What is the attitude of Marxists to "backward" and "underdeveloped" countries and peoples who are being assaulted, occupied, or colonised by a more advanced but predatory civilisation?
No-one expressed it so clearly and so forcefully as Leon Trotsky:
"What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude to oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognising their 'rights' and parliamentary protests against the trampling upon of those rights.
"Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in advanced countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus or Arabs in the art of insurrection, and it assumes full responsibility for their work in the face of 'civilised' executioners.
"Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over that boundary remains centrism". (What Next, 1932).
The opposite idea, that socialists should adopt a disdainful, elitist attitude to those peoples and stand aside in neutrality when they fight to free themselves from the grip of "civilised" robbers, has been typical of the right wing of the socialist and labour movement - of such right-wingers in the Second International (1889-1914) as the British Fabians, for example.
When the Communist International was founded, in 1919, one of its conditions of membership was that communists in imperialist countries actively help insurgents in countries occupied by "their own" government. At the new International's Third Congress in 1921 about the Irish war of independence - in which the Catholics of the least-developed and proverbially "priest-ridden" parts of Ireland fought British occupying forces - Karl Radek spoke for the entire Comintern leadership when he told British Communists they should be judged not by the good resolutions they passed, but by the number of them arrested for giving practical help to the Irish fighters against Britain.
In France, in 1923-4, the Communist Party organised a tremendous campaign against the French war in Morocco to suppress Muslim tribesmen who had rebelled against French rule, the Riffs.
The International had no time for ifs, buts or hesitations on this question. The manifesto of the Second Congress, in 1920, written by Leon Trotsky, put it like this:
"The British Socialist who fails to support by all possible means the uprisings in Ireland, Egypt and India against the London plutocracy - such a socialist deserves to be branded with infamy, if not with a bullet".
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979 posed this question anew - and in a complicated form for those who regarded the USSR as still, despite the rule of the Stalinist autocracy there, some variant of (degenerated) working-class state, or at least historically progressive.
The Russians and the quisling puppet regime they maintained in Kabul fought a typical colonial war with typical imperialist methods. The Afghans fighting the invaders were, in outlook and social attitudes, a thousand years behind those who were throwing napalm, bombs, rockets and bullets at them. They were thoroughly reactionary. The Russians - like the British in Africa and India and Catholic Ireland - were far more advanced than those who fought them.
And for those who bought into the fiction that Russia represented some variant of socialism, or transition to socialism, "civilisation" here was also "socialism". Whose side were we on?
For all the organisations of "orthodox" post-Trotsky Trotskyism, with the exception of the forerunner of AWL, the answer was at first clear-cut: they backed the Russians, some very reluctantly, others with pixillated, ideology-drunk, enthusiasm.
For example, a minority segment of the Mandelite "Fourth International" hailed the Russians for "going to the aid of a revolution" in Afghanistan. With the exception of a big minority in their French organisation, the LCR, the rest of the "Fourth International" backed the Russians too, more shamefacedly, until 1982.
Militant (now the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) and the Thornett group (now publishing Resistance) continued to back the Russians all through their nine-year war.
In that war, one and a half million Afghans were killed - one in twelve of a population of about 18 million - and six million driven out into refugee camps on Afghanistan's borders (from which the Taliban later emerged). In a magazine article in 1980, dealing with those who are now in the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, I pointed out that the pro-Russians, though they thought they were being very revolutionary and anti-imperialist (against Western imperialism), were in the same political and moral position as the right wing of the Second International - "arrogant champion[s] of the civilising mission of the army of the Russian bureaucracy" with "the arguments of Fabian imperialism - all the way to the explicit paternalist description of the Afghan masses as necessarily the mere objects of someone else's boot and bayonet in history".
I am reminded of all this by the antics of the Weekly Worker, the hybrid right-left paper published by a couple of dozen people who modestly call themselves "the Communist Party of Great Britain". During Russia's "Vietnam war" the group were Stalinists who thought that Afghanistan had become a socialist state in 1978, when the tiny Afghan Stalinist party (perhaps 2000 strong) used pro-Russian officers to organise a military coup. They fervently backed the Russians as the representatives of "socialist" civilisation against backward tribespeople.
The Weekly Worker's current account of the issue omits all reference to their old all-defining view about "socialism" in Afghanistan, but holds on to their old conclusions. They invoke the Second Comintern Congress to justify it!
While the Comintern backed all anti-imperialist movements, it instructed the communists in countries fighting for national liberation to maintain strict political independence from petty-bourgeois or bourgeois forces on their own side. And especially the Congress theses stressed "the need to combat pan-Islamism and similar trends which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landlords, mullahs, etc."
The Weekly Worker understands from this that in a conflict between imperialist invaders and backward Muslims the Communist International advocated neutrality, or siding with "civilising" imperialists - as they themselves did in Afghanistan. In other words, they attribute to the Communist International the attitudes of the right wing of the Second International.
They confuse the political and social attitudes of communists to political Islamists within oppressed countries with our attitude as between such forces and imperialist invaders! The example of French Communist opposition to France's Riff war shows how wrong this is.
The Weekly Worker loves such iconography as the hammer and sickle emblem. They cling to fetish-words like "Communist". Here they have the politics of the right wing of the Second International.
They are even more ridiculous, however, in British politics now.
AWL and the SWP are in dispute about the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB, British wing of the biggest Islamist party of the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood). AWL argues that socialists should keep a severe distance from MAB: the SWP made it co-sponsor of the recent one million strong anti-war demonstration. Still justifying their support for Russian imperialism in Afghanistan because the majority of Afghans were backward Muslims, over MAB the Weekly Worker is firmly on the SWP's side.
Like the proverbial man who put on a heavy coat when the sun was shining and took it off when it started to rain, the citizens of the CPGB think it good to back a savage imperialism when it burns Muslim children, women and men with napalm - because the victims were "backward" Muslims - and also good to hold hands politically with Islamist reactionaries in Britain, entering a political popular front with them.
Where their political and social attitudes should for us have no weight at all - when a people, Muslim, Catholic or whatever, is fighting against foreign enslavement - there, they side with the enslavers because the Islamists are too backward for freedom. Where, as in Britain now, it is a matter of choosing political affinities and alliances - then they insist that Islamist politics don't matter at all. Accommodation to the SWP rules, OK!
For our part we are uncompromisingly against political Islam as a world outlook. We combat it by reason and argument. We back the secularists of Islamic origin in combatting it within the Islamic communities. But we will defend the people of Islamist outlook against persecutors, racists and bigots, in East London or in Afghanistan.
The weird combination of reiterated support for imperialist invaders in Afghanistan, because the people were Islamist, with political indifference to the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain now, is a prize example of the incoherence of this peculiar formation and of the very peculiar people who control it.
6 March 2003