Workers Vanguard Nos. 740-741
25 August 2000, 8 September 2000
Stalinist Class Collaboration: A Legacy of Revolutions Betrayed
Near East, 1950s
Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Nationalism
For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
The Near East is marked by abject poverty, benighted enslavement of women, the dispossession of the Palestinian people by Israel and the oppression of numerous other national minorities by Arab and Iranian nationalist regimes. This legacy of social backwardness and oppression is reinforced by the domination of the region by the imperialist powers. Ongoing imperialist intrigues and depredations like the U.S./British terror bombing of Iraq are impelled by a strategic concern: control of the supply of oil, the source of more than 40 percent of the world’s energy. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the sheikdoms of the Arabian peninsula hold three-quarters of the world’s proven oil reserves. Ever since the 1920s, control over the Persian Gulf oil fields has given American and British imperialism an enormous strategic advantage over their main rivals, Germany and Japan.
The development of the oil industry has also led to the creation of a proletariat in the region in whose hands lies the power to lead all of the oppressed in revolutionary struggle against imperialist subjugation. Repeatedly betrayed by left-talking petty-bourgeois nationalists and Stalinists and chafing under brutal bourgeois regimes, many anti-imperialist youth and the most downtrodden layers of the masses have turned to the fool’s gold of Islamic fundamentalism. But in the 1950s, this region was a hotbed of revolutionary working-class struggles which offered a real prospect for ending imperialist subjugation, social reaction and brutal exploitation.
A few months ago, the New York Times (16 April) ran a lengthy piece on the CIA-organized coup in Iran in 1953, at the height of U.S. imperialism’s Cold War against the Soviet Union. Nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil monopoly had impelled the country on a collision course with the imperialists, leading to a deepening revolutionary crisis. The Times wrote, “Anti-Communism had risen to a fever pitch in Washington, and officials were worried that Iran might fall under the sway of the Soviet Union,” and with it the country’s vast oil reserves. Tudeh (Masses), the pro-Moscow Communist Party, exercised political hegemony over the proletariat and had a broad following among the urban petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals. Then CIA chief Allen Dulles insisted that the U.S. had to install a government in Teheran “which would reach an equitable oil settlement...and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party.”
A year earlier in Egypt, a popular uprising had led to the toppling of the British puppet, King Farouk, and the rise to power of the Free Officers Movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser. There, too, the dominant and most militant sections of the working class looked to the Communists for leadership. A few years later in Iraq, as a 1958 coup by left-wing military officers ousted the British-installed Hashemite monarchy, U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower warned that leftist revolutions could “result in the complete elimination of Western influence in the Middle East.” In the ensuing period of revolutionary turbulence, the Iraqi Communist Party, with its solid base among the Arab and Kurdish oil workers and substantial support within the military itself, could indeed have taken state power.
Throughout the Near East, the Communist parties attracted the most class-conscious workers and radical intellectuals. In this patchwork of myriad national, ethnic and religious minorities, the CPs were about the only organizations with a base which cut across national and religious lines: Jews played a major role in the Egyptian Communist movement, Kurds in the Iraqi. The Communist militants sought to identify with the proletarian internationalism of the Bolshevik Revolution (albeit refracted and perverted by Stalinism). They saw in the Soviet Union a beacon of liberation from imperialist subjugation and a model for economic development. As a result of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Muslim regions of the former tsarist empire—Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus—had advanced from conditions even more socially and economically backward than the Near East to modern societies in which women were no longer enslaved by the veil and education and medical care were available to all.
Yet revolutionary upheavals in Iran and Iraq did not result in new October Revolutions. Instead, these opportunities were sacrificed on the altar of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy’s futile and treacherous pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. The leaderships of the Communist parties in the region were extremely loyal to and pretty tightly controlled by Moscow, both ideologically and through financial support. Despite the revolutionary aspirations of their ranks and supporters, the Communist parties of the Near East helped install bourgeois-nationalist regimes which then crushed the left and workers movement and persecuted national and ethnic minorities. How and why did this come about?
At root, the explanation lies in the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state and the replacement of Bolshevik internationalism with the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country” and its corollary, class collaboration. The Left Opposition of Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the October Revolution, fought down the line against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Communist International. Stalinist bureaucratic rule ultimately opened up the floodgates to capitalist counterrevolution, which destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92. As part of our struggle to reforge the Trotskyist Fourth International, the International Communist League seeks to win a new generation of revolutionary proletarian militants in the Near East to the banner of authentic Leninism.
“Two-Stage Revolution”: Road to Defeat
The history of the Near East in the second half of the 20th century demonstrates that even the most “left” bourgeois-nationalist regimes—“socialist” pretensions and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric notwithstanding—act as agents of imperialist domination and therefore perpetuate the social and economic backwardness of their countries. As Trotsky wrote following the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution in 1927, when the “left” nationalist Guomindang drowned the Communist-led working class in blood:
“Everything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of the toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened, but, on the contrary, it is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every serious conflict.”
— “The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin,” in Problems of the Chinese Revolution (1932); reprinted in Leon Trotsky on China (1976)
When the USSR existed, Soviet financial and military aid gave the Arab bourgeois-nationalist regimes a certain room to maneuver vis-à-vis the Western and Japanese imperialist states. But the room in which they maneuvered was dominated by Wall Street, the City of London, the Deutsche Bank and the Japanese keiritsu.
Despite limited land reform carried out in the 1950s and early 1960s by nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, the pattern of land ownership still resembles what it was a century ago. Wealthy landowners possess large tracts of the best land while millions of desperate peasants, unable to scratch out a living on tiny plots of arid land, have moved into the vast shantytowns that ring Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad.
Many of these countries are riven by national, religious and ethnic antagonisms, including sharp divisions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. In Algeria, the predominantly Arab ruling class lords it over the Berber national minority; in mainly Muslim Egypt, the Coptic Christian minority is hounded and persecuted, particularly by Islamic fundamentalists. The Kurdish nation is carved up among and oppressed by four capitalist states—Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The oppression of women, symbolized by the veil, remains deeply rooted in Iran and throughout the Arab world. Laws governing personal status are largely based on the sharia (Islamic law), which sanctions polygamy, grants husbands the right to divorce almost at will and subjects women to the “authority” of their fathers and husbands. Especially in rural areas, the condition of women remains one of medieval backwardness. In Egypt, fully 60 percent of all women are illiterate.
At the same time, cellular phones and computers are commonplace items for Cairo professionals, while large numbers of Egyptian workers are concentrated in modern, foreign-owned auto assembly plants. Meanwhile, barefoot villagers in the Nile valley till their fields with tools that have scarcely evolved since the age of the pharaohs. Highly trained Iranian and Iraqi oil workers, with decades of trade-union and communist traditions behind them, coexist with medieval prejudices and social backwardness.
Such conditions of combined and uneven development, in which modern industry and a powerful industrial proletariat have been superimposed on largely peasant-based societies, prevailed in Russia as well on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. Though itself an imperialist power, Russia, unlike the more advanced capitalist countries of West Europe, had not had a bourgeois-democratic revolution and remained mired in social and economic backwardness. Emerging late in the capitalist era, the Russian bourgeoisie was dependent on Western capital and all the more venal for its weakness. The tsarist autocracy ruled over a vast prison house of peoples and a mass of impoverished peasants. At the same time, capitalist investment had given rise to a small but combative industrial working class, concentrated in modern large-scale industry, which showed its power in the 1905 Revolution.
Marx and Engels first raised the “revolution in permanence” in an 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” after the bourgeoisie had gone over to the side of the old reactionary classes against the revolutionary young proletariat in the failed German democratic revolution of 1848. It was this document that inspired Leon Trotsky, writing at the time of the 1905 Revolution, to advance the theory and program of permanent revolution, stressing that the agrarian revolution, political democracy and the other tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia could not be realized by the weak and dependent bourgeoisie, which feared the proletariat far too much to mobilize the worker and peasant masses for an onslaught against the autocracy. Rather, as Trotsky later summarized in generalizing the perspective of permanent revolution to all dependent capitalist countries:
“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leaders of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses....
“Without an alliance of the proletariat with the peasantry the tasks of the democratic revolution cannot be solved, nor even seriously posed. But the alliance of these two classes can be realized in no other way than through an irreconcilable struggle against the influence of the national-liberal bourgeoisie....
“The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfillment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution....
“In a country where the proletariat has power in its hands as the result of the democratic revolution, the subsequent fate of the dictatorship and socialism depends in the last analysis not only and not so much upon the national productive forces as upon the development of the international socialist revolution.”
— The Permanent Revolution (1929); reprinted in The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (1969)
The October Revolution was a confirmation of permanent revolution. Though Lenin came to agree with the programmatic conclusion of Trotsky’s analysis only on the eve of the revolution, he had forged the Bolshevik Party as an instrument for the proletarian seizure of power through just such an irreconcilable struggle against all variants of bourgeois nationalism and liberalism, not least against the Menshevik opportunists who tailed the liberal bourgeoisie.
But the parties which stood at the head of the Iranian and Iraqi workers in the 1950s were not programmatically based on proletarian internationalism and revolutionary opposition to bourgeois nationalism. The Stalinist bureaucracy which usurped political power in the Soviet Union in a political counterrevolution in 1924 repudiated the Bolshevik program of international socialist revolution in favor of the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country,” a flat denial of the Marxist understanding that a socialist society could only be built on an international basis, through the destruction of capitalist imperialism as a world system and the establishment of a world socialist division of labor. The Communist International was transformed from an instrument for world proletarian revolution into an agency for Soviet diplomatic maneuvers with the capitalist countries, leading to the adoption of a program and strategy of class collaborationism.
In the Near East and other backward countries, this took the form of the old Menshevik schema of “two-stage revolution,” postponing the socialist revolution to an indefinite future while in the “democratic stage” subordinating the proletariat to an allegedly “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” national bourgeoisie, which inevitably turns on its former Communist allies and their working-class base. History shows that the “second stage” consists of killing the reds and massacring the workers! From the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and Spain in 1936-37 to Iran and Iraq in the 1950s and Indonesia in 1965-66, two-stage revolution has been a recipe for bloody defeats for the proletariat.
Today, gutted by the consequences of their own betrayals and the demise of the Soviet Union, the Communist parties of the Near East are mere shadows of what they once were. Meanwhile, imperialist ideologues acclaim the supposed “death of communism” following the restoration of capitalism in East Europe and the former Soviet Union. But just as the Indonesian proletariat reawakened to social struggle in the 1990s after three decades of bloody, anti-Communist military dictatorship, the workers of the Near East will again embark on revolutionary struggle against their imperialist overlords and domestic capitalist exploiters. The key task is the construction of Leninist-Trotskyist parties committed to the principles of proletarian internationalism and the program of permanent revolution. To achieve this task it is necessary that the young generation of worker militants and left-wing intellectuals in the Near East learn the lessons of past revolutionary struggles which were betrayed by Stalinism and crushed by Arab bourgeois nationalism.
Stalinist Degeneration of the Communist International
The Russian October Revolution of 1917 had an enormous impact on the Near East. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its defeat in World War I, the region was carved up between the British and French imperialists. The Bolshevik Revolution, and its extension to largely Muslim Central Asia in the course of the bloody three-year Civil War against the imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary White armies, triggered a series of national revolts and popular uprisings in the broad swath occupied by British military forces from Egypt through the Fertile Crescent to Iran. An Egyptian observer reported at the time that “news of success or victory by the Bolsheviks” in the Russian Civil War “seems to produce a pang of joy and content among all classes of Egyptians” (quoted in Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq ).
In this climate of social upheaval, Communist parties were formed in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Persia (Iran). However, as throughout the colonial world, the working class in the Near East was as yet small and undeveloped, and the Communist parties were politically ungelled and inexperienced. As a result of internal weaknesses and external repression, most of these parties had effectively disappeared by the late 1920s.
By the time Communist parties re-emerged in those countries beginning in the mid-1930s, the Communist International had long since ceased to be an instrument for world socialist revolution. The smashing of the Trotskyist Left Opposition at the rigged 13th Party Conference in January 1924, coinciding with Lenin’s death, marked the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor, in which political power was usurped from the proletarian vanguard by a conservative bureaucratic caste whose chief spokesman was Stalin. By 1935, the Stalinized Comintern had passed over to outright reformism, adopting a program of class collaboration under the rubric of “the people’s front against fascism.” In the colonial world, this meant that the Stalinists were transformed into open supporters of the “democratic” imperialists who lorded it over the worker and peasant masses.
When the Soviet Union entered into an alliance with the Allied powers following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the Communist parties in the U.S., Britain and France became the most slavishly social-patriotic supporters of their own imperialist ruling classes. The British and French Stalinists opposed the struggle for independence in British-ruled India, French Indochina and other colonies, while the Syrian CP leadership volunteered to fight for “democratic” France. After the defeat of Nazi Germany —at the cost of 27 million Soviet lives—Stalin honored his commitments to his imperialist allies, helping to quell revolutionary opportunities from Greece to Italy and France and thus immeasurably helping to restabilize the shattered bourgeois order in West Europe. In Yugoslavia, and then in China in 1949, the victory of indigenous Stalinist-led peasant-based guerrilla forces led to the creation of bureaucratically deformed workers states, like those formed under Soviet occupation in East Europe (see “Yugoslavia, East Europe and the Fourth International: The Evolution of Pabloist Liquidationism,” Prometheus Research Series No. 4 [March 1993]).
It was only the Trotskyist Fourth International that pursued the proletarian internationalist line carried out by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in World War I: revolutionary defeatism against all the imperialist combatants. For Britain, France and the U.S. no less than for Germany, Italy and Japan, World War II was a conflict for redivision of the world’s markets, sources of raw materials and cheap labor, as had been the case in World War I. The Trotskyists continued to fight for liberation of the colonies from imperialism. Recognizing that the Soviet Union, though bureaucratically degenerated, remained a workers state based on collectivized property, the Trotskyists called for unconditional military defense of the USSR against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution. At the same time, we did not cease fighting to oust the treacherous Stalinist bureaucracy through proletarian political revolution.
The 1948 War
World War II radically altered the face of the Near East. The U.S., emerging as the hegemonic imperialist power, moved to replace British and French domination in the region. The weakening of the West European imperialist powers, combined with the radicalization of the colonial masses, led to the creation of a series of nominally independent states. The working class, enormously strengthened by the development of regional industry to support the British war machine, now confronted indigenous bourgeois state powers. The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, and the Kremlin’s more militant posture in response to the onset of the imperialist Cold War, greatly enhanced the authority of the Communist parties in Iran and the Arab countries.
A postwar development of particular importance to the region was the creation of the Zionist state of Israel with the British withdrawal from Palestine. Having conciliated and promoted Arab nationalism for nearly two decades, the Soviet bureaucracy did an about-face and supported the imperialist partition of Palestine and the emergence of the Zionist state. Designed as a maneuver against British imperialism, the Kremlin’s short-lived support to Israel sowed massive disorientation among the Communist parties of the region. The position of revolutionary internationalism in the 1948 War between Israel and the Arab states was upheld only by the small Palestinian Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL). While recognizing the right of both the Hebrew-speaking and Palestinian Arab peoples to national self-determination, the RCL resolutely opposed the imperialist partition and took a revolutionary defeatist position on the war:
“This war can on neither side be said to bear a progressive character.... It weakens the proletariat and strengthens imperialism in both camps.... The only way to peace between the two peoples of this country is turning the guns against the instigators of murder in both camps!” [emphasis in original]
— “Against the Stream,” Fourth International, May 1948
This is the internationalist position upheld by the International Communist League today. We defend the national rights of the dispossessed Palestinian people, oppose Zionist repression and demand the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all Israeli troops and fascistic “settler” auxiliaries from the Occupied Territories. But we do not thereby deny the national rights of the Hebrew-speaking people. When national populations are geographically interpenetrated, under capitalism the right of self-determination can be exercised only by the stronger national grouping driving out or destroying the weaker one. In such cases, the only possibility of a democratic solution lies in overturning capitalist rule and instituting the dictatorship of the proletariat, the only class that has no interest in perpetuating national antagonisms. The Hebrew-speaking workers must be broken from the poison of Zionist chauvinism and the Arab workers from the sway of petty-bourgeois nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism to join in a common struggle for socialist revolution against the murderous Israeli capitalist rulers and all the Arab regimes. While Zionist Israel has a particularly close relationship with U.S. imperialism, the Arab bourgeois states are no less an enemy of Palestinian liberation.
The 1948 War had a profound and continuing impact. The expulsion of nearly a million Arabs from Palestine—most of them to squalid refugee camps where they and their descendants live to this day—was accompanied by a mass migration of the so-called Oriental or Sephardic Jewish population from the Arab countries to Israel, encouraged by both the Arab regimes and the Zionists. The Arab defeat thoroughly discredited the traditionalist Arab regimes, whose incompetence and corruption were sharply revealed, and led to the fall of governments and monarchies throughout the region, helping pave the way for a series of Arab nationalist regimes to come to power. Meanwhile, Israel served the Arab nationalists as an “external” enemy, directing the masses’ anger and frustrations away from their capitalist oppressors.
Egyptian Communists and the Rise of Nasser
The impact of these developments was particularly evident in postwar Egypt. Historically the political and cultural center of the Arab world, the land of the Nile is by far the most populous of all Arab countries. Egypt was also militarily the strongest state directly confronting Zionist Israel. Consequently, Egyptian strongman Colonel Nasser was the dominant figure of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and ’60s, intervening in and influencing developments in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere in the Near East.
Two generations ago, Nasser was widely viewed as embodying a mythical “Arab Revolution” and a non-Communist “socialist” alternative for so-called “non-aligned” countries of the Near East, Asia and Africa. He burnished his “anti-imperialist” credentials through the 1956 Suez War in which he stood up to Israel, Britain and France. Yet the fact that enthusiasm for Nasser was so widespread was in no small part due to the Stalinists themselves helping to foster illusions in Nasser’s “Arab socialism.” In reality, Nasser came to power largely with the aim of crushing the combative Egyptian working class, which was mainly under the leadership of the Communists.
The upsurge of class struggle in Egypt at the close of World War II, while not reaching the levels of Iran and Iraq, nevertheless allowed the young Communist groupings, the most prominent being the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation (EMNL) founded by Jewish intellectual Henri Curiel, to achieve a measure of mass influence. The traditional Egyptian nationalist organization, the Wafd, had been widely discredited by its corrupt and oppressive rule during the war years, when it served as undisguised flunkies for British rule. As a mass upsurge against British occupation swept the country and workers increasingly asserted their power in strikes, the Communists were able to steadily displace the Wafd as the principal leadership of the labor movement, especially in textile, the country’s main industry.
In February 1946, a police attack on student demonstrators in Cairo resulted in the deaths of a number of students. On February 21, the Communist-led National Committee of Workers and Students called a strike, completely shutting down the country, in which several more demonstrators were shot dead. As the country erupted in strikes and demonstrations, a strike on March 4 again shut down the entire country. In Alexandria, British forces in league with Egyptian cops fired on the demonstrators, killing 28. Desperate to put a stop to the upsurge, the British announced they would withdraw their troops to the Suez Canal Zone. The government then launched a wave of repression, especially targeting Communist leaders.
Following the 1948 War, the discredited regime declared a state of siege, while mobs incited by the fascistic Muslim Brotherhood pillaged Jewish businesses, burned synagogues and slaughtered dozens of Jews. In at least one case, Communists organized the defense of a Jewish-owned store against the pogromists. As the mass expulsions and emigration of Jews began, among the first targeted were Henri Curiel and other founders and leaders of Egyptian Communism.
A wave of popular agitation against the British military occupation again erupted in October 1951 when the British ignored an edict by the Wafd government to withdraw from the Canal Zone. With the Egyptian government exposed as powerless, the Communists put themselves at the head of the tide of anti-British sentiment that swept the country. As government repression proved incapable of stemming the mounting strike wave, the Communists continued to extend their influence in the Greater Cairo textile union, the Cairo transport unions and elsewhere. By late 1951, the EMNL’s successor, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL), had become the leading political force in the Egyptian labor movement.
In January 1952, an armed clash between British and Egyptian forces in the Canal Zone touched off rioting in Cairo in which much of the downtown commercial district was burned down. With the government totally discredited and virtually paralyzed, the country was increasingly polarized between the rapidly growing Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists. Student members of the Muslim Brotherhood carried out military training at the universities, driving around campuses in military jeeps and spraying machine-gun fire in the air to intimidate their opponents.
The DMNL also had a military section, but its work consisted of providing support for Nasser’s Free Officers Movement, a heterogeneous coalition in the military including Muslim Brothers, Wafdists and the DMNL. Nasser looked to the DMNL to print the Free Officers’ leaflets and perform other tasks. Meanwhile, the Free Officers provided military support to the Muslim Brotherhood for its “liberation battalions” in the Canal Zone. Central in this was Nasser’s comrade-in-arms (and future Egyptian president) Anwar Sadat, who in a 1952 newspaper interview praised Adolf Hitler as a great patriot who worked for the good of his people.
In July 1952, the Free Officers seized power, sweeping away the despised monarchy. The DMNL supported the military coup as an expression of the “national democratic movement.” The following month, when textile workers in Kafr Al-Dawwar near Alexandria went on strike, believing their leaders’ assurances that the new regime was on their side, Nasser threw down the gauntlet to the organized workers movement. Two strike leaders were arrested, condemned to death for “a grave crime against the state” and hanged on the factory grounds. The Communists were banned, strikes were outlawed and a corporatist regime of labor control was set up in which the trade unions were placed under effective control by the military regime.
Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the subsequent invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel was a milestone in the postwar history of the Near East. Washington’s successful strong-arming of Britain and France to withdraw their troops confirmed U.S. imperialism as the top dog in the region. The U.S. was then intent on cohering the Baghdad Pact (CENTO), a regional anti-Soviet military alliance akin to NATO in West Europe. Standing at the head of a campaign against adherence by Arab governments to the Baghdad Pact, Nasser shifted to a pro-Soviet posture, while continuing his anti-Communist repression. Less than one month before nationalization of the Suez Canal, a military tribunal sentenced 40 Communists to prison terms of hard labor.
The establishment of closer relations between the Soviet Union and Egypt led to a Soviet reappraisal of Nasser, whose July 1952 coup was now described as an “anti-imperialist revolution.” The various Communist groups in Egypt, united by their enthusiastic support for Nasser, moved to fuse their forces. In their desire to ingratiate themselves with the rising tide of Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism, the unified Communist Party of Egypt stipulated that Jews were prohibited from playing a leadership role in the party.
With the Egyptian Communists firmly under Nasser’s thumb, the nationalists in power in Syria sought a merger with Egypt in order to stifle the growing influence of the Syrian Communist Party. As in Egypt, the Syrian Communists tied themselves politically to bourgeois nationalists who showed themselves to be the workers’ worst enemies. The fiercely anti-Communist Syrian Ba’ath Party in power had adopted a “left” stance. Resisting Western pressure to join the Baghdad Pact, it made overtures to the Soviet Union and welcomed the Communists into the ruling coalition.
The Syrian Communist Party continued to grow spectacularly, leading the three trade-union federations by 1957. While objecting to the proposed union with Egypt, the Syrian CP continued to hail Nasser as the “leader of the National Front of Arab Liberation.” But the formation of the “United Arab Republic” under Nasser’s leadership in 1958 led to the suppression of the powerful Syrian CP, then the largest in the Near East, and the arrest of its leaders and hundreds of members.
The next year, Nasser turned on his Egyptian Communist supporters with a vengeance, rounding up almost every known leftist in the country. The Communists in prison were humiliated, tortured and pressured to repudiate their political ideas. Yet even as their comrades were beaten to death or left to die for lack of medical aid, the Communists maintained their political support for Nasser.
During its diplomatic alliance with Nasser’s military bonapartist regime, the Kremlin Stalinists showered Nasser’s capitalist Egypt with more anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment than they gave to North Vietnam as the Vietnamese workers and peasants waged a heroic—and ultimately victorious—struggle against U.S. imperialism. Not surprisingly, the bourgeois-nationalist Nasser ultimately turned against his Soviet patrons. In the 1970s, his hand-picked successor, Anwar Sadat, brought Egypt fully into the fold of American imperialism.
The most powerful working-class upsurge in the Near East in the years immediately following World War II came in Iran. Tudeh (Masses), the pro-Moscow Communist party, already had significant roots in the proletariat, developed over two decades of largely clandestine work, and grew spectacularly as the war came to a close. By 1944, Tudeh had 25,000 members. It established a Central Council of the United Trade Unions (CCUTU) of Iran, which by 1946 claimed 400,000 members. Tudeh’s strength was then concentrated in northern Iran since it consciously discouraged organization of the British-occupied south, especially the volatile Khuzistan oil fields, in line with Stalin’s opposition to social struggle in the “democratic” imperialist countries and their colonies.
Nonetheless, at the close of World War II Iran had clearly reached a prerevolutionary situation in which Tudeh could have taken power. The CCUTU was effectively a government in northern Iran—collecting taxes, providing police and judicial functions, etc. Further, the Soviet military presence in northern Iran provided an enormous impetus to social upheaval. But for Stalin, Tudeh and the Iranian proletariat were simply bargaining chips to be expended in his vain pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” with Anglo-American imperialism.
The occupation of northern Iran by the Soviet Army in late 1945 led to the establishment of autonomous republics in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan where, in addition to establishing national rights, significant social reforms were carried out. But the Kremlin withdrew its forces in early 1946, sacrificing the republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in the hope of obtaining oil and gas concessions from the Shah. The deal Stalin proposed contained the implicit pledge that Tudeh would use its great authority in the proletariat to enforce class peace, and that pledge was soon fulfilled as Tudeh threw away a revolutionary opportunity.
In July 1946, in response to attempts by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) to break the pro-Tudeh unions following a successful strike by refinery and oil field workers in predominantly Arab Khuzistan, the CCUTU called a general strike. After bloody street fighting erupted between Arab workers and non-Arab workers, fanned by the AIOC, Tudeh militias took over the key city of Abadan. But the Tudeh leadership, at the urging of the government, dispatched the party’s general secretary and the CCUTU’s first secretary to Abadan to call off the strike even though the workers’ demands had not been met. As a reward for this treachery, three Tudeh members were brought into the government. A scant two months later, the Tudeh ministers were purged and when the CCUTU responded with a one-day general strike, hundreds of its activists were arrested, its headquarters occupied and its paper banned.
Iran 1953: Proletarian Revolution Derailed
Having derailed one revolutionary opportunity, Tudeh again found itself in a position to overthrow the despised ruling oligarchy during the oil nationalization crisis under the regime of Mohammad Mossadeq. In 1949 Mossadeq, a wealthy aristocrat and landowner, led opposition in the Majlis (parliament) to a new agreement with the AIOC. By 1951, he was calling for outright nationalization of oil. Mossadeq’s National Front was an unstable alliance of Western-oriented bourgeois technocrats with a religious wing led by the Shi’ite clergy under Ayatollah Kashani, temporarily united by the demand for nationalization of the AIOC and opposition to the British and the Shah.
Tudeh initially did not rally to Mossadeq, as the Stalinists were apprehensive of his ties to Washington. But Tudeh was forced by its combative proletarian base to lead huge strikes and demonstrations demanding nationalization. In April 1951, Abadan was paralyzed by a general strike which involved bloody clashes with the army. Frightened by the wave of proletarian militancy, the Shah appointed Mossadeq prime minister and the AIOC was nationalized. As the world oil cartel responded by boycotting Iranian oil, gradually strangling the economy, Washington turned its back on Mossadeq.
When Britain announced a boycott of Mexican oil in 1938 following the nationalization of imperialist oil interests by the regime of General Lázaro Cárdenas, Trotsky wrote in defense of the Mexican action, “The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defense,” while stressing that “the international proletariat has no reason to identify its program with the program of the Mexican government” (“Mexico and British Imperialism,” June 1938). Likewise, it was the duty of revolutionaries to defend the nationalization of the AIOC in Iran while refusing to grant an iota of political support to the bourgeois-nationalist Mossadeq regime. Communists would have sought to mobilize the working class in independent struggle against the yoke of imperialist subjugation by advancing demands like the expropriation of all imperialist holdings and moving to set up councils of workers and poor peasants to vie for state power. But as the wave of proletarian radicalism continued to mount, Tudeh led the toiling masses into political support for the bourgeois National Front. When Mossadeq resigned in protest against the Shah’s refusal to grant him increased powers, Tudeh led a July 1952 general strike in Teheran that forced the Shah to recall Mossadeq.
During 1953, Iran was in the throes of acute class polarization. The international oil boycott pushed the bourgeoisie and sections of the petty bourgeoisie into opposition to Mossadeq while deteriorating economic conditions drove the plebeian masses to desperation. Ayatollah Kashani and his followers split from the National Front and threw their support to the Shah. Thousands of workers flocked into Tudeh and its trade-union organizations in search of a revolutionary solution to the massive contradictions of Iranian society. Demonstrations called by Tudeh vastly outnumbered those called by the government.
When the Shah attempted to arrest Mossadeq in August, Tudeh brought tens of thousands of its supporters into the streets. Tudeh could manifestly have taken power, but the Stalinists looked to Mossadeq to carry through the “democratic revolution.” Instead, Mossadeq called on the army generals, who were working closely with American military advisers and the CIA to bring him down, to crack down on Tudeh. The military takeover was prepared by a mobilization organized by the ayatollahs, who filled the streets of Teheran with their clerical-fascist thugs.
The army generals cracked down on Tudeh, and then turned against the Mossadeq government. This marked the beginning of a savage police state that would systematically and ruthlessly crush Tudeh as a mass party, forcing it underground for nearly two decades. But Tudeh’s Stalinist leadership only deepened its criminal opportunism. As strikes by oil workers shook the Shah’s regime in late 1978, Tudeh lined up behind the drive for power by Khomeini and the Islamic clergy, helping pave the way for a massive bloodbath against leftists, trade unionists and Kurds. Against an array of fake leftists in Iran and internationally who cheered on the Khomeiniite mobilizations, we raised the call: “No support to the mullahs! Down with the Shah! Workers to power!”
The 1958-59 Revolution in Iraq
Only five years after the CIA-sponsored coup in Iran came the most powerful demonstration yet of the revolutionary capacity of the working class in the Near East, as the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 touched off a huge proletarian upsurge. Armed, highly organized and led by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), the working class literally had power within its grasp. Yet the opportunity was squandered by the ICP’s Stalinist leadership under direct orders from Moscow. Derailed by the class-collaborationist policies of the ICP leadership, which tied the workers to the nationalist officers in power, the Iraqi revolution was drowned in a wave of bloody repression.
Already in 1948, the Iraqi Communist Party had been the dominant force in a nationwide upsurge—including mass mobilizations and strikes such as the Communist-led strike of oil workers near Haditha—against the presence of British military bases. The upsurge was finally brought to an end by a government crackdown. Hundreds of Communists were arrested, and ICP leader Fahd and two other members of the Political Bureau were publicly hanged.
Not only was the Iraqi CP the most proletarian Communist party in the Near East but it also had a significant component of national, religious and ethnic minorities. From its creation in 1934, the ICP called for the Kurdish right to independence. The party sought to recruit Kurdish workers and published a press in Kurdish. By the early 1950s, fully one-third of the party’s Central Committee was composed of Kurds. But as Stalinists throughout the Near East sought to cement ties with Arab nationalists in opposition to the American-dominated Baghdad Pact alliance, the Iraqi CP “Arabized” its line. In an August 1955 declaration, the leadership criticized its previous stance “that there exist two main national groups in Iraq” and flatly declared that “the fraternal Kurdish people has no interests which are incompatible with the interests of any of the Arab countries” (quoted in Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq ).
The subservient Iraqi regime was the linchpin of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact, which was deeply unpopular among all layers of Iraqi society. When Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 in response to Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the Iraqi CP launched a campaign against the government that triggered mass uprisings in the Communist strongholds of Najaf and Hayy. In the city of Najaf, a wave of CP-led protests in November 1956 culminated when demonstrators drove the police from the city’s streets. Troops were called in but fraternized with the demonstrators. The movement in Najaf provoked a wave of strikes and demonstrations which swept Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and other cities. In Hayy the next month, the ICP led a virtual armed insurrection. Armed workers took over much of the city, firing on police from windows and rooftops, but were driven back when they tried to storm the seat of local government. Revolutionary committees and “people’s guards” organized resistance and erected barricades at key points in the city. Police reinforcements were brought in to crush the revolt in Hayy, and two Communists were hanged in the public square.
Two years later in July 1958, a revolutionary upsurge was touched off when the Iraqi Free Officers movement overthrew the British-installed monarchy. Upon hearing the news, hundreds of thousands of Baghdad’s dispossessed poured into the streets screaming their joy and their hatred of the royal family. From the outset, the ICP threw its support behind the government headed by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassim, whom the Stalinists hailed as “Sole Leader.” Qassim sought to play off the well-organized ICP against the pan-Arab nationalists in the officer corps as well as the Ba’ath Party, who were clamoring for Iraq to merge into Nasser’s newly formed United Arab Republic. As in Syria, the drive for unity with Egypt was motivated by the desire of the Ba’ath and other Arab nationalists to use Nasser’s authority and Egypt’s anti-Communist laws to break the growing power of the Iraqi Communists.
The imperialist overlords in Washington and London viewed with alarm the 1958 revolution which swept away the Iraqi monarchy, removing a main pillar of the Anglo-American anti-Soviet alliance in the Near East and threatening capitalist rule itself. American Marines from the Sixth Fleet were landed in Lebanon, and British paratroops were flown into Jordan in a menacing move aimed at the Iraqi masses.
By late summer a peasant insurrection was sweeping across the agricultural plains of Iraq as peasants burned landlords’ estates, destroyed the account ledgers and seized the land. The Communists made spectacular gains. But the forces of reaction were frantically organizing to try to crush the revolutionary wave. In March 1959, nationalist officers and the Ba’ath, backed by the large landowners and tribal chiefs, prepared to launch a counterrevolutionary coup starting from the city of Mosul. The ICP wrecked this scheme by organizing a demonstration of a quarter million people, triggering a plebeian upsurge that swept the reactionaries from the streets of Mosul.
Workers revolution was on the order of the day. A statement by the Ba’ath in the spring of 1959 noted with alarm that Communists dominated the labor unions, the peasants’ organization, the union of students, the popular resistance forces and the committees for the defense of the republic. But the Stalinist leaders rejected any notion of leading a workers insurrection to overthrow the capitalist state apparatus, seeking rather to become part of it, as prominent members or sympathizers of the ICP gained appointment to administrative and military positions. With the question of proletarian state power posed, all the ICP demanded was representation in the capitalist government. Mammoth rallies, some drawing over a million participants, were staged in Baghdad to support the Communist Party’s demand. Army units loyal to the ICP broke open arsenals and distributed weapons.
For the Soviet bureaucracy, even the ICP’s reformist appeal for a handful of ministers in the capitalist government was too extreme. Following Moscow’s orders, the ICP meekly abandoned its call for a coalition government when Qassim turned thumbs down in late April 1959. Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher underlined at the time how Khrushchev sold out the Iraqi Communists to make his Camp David meeting with U.S. president Eisenhower more congenial:
“Most Western observers on the spot agreed that Kassem could hardly hold his ground against an all-out communist offensive. His own following was small, and he refused to try and rally the anti-communist forces which were intimidated and disorganized and for whose support Nasser made a bid when he attacked Kassem as a ‘communist stooge.’
“Then, in the summer, the communist offensive was suddenly called off—on urgent demands from Moscow. In Moscow reports about the rising revolutionary temperature of Iraq had caused alarm. Khrushchev refused to countenance a communist upheaval in Baghdad, afraid that this would provoke renewed Western intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean, set the Middle East aflame, and wreck his policy of peaceful coexistence. He was already reckoning with the prospect of his visit to Washington and was anxious to produce evidence of Soviet ‘goodwill’ in the Middle East.
“A bill of indictment against the Iraqi communist leaders was drawn up in Moscow and the Iraqi Party was ordered not merely to make its peace with Kassem, but to surrender to him unconditionally with only a minimum of face-saving.”
— reprinted in Deutscher, Russia, China and the West (1970)
Qassim and anti-Communist nationalists now took the offensive. In July, bloody encounters took place between Ba’athist gangs and Communists in Baghdad neighborhoods. ICP members were sacked from government posts and the military. Communist trade-union leaders were removed from their posts or rounded up by the police. In Kirkuk, in July 1959 the largely Kurdish CP organization turned an incipient revolt into a communalist massacre of Turkomans, prominent in the city’s commercial elite. The Kirkuk massacre was then used by Qassim as a pretext for suppressing the Communist Party. Yet the Stalinists maintained their prostration before Qassim, taking his blows without serious resistance. When a Kurdish separatist revolt broke out in the summer of 1961, the ICP denounced it as “serving imperialist designs.”
In February 1963, the Ba’ath was able to broker a military coup that brought down Qassim and unleashed the counterrevolutionary furies. Using lists of Communists supplied by the CIA, the Ba’ath Party militia, the National Guard, launched a house-to-house search, rounding up and shooting suspected CPers. An estimated 5,000 were killed in the Ba’ath’s bloody terror and thousands more jailed, many of them hideously tortured. Only the overthrow of the Ba’athists in November 1963 by their erstwhile military allies put a halt to the horror. When the Ba’ath returned to power in 1969, it took up where it had left off—with trials of Jews, Communists and sundry oppositionists while laying waste to the Kurdish regions.
The evident opportunity for a proletarian revolution in Iraq in 1958-59 was addressed last year in a polemical article on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) reprinted from Spartakist, the press of the International Communist League’s German section. Noting that the ICP was “the most proletarian Communist Party in the Near East,” we wrote:
“In the midst of the great social turmoil that ensued after the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1959, this powerful force for social revolution was betrayed by the Iraqi Stalinists and Moscow. Instead of mobilizing its working-class base to take state power in its own name, the ICP diverted the workers into supporting the bourgeois military officer Abd al-Karim Qassim.”
— “Trotskyism vs. PKK Nationalism,” WV No. 716, 9 July 1999
This utterly correct statement was denounced as “incredibly soft on the ICP” in a letter by K. Anderson published in the following issue (“On the Iraqi Communist Party,” WV No. 717, 6 August 1999). Anderson asserted: “There’s no way this party could have mobilized ‘its working-class base to take state power in its own name.’... The ICP was an obstacle to revolution, not its potential leadership.” The WV Editorial Board replied, “Anderson is quite right.”
In fact, this was very wrong, and was counterposed to the whole thrust of the article to which we referred readers in our reply, “Iraqi Rulers’ Bloody Road to Power” (WV No. 511, 5 October 1990). As we noted in an SL Central Committee motion adopted following an extensive internal discussion, “The statement in Anderson’s letter that there was no way that the Iraqi CP ‘could have mobilized “its working-class base to take state power in its own name”’ denies any contradiction between the proletarian base and Stalinist leadership. Thus any possibility for the intervention of a Trotskyist party to exploit this contradiction is eliminated and by extension any possibility of proletarian socialist revolution.”
As the events in Iraq demonstrated, a revolutionary situation can, and generally does, emerge while much of the working class is still under the sway of reformist leadership. This in itself does not determine that social revolution must end in defeat, as Anderson’s statement would logically imply. Rather the issue of proletarian victory or defeat hinges on whether the revolutionary vanguard can win leadership of the working masses from the reformist misleaders. During the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of the mid-1930s, Trotsky pointed out that the political consciousness of the Spanish proletariat in its mass was even higher than that of the Russian proletariat in 1917. What was lacking in Spain was a Bolshevik party, which Trotsky struggled unswervingly to create in the crucible of the revolution itself.
In the course of the internal discussion, one comrade emphasized the important difference between the Stalinist and social-democratic parties in terms of the nature of their appeal. He noted that the Moscow regime was seen “as the inheritor of the Russian Revolution, which people simply looked at and took without paying attention to the political counterrevolution that was consummated.” Hence the Stalinist parties:
“were never simply equal to the socialist parties. That went on for a long time. It’s only with the rise of ‘Euro-Communism’ and finally the elimination of the Soviet Union that the Stalinist parties became simply identical to the reformist parties. They always had an undifferentiated radicalism which set them apart, so that no black militant in his right mind would join the American Socialist Party but a lot of them joined the Communist Party.”
It is notable that mass social-democratic parties, based as they are on illusions in imperialist parliamentary “democracy,” never arose in the Near East or almost anywhere else in the colonial world.
In contrast, during the late 1930s and ’40s Trotskyist nuclei in colonial countries like Indochina and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) gained a mass base at the expense of the Stalinists, whose embrace of the popular front and the subsequent wartime alliance of the Soviet regime with the “democratic” imperialists led the Stalinist parties to reject the struggle for national independence. Intervening in the social turmoil which accompanied the defeat and disarming of the Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam at the end of World War II, the Trotskyists were able to lead a proletarian insurrection in Saigon against the entry of British and French troops, while Ho Chi Minh’s Stalinists collaborated with the “democratic” imperialists. Though bloodily suppressed by the imperialists (with the aid of the Stalinists), the Saigon insurrection provided a concrete example of how the intervention of a Trotskyist party in the proletarian upheaval in Iraq could have resulted in a socialist revolution smashing bourgeois rule there in 1958-59.
Anderson’s letter represented a political departure which, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to the view that Stalinism is “counterrevolutionary through and through,” i.e., that the Stalinist bureaucracy and Stalinist parties are purely and simply reactionary. This view has historically been embraced by reformists and centrists, for example the “International Committee” of Gerry Healy/David North, to jettison the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the degenerated/deformed workers states (see “Anatomy of a Healyite Russia Hater—David North: Joseph Hansen’s Natural Son,” WV No. 456, 1 July 1988). Our small revolutionary vanguard is not immune from the powerful and pervasive alien political pressures of this post-Soviet period. What’s crucial is the party’s ability to correct mistakes, to clarify and resolve political differences through a thoughtful and thorough internal political debate according to our Leninist democratic-centralist norms. This particular discussion broadened and deepened our understanding of the development of the Communist movement in the Near East, examining a history of struggle to chart the course for fighters for new October Revolutions in the Near East today.
Marxists, Fake Leftists and Arab Nationalism
Amid the revolutionary turbulence in the Near East in the late 1940s and 1950s, the intervention of even a relatively small Trotskyist organization could have split the Communist parties, winning revolutionary-minded workers and intellectuals away from their Stalinist misleaders. This was the road to forging authentic Leninist vanguard parties in the region. But the perspective of forging a Leninist vanguard party is rejected by our opponents on the left, most of whom tailed the Arab nationalists.
Typical were the fake Trotskyists of the late Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat (USec), who hailed a mythical “Arab Revolution” to justify tailing after “left”-talking Arab nationalists, from military despots like Nasser to the petty-bourgeois nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The USec, in its consistent support for Palestinian nationalism, went from enthusing over indiscriminate anti-Jewish terror in the early 1970s to supporting today’s “peace” deal between the PLO and Israel. The USec’s support to Palestinian nationalism was conditioned by and consistent with its support for bourgeois-nationalist regimes.
When the Algerian independence struggle brought to power the petty-bourgeois nationalists of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Mandel’s mentor, Michel Pablo, took a post in the capitalist government apparatus under FLN leader Ben Bella. The U.S. Socialist Workers Party, which had just passed over from Trotskyism to centrism, hailed the Ben Bella regime as a “workers and peasants government,” suggesting that it was on the road to establishing a revolutionary workers government like the Bolsheviks in Russia. The Arab nationalist FLN pledged to preserve capitalist property, declared Islam the state religion and discriminated against the Berber minority. But the Pabloites maintained their political support even as Ben Bella bloodily suppressed a Berber revolt in 1963.
The USec’s political support to bourgeois nationalists was “theorized” in a 1974 statement by its groups in the Arab region, published in English as “The Arab Revolution, Its Character, Present State, and Perspectives.” Despite allusions to “socialist revolution” and even the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the USec placed itself on the same terrain as the Arab nationalists, declaring that “Arab national unity is the central task of the Arab revolution” and enthusing over its “revolutionary potential.” The Pabloites’ stock in trade is the notion of an objectively revolutionary “dynamic” pushing the masses toward socialism, thus obviating the need to forge a revolutionary vanguard party. But in the “Arab Revolution,” the Pabloites saw a “dynamic” leading not to socialism but to the consolidation of a unified bourgeois state!
The Pabloites totally wrote off the possibility of winning the working-class base of the Stalinist parties in the Arab countries in opposition to their leaders’ selling out revolutionary struggles through class-collaborationist alliances with Arab nationalists. Rather, the USec criticized the Stalinist betrayers for not capitulating enough to Nasser:
“The sectarian failure to understand the national question disarmed the Arab Communist parties, and above all the Syrian Communist Party, in their opposition to the Syrian-Egyptian union of 1958, which was in part directed against them. Instead of waging its democratic struggle in the framework of the union, the Syrian CP opposed the union as such, which isolated it completely from the Syrian masses and facilitated the repression that fell on it. Likewise, in opposing the union for the sake of supporting General Kassem, the Iraqi Communist Party lost a considerable part of its influence to the nationalists. In all these positions, the Arab Stalinist movement placed itself at the opposite pole of the nationalist movement, denigrating the national aspirations of the Arab masses in the name of a so-called class attitude, totally overlooking the revolutionary potential of the question of Arab unity.”
— “The Arab Revolution, Its Character, Present State, and Perspectives”
The ostensible anti-Pabloites of Gerry Healy’s “International Committee” likewise enthused over the “Arab Revolution” beginning in 1967, carrying this to its logical extreme in the coming years by acting as paid press agents for one or another Arab bourgeois regime (see “Healyism Implodes,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86).
In contrast, we have always insisted that the idea of some transcendent, trans-class “Arab Revolution” was a mystification which impeded the genuine national and social liberation of the toilers of the Arab East. As we wrote following the 1967 Arab-Israel war:
“Many so-called Marxists believe that the struggle for ‘national liberation’ of the Arab countries has merged with or even replaced the struggle for socialism in these countries. Accordingly they would replace the working class by petty-bourgeois cliques as the ‘revolutionary agent’ and view Nasser and other militarists as the liberators of the Arab masses. Such support of classless ‘national liberation’ prolongs the slavery of the Arab masses to their own ruling class.”
— Spartacist No. 11, March-April 1968
The Communist Road to Social Liberation
In the course of little more than a decade, the USec went from tailing the “Arab Revolution” of Nasser & Co. to hailing the “Islamic revolution” of the Ayatollah Khomeini—joined by virtually every fake-left group internationally. Prominent among these is the international tendency founded by the recently deceased Tony Cliff and led by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), represented in the U.S. by the International Socialist Organization (ISO). From the time of the 1950-53 Korean War, when Cliff broke with the Trotskyist movement over his opposition to unconditional military defense of the North Korean and Chinese deformed workers states against imperialism, the calling card of Cliff’s social-democratic outfit has been frothing Stalinophobia.
Cold War anti-Sovietism and tailing the fundamentalists came together for the Cliffites over Afghanistan, where the imperialists used the mullah-led fight against the 1979 Soviet intervention to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Washington armed and supported the fundamentalists’ reactionary jihad (holy war)—which was also supported by virtually all the regimes of the Near East. We forthrightly hailed the intervention of the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan against the mullah-led forces, and we called for the extension to Afghanistan of the social gains of the October Revolution. The Soviet military intervention offered the possibility of opening the road to emancipation for the hideously oppressed people of Afghanistan, just as the Kremlin’s withdrawal in 1988-89 paved the way for the bloody onslaught which was to follow.
But the Cliffites were foursquare on the side of reaction. In the U.S., the ISO proclaimed all-out support for the mullahs: “Just as socialists welcomed the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, we welcome the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. It will give heart to all those inside the USSR and in Eastern Europe who want to break the rule of Stalin’s heirs” (Socialist Worker, May 1988). The Cliffites went on to enthusiastically embrace capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, which has led to massive immiseration of the working people and fratricidal slaughter.
The war in Afghanistan underscored the centrality of the woman question in the Islamic East, both as a motor force for social revolution and as a rallying point for imperialist-backed reaction. At the onset of the war, the New York Times (9 February 1980) reported, “It was the Kabul revolutionary Government’s granting of new rights to women that pushed Orthodox Moslem men in the Pashtoon villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up the gun.” On the other side, it was Afghan women, armed and organized in militias, who were among the most ferocious fighters in defense of the modernizing nationalist regime against the U.S.-backed mujahedin.
Even in the most advanced capitalist “democracies” of West Europe and North America, women remain deeply oppressed despite legal and political equality, subject to discrimination in jobs and wages, assigned as their primary role in society that of housekeeper and procreator, with fundamental rights like abortion either denied or constantly under attack. Islam, largely because it is centered in semicolonial countries where social backwardness is reinforced by imperialist subjugation, has not had to adapt its repressive moral code and curb its secular power to the principle of formal political equality derived from the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in West Europe and North America.
While introducing the most advanced capitalist technique in such backward countries, imperialism bolstered the most reactionary and repressive aspects of semi-feudal society. Despite formal independence, the semicolonial bourgeoisies remain dependent on the imperialists and fearful of any challenge to their class rule by the proletariat standing at the head of the poor peasantry and all the oppressed. These bourgeois nationalists are hostile to women’s emancipation, which can only be achieved through a thoroughgoing socialist revolution which shatters capitalist property relations and all associated social institutions.
In turn, the fight against women’s oppression is a motor force for revolutionary struggle in such countries. Describing the newly won freedom of women in Soviet Central Asia in a 1924 speech to the Communist University for Toilers of the East, Leon Trotsky said:
“Even today we can still observe in the East the rule of Islam, of the old prejudices, beliefs and customs but these will more and more turn to dust and ashes.... And this, moreover, means that the Eastern woman who is the most paralysed in life, in her habits and in creativity, the slave of slaves, that she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress; she will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas, a new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker.”
The Near East is a cockpit of imperialist rivalries, pursued with the aim of controlling the vital oil reserves of the region. It is also a region of deep, all-sided oppression—of women, of national, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as homosexuals and others. At the same time, the last half century has seen the considerable growth of a modern proletariat in urban centers throughout the Near East. This industrial working class has the social power to lead the oppressed masses in struggle to overturn the capitalist order and open the road to socialism. The key is forging a revolutionary leadership of the proletariat, on the model of Lenin’s Bolsheviks who led the 1917 Russian Revolution, based on the theory and program of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.
The revolutionary overturn of capitalism cannot be limited to a single country. It must necessarily sweep away the bloody bonapartists in Syria and Iraq, the medieval fundamentalists in Iran and Sudan, the reactionary monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as well as the Zionist rulers of Israel. It must be an internationalist struggle linked to the fight for socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America. This requires forging Trotskyist parties, which will reappropriate the rich history of joint working-class struggle in the Near East in the fight to win the working class of the region—standing at the head of the peasantry and numerous oppressed nationalities—to the banner of Leninist internationalism. For a socialist federation of the Near East! For world socialist revolution!