Workers Vanguard No. 1073
4 September 2015
On ISIS and U.S. Imperialism
29 May 2015
I have been concerned about the direction of SL, ICL-FI writings on the Middle East, specifically ISIS (or ISIL or IS Islamic State). SL initially took the position of military support but no political support of all forces opposing U.S. imperialism. This seems to have evolved into ISIS is the lesser of two evils with copious disclaiming and condemnation of just about everything ISIS does. I think you are asking the wrong question in this situation and getting a very bad answer.
What is, or should be the Marxist Leninist approach? In the First great interimperialist war, World War One, the left socialists, which included Lenin, put forward Revolutionary Defeatism. In Russia where the policy succeeded Lenin and the Bolsheviks made very clear before, during, after the revolution that they were not agents of Germany, Russia’s chief enemy, nor working for a German victory, in fact after the victory of the revolution they had to fight Germany and the other imperialist powers as well. Likewise with World War II the SWP opposed the imperialist war, but they were never agents of the Nazis. The point being that opposing an imperialist power’s war does not necessarily mean supporting their opponent. That is two separate questions.
I would say that ISIS is a fascist organization with the particulars that come with having fundamentalist Islam as its ideology. They are the enemy of all socialist movements. It doesn’t matter if you regard them as the chief or some second or third rate enemy, they are the enemy. Marxists do not support fascists on any level.
The last time a situation with many similarities to this one came up SL had a different and much better approach. In Iran when the Shah, a client of western imperialists, was overthrown by Khomeini’s “Islamic Revolution” SL put forward the slogan “Down with the Shah, down with the mullahs, Workers to power” (or something substantially similar, I don’t have it in front of me now). In other words opposition to both the imperialists and the Islamic fascists.
The Kurds. Right now the de facto SL policy for the Kurds is to stand by and cheer as the Islamic fascists kill them. This is supposedly going to increase the revolutionary potential in the U.S. Actually what it seems to be is an abandonment of any revolutionary perspective for the region and petty bourgeois vindictiveness for a people whose current leadership is a client of imperialism. When ISIS arose they bloodily attacked Shia and Kurdish regions. The Kurds in self defense resisted. The Kurds fought well, but lacked heavy weapons and were threatened with death or expulsion from the country. For their own reasons the U.S. offered arms and tactical air support to the Kurds. The Kurds really had no choice but to accept. Revolutionaries should support the Kurds’ defense, but oppose their deployment to other parts of Iraq to support imperialist aims. What should be done is to create a revolutionary Kurdish party to oppose the pro-imperialists. You will never do it with a program that cheers Islamic Fascists as they kill, rape, and dispossess the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.
Remember in these situations, the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy.
For a revolutionary party,
The bottom line of Loren S.’s letter is that ISIS is so abhorrent, so evil, “fascist” as he calls it, that “democratic” U.S. imperialism is preferable to it. In reality, the many gruesome crimes of ISIS pale in comparison to those of the U.S. and other imperialists, whether measured in numbers, reach or impact. The trails of blood that blight the Near East today are consequences of a century of “divide and rule,” war and overall economic and social retardation imposed by the imperialist system. ISIS itself grew out of the devastation that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq as well as the support funneled by the U.S. and its allies to the reactionary forces fighting the brutal bourgeois regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
We take a military side with ISIS when it targets the imperialists and forces acting as their proxies, including the Baghdad government, the Shi’ite militias, the Kurdish pesh merga in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish nationalists. At the same time, we are in staunch political opposition to ISIS, whose bloodthirsty methods and retrograde outlook are truly repugnant.
The bottom line for Marxists is that a setback for the U.S. and its proxies would impede imperialist designs for the region. This could only aid the proletariat and oppressed of the Near East, including the Kurdish masses. Such a setback could also promote domestic opposition to U.S. imperialism among a war-weary populace that has been ground down by years of economic crisis and a “recovery” from which workers haven’t benefited. We Marxists aim to turn the disillusionment and anger of working people in the U.S. into class struggle against the capitalist rulers at home. It is through such struggle that the proletariat will be won to the program of socialist revolution to destroy the imperialist beast from within.
Such a perspective begins with the understanding that the U.S. imperialists are the main enemy of working people throughout the world. This is precisely what Loren rejects. To buttress his argument, he cites a number of examples that have no relation to the issue at hand. The case of Iran in 1978-79 was one of competing bourgeois forces—the Shah and the Islamists—fighting over control of the country amid a situation where the question of a proletarian struggle for power was posed. It was not one where the imperialists waged war against one side or another. The First and Second World Wars were interimperialist wars to redivide the globe among the “Great Powers.” In such wars, Marxists have a revolutionary defeatist line toward all the belligerents (except for the USSR in World War II, which Marxists unconditionally militarily defended).
And then there’s the canard of “Islamic fascists.” Loren describes ISIS (as well as the mullahs in Iran and presumably other Islamist forces) as “fascists,” writing, “They are the enemy of all socialist movements.” So are the bourgeois nationalists and, above all, the imperialists. Yet Loren does not ascribe that label to them. ISIS and other Islamists are no more fascist than are any of the multitudes of reactionary and murderous forces that rule most of this planet. In reality, the term “Islamic fascists” was coined as part of the ideological campaign to justify the “war on terror.” It serves as a salve for liberals making their peace with U.S. imperialism and lends credence to the bourgeois-democratic veneer of the imperialists. In throwing it around as a sort of curse word, Loren simply reveals how much he imbibes of the democratic pretensions of U.S. imperialism.
But even if ISIS did represent a fascist force, it would not alter our principled position of militarily defending them against imperialism. In 1938, with the Second World War looming, Leon Trotsky addressed a hypothetical attack by “democratic” British imperialism against Brazil, which was then ruled by the fascistic Vargas regime:
“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. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy.”
—“Anti-Imperialist Struggle Is Key to Liberation,” 23 September 1938
It is telling that in opposing our position, Loren cites only the Kurds; for example, he raises no objection to our line in relation to the Shi’ite militias. The implication is that somehow the Kurdish forces are inherently progressive. Actually, the fighting in Iraq and Syria has seen communalist massacres on all sides; we originally had no side until U.S. imperialism directly intervened. While ISIS revels in its barbarism and brutality, it does not have a monopoly on such qualities among the contending forces in the region. One of the reasons ISIS has been able to find support among Sunni Arabs is that they have faced murderous communalism at the hands of Shi’ite and Kurdish militias—such as the pesh merga forces who participated in the U.S.-led 2004 assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja. More recently, reports have emerged of Arab residents being driven out of northern Syria by the U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Committees (YPG).
Loren writes, “The de facto SL policy for the Kurds is to stand by and cheer as the Islamic fascists kill them.” No. We have never denied the right of any community to defend itself. What we oppose is the Kurdish nationalists acting as proxies of imperialism. Loren does not dispute that they are playing that role; he merely excuses it by claiming that they “had no choice.” In fact, the Kurdish nationalists have subordinated the just struggle for Kurdish national rights to their role as imperialist proxies, a crime for which the long-oppressed Kurdish people will pay the price.
In “Down With U.S. War Against ISIS!” (WV No. 1055, 31 October 2014), we warned, “By selling their souls to the imperialists as well as to various regional bourgeois regimes, Kurdish leaders help perpetuate the divide-and-rule stratagems that inevitably inflame communal, national and religious tensions and serve to reinforce the oppression of the Kurdish masses.”
As has happened many times in the past, the Kurds’ supposed benefactors have now turned on them. Last month, in exchange for use of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to launch operations against ISIS, the U.S. gave the Ankara regime the green light to launch airstrikes in northern Iraq against the YPG’s allies, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, which both the U.S. and Turkey label as “terrorist”). These airstrikes are facilitated by intelligence about PKK bases in Iraq that the U.S. has been supplying to Turkey since 2007. The Turkish government is also cracking down on domestic opposition, arresting hundreds of Kurdish militants and others.
The myriad peoples of the Near East will not know peace, prosperity or justice until bourgeois rule in the region is overthrown through a series of socialist revolutions. Such a perspective demands first and foremost implacable opposition to imperialism.