Opposing dictators and imperialism

August 18, 2009

In the fight for national self-determination, Marxists don't argue that masses of the oppressed nation forego the struggle for other rights.

THERE'S BEEN a sharp debate in recent weeks about what attitude the U.S. left should take toward the post-election protests in Iran. Many who defend the election results and criticize the protests have claimed the protests are CIA-inspired--but have offered no proof. Nor have they offered any convincing evidence that the elections were legitimate.

The critics of the protests in Iran base their arguments on flawed methodology: that anti-imperialists must uncritically defend regimes that are targeted by U.S. imperialism; and that workers and oppressed people in such countries who resist their oppression are imperialist dupes.

Of course, it's axiomatic that socialists must unconditionally oppose U.S. intervention in Iran. It's been targeted by the U.S. ever since the Shah was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. Thus it's necessary to take a strong stand against U.S. (and Israeli) interference in Iran's affairs.

Yet in opposing imperialism, we do not thereby ignore class divisions, or subordinate class to national interests. The bourgeoisie, or capitalists, of an oppressed nation have historically been the most wavering, least consistent promoters of the fight against imperialism--and all too willing to make deals with imperialist powers. The working class, on the other hand, has an interest in linking the struggle for national freedom with more far-reaching social and economic goals.

In the history of nationalist movements, bourgeois nationalists of the oppressed nation use nationalist ideology to bind the population to their own needs and interests. The nationalists argue that any social demands that interfere with "national unity" must be set aside. Workers mustn't fight for a shorter workday, for the right to form unions, and oppressed groups must not fight for their rights--because it will jeopardize "national unity" in the fight against the foreign foe.

This has certainly been the case in Iran, where the Islamic republic has used nationalism and the threat of U.S. imperialism to smash the left and suppress the working class, national minorities and women's movements. The regime is currently torturing participants in the June protests to extract forced confessions in which demonstrators "admit" to being tools of foreign powers.

The left's debate on how to approach this situation isn't new. Those in the Stalinist tradition have long argued that the working class of an oppressed nation must subordinate its own independent organization and its own class interests to the unified struggle of "all classes" against the oppressor nation.

This policy was applied by Stalin himself--with disastrous results--in the first Chinese revolution in the late 1920s. Leon Trotsky rightly pointed to the wavering, unstable character of the Chinese bourgeoisie and its organization. According to Trotsky, the Koumintang feared the workers and peasants of China more than it feared imperialism.

"The Chinese bourgeoisie is sufficiently realistic and acquainted intimately enough with the nature of world imperialism," Trotsky writes, "to understand that a really serious struggle against the latter requires such an upheaval of the revolutionary masses as would primarily become a menace to the bourgeoisie itself."

Yet Stalin demanded that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) completely subordinate itself to the Koumintang and restrain the working-class struggle in order not to alienate Chinese capitalists. Indeed, Koumintang leader Chiang Kai-Shek dismantled a general strike in Hong Kong in 1926, eliminated the trade unions and arrested Communist leaders.

In spite of all this, the Communist International's China representative, Mikhail Borodin, could still say, "the present period is one in which the communists should do coolie service for the Koumintang." Chiang proceeded to use Russian training and arms to turn on the Chinese working-class movement and drown it in blood a year later.

HISTORICALLY IN the Marxist, as opposed to Stalinist, movement, the fight for national self-determination has been seen as a democratic task, along with the fight for universal suffrage and freedom of assembly. But Marxists never argued that, in the fight for national self-determination, the masses of an oppressed nation must forego the struggle for other rights as long as they are threatened by imperialism.

Yet this is exactly what some of the critics of the movement in Iran are saying. Stansfield Smith, a defender of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the protesters, criticizes Canadian socialist John Ridell for publishing articles about Iran's labor movement.

"Your printing of articles from workers' struggles against the government of Iran right in the middle of an imperialist campaign against Iran strikes me as quite insincere," Smith writes. "Is this not participating in the imperialist campaign in a back-handed way?"

By this logic, Iranian workers should refrain from fighting for their rights because, by doing so, they are "participating in the imperialist campaign." According to this view, imperialism renders as reactionary all struggles for a radical transformation of society in countries under the threat of imperialism. This is nothing if not Iranian government propaganda.

Marxists do not necessarily link their opposition to imperialism to political support for a particular regime. Indeed, we argue that the struggle against imperialism will be stronger if it is based not on the narrow interests of an oppressive ruling clique, but on the struggles of workers, poor peasants, women and national minorities. For example, Saddam Hussein, given the repressive and paranoid nature of his regime, was incapable of leading a strong resistance against the U.S. invasion in 2003.

A similar point can be made in regard to Iran's regime. The Iranian ruling class has systematically repressed the left, the workers' movement, the women's movement and the struggle of national minorities. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad and his circle present themselves as staunch defenders of Iran against imperialism. They are quick to use nationalist rhetoric to defend themselves against criticism and opposition within Iran, and denounce their opponents as agents of imperialism. At the same time, however, Iran's ruling class is perfectly happy to make deals with the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the event of a military attack on Iran, the left of course must defend Iran, no matter who is in power. Our method, however, is not one of uncritical support for the regime. As Trotsky wrote of Chang Kai-Shek in the late 1930s when China was being conquered by Japan:

"The Japanese worker must say: 'My exploiters imposed this dishonest war upon me.' The Chinese worker must say: 'The Japanese robbers imposed this war of defense upon my people. It is my war. But unfortunately the leadership of the war is in bad hands. We must survey its directions severely, and we must prepare to replace it.'"

As consistent anti-imperialists, we do not pick and chose what countries we defend against a U.S. assault. We do not, however, in our desire to expose the reality about U.S. imperialism, allow ourselves to ignore the truth when it comes to discussing the nature of the regimes under U.S. attack.

The U.S. justified the 1989 invasion of Panama on the grounds that a drug-running military dictator, Manuel Noriega, was in charge. We rightly pointed out that the U.S. had no problem with drug-running military dictators provided they willingly subordinated themselves to Washington, and that these weren't the real reasons the U.S. invaded. We did not, however, pretend that Noriega wasn't a drug-running military dictator.

Do the critics of Iran's opposition recognize the possibility that an Iranian activist can oppose both the repressive regime at home and U.S. imperialism abroad? Is it not possible to agree with Hamid Dabashi that the "story of modern Iran is one of defiance and rebellion against both domestic tyranny and globalized colonialism"? Is it possible for critics of U.S. imperialism to walk and chew gum at the same time?

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