ISIS horror forces a culture shift on the left

September 28, 2014 at 9:22 am (AWL, imperialism, internationalism, Iran, iraq, islamism, kurdistan, left, Middle East, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", SWP, Syria, terror, United States, war)

By Rhodri Evans (in the Workers Liberty paper Solidarity)

A “common sense” which has dominated much left thinking since the late 1980s or early 1990s is now breaking down. That’s a good thing.

The old line was to support whomever battled the USA. By opposing the USA, they were “anti-imperialist”, and therefore at least half-revolutionary.

So many leftists backed the Taliban. They sided with Khomeiny’s Iran. They claimed “we are all Hezbollah”.

But Syria’s dictator, Assad? Some leftists have taken the US support for the Syrian opposition, and the US threats to bomb Syria, as mandating them to side with Assad. Most find that too much to swallow.

And ISIS? Leftists who have backed the Taliban are not now backing ISIS. Not even “critically”.

The outcry about ISIS ceremonially beheading Western captives has, reasonably enough, deterred leftists. So has the threat from ISIS to the Kurds, whose national rights most leftists have learned to support.

And so, probably, has the fact that other forces previously reckoned “anti-imperialist” — Iran and its allies, for example — detest ISIS as much as the US does.

The Taliban converted Kabul’s football stadium into a site for public executions, and chopped hands and feet off the victims before killing them. The Taliban persecuted the Hazara and other non-Sunni and non-Pushtoon peoples of Afghanistan.

Now the media coverage of ISIS has focused thinking. But leftists who now don’t back ISIS must be aware that their criteria have shifted.

The old “common sense” was spelled out, for example, by the SWP in a 2001 pamphlet entitled No to Bush’s War.

It portrayed world politics as shaped by a “drive for global economic and military dominance” by a force interchangeably named “the world system”, “globalisation”, “imperialism”, “the West”, or “the USA”.

All other forces in the world were mere “products” of that drive. They were examples of the rule that “barbarity bred barbarity”, “barbarism can only cause more counter-barbarism”, or they were “terrorists the West has created”.

The pamplet promoted a third and decisive idea, that we should side with the “counter-barbarism” against the “barbarism”.

It was nowhere as explicit as the SWP had been in 1990: “The more US pressure builds up, the more Saddam will play an anti-imperialist role… In all of this Saddam should have the support of socialists… Socialists must hope that Iraq gives the US a bloody nose and that the US is frustrated in its attempt to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait” (SW, 18 August 1990).

But the idea in the 2001 pamphlet was the same. The SWP talked freely about how “horrifying” the 11 September attacks in the USA were. It refused to condemn them.

“The American government denounces the Taliban regime as ‘barbaric’ for its treatment of women”, said the pamphlet. A true denunciation, or untrue? The SWP didn’t say. Its answer was: “It was the Pakistani secret service, the Saudi royal family and American agents… that organised the Taliban’s push for power”.

Bin Laden was behind the 11 September attacks? Not his fault. “It was because of the rage he felt when he saw his former ally, the US, bomb Baghdad and back Israel”.

Now Corey Oakley, in the Australian socialist paper Red Flag, which comes from the same political culture as the SWP, criticises “leftists [for whom] ‘imperialism’ simply means the US and its Saudi and Israeli allies.

“Syria, Iran and even Russia, whose strategic interests brought them into conflict with the US, are portrayed as playing a progressive role…

“Events in Iraq… leave such ‘anti-imperialist’ fantasies in ruins. The Saudis are conspiring with the Russians while US diplomats negotiate military tactics with their Iranian counterparts… Israel tries to derail a US alliance with Iran while simultaneously considering whether it needs to intervene in de facto alliance with Iran in Jordan.

“If your political approach boils down to putting a tick wherever the US and Israel put a cross, you will quickly find yourself tied in knots. The driving force behind the misery… is not an all-powerful US empire, but a complex system of conflict and shifting alliances between the ruling classes of states big and small…

“The British, Russian, French and US imperialists are no longer the only independent powers in the region. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – though all intertwined in alliances with other countries big and small – are powerful capitalist states in their own right, playing the imperialist game, not mere clients of bigger powers…” (1 July 2014).

The shift signifies an opening for discussion, rather than a reaching of new conclusions.

On ISIS, a frequent leftist “line” now is to deplore ISIS; say that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq contributed to the dislocation from which ISIS surged (true); express no confidence or trust in US bombing as a way to push back ISIS (correct); and slide into a “conclusion” that the main imperative is to campaign against US bombing.

The slide gives an illusion of having got back to familiar “auto-anti-imperialist” ground. But the illusion is thin.

The old argument was that if you oppose the US strongly enough, then you oppose the root of all evil, and hence you also effectively combat the bad features of the anti-imperialist force. But no-one can really believe that the US created ISIS, or that there were no local reactionary impulses with their own local dynamic and autonomy behind the rise of ISIS.

Our statement of basic ideas, in this paper, says: “Working-class solidarity in international politics: equal rights for all nations, against imperialists and predators big and small”. We have a new opening to get discussion on that approach.


  1. Now, Back the Kurds! | Tendance Coatesy said,

    […] by groups such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (see this important article, ISIS horror forces a culture shift on the left) and the general trend towards  backing the Kurds, amongst many other […]

  2. Hound of Tindalos said,

    I seem to remember certain left groups backing the Mujahadeen in the eighties – just as odd as supporting the Taliban

    • Jim Denham said,

      Yeah: those assholes (SWP, Workers Power, etc) are now having to have a major re-think.

    • Aaron Aarons said,

      As one who supported the Soviet-backed leftist government of Afghanistan against the U.S.-backed Mujahideen throughout that government’s existence, I saw and see no justification for supporting the U.S., allied with one faction of the successors to that Mujahideen, against another successor, i.e., the Taliban. Any slight benefit to the people of Afghanistan from having a possibly, and only possibly, less nasty group of local oppressors in charge is more than outweighed by the danger of giving U.S. and NATO imperialism both a symbolic victory and a real one, in the sense of giving those imperialists another military and economic, particularly mineral-rich, stronghold in that part of the world.

  3. John welsh (@Johnwel54507802) said,

    Is the left too hung up on anti-imperialism? The US and Britain trying to spread democracy to the middle east is not imperialistic; but it is an adjective used a lot on the left when criticising western powers.
    Surely the greater cause should be the furtherance of democracy and human rights.

    • Aaron Aarons said,

      If you want to study how the U.S. tries to “spread democracy”, there’s an excellent case to be studied where the U.S. has been intervening militarily and by other means for decades to make sure that
      (1) elections are held;
      (2) if the wrong person or party gets elected, they are removed by force;
      (3) after being removed twice, the party and leader that have the support of the majority of the Haitian population, but seen as a threat to U.S. and general capitalist interests, don’t get to run at all any more;
      (4) even without that party being involved, and the elections being boycotted by a large majority of the population, the U.S. makes sure the candidate that actually came in third gets into the runoff between the top two and “wins”.

      Nobody trying to satirize the U.S. pretentions to “spread democracy” could make this stuff up! Unfortunately, they didn’t have to.

      • Aaron Aarons said,

        BTW, one nice thing about the Haitian example is that there were and are no rival imperialist powers or regional players to complicate the situation. It’s an unusually pure example of U.S. democracy promotion at work.

  4. janny11 said,

    Reblogged this on PACIFIC ISLAND BEACON and commented:
    Leftists Unite: isis too awful to consider siding with!!

  5. Aaron Aarons said,

    The fact that there are so many semi-autonomous forces at work in the conflict in Iraq, Syria, and environs does mean that we on the anti-imperialist left have as complicated a situation to deal with as the Western imperialists themselves have. Part of that complication is that IS, while awful, only has widespread support, or at least tolerance, among Sunnis in Iraq because of the long and continuing experience of Shia sectarian terror against Sunnis that has been at least enabled, and partly promoted, by the U.S. and the U.K.. This is without even bringing in the strong evidence for U.S. and U.K. false-flag operations meant to stoke mutual hatred among Sunnis and Shiites.

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