International Communist League on Afghanistan
The following rwo interventions were reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin #8 “Afghanistan & the Left”
ICL on Afghanistan: Healyites of the Second Mobilization?
The following is a reconstruction, from notes, of the intervention of International Bolshevik Tendency [IBT] supporter Samuel Trachtenberg at a Spartacist League (SL) forum in New York City on 9 February 2002. Our comrade pointed to the parallel between the SL’s refusal to call for the defeat of the U.S. imperialist attack on Afghanistan in 2001 and the position adopted by David North’s Workers League a decade earlier when Iraq was under attack. The SLers at the forum were unable to respond politically.
I am speaking on behalf of the International Bolshevik Tendency. Now, most comrades in this room have been following the polemical exchanges between us, the Internationalist Group and the SL in relation to the SL’s recent abandonment of revolutionary defeatism over Afghanistan—that is, their refusal to call for the defeat of U.S. imperialism. To many younger comrades, the SL’s arguments in defense of this new line may sound new and original, but they don’t sound very new or original to me.
During the period of the Gulf War, I was a teenage member of David North’s Workers League [WL—today the Socialist Equality Party]. At that time the Northites also decided to drop the call for defeating U.S. imperialism [the WL had initially called for defeating the U.S. before the outbreak of hostilities, but jettisoned the slogan when the attack began]. I would like to read some quotes from their book where they defend their position [against criticism from other fragments of Gerry Healy’s former “International Committee”]:
“Revolutionary defeatism is neither an agitational slogan nor a special tactic for engineering the military defeat of one’s ‘own’ bourgeoisie, but the continuation in time of war of the perspective for which the revolutionary party fights under all conditions.…
“Both Pottins and Athow reject this perspective. They substitute for the mobilization of the working class the actions of other class forces – in the case of Pottins and [Cliff] Slaughter, the middle class protest movement; in the case of [Sheila] Torrance and Athow, the bourgeois regime of Saddam Hussein.
“Athow’s rhetoric about the prospects for an Iraqi military victory was criminally irresponsible. An outright military defeat of the US-dominated coalition was not merely unlikely, but virtually impossible, given that Iraq, a nation of 17 million people, was isolated and blockaded, while facing a coalition of all the major imperialist countries, equipped with unchallenged air power and a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. So long as the struggle remained a purely military one, its ultimate outcome could not be in doubt. Only the intervention of the working class in the United States and internationally could have prevented the shattering defeat of Iraq which took place between January 16 and February 28.”
—Desert Slaughter: The Imperialist War Against Iraq, Labor Publications, 1991, pp370-72]
[David North responded in a similar vein to criticism from the SL and the Revolutionary Workers League:]
“Revolutionary defeatism is not any sort of radical phrasemongering. It is not running around shouting in a bankrupt, empty and really meaningless way for the military defeat of American imperialism. We don’t entrust to others the task which only the working class, armed with a revolutionary leadership, can achieve. That is, our conception of revolutionary defeatism is not fighting to the last Iraqi. It’s not standing as cheerleaders for the military forces of Saddam Hussein.”
These arguments will of course have a very familiar ring to readers of Workers Vanguard of the last few months.
Comrades in this room who were around in the 1960’s can probably also remember many similarly orthodox-sounding arguments used by the Socialist Workers Party as a cover against calling for the military victory of the NLF [National Liberation Front] in Vietnam. In using these sorts of arguments, the SL is following in the footsteps of a long line of other organizations in their flight from Marxism.
A decade ago, the SL recruited me from the Workers League by thoroughly convincing me that all these “arguments” were in reality rationalizations for betrayals and “alien appetites.” A decade later, the SL is using essentially the same rationalizations for its own betrayals.
ICL on Afghanistan: ‘Realist’ Wiseacres
The following is a reconstruction, from notes, of an intervention by International Bolshevik Tendency [IBT] supporter Samuel Trachtenberg at a meeting of the Spartacus Youth Club (SYC—youth group of the Spartacist League [SL]) in New York City on 12 February 2002. Once again the Spartacists were unable to respond politically.
The SYC comrade mentioned that his organization defends Afghanistan without discussing why they don’t call for thedefeat of U.S. imperialism. What does it mean to defend Afghanistan without calling for the defeat of U.S. imperialism—that one “defends” Afghanistan only to the extent of seeking to limit the damage inflicted upon it? Since the SL claims not to call for a U.S. defeat because the struggle for the Afghans would be militarily futile, that’s the only possible conclusion I can see.
If we accept the assumption that the SL makes about the military futility of any struggle by the Afghans, what does the SL suggest they do? Show no resistance? Allow the U.S. to completely take over their country?
Marx believed that the workers who launched the Paris Commune were doomed to defeat from a purely military standpoint, yet he still supported them and called for their victory.1
In the current issue of 1917 we cite Lenin’s comments in “Socialism and War”:
“‘A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, and cannot fail to see that the latter’s military reverses must facilitate its overthrow’; and in a war of Morocco against France, or of India against Britain, ‘any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory “Great” Powers.’” [emphasis added]
Lenin called for the defeat of imperialism in colonies as undeveloped as Afghanistan is today. The struggle between imperialism and the Third World was always unequal, but only the most wretched Kautskyites use that as an excuse to abstain from a revolutionary defeatist position by counterposing “class struggle at home.”2 In raising the issue in these terms, the SL is simply attempting a cowardly dodge. Whether forced to pull out by resistance from the Afghans, the U.S. working class, or as a result of class struggle in other parts of the world, a defeat is a defeat.
As for how, theoretically, the “ragtag fundamentalists” could have driven out the U.S. “without even an army”— well, “Islamic Jihad” drove the U.S. out of Lebanon by blowing up the Marines’ barracks in 1983. Of course in that case the SL flinched and denied that it was a militarily supportable blow against imperialism.
Lastly, I’d like to report an interesting conversation I had with a friend today, who, back in high school, was also a member of the Northites’ youth group [the Young Socialists—affiliated with David North’s Workers League, now known as the Socialist Equality Party]. When I left the Northites over their refusal to call for the defeat of U.S. imperialism during the Gulf War, she and another youth member left with me. Unfortunately both were too burned by their experience with North’s version of Healyism to want to continue in politics, but they subscribed to Workers Vanguardfor a few years after I joined the SYC. Not having followed the SL for several years, she reviewed the new position on Afghanistan and, remembering the position on defeating U.S. imperialism at the time she left the Northites, commented “Wow, it seems like the SL really had its back broken.”
1. Lenin in 1907 wrote the following:
“In September 1870, six months before the Commune, Marx gave a direct warning to the French workers: insurrection would be an act of desperate folly, he said in the well-known Address of the International. He exposedin advance the nationalistic illusions of the possibility of a movement in the spirit of 1792. He was able to say, not after the event, but many months before: ‘Don’t take up arms.’
“And how did he behave when this hopeless cause, as he himself had called it in September, began to take practical shape in March 1871?… Did he begin to scold like a schoolmistress, and say: ‘I told you so, I warned you; this is what comes of your romanticism, your revolutionary ravings’? Did he preach to the Communards, as Plekhanov did to the December  fighters, the sermon of the smug philistine: ‘You should not have taken up arms’?
“Ah, how our present ‘realist’ wiseacres among the Marxists, who in 1906-07 are deriding revolutionary romanticism in Russia, would have sneered at Marx at the time! How people would have scoffed at a materialist, an economist,an enemy of utopias, who pays homage to an ‘attempt’ to storm heaven! What tears, condescending smiles or commiseration these ‘men in mufflers’ would have bestowed upon him for his rebel tendencies, utopianism, etc., etc….
“Kugelmann apparently replied to Marx expressing certain doubts, referring to the hopelessness of the struggle and to realism as opposed to romanticism….
“Marx immediately (April 17, 1871) severely lectured Kugelmann.
“‘World history,’ he wrote, ‘would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.’”
“Marx was also able to appreciate that there are moments in history when a desperate struggle of the masses, even for a hopeless cause is essential for the further schooling of these masses and their training for the next struggle.”
—“Preface to the Russian Translation of Karl Marx’s Letters to Dr. Kugelmann,” Collected Works Vol.12, pp.108-112
2. Lenin had nothing but contempt for the self-proclaimed socialists who derided the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin as a “putsch” doomed to fail because of the overwhelming strength of British imperialism. He commented:
“The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.”
—“The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up” (1916), Collected Works Vol. 22, p. 357