 19 June 2007).

There then followed a month of discussions between the International Centre and the Israeli comrades on the fundamental errors of this position. Despite this, during the IEC meeting in July, Yossi Schwartz not only defended this line but extended it to include the unconditional military defence of the Iranian regime. He said that in the event of a US attack on Iran the Iranian comrades should “join the Iranian army”!

While the barrage of criticism that was aimed at them made the two Israeli members leave the International, it is, however, important for us to draw lessons from this serious theoretical lapse by them. How can a seemingly ‘principled’ position lead revolutionary socialists into blindly supporting Islamic fundamentalists? This policy would have had serious consequences had anyone been involved in real activity among the workers in Israel, West Bank or Gaza (although it is doubtful that activists with their feet on the ground would have come up with such a ridiculous position).

While it is recognised that the Israeli members (and many groups) stretched the traditional standard position of revolutionary Marxism on the national and colonial questions beyond breaking point, our view is that even this old tradition has been turned into a formula by many in the ‘Trotskyist’ and other movements. Although we are dealing with the same mode of production and epoch as that of Lenin and Trotsky, the world long ago entered a period that included important changes in the relationship between the imperialist countries and those they dominate. This theoretical viewpoint therefore needs an overhaul to make it relevant to a changed world.

Furthermore, wherever an alternative and ultimately anti-working class movement has developed we should not merely see its mass base and combativity. We should, first and foremost, acknowledge that it has developed and filled the vacuum of leadership because of the successive betrayals and basic errors of ‘communists’ and ‘socialists’. Our position on these movements should therefore be aimed at broadening, radicalising and ultimately replacing their leadership with Marxists – not admiring them!

We therefore need to reiterate the Bolshevik tradition on this issue and to highlight the principles on which it was based.

The role of Islamic fundamentalism

It may seem curious that although every Marxist in Europe or North America recognises Islam as a thoroughly medieval and reactionary ideology, when faced with the Iranian regime’s repeated ‘confrontations’ with the United States, the Lebanese Hezbollah’s military resistance against Israel, or Palestinian Hamas’s clashes with the Israeli military, they lose the ability to make a concrete analysis of the situation and the class nature of the forces involved. Or, worse still, they make a fairly good assessment about the reactionaries or religious zealots but use the excuse that “they are oppressed” to justify supporting them!

The role of political Islam in its various fundamentalist and other guises is an important issue that has faced the Trotskyist movement and the left generally for a number of decades. Socialists active in Muslim countries have had to wage a daily struggle against it.

Yet following the backlash against Muslims after 9/11 the left in many countries has capitulated to the leaders of these communities in Europe and elsewhere. The British SWP, for example, has totally prostrated itself in front of the Muslim bigots’ prejudices in its ‘united front’ against imperialism’s militarist policies and the attacks on democratic rights. It has further shown how out of touch it is with the best elements of workers and youth by trying to implement this policy in places like Egypt!

It is our duty to explain to workers everywhere that no matter how many out-of-context quotes such people find from the Bolsheviks, there is no theoretical basis for justifying their actions or stance. It is possible to quote the Congress of the Peoples of the East making glowing remarks about “holy war”[1]or Lenin saying positive things about bourgeois nationalism or religion.

But the positions of these ‘Trotskyists’ have nothing to do with a Marxist analysis of the class nature of Islamic fundamentalism and its role in diverting the revolutionary potential of workers and the exploited and oppressed masses into a dead-end.

We would like to begin with a brief look at the peculiarities of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and its ‘army’ in order to put Schwartz’s ridiculous advice to Iranian socialists in its appropriate historical context, to expose it as a clearly class-collaborationist line and then move on to our movement’s historical positions.

On joining the ‘Iranian Army’

What officially became known as the IRI is a unique regime. The precise form it took was the product of the way that a massive revolutionary wave of workers and other exploited and oppressed masses was smashed by the Iranian bourgeoisie’s counter-revolution. This unique regime also has a unique military structure.

For Marxists it is always important to start with the concrete. The Iranian Army, as such, is said to have around 350,000 personnel, with over 60% made up of conscripts. Yet it is the Pasdaran, the so-called Revolutionary Guards, that maintains internal security and was the main military force during the war against Iraq. The Pasdaran number at least 125,000 (slightly less than the professional core of the army) and was formed following the revolution, because the Shah’s army had disintegrated and the Islamists did not fully trust its remnants.

From the beginning the Pasdaran was an ideological force loyal to Khomeini. It was first used to crush the mass movement and then, following Iraq’s attack, took part in the war. It has always had a separate command structure, controls the basij (the mobilisation force with close to 400,000 total personnel), controls Iran’s strategic missile forces, is in charge of defending the nuclear installations and has extensive economic power through its connections to top politicians who were former members (inc. Ahmadinejad). It is ideological, highly-motivated, well-paid and trained, and keeps an eye on the regular army (which the Islamic regime has overhauled completely over the past 29 years).

The nearest historical equivalent to the Pasdaran was the SS, which was a military organisation under the control of Hitler and the Nazi party. Could any ‘Marxist’ justify joining the SS when the US or Britain attacked Germany?

The error of the “join the Iranian army” political line has already been proven in practice. After Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980 a number of Iranian groups, particularly the Tudeh and Fedaiin Majority, made it their policy. Since they were already giving the IRI uncritical support, and even collaborating with it, they tried to “join the Iranian army” to do propaganda work at the front. Once there they found out that they had to pray, observe religious duties and so on. Many of their members were shot on the spot when they refused to do these things.

It could be argued that their position was actually ‘better’ than Schwartz’s – as at the time US imperialism was clearly backing the Baathist regime and the Iranian regime appeared far more ‘revolutionary’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ than today. Of course imperialism’s backing for Iraq was not aimed at overthrowing the Iranian regime and the ‘revolutionary’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ slogans were just empty rhetoric.

So the call to “join the Iranian army” – over 25 years after witnessing what the regime did to the Stalinists and how it has propped up reaction in the region – shows total ignorance about the nature of this regime and its relationship with US imperialism. Schwartz should know that in a real war the concrete situation of doing anti-war propaganda in the army is nothing like Yevgraf (played by Alec Guinness) joining the Tsar’s army in Doctor Zhivago! Although, to be fair, Schwartz never said anything about anti-war or anti-regime propaganda while inside the army!

The ‘standard’ position

Although it has been bad enough that many people within the ‘Trotskyist’ movement have taken positions on countries with no knowledge other than what they have read in the bourgeois media in Europe, a bigger mistake has been to take the letter of the Comintern’s or Trotsky’s position without understanding the reasoning behind it.

If we look at Trotsky’s position on the war between Italian imperialism and Ethiopia, we see that the main consideration is that the defeat of the imperialist country will create an international balance of forces more favourable to the proletariat and lead to the underdeveloped country’s independence. Trotsky says: “Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia …” and correctly adds that “… we want to stress the point that this fight is directed not against fascism, but againstimperialism. When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is “better,” the Negus [Ethiopian emperor] or Mussolini; rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism.”[2]

It is clear that in today’s world the “question of the relationship of classes” would not be limited to classes in the imperialist country but would take into account, indeed put equal (or even more) emphasis on, the position of workers in the dominated country. As for “the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism”, this is, historically speaking, largely irrelevant.

Trotsky could even maintain such a position regarding Brazil in the late 1930s.

“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.”[3]

Trotsky’s position on the war between Fascist Italy and Ethiopia, and the British threats against a semi-Fascist Brazil, are similar to Marx’s position, for example, on the Russo-Turkish War in 1878. This is because the conditions had not changed fundamentally between 1878 and 1935 or 1938. The pace of development during those 60 years had not produced a qualitative change in the class structure of these societies.

Trotsky was dealing with pre-capitalist or very weak capitalist countries, with no significant working class movement – when dealing with Brazil he mentions the British proletariat but not the Brazilian one. But could such a position be taken now, if say an imperialist power were to threaten Brazil for some reason? Could Marxists overlook the fact that during the past 70 years Brazilian capitalism has grown by leaps and bounds? That there has been a huge growth in class differentiation and social inequalities among these classes? That the working class has been involved in many struggles and has matured to the level that it has experienced both a reformist labour government and factory councils? That many other sections of society, like black people, have also developed important mass movements?

In today’s Brazil the “question of the relationship of classes” will have to focus on the Brazilian working class, particularly elements around the factory councils and the leftwing of the PT. It is therefore important to bear in mind the historical specificity of any analysis, position or principle.

If this position was still valid for many cases in the late 1950 and early 1960, it became obsolete with their independence. By 1979, in Iran, it had become a class-traitor’s charter! As Gustav Mahler said: “Tradition is the handing-on of Fire, and not the worship of Ashes.”

The roots of our position

The position of the IRSL (Iranian Revolutionary Socialist League) has its origins in our experience during 1978-81 in Iran. We tried to grapple with the phenomenon of the Islamic counter-revolution, which, in order to crush the revolution, took on an ‘anti-imperialist’ appearance. Through this method it managed to assume the leadership of the revolution and, having done so, it then proceeded to crush a mass movement that had mobilised 10 million people – a quarter of the population.

The main force within this movement was the working class. During a period of a few months the workers’ movement had made up for decades of defeats and stagnation during the Shah’s dictatorship: a political strike by the oil workers, workers’ councils controlling production and distribution, and so on. All of these were smashed because the Stalinist and Maoist left could not see the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Right from the beginning the Islamists adopted tactics that appeared radical or even leftwing but in fact weakened the workers’ movement. In the middle of a movement in which the working class, particularly the oil workers, played a key role the Islamists seized the US embassy and diverted workers and many other activists into gesture politics and shouting slogans outside the embassy. At a time when workers were forming factory councils in many areas, controlling production and even distribution in some cases, certain guerrillaist and Stalinist groups did not understand the importance of workers’ control and workers’ councils. They did not understand the revolutionary role that independent movements of women and the national minorities could play.

A counter-revolution that took on a ‘revolutionary’ guise, exploited the religious and cultural traditions of the masses and, of course, received help from imperialism, in dealing the movement a crushing blow that has lasted for decades.

While its Islamic ideology was recognised as thoroughly medieval and reactionary by the left, a large section of it, including the international left, thought that the Khomeini regime was somehow objectively, or empirically, or even unconsciously(!), ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘revolutionary’. Such wishful thinking proved disastrous for all the Stalinist, Maoist, centrist and other groups. It even caused a split among the Trotskyists – with half of the group supporting Khomeini. Unfortunately instead of shunning the group with the class-collaborating policy the leadership of the USFI ostracised the group that upheld working class independence!

Yet this sorry episode in our history did not end there. Having gone through this as a tragedy the movement has had to face it many more times as a farce. Many groups that had criticised others for their pro-Khomeini stance during the revolution ended up out-doing each other in ‘defending’ Iran whenever clashes between the Islamic Republic and the US escalated!

Similar positions and slogans have dogged the movement: “We back Libya” (April 1986); “Victory to Iraq” (1991) and “We are all Hezbollah now” (2007), and their variations, some more strident and some toned down, have come from a wide variety of groups claiming to be Trotskyist. These positions are shared by a whole range of organisations: from small, marginal, petty-bourgeois sects to large parties with solid working class roots.

And although the movement has seen more than its fair share of charlatans, rogues and muddle-headed philanthropists, we believe that so long as there is no theoretical block against these positions then these mistakes will be repeated.

Our position was first set out in relation to the Iranian regime and then further developed during the Gulf War (in a pamphlet entitled The Gulf War and revolutionary socialism). In 1990-91 we did not side with the Baathist regime against US imperialism. We backed the Iraqi masses against both imperialism and its local stooge. The Kurdish and Shia uprisings against the regime showed that this political line was not in any way utopian. If only the whole of the international left had worked to advance this political line …

Socialists and the national and colonial questions: a brief history

The positions of most leftwing groups, whether they are some kind of Stalinist or ‘Trotskyist’, have their roots in the Comintern’s way of approaching the “national and colonial questions”. Unfortunately, however, they copy these principles in a simplistic and formulaic way.

The Second International had a long tradition of ignoring this issue, or at best, adopting resolutions that were never put into practice. This ‘international’ disliked any real involvement by socialists in the colonies. It even excluded Iranian socialists when voting on a resolution on the first Iranian revolution!

At its Second Congress, the Comintern not only established a fundamentally different policy to the Second International on the national and colonial question, but also formulated it in an entirely different way. The various delegates from the colonial countries – particularly the Indian M.N. Roy and the Iranian A. Sultanzade – played a very active role in the pre-congress preparations as well as the two sessions and commission dedicated to this issue. Then a few weeks later a special congress, Congress of the Peoples of the East, was convened to forge closer links with anti-colonial movements and to begin building communist organisations in these countries.

The Second Congress of the Comintern

In the Theses on the national and colonial question drafted by Lenin, the Comintern described the three principles on which its national and colonial policy was based: “… the Communist Party should not place the main emphasis in the national question on abstract and formal principles, but in the first place on an exact evaluation of the historically given and above all economic milieu. Secondly it should emphasise the explicit separation of the interests of the oppressed classes, of the toilers, of the exploited, from the general concept of the national interest, which means the interests of the ruling class. Thirdly it must emphasise the equally clear division of the oppressed, dependent nations which do not enjoy equal rights from the oppressing, exploiting, privileged nations, as a counter to the bourgeois democratic lie which covers over the colonial and financial enslavement of the vast majority of the world’s total population, by a tiny minority of the richest and most advanced capitalist countries, that is characteristic of the epoch of finance capital and imperialism.”[4]

It is through this method, paraphrased below, that the Comintern reached its positions:

(i) a concrete analysis of the historical conditions, especially the economic situation;

(ii) a strict differentiation of the interests of the oppressed and exploited classes from those of the ruling class dressed up as ‘the national interest’;

(iii) a clear distinction between the oppressed, dependent nations and the oppressing, exploiting, privileged nations.

(i) A concrete analysis

The Comintern was fully aware of its limitations here but tried its best to base its analysis on precise and concrete information about the situation in these countries. At the time of the Second Congress there were still no CPs in most countries of ‘the East’ (or even in Europe): in the whole of Asia, Latin America and Africa there were just three CPs. Even these parties had a small base, lacked enough experienced cadres and their scope for activities were limited because of very repressive conditions.

That is why when submitting his draft of the Theses, Lenin prefaced it with the following:

“In submitting for discussion by the Second Congress … the following draft theses on the national and the colonial questions I would request all comrades, especially those who possess concrete information on any of these very complex problems, to let me have their opinions, amendments, addenda and concrete remarks … particularly on the following points …”[5] He then lists 16 issues from around the world, including “… Polish-Jewish and Ukrainian experience; Alsace-Lorraine and Belgium; Ireland; … Balkan experience; Eastern peoples; The struggle against Pan-Islamism; Relations in the Caucasus; The Bashkir and Tatar Republics; Kirghizia; Turkestan … Negroes in America; Colonies; China-Korea-Japan.”

It is important to note that not only did Lenin think that he lacked sufficient knowledge on the “Eastern peoples”, colonies in general, large areas like China-Korea-Japan or the struggle against Pan-Islamism, but even many places that had until recently been part of the Tsarist empire. Having “concrete information” on these “very complex problems” was the key to developing tactics that were relevant to the objective conditions in each country. And this was what Trotsky tried to follow – as far as conditions would allow – after the degeneration of the Comintern and his exile. For example, when asked about Latin America he began by saying: “I am not sufficiently acquainted with the life of the individual Latin American countries to permit myself a concrete answer on the questions you pose.”[6]

This approach meant that by the time of the Fourth Congress CPs had been established in many countries and were active in the workers’ and anti-colonial movements there.

The main difference between then and now

We believe that when comparing the general international situation vis-à-vis the national and colonial question during the early twentieth century with today’s conditions there is one main difference: the Comintern was dealing with dependent countries as opposed to independent nations.

This new development, in turn, has had the following consequences: the indigenous bourgeoisie rather than European rulers has come to power; the indigenous bourgeois state apparatus and army uphold the status quo; capitalism had become the dominant mode of production in the former pre-capitalist societies; the growth and economic importance of the working class (rather than peasants); growth in industrial rather than agricultural production; shift to urban rather than rural living; and last, but not least, class struggle – especially of the proletariat – within the ex-colonial nation.

Over the past decades the combined effect of these factors has led to the specific concrete situation in these countries.


It was foreign domination that had held back the productive forces in these societies.

The Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question, written by M. N. Roy, the Indian delegate at the Second Congress of the Comintern, and adopted by the Congress, clearly point out the source of the problem: “Foreign domination constantly obstructs the free development of social life; therefore the revolution’s first step must be the removal of this foreign domination.”[7]

Political independence that removes the main obstacle to capitalist development – colonial domination – has therefore always been the main political aim of the bourgeoisie of these countries. Once the bourgeoisie was in power, however, its main reason for being against imperialism disappeared (even though in a number of cases this is just formal independence). So while the ‘national bourgeoisie’ was opposed to the colonial administration it is now no longer fundamentally opposed to the economic domination of the country by imperialism.


This ‘national bourgeoisie’, which in many aspects is a client of the bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries, nevertheless, has its own interests that may come into conflict with the imperialists. But so long as there are super-profits then there is enough for thieves of all sizes.

A very important feature of independence and the ascent of the local bourgeoisie is the development of the nation state. A ‘potential nation’ during the anti-colonial struggle now becomes a reality. The formation of the nation is also itself the beginning of its stratification into various classes and layers. Soon enough the local classes begin to confront each other head-on (without any confusion or complexity about the true nature of the bourgeoisie which was unclear during colonial rule).

Once the ‘national bourgeoisie’ comes to power it becomes the ruling class. Whether it came to power through a struggle like in Kenya, or from above through a deal with imperialism like in Iran, it no longer plays any progressive role in society. Any ‘anti-imperialist’ talk or behaviour is the result of bargaining for more concessions from imperialism, and any resulting clashes or even war, does not change the character of this bourgeoisie in relation to other classes in the country or internationally.

The bourgeois-democratic tasks are implemented in a deformed and unfinished way. This is as much as the bourgeoisie can do without losing control. These do enough to develop the productive forces and capitalist relations of production.

Yet it is important to note that even before independence the Comintern was clear about the nature of the “privileged classes in the oppressed countries” and what the reality of independence could be like in many cases. The Supplementary Theses mention that: “The struggle to overthrow foreign domination in the colonies does not … mean underwriting the national aims of the national bourgeoisie but much rather smoothing the path to liberation for the proletariat of the colonies.” The Comintern, unlike the ‘Trotskyists’, did not give the national bourgeoisie any ‘knee-jerk’ unconditional support.

The Theses also explain that where possible the Comintern should “… give direct support to the revolutionary movements in dependent nations … through the Communist Parties of the countries in question.”

It is important to note that: first, the Comintern is setting out its policy on “revolutionary movements independent nations” (emphasis added) and not reactionary, or other, movements let alone bourgeois state (or semi-state) structures in independent countries. Second, even when giving “direct support to the revolutionary movements in dependent nations” the Comintern tries to do this “through the Communist Parties of the countries in question” (emphasis added). So although there were just three Communist parties in the colonial and semi-colonial world, in Mexico, the Dutch East Indies and Iran, the Comintern had a clear vision of how it wanted to help the revolutionary movements that were fighting against colonial occupation.

The Theses also differentiated between different countries and draw attention to a number of important points in “… states that have a more backward, predominantly feudal, patriarchal or peasant patriarchal character”. These were:

“a) All Communist Parties must support the revolutionary liberation movements in these countries by their deeds. The form the support should take must be discussed with the Communist Party of the country in question, should such a party exist. […]

b) An unconditional struggle must be carried out against the reactionary and medieval influence of the clergy …

c) A struggle is necessary against Panislamism, the Panasiatic movement and similar currents …

d) Support for the peasant movement … against the landowners and every form and remnant of feudalism is particularly necessary. What must be striven for above all is to give the peasant movement as revolutionary a character as possible …

e) A determined fight is necessary against the attempt to put a communist cloak around revolutionary liberation movements that are not really communist in the backward countries. The Communist International has the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies only for the purpose of gathering the components of the future proletarian parties – communist in fact and not just in name in all the backward countries and training them to be conscious of their special tasks … of fighting against the bourgeois-democratic tendencies within their own nation. The Communist International should accompany the revolutionary movement in the colonies and the backward countries for part of the way, should even make an alliance with it; it may not, however, fuse with it, but must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo.”

So it is no surprise that, when referring to some of these countries, Lenin said: “You will have to base yourselves on the bourgeois nationalism which is awakening … and which has its historical justification.”[8]

The working class

In 1919, in his Address to the Second All-Russia Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East, Lenin said that: “… the majority of the Eastern peoples are … not workers who have passed through the school of capitalist factories, but typical representatives of the working and exploited peasant masses who are victims of medieval oppression.” He added that “… the bulk of the population are peasants, and … the task is to wage a struggle against medieval survivals and not against capitalism.”[9]

The Second Congress was very clear about the predominance of the peasantry and the absence or recent appearance of the proletariat: “Thanks to the imperialist policies whose efforts are directed towards holding up industrial development in the colonies, the native proletariat has only come into existence fairly recently. The dispersed local cottage industries have given way to the centralised industries of the imperialist countries. As a result the vast majority of the population was forced to engage in agriculture and export raw materials abroad. On the other hand we can observe a rapidly growing concentration of the land in the hands of big landowners, capitalists and the state, which again contributes to the growth of the number of landless peasants.” (Supplementary Theses)

With the development of the productive forces, however, the proletariat became ever more important in the daily economic and eventually political life of the new nation. At the same time as it was formed the new nation started becoming more and more differentiated. Class stratification progressed from the city to the village and into all major sectors of the economy.

The predominantly agricultural and rural forms of employment were overtaken by industrial and urban forms. Even in the villages, the remaining industries not only adopted more and more of the technologies provided by the factories but a fundamental shift took place when the agricultural production was organised along capitalist lines and was aimed towards supplying the market rather than the subsistence of the producers. Large-scale industry developed and even the smallest family-run workshops were run along capitalist lines. There was even a split in the countryside, with the development of rich property-owning peasants and rural proletarians (and class struggle between them).

This pattern, where there was no ideological hindrance, drew in ever more layers of people into capitalist production and the labour-power market. Not only were more and more layers from other classes proletarianised but women were drawn into the world of work and social life generally.

The workers became one of two main classes in society – even if they, to begin with, didn’t know it themselves. The other main class, the bourgeoisie, was fully aware of its interests and had the full backing of its class allies internationally. However, because of its place within the world capitalist system, the pace of industrialisation in this type of country cannot keep up with the destruction of the old methods or forms of production. Consequently all those who become proletarianised cannot always actually join the ranks of the proletariat and be absorbed into the labour-power market, and many, sometimes millions, end up living on the margins of capitalist society in shanty downs around cities. These lumpen elements can, with the wrong leadership, play a reactionary role against the real proletariat.

Within a few years the workers (and all the exploited and oppressed layers of the country) increasingly see their ‘own bourgeoisie’ as the main class enemy – or as the local ‘agent’ of imperialists if there is less independence. Proletarian struggles become the most important ones in this type of country. Although at times students, youth, poor peasants, national minorities, women and so on may become the main section of the masses struggling against the ‘national’ government, it is only when important sections of workers join these struggles that they rock the government and even the structures of the capitalist state.

(ii) No class-collaboration between the oppressed and exploited classes

The Comintern’s primary aim here was to set out clearly that the workers of the imperialist or advanced countries had no common ‘national interest’ with their own bourgeoisie. It was imperative that the newly-formed (or soon to be founded) Communist parties took a clear stance against the bourgeois ideology propagated by their own ruling class and did not side with it in military adventures and annexations abroad – even when they were dressed up as part of the ‘national interest’.

Today, with the bourgeoisie in power in all the colonies of Lenin’s time, this resolute stand against class-collaboration has to be extended to not only to India-Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, China, and the central Asian republics, but all of Asia, all of Africa and all of Latin America.[10]

In most of these countries there is also a long history of proletarian class struggle, which, in some cases, even stretches back to the time of the anti-colonial struggle. Therefore, when a country is threatened in some way, the international left should not look to defend the national sovereignty or territorial integrity of these countries. The workers and other exploited and oppressed classes in these countries have material interests that are opposed to those of their own bourgeoisie and they therefore have no common ‘national interest’ with it.

It would be a betrayal of the working class movement in these countries to suddenly expect workers to forget their decades-long traditions and suspend the class struggle simply because the bourgeoisie has over-reached itself vis-à-vis America’s designs for the country (or the region). The bourgeoisie of the country may expect such support but the workers must know that the nature of such a disagreement with imperialism is totally reactionary and that if it really leads to war then the best way to fight imperialism is for the exploited and oppressed masses, led by the most advanced layers of the working class, to organise the military resistance to the invaders and mobilise to overthrow the regime.

Of the Comintern’s three principles this is the one that needs to be modified. The principle against class-collaboration needs to be extended to all countries of the world.

(iii) Distinguishing between the oppressed, dependent nations and the oppressing, exploiting, privileged nations

This seems to be the only principle that the vast majority of the ‘Trotskyists’ have learnt from the Bolsheviks (and Trotsky after the degeneration of the USSR).

Obviously this still holds to a great extent: no one in their right mind could equate Baathist Iraq with US imperialism. The majority of the ‘Trotskyists’, however, use this as a simple formula: Iraq=oppressed, US=oppressor. Once this categorisation has taken place then there is no need to think or worry about a concrete analysis of class forces on the ground in the oppressed country. This is what leads to positions that not only fail to gain any supporters in the oppressed country (or region) concerned but also create big problems when attempting to recruit workers in the west.

Firstly, if we look at this in a purely short-termist and ‘calculating’ way then two points should be mentioned:

(a) In countries like Iraq or Iran, if the workers and exploited masses are supporters of the regime then they have already joined the Baath party or Hezbollah-Pasdaran-Basij. They have no need to affiliate to a small sect in Europe that defends the regime. For an Iranian being a Hezbollahi is more natural, carries material benefits and privileges and provides security. What does being a Hezbollahi by proxy – through a European sect that previously criticised the regime for its abuses and so on – provide other than draw the suspicions of the secret police?

(b) In the imperialist countries, although the ‘Trotskyists’ may think that by giving unconditional (or even conditional) support to regimes in Iraq, Libya or Iran they are ‘challenging’ bourgeois ideology and the pro-war atmosphere in their own country.

What actually happens is that many workers in the west are repelled by what these regimes are doing to their own workers, women, students and so on – and they do not have ‘the theory’ to excuse these atrocities. They are, of course, under the influence of bourgeois ideology – as they are on other issues. But one of the best ways to begin to break this influence of bourgeois ideology is to show how much workers in the imperialist and advanced countries have in common with their brothers and sisters in the dominated and oppressed countries.

Secondly, even though for over thirty years the sects in Europe and N America have defended and supported various Islamic and Arab nationalist movements or groups. Yet they show no significant long-term gain among workers. Where is the radical and organised anti-militarist movement that was built on this basis? How many thousands of workers have become members of revolutionary Marxist organisations because of their stance vis-à-vis these conflicts?

Thirdly, looking at this historically, they must recognise that the nature of imperialist domination and oppression of today is very different and much more complex than 80-90 years ago. Our ‘Trotskyists’ cannot use this third principle of the Comintern as a master-key that opens all locks. This principle is not an excuse for class collaboration in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It does not rule out or replace the need for a concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

Today’s ‘Anti-imperialism’

Because of its balancing act between the masses and its ties to imperialism on the one hand, and its own national (and regional) interests as a minor bourgeois partner of imperialism on the other, the indigenous bourgeoisie may in certain situations adopt not only ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric, but provoke diplomatic incidents and even start some small scale military action.

Whatever the outward manifestation of these conflicts of interest the indigenous bourgeoisie remains fundamentally regressive and reactionary. There is no progressive content to these disagreements with imperialism. Not only is the bourgeoisie unwilling to engage in a real anti-imperialist struggle – i.e., one that is also anti-capitalist and for socialism – but, as the ruling class, it wants to uphold the status quo.

The interests of the workers in these countries are the same as workers in the imperialist or advanced capitalist countries. They are no less proletarian than their European or N American brothers and sisters. The workers in the dominated countries therefore must maintain an independent political position and organisational structure from their ‘own’ bourgeoisie, and to do their utmost to use the crisis to overthrow not only the government but the entire capitalism system.

The third camp

Considering that in all dominated countries the concrete historical conditions and economic situation have changed enormously, that there is a national bourgeoisie that would like to promote a ‘national interest’, and that imperialist domination has taken a new form, we believe that the Comintern’s three principles still apply – but in a modified form.

The main factor for Marxists should be the development of the class struggle, particularly of the proletariat. Over several decades the working class in these countries has time and time again developed massive strikes or even general strikes, tried to set up independent trade unions and organisations, formed workers’ councils, controlled production and so on.

Considering the way these countries became independent, i.e., on the territory of a colony that included many diverse nationalities, national oppression by the dominant ethnic (or religious) group, and struggles against the state and central government, have also been in evidence. The ‘national interest’ of the nation-state is against all the basic rights of the nationalities as well as workers.

That is why, for example, the defeat of the Baathist regime in 1991 was a signal for huge numbers of Kurds and Shias to revolt against it. It is true that the leadership of both of movements was reactionary. And although the masses had great illusions in what US imperialism’s promises, they showed that there was great potential for forming a third camp or front if a revolutionary leadership had been present.

In places like Iraq or Iran, therefore, the working class should lead the masses in forming an independent third camp – neither with its ‘own’ bourgeoisie in defence of a ‘national interest’, nor with imperialism. This is a united front of the workers and all exploited and oppressed layers in society. It should not only be anti-imperialist but also fight for the overthrow of capitalism through posing transitional demands like workers’ control.

It would call on all international leftwing or progressive organisations to lend it support to make this independent and truly revolutionary front a real alternative to the other two camps. Instead of calling for workers to join the army of the reactionary stooge bourgeoisie the Marxists should call on workers who are drafted into the army to shoot their officers, to form soldiers’ councils, to arm the masses with heavy weaponry to defend their factories and neighbourhoods, to train the masses in military skills to a high level and to conduct a revolutionary war against imperialism and the local bourgeoisie.

This is the real way to confront and defeat imperialism. It is, of course, a tall order. But preparations for a revolution are not an ordinary event. This is our duty. Whether such a front actually takes shape depends on theoretical and practical preparation before the event and our resolute action in being able to lead the masses towards this goal once a conflict has begun.

The nightmare scenario

The nightmare for Marxists in the semi-colonies and dominated countries would come true when once a conflict starts, not only do the international left not help with the forming of such a front, but openly side with the ‘little’ bourgeois regime against the ‘big bully’ of imperialism.

This line, in effect, means that the workers are told to suspend the class struggle until the end of the conflict! In practice this has more in common with the Second International in July-August 1914 than with the Third International in 1919-22.

Those who have taken pro-Khomeini, pro-Gaddafi, pro-Saddam and similar positions have not only betrayed the working class in these countries but have discredited the whole of the left. The job of building truly revolutionary Marxist organisations that are rooted within the working class has become much harder because of these errors.

Morad Shirin and Maziar Razi
Iranian Revolutionary Socialists’ League
May 2008

[1]Manifesto of the Congress to the Peoples of the East in Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East, pp 163-173.

[2] Trotsky, The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict, in The Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, p 41.

[3] Trotsky, Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, in The Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, pp 31-6.

[4] Second Congress of the Communist International: Minutes of the proceedings, Volume 1, p 177.

[5] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 31, p 144.

[6] Trotsky, Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, op. cit., p 34.

[7] Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question, in Second Congress of the Communist International, op. cit., pp 115-120.

[8] Lenin, Address to the Second All-Russia Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East, in Collected Works, Vol 30, p 161.

[9] Lenin, ibid.

[10] Of course, we do not think that N. Korea or Cuba are capitalist.



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