RR to BEA (12 June 2019)
Dear Comrades from Bolshevik EA,
When we raised criticisms in our last letter, we did not aim to put in doubt the revolutionary sincerity of the comrades, but to see if we could achieve a clarification on the political questions separating us. We expected this to be implicit in the fact that we sought to contact you even after having realized we had a different interpretation of the Iranian question.
We are happy to see that we seem to have the same position on Syria. On your question regarding Libya, we did not at the time recognize that the opposition leaders had received any significant material assistance from the US imperialists until March, although some US diplomats were speaking in their favor before that. That is why we did not take a general position in defense of the Libyan regime of Gaddafi but also did not support the opposition’s ascend to power (which we recognized as reactionary and could have sided against in some circumstances). In March, less than a month after the beginning of the conflict, such material support from the imperialists became apparent and we would have “taken the other side in the barricades” as a general approach. That is to say: defeating imperialists and their proxies became the number one priority.
We explain this in our article on Libya, originally published in Portuguese in 201 1 and that we are going to translate into English. We agree that if the IBT recognizes that the opposition was receiving material support from imperialists since the beginning, it should have taken a consistent position against it. We are open to correcting our position if there is sufficient evidence of this. What if, in reality, such assistance only started in March, as we analyzed at the time? Would you be willing to correct your position? The matter here seems to be simple, as well as minor, so we believe we can reach an agreement, even if we have small differences, because it is not a difference in methodology. What is important to us is the material/military assistance from the imperialists, not temporary diplomatic alignments, which may change really quickly when neither of the factions is really “anti-imperialist”.
To be quite honest, we were disappointed when your reply did not really engage with our position on the issue of Iran/February Revolution. We have to assume that our first email reply was not satisfactory in the objective of clarifying our political stance and the potential political programmatic differences which derive from your position of rejecting Spartacist position on Iran, and that therefore the comrades were unable to develop a proper counter to our arguments. This is, to an extent, to be expected, given that we both carry on a dialogue in a language which is not our own. Perhaps it was a fault of our own formulation. In any case, let us abandon abstract generalities and grasp the question by its roots.
Revolutionary tactics and revolutionary strategy
Upon reading your documents on the question and debating it with you, our opinion was that in fighting the passive sectarianism of the Riley faction, which fails to understand revolutionary tactics, the comrades from Bolshevik EA acquired some of Riley’s confused conceptions, but mostly inverted them. While your position is generally more correct from a political standpoint, it still suffers from abstractness in theory which can be dangerous in revolutionary politics. The question at hand is about the correct relation between revolutionary strategy, which is based on Permanent Revolution, and revolutionary tactics, especially when it comes to taking a military side in inter-bourgeois conflicts such as coups d’état, imperialist interventions and civil wars.
Marxists take a side in these conflicts when there is both a real conflict and real differences between the sides in regards to the interests of the proletariat. The political events discussed in the case of the coup d’état in Egypt and Turkey, or the civil war and later imperialist invasion in Libya and Syria can all be traced out to the fact that a faction of the bourgeoisie was attempting to remove another from power to better repress and exploit the proletariat or an oppressed nation. In these situations, Marxists have a duty to oppose defeat those attacks because their victory would mean the establishment of harsher conditions for the working class to fight for its revolution. For us, such cases are analogous to the bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov, siding with China against the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s, and siding with the Spanish republic against Gen. Franco’s upheaval. One “classic” case often forgotten is the possibility of siding with German Bonapartist government of Papen/Schleicher against a fascist coup in the 1930s. Contrary to Riley’s words, the main issue here was not that one side had to be “democratic” and the other “authoritarian-Bonapartist”, but rather if, in context, there would be a significant difference for the working class organizations:
“By disregarding the social and political distinctions between Bonapartism, that is, the regime of ‘civil peace’ resting upon military-police dictatorship, and fascism, that is, the regime of open civil war against the proletariat, Thälmann deprives himself in advance of the possibility of understanding what is taking place before his very eyes. If Papen’s cabinet is a fascist cabinet, then what fascist ‘danger’ is he talking about? If the workers will believe Thälmann that Papen sets himself the aim (!) of establishing the fascist dictatorship, then the probable conflict between Hitler and Papen-Schleicher will catch the party napping just as the conflict between Papen and Otto Braun did in its time”. (Trotsky, Germany: the Only Road, September 1932)
Previously, in his famous pamphlet “What’s Next?”, Trotsky had explained a similar point in reference to the differentiation between the Bonapartist government of Bruning and Hitler, which the Stalinists failed to recognize. It does not need to be said that a Marxist intervention in an intra-bourgeois conflict is not the same as a petit-bourgeois intervention. For Marxists, “militarily supporting one side against the other” takes the concrete meaning of defending the organization of an independent proletarian action, that is, with its own revolutionary perspective. It is principled in as long as it leads to the political-organizational strengthening of the proletariat as an independent force. It is therefore a necessary implication that the Marxist organization preserves its independent political line during said conflict and does not take a side based on abstract notions of “democracy in general”.
For instance, fascists – a paramilitary organization aimed at destroying workers’ institutions under bourgeois democracy – are always a threat to the proletariat. Whenever there is real conflict, be it an armed demonstration or a physical attack, even between fascist forces and other bourgeois parties, Marxists have a side: it cannot be denied that the defeat of the fascists benefits us. While organizing counter demonstrations and resistance to fascists, Marxists would agitate the proletarian program, warning that merely defeating the fascists wouldn’t do: the only way to guarantee the rights of the workers would be fighting for a worker’s republic.
Sectarians generally do not deny that in those cases the defeat of one of the bourgeois factions would benefit the proletariat, but deny that Marxists should intervene in those conflicts, since that would entail working together with one of the bourgeois factions. As you mentioned, the now called BT (Tom Riley’s faction) did precisely this in regards to Turkey/Egypt.
The case of Iran
As we already said before, we consider the 1979 Spartacist line on Iran to be correct, but we do not identify it with how the IBT (and Riley’s group in particular) has attempted to depict it. That means, we do not think it is analogous to the coups d’état in Egypt and Turkey. By equating everything to a “conflict” in abstract and saying Marxists should “not take a side” or “defend dual defeatism” in them, Riley’s methodology seems to have led you to “take a side” in a situation in which it is not possible to do it in the same way we do in the above mentioned cases. When a tactical “military support” in intra-bourgeois conflicts is thrown in the whole development of the political crisis in Iran, it loses its content and meaning. “Military/practical support” cannot be given as a blank check to a bourgeois political force or movement, even if they were fighting a reactionary regime such as the Shah’s.
First of all, the Spartacists did not defend “abstentionism” in struggles led by Islamist fundamentalists and other political forces which contained progressive demands and which mobilized the workers against the regime in Iran in 1 978-79. The practical intervention of the SL in the Iranian question was basically to defend the democratic rights of oppositional forces while denouncing Khomeini’s program, putting forward a proletarian perspective. They also wrote denunciations of the opportunist support given by centrists to the Islamist leaders – from Stalinists and Maoists to Mandelites and Morenoites. They did what they could to pressure a split in the centrists – the only way through which they could have had an influence in the actual events.
We are not the IBT: for us there is no doubt we should have participated in a movement for workers’ demands instead of staying aside, which were still happening despite the Islamists’ gradual destruction of the potential of the movement with their religious fundamentalism. Our difference is on how to better propel such movement forward, beyond its reactionary leadership. The centrists and reformists tied to the existing leadership and to that movement “the way it was” and condemned it by giving the Islamists direct or indirect support. We do not think it was possible to give such movement an abstract “military support” in general or defend their rise to power. Neither do we call the Islamists ascension a “partial victory”.
In fact, in the issue 223 of WV, the Spartacist League called for socialists to defend propelling the masses towards a consistent organization of reprisals against SAVAK officers, when it was precisely Khomeini and his subordinates which were using their authority to stop the acts of popular vengeance, as they were hoping to reach a deal with this central agent of the Shah’s bloody rule. To “militarily” support the Islamists ascension to power (instead of entering practical blocs with them on specific occasions or contexts) amounts to political support. One thing is to defend proletarian positions in a specific correlation of forces. For instance, if the Shah tried to “solve” their existence through bloody military repression, we would see it necessary to call for their defense, or if the imperialists had invaded the country to maintain a regime which favored them, we would also defend a practical bloc with the Khomeinists to throw them out. This would make the case analogous to the situation in Turkey/Egypt or Libya/Syria. On the issue #225 of their paper, the SL wrote:
“Had such a confrontation erupted into civil war, Marxists would have militarily supported the popular forces rallied by the mullahs against an intact officer caste, even as our intransigent political opposition to the reactionary-led movement sought to polarize the masses along class lines and rally the workers and lower strata of the petty-bourgeois masses around the proletarian pole.”
But we would not give Khomeini an abstract “military support”. Khomeini couldn’t and didn’t solve any of the basic questions facing the Iranian proletariat. To support the ascent of Khomeini to power would have been a strategical, political form of support which would only sow illusions and false expectations in the results of the Islamists’ rise to power. The iSt wrote after Khomeini’s arrival to power:
“The working masses of Iran who took to the streets against the hated shah must not be tooled. This is not a victory for the working masses. Today, Iran belongs to middle-class Islamic reaction in a bloody alliance with a section of the same officer corps which has dealt out decades of death and oppression on behalf of the Pahlavis; they are prepared to do the same now. Khomeini pulled the masses of Iran behind his drive for power. But his victory, assured by the capitulation of elements of the higher levels of the military. It is this army and police that the ‘revolutionary Islamic republic’ will unleash against the workers, peasants and minorities whose demands for democratic rights, land reform and national equality will not be met by the cabal of clerical reactionaries and Bonapartist generals now in power.” (Workers Vanguard #225)
This is what “Down with the Shah, no support to the Mullahs! Workers to power!” means. While maybe at that time an independent proletarian policy could not have prevented the emergence of an Islamic regime headed by Khomeini, it would be the ONLY policy which would afford the workers any chance to not to stop at removing the Shah – the figurehead of the Iranian bourgeoisie – but to carry their demands to their logical conclusion: the struggle for a worker’s state, led by the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry.
The fact is that while Marxists can abandon neither their political independence nor their tactical flexibility. It is important to know when giving “military support” to a bourgeois force means politically supporting it. The main drive of a Marxist tendency had to be the unrelenting, consistent political denunciation of Khomeini, aimed at causing a split between the workers and the reactionary Islamists. That was the Spartacist position and is exactly analogous to the line of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917.
From a tactical standpoint, it is necessary to delimitate when and where we could have sided with Khomeini and the Islamists.
The struggle for women’s rights and the struggle against religious conservatism in general had to be a struggle against the conceptions of both Shah and Khomeini, both of whom relied on the backward religious conservatism which was primarily present amongst the petty-bourgeoisie. It would mean organizing the radical-democratic and proletarian women in a camp opposed to both the Shah and Khomeini. Same applies for Khomeini’s reactionary religious rallies around fundamentalist slogans.
Khomeini’s movement was also chauvinistic in relation to non-Persians, but especially in relation to non-Shiites, such as the Kurdish, Baluchistan and Turkish peoples, not to speak of other smaller ethno-religious minorities. WV also repeatedly mentions the strategically important Arabic core of the Iranian working class. So there was no ground for intersection of struggles there either. The proletariat had to organize independently. The fact is that at the time, once again, the best way for a Marxist circle in Iran to mobilize those workers and oppressed groups, bringing them to the forefront of the struggle against the Shah, would be through a sharp delimitation with the Shiite fundamentalists and a consistent criticism of the centrist socialists for their capitulation to Khomeini.
On the question of bourgeois democracy in its more specific sense, there is little ground for common action too. The core Islamists were always openly in favor of a theocratic regime. But in the occasions where the Spartacists could call for the defense of the democratic rights of the Islamist opposition against the Shah’s brutal regime, they did. Collaboration and unity of action with those sections of the movement in favor of democratic rights for workers’ organizations was not only possible, but a necessity.
The only occasions in which Marxists would have sided with the Islamists or had a unity of action would have been the opposition to the government’s tyranny and the defense of the national independence of Iran, a colonial nation. Therefore, one could have struggled side by side with them against the Shah’s repression of the opposition and the actions of his secret police, as well as for the expropriation of the property of American companies and expulsion of American troops from Iran. Obviously, even in these occasions, we would have denounced the farce of the mullahs’ “anti-imperialism”, which was not in any way genuine nor consistent. The Mullahs, including Khomeini, had once sided with the CIA in order to overthrow the bourgeois nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and to crush the Stalinist Tudeh party. Khomeini’s “Anti-imperialism” was a mix of the anti-American religious conservatism which resulted from their Islamic fundamentalism with the need to appeal to the genuine concerns of the Iranian masses.
The US tried supporting the Shah, but they were not willing to use their own soldiers to stop the regime change. On the other hand, Khomeini had no interest in a real revolution, in destroying the structures which were the touchstone of Shah’s regime. Khomeini used his mass support to render the Shah powerless by rendering the discipline in the army moot, and then pressured the Shah and his henchmen – including Bakhtiar, supported by the Shah and the US as a “conciliation” government to avoid the Islamic Republic – to surrender and bow before Khomeini.
While studying Khomeini’s ascension to power, it was most curious, but not surprising, to learn that within the American apparatus there was a debate where it was proposed to help Khomeini come to power, despite him being openly against the American interests in the region. The reason given: fear of instability. Any Marxist knows this means fear of the proletariat. So even the American agents knew that the only consistent anti-imperialism is proletarian anti-imperialism, and while this policy was soundly rejected at the time, they continued supporting the Shah because (1 ) they preferred him to Khomeini and (2) they had nothing to lose by doing so. Given a different relationship of forces – that is, given a real, realistic danger of proletarian revolution – they could have without a doubt changed gears to support a transition to Khomeini’s rule. It was mostly thanks to the “Communist” “friends of Khomeini” that there was no such danger.
Permanent Revolution vs. Stageism
The reason why we focused on criticizing your conception of the February Revolution is not only because of its historical importance, but because it is a constant feature of the debates between defenders of the Permanent Revolution and of Stageism. However, it is also not fully comparable to Iran in 1 979. Among the differences is the fact that at the forefront of the February insurrection were the Bolsheviks and the other workers and peasants’ organizations, not reactionary bourgeois forces. The Russian Cadets and Monarchists were able to grasp political power only through backroom deals and the support of the opportunist section of the workers’ organizations. From that point on, we can consider them analogous situations. The moment of the insurrection was very different in Russia and Iran, but the political power put in the hands of a bourgeois faction after the insurrection was very similar, as well as the maintenance of previous repression structures in the state. It is the street insurrection that Trotsky is referring to when he talks about victory in his History of the Russian Revolution. That is why both he and Lenin also described the results of the February Revolution as an attempt to divert the workers from revolutionary tasks or as a “maneuver”.
For the Mensheviks, supporting the government established in this process was their supreme goal, their “victory”. But in February, none of the actual tasks of the revolution had been accomplished. On the contrary: the bourgeoisie was trying to dismantle the soviets. While some democratic measures by the Provisional Government were undeniably a concession to the working class, they were aimed at diverting the proletariat from the struggle for state power and from the completion of the revolution, tying them to the bourgeoisie and demoralizing them to later allow the counterrevolution to destroy the soviets. We do not deny that concessions may have been given by Khomeini’s regime (mainly in opposition to U.S. imperialism), but we do reject any kind of support to it or recognition of his ascension as a “victory” instead of a maneuver of the bourgeoisie.
It is no surprise that all defenders of “stageist” conceptions always spent a significant amount of time praising the February Revolution or similar previous stages of revolutions which meant not an advance in working class organization, but instead the establishment of bourgeois regimes which would be “better” of “far superior” than the previous. Quite often, these “better” and “far superior” bourgeois regimes smash the revolutions that generated them as a side effect. This is exactly what happened in Iran, with the Islamists destroying the revolution and suppressing all proletarian forces and organizations (including the Tudeh and the Mandelites) once they got to power.
A late example of this methodology is Moreno’s conception of a “democratic” or “February” Revolution led by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces (from the Argentinean generals to Khomeini himself) which would “objectively” develop into a new October Revolution at a later moment. Obviously, comrades disagree with such stageist views. However, the logic you adopted in your polemics against the Rileyite-Loganite cliques has elements in common with it. We do not need to support Khomeini’s ascension to power in order to critically defend certain practical measures taken by the Islamists against American imperialism. It is one thing to say that the expropriation of an American company or the expulsion of American troops from Iran is a partial victory. It is another thing to say that the Islamists getting to power is a partial victory. We do not confuse the two because, much more important than a couple of anti-imperialist measures is the fact that such new regime was dedicated to destroying the revolution and any chance of real, solid, anti-imperialism.
The Spartacist position and activity towards the Iranian revolution was aimed at undermining the most powerful weapon of reaction against the future of the movement – the dissolution of the working class camp into the Islamist opposition; disorganization and apathy, caused primarily by the capitulation of the centrist organizations to the reactionary religious opposition, justified through the Iranian variant of the old Menshevik stageist conception. Precisely therein lies the difference between the Bolshevik (or Permanent Revolution) strategy for proletarian revolution, and the Menshevik-derived stageist conception: in the adoption or rejection of the struggle for Marxist-proletarian hegemony of the struggles of the popular masses and in their stance towards the ascension of the Islamists.
The destruction of the Iranian Stalinists, Mandelites and of the proletarian organizations by Khomeini is a tremendous example of what we mean. Khomeini’s regime, which you describe as “much better” than the Shah, effectively destroyed any chance of a victorious workers’ revolution by massacring thousands of conscious workers. That is why their ascension into power had to receive the ringing bell of warning by revolutionaries – not the deceiving chant of “partial victory”.
We agree that the question “Who will take power?” was still put just after Khomeini’s ascension. But it was also sharply put before that. The fact is that his ascension, while removing the Shah, maintained the structure of the bourgeois state (which we insisted so much in our last letter, as you correctly pointed) and prepared the “stabilization”. This means the apparatus was used to crush the workers’ opposition piece by piece. Trotsky once described the Chinese revolution (in his book “The Permanent Revolution”) as having its personification of Kerensky and of Kornilov fused into one individual: Chiang Kai-shek. The Iranian case is very similar in this aspect, with the difference that Khomeini was miles more reactionary than Kerensky could ever be.
* * *
We make this last significant attempt to present our views in an organized way to see if any prospect of a fusion discussion is possible with you, comrades, because we value your trajectory. We think you have a correct instinct against both other factions in the collapse of the IBT.
The Logan group, still calling itself the IBT, has approached the question of imperialism as an abstract manner, defined by stagnated criteria, reaching the utterly false conclusion that Russia is not qualitatively (only quantitatively) different from the U.S., Germany, France, Japan and other imperialist powers. We agree that the Riley group, now calling itself the BT, has a correct position on this stance, but has declined into sectarianism on the issue of defense tactics. Riley has used his particular “interpretation” of the Spartacist tradition to justify his neutrality in the face or imperialism and reaction. However, the bureaucratic degeneration of the IBT, which we still hope to be able to discuss with you, preceded their political bankruptcy, and in a sense led to it.
We have a distinct appraisal of the Spartacist tradition. We have been trying to express this to you from the beginning, when we showed that the SL itself, back in 1979, corrected its slogan to “Down with the Shah, no support to the Mullahs! Workers to power!” in order to make their position clearer. It was not “abstentionism”: it was fighting for workers’ demands and a proletarian program in the movement against the Shah, including having unity of action with other political forces when advantageous for the proletariat. But they did not side with Khomeini in his reactionary fundamentalist marches, his insurrection under the Islamic banner, nor did they deem his victory over the Shah, a victory achieved through maneuvers and a conciliation with a section of the reactionary bourgeois army, any kind of victory for the workers. We are in 100% agreement with the 1970s Spartacists on this.
We hope to hear from you soon and better understand which aspects of what we wrote you disagree with.
Gabriel Diaz and Icaro Kaleb,
On behalf of Revolutionary Regroupment