Anti-imperialism and the working class

Where does ‘military support’ end and other forms of support begin? asks Nick Rogers

What should be the role of communists and working class militants in inter-state conflicts within the international capitalist order of states? In this article I attempt to rethink some of the theoretical positions we have inherited from more than 80 years ago. It concludes the discussion I began last week1 and will address directly the issues raised by James Turley in his response2 to my intervention at the Marxism fringe meeting of July 5 on Iran.

Comrade Turley discussed the balance to be struck between defeatism and defencism and specifically – in the case of the Iranian working class – whether there is a contradiction between the two slogans, ‘The main enemy is at home’ and ‘Imperialism is the main enemy’, the question I had asked on July 5. Comrade Turley stakes out his position in colourful terms: “In a war between the US (or another imperialist country) and a non-imperialist country, or a counter-insurgency against a rebel movement, socialists are for the defeat of the US. If pigs flew, and the Iranian theocracy was able and willing to inflict a defeat on the US, then socialists would consider that defeat progressive. If the bowels of the earth opened up, and Satan himself appeared and repelled the American forces, it would still be a victory. We must be absolutely clear that in an imperialist war, the only side whose defeat we positively desire, over and above the general goal of worldwide overthrow of capitalism, is the imperialist side. Anti-imperialism must be focused on the ‘business end’ of imperialism – the ability of powerful states to guarantee their power through military operations.”

For comrade Turley, however, this is a choice that is unlikely to be made, given the “cowardly” and “craven” nature of the theocratic regime: “… their total reliance on integration into the system of states and the world market renders them utterly disarmed before the imperialist threat. Their fear of the working class – and terror of its self-organisation – compounds matters.”

Yassamine Mather makes a similar point in her response to comrade Turley: “In reality it is very unlikely that the islamic regime, despite its bravado, will put up a fight against military attacks. Many of the leaders of the regime have already made their choices by sending their money and their families abroad. Others within the regime will try and find ‘diplomatic solutions’ (secret negotiations) before and during the conflict.”3

While it is not wrong to point out the contradictions between the rhetoric and actions of the theocratic regime, it seems to me wishful thinking to predict that Iran’s current leaders will not conduct a robust defence against a US (and/or Israeli) attack. In last week’s article I challenged the thinking of a number of comrades who are influential within the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign about the nature of contemporary imperialism and the role of the US in it. I argued that US policy-makers are concerned about potential challenges to US hegemony arising from would-be rivals. Furthermore, there are real conflicts of interest between different national bourgeoisies expressed in a variety of ways, up to and including military conflict. This is the context within which the US’s decision was made to invade Iraq and it is the context within which sanctions are being applied to Iran and an actual attack contemplated – whether directly by the US or by its junior partner, Israel.

Iran’s leaders will seek to avoid an attack which in strictly military terms they cannot win. However, if attacked, they are unlikely to slink quietly away. They will deploy all the resources at their disposal to conduct an ‘asymmetric’ struggle across the Middle East (encouraging their supporters – especially in Iraq and Lebanon – to strike at US and Israeli targets) and to tighten their grip on power within Iran. Indeed, comrade Mather’s comments about the reluctance of the regime to put up a fight are somewhat at odds with her prediction (correct in my view) that a US attack will strengthen political islam in the region and in Iran and “… could lead to an even more reactionary regime, with stronger military/fascistic tendencies”. We therefore cannot duck the question of how the Iranian (and Middle Eastern) working class should orientate towards the theocratic regime and the forces of political islam in the event of direct confrontation with US imperialism.

Iranian left

The concept of imperialism is crucial to understanding the nature of the contemporary world, but the discourse around anti-imperialism is strewn with pitfalls that are as likely to entrap the left as our enemies. The period of the Iranian revolution (1978-79) and the years immediately afterwards exemplify the dangers.

In February 1979 (after the fall of the shah) the left was numerically strong, relatively popular and could point to a prestigious military role in the defeat of the shah’s armed forces. The principal organisations of the left were the Fedayeen, the Soviet-aligned Tudeh Party, the islamic-Marxist Mujahedin, and the Maoist Peykar. Trotskyist organisations were generally parachuted in (organisationally, if not in terms of personnel) by international groupings based elsewhere. The Fedayeen alone set up 150 offices around Iran and at one rally mobilised 500,000 sympathisers.4

Yet few on the left appreciated the acute and immediate danger posed by the forces around the bazaari merchants and the shia clergy (the ulama). In part this was because the anti-imperialist analysis of the time locked the left into a world view that envisaged these sections of society as potential allies and tended to obscure the ideological gulf between the project of political islam and that of the working class. The Iranian left (in keeping with the thinking of most of the rest of the left around the world) focussed on the role of US imperialism, the ‘dependent’ nature of the capitalism that the shah’s ‘white revolution’ was creating, and the ‘comprador’ nature of the industrial bourgeoisie. The Maoists considered Iran to be semi-feudal and semi-colonial at precisely the time that the shah’s land reforms were smashing the old semi-feudal landlord class and introducing capitalist relations into agriculture.

Val Moghadam, a member at the time of the Fedayeen, cites a document written by Fedayeen founder Bizhan Jazani (who was executed by the shah), ‘A socio-economic analysis of a dependent capitalist state’.5 Chapter headings included ‘Development and rule of the comprador bourgeoisie’ and ‘Increasing foreign exploitation in a neo-colonialist form’. The chapter entitled ‘The revolutionary forces in Iran’ categorises ‘the people’ as “the working classes, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie”. The bulk of the clergy, excluding the ‘upper crust’, is located within the petty bourgeoisie: ie, part of the potential revolutionary alliance.

Workers’ strike committees defined their struggle as anti-despotic and anti-imperialist. The striking oil workers of Khuzestan raised demands that included the departure of all foreign employees and for all communications to be in Persian.6

Given this perspective and these slogans, it was easy to view the merchant and clerical social props of political islam as components of an anti-imperialist front. Islamist discourse in turn accentuated the similarities, borrowing as it did key concepts, such as ‘imperialism’ itself, ‘exploitation’, ‘world capitalism’, ‘dependency’ and ‘the people’. For the undiscerning it was possible to see a project that spoke of the mostazfin (the oppressed poor) led by the ulama rising against their oppressors to establish the ommat (community of believers) founded on towhid (profession of divine unity) and islamic justice as broadly complementary to the anti-imperialist project of the left.

The left was doubly disabled by its economism, which downgraded issues around democracy and placed at the top of its agenda a programme of nationalisation aimed at the assets of imperialism and the ‘comprador bourgeoisie’. Therefore, when the new post-revolutionary regime (after the March 1979 referendum which approved the foundation of an ‘islamic republic’) began to nationalise major industries, banks insurance companies and foreign trade – for all intents and purposes implementing the left’s programme – the left scrabbled to understand the process that was in train.

The Fedayeen minority broke with the majority over collaboration with the islamic republic. From the spring of 1981 the Mujahedin launched an armed struggle against the regime (and were probably responsible for the bomb blast that killed almost 100 leaders of the Islamic Republican Party). The Maoist Peykar also opposed the regime.

For the Tudeh Party and the Fedayeen majority, however, not even the repression of the rest of the left (which began as early as August 1979 with the execution of 11 Fedayeen by revolutionary guards in Kurdistan) could persuade them of the error of their strategic ‘anti-imperialist’ alliance with the islamist regime. As late as 1982 the Tudeh’s main theoretician, Ehsan Tabari, was writing in World Marxist Review that islam “is the ideology of the anti-imperialist revolution”.7

The Tudeh’s betrayal of the left and loyalty to the islamists did them no good. In 1983 the entire leadership was arrested (since they were operating openly, it was particularly easy to pick them up) and most were subsequently executed.


Is the working class to ‘militarily defend’ such a regime? That is the task that comrade Turley and Alan Davies of the International Bolshevik Tendency8 demand of us. Of course, in the case of small left groups such as the IBT (or of the CPGB if we were to be won over by comrade Turley) ‘military defence’ can be nothing more than a slogan. No international brigades are sneaking across the Turkish border en route to Tehran. It is unlikely that even the smallest cache of weaponry is sailing clandestinely through the gulf towards a discreet Iranian port.

What is more, comrade Turley nowhere advocates making a reality of ‘military defence’. He states: “Both Nick and I recognise that the Iranian state is a reactionary force that must be destroyed, that war will not interrupt, but rather accelerate, the repression of the workers and progressive movements, and therefore that war (contra orthodox Trotskyism) poses the task of overthrowing the state rather than defending it.”

For comrade Turley the victory of the theocratic regime – all else being equal – is an outcome we “positively desire”. But not one we apparently do anything to bring about. Not even to the extent of supporting Iran’s right to arm itself with nuclear weapons, which might have a material impact on whether the US or Israel attacks. A policy comrade Turley rejects – in my view correctly, but hardly consistently in the light of his defencism.

Where then is this strategy’s leverage on real events? Communist politics is not a spectator sport. We surely are not arguing about which state we will cheer on as cruise missiles rip into the Revolutionary Guard headquarters in central Tehran. I assume what we are discussing is the strategy and tactics communists should advocate within the working class movement in both an imperialist country (such as Britain) and in Iran. For Iranian workers these are life and death issues. The advice we provide to them should smack of neither armchair flag-waving nor sectarian point-scoring – which in the absence of practical proposals would seem to be the objective of the IBT’s intervention.

We already have the example of Iranian revolutionary organisations which attempted to go to the defence of the islamic republic when Iraq invaded (characterised by many on the left and not entirely inaccurately) as a proxy-US war. The Revolutionary Guards chose to deal with them before advancing to meet Saddam Hussein’s forces. The likely fate of any working class militias which attempt to join forces with the theocratic regime in the event of US/Israeli attack.

And where does ‘military support’ end and other forms of support begin? If we ‘desire’ the victory of any particular regime should we not make that victory more likely by dampening industrial and social unrest? How about calling for increased production – at least in those industries that are critical for the production of arms?

In 1968 Hal Draper produced a much quoted document, ‘The ABC of national liberation movements – a political guide’,9 that outlined a fairly orthodox take on military defencism, but from a third-campist perspective with respect to the cold war struggle between the US and the USSR. Draper’s concern is with struggles against colonialism and imperialist aggression and specifically with the war in Vietnam. He makes two central points. First, “We support a struggle for national liberation or independence because this national aim is a democratic demand”; and “We are for all genuinely democratic demands … because their fulfilment is necessary for a world in which human potentialities can best flower.”

Second, he distinguishes “between military support of a given armed struggle and political support to a given political organisation (including a government), which may officially be ‘in charge’ of that armed struggle” – an attempt to maintain the independence of the working class.

Draper admits that in many cases it is “impossible for the revolutionary to openly establish an independent fighting force to carry on military struggle”, where the leaders of the nationalist struggle “would give higher priority to the task of physical extermination of a revolutionary alternative to their own leadership than to fighting the common foe”. He admits, therefore, that military support may well involve no practical action whatsoever. It may simply be a question of adopting a “political position”, for “we frequently cannot implement political positions we take … the point of taking them is propagandistic, rather than a matter of agitation or action”. Which may be fine for comrades in the US, but utterly fails to provide any assistance to those activists struggling under a regime that seeks to ‘exterminate’ them. That, of course, is the challenge that Hopi confronts.

It seems to me that with ‘military defencism’ we are therefore dealing with a dogma that takes the place of proper strategic and tactical thinking. In the case of Draper’s piece the ultimately tortured reasoning leaves the reader grasping to identify in what sense the document serves as a meaningful ‘political guide’.

Anti-imperialist united front

So where do the theoretical origins of the dogma of ‘military defencism’ lie? The immediate source is Trotsky’s demand that communists should ‘militarily defend’ the Soviet Union. However, for a full analysis of strategies around anti-imperialism we need to refer to discussions that took place in the early days of the Third International.

Mike Macnair has very usefully raised the implications of the Comintern’s bequest to the present-day revolutionary left of the ‘anti-imperialist united front’. The ‘Theses on the eastern question’ agreed in December 192210 at the Fourth Congress, where this formulation was first set out, built on the important debate conducted at the Second Congress on ‘the national and colonial question’11. The roots of this strategic perspective go even further back to Lenin’s debates on the question of the right to national self-determination and, for instance, his supportive position on the Dublin Easter rising of 1916.

The ‘anti-imperialist united front’ is not equivalent to the united front of revolutionary and reformist working class forces that the Comintern advocated for the advanced capitalist countries. It explicitly envisaged an alliance between the forces of the working class and the ‘national’ bourgeoisie in the colonial and semi-colonial world (effectively we are talking about Asia – the region which most concerned the early Soviet Union).

Comrade Macnair sees the call for an alliance with non-working class forces as emanating from the Bolsheviks’ view that capitalism was in terminal crisis and that, therefore, it was incumbent on communists to organise to seize power immediately.12

I am not convinced.Communists have a responsibility in all circumstances to seek to identify viable strategies for working class emancipation, however difficult the odds. There is no principle of communist theory which precludes temporary or longer-term alliances with any social force. The priority is to strengthen the position of the working class and maintain its political and organisational independence.

Perhaps the key point is the emphasis placed on the distinction between ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ nations. During the debate at the Second Congress, Lenin described this as “the fundamental idea of our theses”.

But the theses at both the Second and Fourth Congresses demonstrate a degree of flexibility that subsequent revolutionaries have not always mastered. The ‘Theses on the national and colonial question’, for instance, hardly excuse the kind of capitulation to merchant and clerical forces undertaken by the Tudeh Party:

“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 … 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.”

In another passage the theses insist on the need to conduct a struggle against ‘pan-islamism’.

Rather it was the pressing requirements of Soviet state power that created tensions within the anti-imperialist strategy. The ‘Theses on the eastern question’ emphasised that “The demand for a close alliance with the proletarian Soviet republic is the key-note of the anti-imperialist united front.” Thus communist strategy became a potential hostage to the Soviet Realpolitik.

The Anglo-Soviet agreement of March 16 1921 – negotiated to buy the Soviet republic “breathing space” – contained provisions against hostile propaganda: “…the Russian Soviet government refrains from any attempt by military or diplomatic or any other form of action or propaganda to encourage any of the peoples of Asia in any form of hostile action against British interests or the British empire, especially in India and in the independent state of Afghanistan.”13

Since the ‘Theses on the eastern question’ followed almost two years later and pledged the support of the Comintern “to any national revolutionary movement against imperialism”, perhaps the Anglo-Soviet agreement cannot be said to have placed too many restrictions of the actions of communists in the British empire. The same is not the case with some of the agreements the Soviet republic signed with notionally independent governments it wanted to detach from the British sphere of influence on its border.

For instance, an agreement was signed with Persia on February 26 1921 shortly after the seizure of power by Reza Khan (the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty), seen at the time as a nationalist moderniser in the mould of Atatürk. It was the final nail in the coffin of the independent Soviet republic of Gilan (in northern Persia/Iran), declared on May 20 1920 after an intervention by Soviet Azerbaijani forces and now dismissed in the Soviet press as an “experiment … conducted without a plan and without any consideration of local conditions and possibilities”.14 Are we able to detect the ideology of socialism in one country and the Stalinist counterrevolution that bent the international communist movement to the interests of Soviet state power beginning to emerge from the shadows?

Democratic demands

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debates at the first four congresses of the Comintern, communists strategy is of no value if it is allowed to ossify. The world of 2008 in many ways is quite different from that of the early 1920s. One significant difference is that most states are at least formally independent.

As I argued last week, breaking from the direct political and military control of a colonial power allows some nations to begin to play a more substantial role in the hierarchy of nations. The division between ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ nations becomes blurred. China, for instance, 80 years ago was clearly was a semi-colonial playground for imperialist powers. Today it is far from clear that China can be described as oppressed by the US or other members of the imperialist old boys club. We can, however, clearly talk of the oppression of national minorities within China.

Another consequence of the collapse of the European empires is that in every state the bourgeoisie is in power. This has particularly important implications for working class strategy. When vast tracts of the globe were under direct colonial rule, the ‘national’ bourgeoisie was by definition excluded from state power. To the extent that it was prepared to lead a struggle for national self-determination, the bourgeoisie needed to mobilise a mass base. In those circumstances options existed for the working class to intervene, even as part of a common front (however episodic) with the bourgeoisie. Once the bourgeoisie takes control of the levers of state power, the situation radically changes. The last thing the bourgeoisie is prepared to tolerate is a mobilised and self-organising working class. A mixture of repression and cooption becomes the order of the day.

The shift in strategy towards the working class by the bazaari and ulama in Iran once they had taken state power – and were in the process of transforming themselves into a new bourgeoisie – starkly illustrates the point.

Most countries have also experienced at least elements of land reform that have gone a long way towards breaking down feudal relations in the countryside – the tackling of which was a key aspect of Comintern’s thinking.

If ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ nations are not fixed categories, but contingent upon shifts (however sticky) in the international geopolitical balance, then we need to be precise in defining what we mean when we talk about imperialism. Too often Marxist writers and speakers conflate two distinct concepts: imperialism as a synonym for international capitalism, in which there are vast differences of political and economic power between states; and imperialism, meaning the actions of the most powerful states within the international system, particularly the US. They are not the same thing. Overthrowing (or constraining) US hegemony, for instance, will not result in a kinder, fairer global settlement – just a new, but still unequal, balance of geopolitical power stalked by new would-be hegemons.

In these circumstances the strategies of the anti-imperialist united front are increasingly redundant, but the working class can gain a purchase on the leading questions of the day by taking up the key demands around democracy both nationally and internationally. On this question Hal Draper is correct. But rather than prioritising a potentially ambiguous ‘anti-imperialism’ or ‘national liberation’, which in countries that are targets for imperialist aggression poses the danger of potentially fatal collaboration with anti-working class regimes (that are equally opposed to the ‘imperialism’ that is seeking to remove them from power), communists should highlight the lack of democracy both internally and in the international imperialist regime. This is the clearest road to maintaining working class independence, combating the lure of nationalism and making the working class the tribune of all the oppressed.

Thus in the capitalism’s present North American and European heartland we should raise the demands for republican self-government that the CPGB has championed, but also challenge the profound inequalities and acute lack of democracy that governs international relations and all international institutions. We therefore oppose the foreign policies of our own states and are ‘defeatist’ when they are engaged in military conflict.

In the Middle East, communists should prioritise national democracy and defend the rights of national minorities and oppressed group such as women and gays. They should identify the role of foreign powers (particularly the US and Israel) in denying the peoples of the region their democratic rights and in blocking moves towards regional unification and the resolution of national issues, such as that of the Palestinians. There is no route to working class power that leaves in place Iran’s theocratic regime, Syria’s Ba’athist regime or Saudi monarchy. Nor does the US occupation of Iraq in any way advance working class interests. Military occupation (as with colonial rule) is the negation of democracy and communists should have no truck with the first-campism of, say, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Iranian, Syrian and Saudi communists therefore should seek both the overthrow of the regimes that oppress them and the defeat of US and Israeli intervention.

Strategic and tactical considerations will determine the relative priority communists in the Middle East give to these objectives. If they are able to form workers’ militias, maintaining their independent fighting strength will be the first aim. If our comrades are eventually able to dispose of sufficient military forces to make a difference in the field of military conflict, it will still be a vital priority to ensure both that communists are in the vanguard of the struggle (political as well as military) against occupation and that the anti-working class regimes are not restored.

This is a question not so much of defeatism as, in the first instance, of survival and, in the second, of asserting the communist ambition for the working class to take power.


1. ‘The US, Iran and imperialist rivalries’ Weekly Worker August 28.
2. J Turley, ‘Third campism is a stinking corpse’ Weekly Worker July 17.
3. Y Mather, Letters, July 24.
4. V Moghadam, ‘Socialism or anti-imperialism? the left and revolution in Iran’ New Left Review November-December 1987, p6.
5. Ibid p12.
6. A Malm and S Esmailian Iran on the brink London 2007, p27.
7. V Moghadam op cit p23.
8. A Davies, Letters, July 31.
9. At
11. See the debate over two days at and
12. See, for example, M Macnair, ‘Ditch the strategic illusion’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.
13. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 3, London 1966, p288.
14. Ibid p294.

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