Introduction (by Revolutionary Regroupment)
By late 2018, a comrade from Revolutionary Regroupment contacted members of Bolshevik East Asia, a split of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), in an attempt to better understand some of their differences with the other two sides of the IBT three-way split. See: https://bolsheviktendency.org/2019/04/13/why-things-fell-apart/
Initially, Bolshevik East Asia sided with the grouping led by Tom Riley (former leader of the IBT and now in the “Bolshevik Tendency” split group) against the incorrect notion defended by Logan/Decker/Dorn that Russia had become an imperialist power qualitatively equivalent to the U.S. and the European imperialists. Later, they broke from Riley in face of his “neutrality” on the military coup d’état in Egypt in 2013 and the 2016 attempt in Turkey. They also proclaimed their fundamental disagreement with the IBT view on the 1978/1979 events in Iran.
We disagreed with the Bolshevik East Asia comrades rejection of the 1978/1979 Spartacist League position on the Iranian revolution (the SL is the organization from which the IBT originated and which legacy we claim in opposition to most of the degeneration of post-WWII Trotskyism). We thought that these comrades were responding in a confused way, but with a good instinct, to Tom Riley’s methodology of neutralism and “not taking sides” in conflicts between bourgeois forces in which there was a clear advantage for the workers to defeat an attempted reactionary coup d’état/movement.
Riley argued that revolutionaries should not “take sides” when two sides in a conflict were equivalent in terms of their rejection of bourgeois democracy. He reassessed the Marxist opposition to Gen. Franco’s coup and the subsequent civil war in Spain and the opposition to the coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Front in Chile in 1973 as justifiable by one side being ahead of a bourgeois democracy and the other being dictatorial. Later, Riley’s grouping also took a “neutralist” position on the coup/impeachment in Brazil in 2016, analyzing that both sides were equally part of the game of bourgeois democracy. See: https://bolsheviktendency.org/2019/08/28/on-the-igs-2016-capitulation-in-brazil/.
To further confusion, Riley argued that his views derived from the Spartacist position in Iran in 1978/1979, in which the slogan “Down with the Shah, down with the Mullahs” supposedly meant revolutionists should not have “militarily sided” neither with Shah of Iran, nor with the Islamist forces. In general, he accused his opponents, including some now still in the IBT, of “support one gang of reactionaries against another in Turkey, Egypt and Iran”. See: https://bolsheviktendency.org/2019/04/12/marxism-islamic-reaction/
Tom Riley did a terrific job at discrediting both Trotskyism and the best elements of the Spartacist tradition. Let’s try to clarify those matters. Marxists oppose reactionary civil wars, violent attacks and coups d’état aimed at removing a government or regime when what is at stake is crushing working class resistance or working class rights (whether social or democratic). Often times, this is done by means of destroying bourgeois democracy and replacing it with an authoritarian regime, particularly common in neo-colonies. Very often, those movements receive logistical/indirect military support from imperialist powers. Sometimes, though, there is no complete destruction of a democratic regime, but a hiatus in its functioning for the re-arrangement of the capitalist forces. Other times, the neo-colonial regime is itself a semi-dictatorship and no less “democratic” than its adversaries. Should we be neutral in these cases?
Our criteria is guided by the historical interests of the workers, and we oppose “government change” when it has become clear that the victory of the opposition will mean a qualitative destruction of working class positions and gains. We do this without giving any political support to the status quo or the current leaders, but defend a proletarian revolutionary position. That is why we sided against the military junta in Egypt in 2013 (See: https://rr4i.milharal.org/2018/11/28/the-military-coup-in-egypt-and-the-scandalous-position-of-the-iwl-pstu-2013/) and against the gang of right-wingers who removed the Brazilian popular front in 2016 by a combination of street pressure and illegal parliamentary/juridical proceedings (see: https://rr4i.milharal.org/2013/07/19/brazil-down-with-the-putschist-government/). Riley’s neutralism would result in prostrating the workers’ movement in face of the destruction of their achieved positions in bourgeois society whenever it does not fit his abstract scheme.
On Iran, we believe Riley is simply confusing apples and oranges. There was a potential revolution developing in Iran, with left-wing guerrillas, strikes and struggles, but which by the lack of an independent proletarian revolutionary pole, was later engulfed by the reactionary pro-Khomeini forces. Many on the left saw this political predominance of Islamists as a minor element, believing the struggle would develop “objectively” into the interests of the workers. The defeat of the officer corps in February 1979 allowed the strongest political force – the Islamist mullahs –to fill the vacuum of power left by the destruction of the Shah regime and of his puppet Bakhtiar “conciliation government”. The ascension of Khomeini led to the subsequent “Islamic republic” and the destruction/abortion of any real possibility of a working class revolution against imperialism and capitalism, not to mention the suppression of left-wing organizations, independent unions, women’s rights, etc. See: https://rr4i.milharal.org/1979/09/24/iran-history-takes-its-vengeance/
To begin with, revolutionaries would have intervened in several strikes, mass demonstrations and other struggles against the Shah. Marxists don’t analyze things as if they themselves were detached from reality, picking sides abstractly. A potential revolution is a complex phenomenon with multiple events. In some we had “no side”. We would not have supported the Islamists in their own sectarian marches or any relevant aspect of their program. But we could have “militarily sided” with the Islamists against mass repression by the Shah’s political police, for example, or if there were a military intervention against the struggles (even those led by the reactionary Mullahs). That, to our knowledge, was also the Spartacist League position, as we quoted in one of our letters. 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.”
The comrades from BEA, however, gave a step further. They considered that the victory of the reactionary Islamists over the Bakhtiar/Shah regime was a “partial victory”, or rather a victory of both Khomeini and the workers together, and that the situation after the victory of the Islamists over the Shah regime was “much better” than before. These comrades tended to analyze the dynamic of the anti-Shah struggles the same way Riley did – an open-ended “confrontation of forces”. But instead of “not taking sides”, they saw the victory of Khomeini as the better side or the side “against imperialism”. Their rationale for this was to equate the ascension of Khomeini with the defeat of an imperialist invasion/attack embodied in the Shah regime. In our correspondence, they repeatedly compared it with the side the Fourth International took against Japan in its occupation of China in the 1930 and 1940s and other anti-imperialist positions we shared.
Trotskyists oppose all sections of the bourgeoisie and promote working class independence. We do not promote one wing of the capitalists as supposedly “anti-imperialist” or less pro-imperialist but instead show the falsehood of that claim. It is impossible to truly break from imperialism without defeating capitalism. When a conflict erupts in which the results could deepen the imperialist control over an oppressed nation or destroy a working class movement fighting imperialist interests, we take a side to defend current obtained positions.
Declaring that the results of Iran after February 1979 were a “victory” for the workers and the situation “much better” does not help defending any positions, except confuse the workers about the dangerous meaning of the Islamists’ ascension. While the BEA comrades never clearly formulated it, it would be consistent with this position to promote the victory of Khomeini from the get-go (as it would be a “partial victory”). In fact, at one point they wrote that the task from the beginning of the revolution until the toppling of the Shah/Bakhtiar was to “struggle with Khomeinites to overthrow the regime” and “after the victory of Anti-Shah struggle” (!) they would struggle for workers’ power:
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 (1 August 2019).
We agreed, for instance, that we considered the nationalization of certain American companies by the Khomeini regime a partial gain and should defend it. While we could side with the Khomeinites on a practical level on certain specific issues, we could not have a general orientation of struggling “with them” (as opposed to having an independent proletarian orientation) to overthrow the regime. In the big picture, we wrote: “we do not confuse the two because, much more important than a couple of anti-imperialist measures is the fact that the new regime was dedicated to destroying the revolution and any chance of real, solid, anti-imperialism.” (12 June 2019).
It became clear that this was more than a “historical difference” when we realized their view also reflected on other events, such as the 2011 replacement of Egyptian dictator Mubarak by a junta of his generals and his former Prime Minister as a way of trying to contain the massive struggles and strikes against austerity and oppression. The BEA comrades also saw it as a “partial victory” and not a maneuver to distract the workers and the masses. We pointed this had many similarities to revisionist thinking (such as with the pseudo-Trotskyist Morenoites).
Discussions also involved the Spartacist slogans at the Iranian revolution, the meaning of the 1917 February revolution in Russia, other anti-imperialist positions such as the wars in Libya and Syria, and later the imperialist participation in the impeachment/coup in Brazil in 2016. From our letter of 9 July 2020 on, comrades from Bolshevik-Leninist in Australia took part in the written exchanges and in our online chat. Their political and technical help was very significant to the continuation of the discussions.
Despite a promising start, in which we agreed on significant issues, the discussions ended up in frustration, with the BEA comrades accusing us of being stubborn and of using a straw-man fallacy against them. They then chose to end discussions with us. In our last letter to them over a period of almost 2 years, we concluded:
“As for us being stubborn about our positions, we do not deny that in the least, but we are definitely not dishonest. To the very end we honestly tried to convince you to our best ability, in a language neither of our groups is fluent at. We viewed discussions with you as a serious opportunity of regroupment. We actively pursue discussions with groups and individuals internationally, in an attempt to build an international tendency on the basis of our positions. We will continue to stubbornly do that!
“One week before sending your letter on September 14, you showed desire to publicize the content of our exchanged letters, and asked if we were OK with the posting of our letters to you. This indicated to us that the discussions were over on your part, although you ignored our direct questions about it. We clearly stated to you: ‘We’re OK with making it public, but we’ll probably want to respond to your letter as well. Will it be added then?’ To our surprise, you chose to post only your side of the discussions. We will post the entire content of the discussions on our website (including your letters to us). We ask you do the same on your website for an honest representation of both sides’ views.” (September 28, 2020).
Now we make the letters from both sides available, in an attempt to help the clarification of the question to those looking for revolutionary politics.