RR and BL to BEA (9 July 2020)
Dear Comrades of Bolshevik East Asia,
We are sorry for the late reply. We view your letter is a huge step forward towards a common international program and organization. Nevertheless, we think that there are still differences and misunderstandings. Our goal in this letter is to hopefully clarify and elaborate and hopefully reach common ground on the Iranian question so that we can focus on other areas of discussion we have not yet started.
“What is different?” or the role imperialism plays internationally
We welcome your statement that our position on Libya and Syria contribute to the reconstruction of the international socialist movement. However, we do not believe our line on Iran in 1979, derived from the Spartacist line at the time, is in contradiction with this. The SL repeatedly stated, as you yourselves are aware, it would side against an imperialist or Shah military reaction against the ongoing mass struggle, and against the Iranian people as a whole.
The fact that imperialists “have a part” in what is going on does not change “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.” (as you quote from us). It rather makes it clearer. We never attempted to hide or deny the role of imperialist intervention in Syria/Libya or Iran.
You say “We do not agree to describe this conflict simply as a bourgeois internal struggle”, but the results of such a victory – mass repression against communists, shows that it really was definitely (though not “simply”) a struggle between two factions of the bourgeoisie, with once taking power they can turn their guns against the masses that brought them into power.
Let us examine our differences between our methodologies on determining whether or not workers should take a dispute on certain issues. You have the claim that imperialist involvement in itself is the defining factor, so that Marxists should always just oppose imperialists on whatever side they choose as a question of just anti-imperialism. We agree taking this factor into consideration is crucial. But with such methodology you limit the issue to just imperialism. This methodology is very mechanical, imperialist presence helps us choose which side, but is not the sole determiner. We say that the criteria is if the victory of one side over the other represents a qualitative change on the conditions of the working class for class struggle. That is when there are real concrete differences between the sides in which a victory of one would serve in the interests of the proletariat.
For example, on the hypothetical Fascist coup in Germany Trotsky discusses in his book, Schleicher vs. Hitler. We would take a side because it would be beneficial for the workers to avoid it, not because of the other side being more pro-imperialist – which your methodology implicitly upholds. Even in neo-colonies, this of course helps us build the picture, but cannot be the absolute factor in itself, especially since at times there won’t be much difference on which side is “more pro-imperialist”.
We have not researched Turkey in depth, but if we should take a side on this confrontation it wouldn’t be because Erdogan had less pro-imperialist connections than his generals who attempted the coup. Speaking of Brazil, we know for a fact the PT government was in excellent terms with the imperialist powers during its entire existence. The coup, which never got to a physical confrontation, was much more a result of internal questions than of imperialist meddling/intervention. This is because imperialist interests were never at stake. Still, we take a side in it because it was a conflict in which the removal of the government by a reactionary band of right-wing forces accelerated attacks against the workers and the poor.
Our take on events like this has nothing to do with the IBT neutralism, which uses a technical issue (the type of imperialist involvement) to declare themselves “not taking sides” as quickly as possible. We are, instead, telling you that imperialist involvement on one side is a defining factor for Marxists, but not the only one. And also that on several occasions in which we should take sides in intra-bourgeois confrontations, this criteria alone may not be sufficient.
On the slogans
When you say “This ‘Down with the shah Down with the mullahs’ was an ‘ultra-leftist’ and ‘sectarian (Feb. 10, 1979)’ slogan which was controversial within SL” I think there is some misunderstanding. In the quote you referred to they do not call their old slogan “ultra-leftist” or “sectarian”. Or consider this change in slogan a line change at all. The “Slogans on Iran” motion makes this explicit saying:
“The slogan ‘Down with the shah, Down with the mullahs’ expresses the strategic Marxist perspective for the outcome of the Iranian revolution: a life without the shah and without the mullahs”.
According to the motion, they had amended the slogan because it didn’t best display the position they had, and it could potentially be interpreted and used for sectarian purposes if it were to be allowed to – which the ICL and I/BT eventually went on to do, so their assessment in 1979 was quite correct. That shows the flaw of the slogan, yes. But it is not calling the slogan sectarian but it being not as precise enough to display their same line as before – in their words it “lacks a tactical element (but not a principled one!)” as it had an implication of “equivalency between the shah and the Mullahs”, as such adopting a new slogan which “cuts through the possible [our emphasis] misuse of either of the other slogans”.
On the reason it was hidden in future publications, this most likely occurred because the SL liked “angular” slogans (which they themselves addressed in the same motion complaining that this new slogan does its job “less angularly and forcefully”). It was also easy for the real SL leadership in New York to ignore a correction from the IEC of the iSt because it was a bureaucratic organization. We have no doubt that within time in the SL, this “abstentionist” view started to consolidate. That is valid for the IBT too, especially Riley. The motion prophetically predicted this, stating:
“In the hands of revolutionary Marxists the slogan was used to express the correct program; in other hands it could be used to mask a sectarian program”.
The original slogan certainly could be used for sectarian purposes, and it certainly did serve that purpose in the end for Riley, but was the slogan that way originally? We do not think so, and neither did this correction.
WV 219 loudly states “Down with the Shah! Down with the Mullahs!” in its title. Does this mean “ultra-left abstentionism”? Well when referencing the strikes that occur they acknowledge its limitedness in that is has subordinated itself to a common program as the Mullahs:
“However, the leftist students and striking workers seem united to the bourgeois liberals and Muslim clergy by a common “democratic” program directed against the shah: the end of martial law, freeing of political prisoners and replacement of the monarchy by a parliamentary regime.”
Yet, they explicitly call for “victory to the strikes”! This is quite the opposite of abstaining from the struggle in spite of having such a program. In fact the SL later in the article says this point blank:
“An Iranian Trotskyist party must join in the struggle for bourgeois democratic demands. But this is inseparable from an irreconcilable opposition to the mullahs’ reactionary drive. The struggle for a sovereign, secular constituent assembly, land to the tiller, women’s rights, smashing SAVAK and the monarchy and the right to self-determination for Iran’s oppressed nationalities are impossible without the independent mobilization of the working class”. [Our Emphasis]
These quotes, in no uncertain terms confirm that despite the SL having the old slogan, they still had the position of “Down with the shah! No support with the Mullahs!” and that both the old and updated slogan were not abstentionist, in fact quite explicitly for intervening in the struggles for bourgeois democratic demands.
The description of the regime after the ascension of Khomeini as “much better than the shah”, like a “partial victory”, just like the SWP, the Mandelites, and the Morenoites is our key difference. In our view it is rather an aborted revolution, due to prominence of Islamists, lack of independence of the working class and lack of revolutionary party. Its result ended up a maneuver of a section of the ruling class in order to maintain capitalism. Would you agree with this key issue? We view it is a foundational point of this whole question.
Let us clarify on where we think you “insist on ‘helping or supporting’ Khomeini’s grip on power, or the part that could be interpreted as such”. In our view, calling Khomeini’s rise to power a “partial victory” (or in your particular wording a “victory for the left-wing guerrillas and the working people”) seems to be implicit of a call to power, albeit critically. What else would this victory be? A victory we don’t call to happen (and admittedly aim to go beyond)? To call such a thing a partial victory amounts to critical support of Khomeini’s ascension to power, which would be by definition “critically” supporting Khomeini’s grip on power (albeit contradictorily for the purpose of positioning his overthrow).
We would participate with our own banner in popular insurrection even with the participation of followers of Khomeini. But we do not consider their consolidation of power, although unstable, in the hands of his political forces a partial victory. You say it is a victory for Khomeini and also the working class – that is a contradiction, these days you cannot have both. It cannot be a “victory for the Khomeinites. But at the same time, it was also a victory for the left-wing guerrillas and the working people”. It may seem like so to some (as it certainly did for the SWP, the Morenoites and the Mandelites too). But Marxists know class struggle in the time of imperialist decay cannot work like this.
We can recognize some partial victories (on the economic level, for example) that they were forced to concede, but the movement in itself, their grip on power, cannot be considered a victory, albeit partial, at all. The fact that a section of the bourgeoisie was able to take the grip of power means the change as a whole can’t be considered a partial victory or a victory for the working masses. Proof of that is that the Mandelites and the Iran CP were jailed – no partial victories would lead to that. The expropriation of certain American companies and other issues may have been partial victories, but the process that led them to jail cannot be considered a partial victory, which is why they were soon after reversed and also combined with very reactionary measures. Marxists are willing to recognize those partial progressive measures and defend them (even if they are taken by the most reactionary regime). But to call the movement which led to the ascension of the Khomeini group to power (although still unstable) a “partial victory” is different. It masquerades the meaning of his ascension. That is the difference between Marxism and Mandelism, the SWP, Morenoism, etc.
While we are happy you agree with the line “Down with the shah, No support to the mullahs”, that shows an inconsistency in your argument. Calling for no support to the mullahs would not be calling their ascension a “partial victory”. No support to the Mullahs would mean we wouldn’t see their rise to power as a victory of any kind. You say that the working people “went beyond Khomeini’s control and toppled the military directly” which we think is a testament to the potential of the working people of Iran, and that confirms even more that a call “Down with the Shah, no support to the Mullahs! Workers to power!” could have great effect in exposing the reactionary nature of the Mullahs and help the Iranian masses move forward. But it does not change the fact that Khomeini had already taken over the lead and grip of power after this confrontation.
What position should have been raised? Permanent Revolution vs Stageism
You say: “From the beginning of the revolution on January 7, 1978, until the collapse of the military on February 11, 1979, we struggle with Khomeinites to overthrow the regime. At the same time, we unconditionally protect the political and organizational independence and warn the working class of the reactionary nature of the Khomeinites. After the victory of Anti-Shah struggle, we struggle to build the workers’ power”.
But this position has stagist implications. It certainly sounds like you are calling to side with Khomeini until his ascension to power, and after this stage of overthrow, then we would struggle to build workers power. If that is the case, it contains within it a nucleus of a stagist position. Marxists defend the need for workers’ power without the need of establishing any previous bourgeois regime (“with the Khomeinites”). That is the sole interpretation of Permanent Revolution for the defeat of reactionary regimes in backwards nations.
On this question, you appear to be using a similar methodology to Morenoites, and as such it may be worth drawing parallels with how the Morenoites saw Egypt in 2011, when the dictatorship of Mubarak was toppled. Would the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood and other bourgeois forces to power in Egypt in 2011 be considered a “partial victory” after the fall of Mubarak? The democratic gains are partial victories, yes, but with the leadership and program, which can’t be ignored – we cannot consider this in general a partial victory just because the masses waged a mass struggle against the regime and it fell.
In WV 217, it explicitly details the problem the SL has with the Mullahs, that is, their program represented reaction. They correctly point out that the workers’ strikes that aroused from this period had a distinctly different character. It, in distinction from the Islamists led protests, had a sharply proletarian character. The urbanized and even secularized proletariat which reared its head were brushing against the Mullahs movement itself.
As the article said “The workers’ strikes are clearly seen as distinct from the mullah-led protests. This was made explicit when strikes by taxi drivers, government, airline, hospital and postal employees, among others, broke out and the merchants of Tehran unexpectedly opened the city’s main bazaar, which had been shut down in support of Khomeini and the mullah-led religious opposition. They wanted, said the merchants, “not to confuse the issue with the other strikes” (UPI dispatch. 8 October)” not to mention that “The airline strikers, for example, steadfastly refused to fly some 20,000 pilgrims to Mecca (the shah intervened to offer the pilgrims transport in air force planes in an attempt to refurbish his religious credentials.)” (WV 219) effectively acting as a strike breaker.
This posed the question of proletarian independence point blank. You cannot support the movement as a whole as well as supporting the strikes – it showed that a victory of the workers cannot be at the same time a victory of Khomeini. To join in certain struggles on a case by case basis with the Khomeinites, that is one thing. We take a side in certain confrontations, not just in general, “with the Khomeinites” for the fall of the Shah. One is concrete, the other is taking the side of the “anti-shah revolution”, which is abstract, doesn’t clarify the class character of the Shah defeat. But if Trotskyists were in Iran at the time, how could one reconcile the struggle of these workers with a general support to a movement politically dominated by the Islamists when they rose to power? Only by championing such a proletarian pole would Trotskyists be able to win the support of these workers, as such as opening an opportunity for the Islamist led movement to potentially have a split to the side of the workers.
You ask, “who will comrades fight against on whose side ‘temporarily’ when Rousseff and the rightists fight?” In our view, the struggle between PT and the rightists was not militarily based. Also, this is a different situation because the PT was the one already in power, not trying to obtain it. If today, in Brazil’s reactionary government of Bolsonaro, there was a mass revolt with the PT playing a part in it and it ended up with them in power, protecting the bourgeois regime and its institutions, we might side with the PT on certain confrontations, but we would definitely not call the results a “partial victory”, neither say the outcome is “much better” than before. The whole structure of the bourgeois state would be preserved because of the brake the PT ascending to power would be. (All this is of course hypothetical since the PT is extremely legalist). If PT succeeded in taking power over the government, would that count as a “partial victory” to the Korean comrades? And if that is so, shouldn’t we be calling to vote for them?
During the coup that removed the PT, we took a side when the rightists advanced but we did not call for the PT to “stay in power”. Defeating the coup would be a partial victory only in the sense of their not being removed by a reactionary movement, not because they stayed in power. We called for workers’ unity as a class against the rightist maneuver. The equivalent here would be a shah or imperialist coup against Khomeini after he had gotten to power. We state that we’d be on the side against American imperialism if they invaded Iran. But this is two different situations. As such, this example you have brought up does not seem to justify their call for the rise to power of Khomeini and calling that a “partial victory”.
The understanding of the February revolution and where it is similar and where it is different is crucial – the February revolution was a proletarian insurrection! But the proletariat was not ready to take power; its opportunist leaders gave the power to the bourgeoisie. The collapse of the Shah regime was not a proletarian insurrection, although it had an element of popular support, of course. In 1979, the Islamists took over power, despite the fact they did it as part of a larger bloc of forces and therefore couldn’t immediately apply their full program. There were partial victories in 1917 – the creation of the soviets, the establishment of socialist cells in the army, the toppling of the monarchy by a workers insurrection. But we do not consider the process as a whole to be a “partial victory” either. To describe the 1979 movement as that is just WRONG. It was a movement with potential for revolution. But change in power led by the Islamists was NOT the path for that. It was the path for burying the movement. We know comrades here agree with us, but your position of “partial victory” betrays this.
Today SL, IBT and BT alike have all adopted “Down with the Shah, Down with the Mullahs” to, in the prophetic words of the German section of the iSt and later its IEC, “mask a sectarian program”. We think your instincts against that are correct. But you have inverted their formulation. We hope clarifying how the SL did not do a line change with their slogan change will show how the current abstentionism was not the original line of the SL. We again apologize for the delay in response. And we hope this letter shows our seriousness in working towards a common program.
9 July 2020
[R. Beiterin] on behalf of Bolshevik-Leninist of Australia
Ícaro Kaleb on behalf of Reagrupamento Revolucionário of Brazil