The U.S. defeat and the Taliban’s return to power has created a debate within the international left. Will the end of U.S. occupation have positive or negative consequences for the workers and masses of the world?
By Alejandro Iturbe
Translated to English by Dolores Underwood
An entire sector of the left takes the ideological and political character of the Taliban as the central element to analyze the above question. From there, they arrive at the conclusion that the Taliban’s victory and taking of power will have negative repercussions for the international working class. To dialogue with this sector, we will begin by asserting that we have a very clear understanding of the ideological and political character of the Taliban, one that we’ve maintained since the beginning of the war (2001). We define the Taliban as an organization with a fundamentally bourgeois orientation, “profoundly reactionary and with many fascist tendencies.”
However, it is not correct to foreground that as the only element to consider because it will bring us to erroneous conclusions. For us, to respond to the question of the significance of the U.S. defeat, it is necessary to consider the characteristics of the war itself. For this analysis, we are going to use the criteria elaborated by Marxism. The clearest reference is the work Socialism and War (1915), written by Lenin with the objective of orienting the Russian Bolshevik party and the revolutionary wing of the Second International in the context of the First World War.
In this work, Lenin reclaims the concept elaborated by the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz in 1832: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” In other words, to characterize any war and to be able to take a position on it, Marxists must first study and understand the political character of the war.
Lenin correctly characterized the First World War as an inter-imperialist war and in which socialists don’t have a side to fight for. From there, he made a ferocious critique of the principal parties in the Second International (German and French) that supported their respective national bourgeoisies in the war. For Lenin, the only choice in the face of this kind of war was revolutionary defeatism (“A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war”) and he oriented the Bolshevik party to “convert the imperialist war into civil war,” something made concrete in the October Revolution (1917).
At the same time, he analyzed that there are other kinds of wars, ones he called necessary and just: “In history there have been numerous wars which, in spite of all the horrors, atrocities, distress and suffering that inevitably accompany all wars, were progressive, i.e., benefited the development of mankind…”
Within this last kind of war, he defined one in particular: “Only in this sense have Socialists regarded, and now regard, wars ‘for the defense of the fatherland’, or ‘defensive’ wars, as legitimate, progressive and just. If tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be ‘just’ ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every Socialist would sympathize with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory ‘great’ powers.” In other words, for Lenin, the position in the face of war and its outcome didn’t depend on the type of leadership that the anti-imperialist struggle had in an oppressed country, but on the character of the countries in conflict. In this case, the socialists “should defend the fatherland” of the oppressed country and join its military efforts.
Lenin’s position had an important logic: since the beginning of what he called the “imperialist epoch,” the principal enemy for the workers in the world to combat and defeat was precisely imperialism (or if you prefer, the imperialist bourgeoisie in a small number of countries). This was, for him, the central factor and line to follow for revolutionary socialists: “Socialists cannot achieve their great aim without fighting against all oppression of nations.”
Trotsky and a hypothetical war between England and Brazil
This criteria of Lenin’s for these kinds of wars where support for the oppressed country doesn’t depend on the character of the leadership of the military in question arises implicitly in his work. A couple of decades later, Trotsky formulated a more explicit take in an interview he had with the Argentine trade union leader Mateo Fasso in 1938 in Mexico. In the interview, within the context of the months leading up to the Second World War, Trotsky considered a hypothetical war between England and Brazil.
“I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semi-fascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers! In all the Latin American countries the problems of the agrarian revolution are indissolubly connected with anti-imperialist struggle.”
Decades later, the “hypothetical conflict” was made a reality, although in an entirely different context in the War of the Malvinas between England and Argentina (1982). In this latter country, a bloody, pro-imperialist military dictatorship that had kidnapped and assassinated thousands of workers was in power. The dictatorship, presided over at that moment by Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Malvinas Islands, an old national aspiration ever since the island was claimed by England in 1833. It is outside the objectives of this article to analyze how this war began and its development. Whoever is interested can look at the various articles published on this website.
What we do want to underline here is that the position adopted in the face of this war profoundly divided the left in Argentina and other parts of the world. Shamefully, one sector hoped for the triumph of England; another had the centrist position of “Not England and not the Argentine dictatorship.” The Morenoist (named after Nahuel Moreno) organization in Argentina in those years, the PST (Socialist Workers Party, Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores in Spanish), and the recently founded IWL-FI, did not hesitate to follow the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky.
Even though the PST was a clandestine party, it fought heroically against the dictatorship and had more than 100 of its members killed. Regardless, it grounded itself in the staunchly anti-imperialist military camp and, together with the majority of the Argentinean public, put all its strength towards winning that war. It’s worth adding that, after the defeat of Argentina, the PST was again in the streets pushing mobilizations towards the overthrow of the dictatorship.
A debate we’ve had before
This debate about the progressive or reactionary character of the triumph of the Taliban is a repeat of the same debate the international left had at the beginning of the war in 2001. On the side of the imperialist U.S., George W. Bush’s government took advantage of the response to 9/11 and the bombing of the Twin Towers to launch his “war on terror” directed against what he called “the Axis of evil” (among others, this included the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Iran). The Afghanistan invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban was the first episode in this larger war.
In the case of Afghanistan, we characterized the Taliban as a theocratic dictatorship with laws based on an extreme and intolerant interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. These laws are severely oppressive and repressive, especially against women and the gay community, and against ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities. It was precisely this character of the Taliban regime that made many question whether to support the defensive war led by the Taliban that began against the invaders.
It is with this understanding that the IWL-FI published its article “¿Qué guerra es esta?” (“What kind of war is this?”) by Martín Hernández. In this article, he takes the criteria laid out by Lenin and Trotsky to analyze the character of the war and the position that should be adopted by revolutionaries. Responding to the question “what side should the socialists be on?”, the article stated:
“If we leave aside what both sides claim to be doing, either ‘defending liberty’ (Bush) or ‘a war against the infidels’ (the Taliban), the profile of this war appears to us as almost a caricature. On the one side, the U.S. is backed by all the most powerful militaries in the world. On the other, a country almost a millennium behind in technology… directed by a current (the Taliban) that, after being formed by the CIA today refuses to accept imperialist orders. If we do the math… we will find that this is the most typical kind of conflict we see today: a war to conquer a new colony in a strategic region in the world.”
The article emphasizes that the discussion about “new colonies” is not anachronistic because the most profound tendency of imperialism leads it to colonize or recolonize non-imperialist countries. That was the essence of the “New American Century” pushed by Bush. In the face of this recolonization offense:
“Currently, the majority of the bourgeoisie in dependent/underdeveloped countries are so subsumed and integrated into imperialism that that don’t raise even minimal resistance to occupation. [However,] there are governments and/or sectors of the bourgeoisie who, in a state of desperation, try to resist the recolonization efforts and therefore they look to base themselves in mass mobilizations. This confrontation between the masses in dependent countries and imperialism, a confrontation which various sectors of the bourgeoisie gladly partake in (and in many cases lead, we would add), is what’s behind this war.”
The article concludes that when we are analyzing an underdevelopment and/or dependent nation attacked by an imperialist nation, then yes, we have a country we should support. In other words, if there is a clear military effort defending the country from an imperialist offensive, then within what is possible, we push for the success of that military action alongside the Taliban.
Can we cooperate with a group like the Taliban?
From this position, we questioned a very real risk: “It is possible that in a certain moment the Taliban would persecute revolutionaries and try to kill them? They are a profoundly reactionary political current that has fascist tendencies.”
That risk evidently did exist. But the possibility of it happening (an internal attack against dissidents or opponents within a military block) existed not only with the Taliban but also with various bourgeois or Stalinist leaderships.
For example, in China, in the front organized against Japanese invasion, Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois military attacked, every time it could, the communist peasant military led by Mao. In the Spanish Civil War, during the collaborative fight against Franco, Stalinists killed many militants from the POUM (Workers’ Part of Marxist Unification, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista in Spanish), anarchists and Trotskyists. In Vietnam, during the period of resistance against Japanese imperialism, Trotskyists suffered as much repression from the Japanese as they did from the Stalinist leadership. For example, the Trotskyist leader Ta Thu Thau was detained in a Japanese concentration camp and later assassinated by the order of Ho Chi Minh in 1957.
These are just some of the many historical examples we could recount. In other words, we knowingly collaborate in very difficult conditions, facing a double danger: combat against an imperialist or fascist enemy on the one hand, and the possibility of repression from the leadership of the military we collaborate with.
However, and even under these very difficult conditions, it is crucial we help support that military action for two reasons. The first is that this is the concrete way to develop the struggle against our principal enemy (imperialism or fascism). Revolutionaries do not simply use our words to denounce and maintain that we hold the right position in the class struggle: once we know our position, we try (within what is possible) to put it into practice.
Secondly, our participation in that united effort is the only way we can push our political program and directly dispute the leadership in the process. For example, during the Spanish Civil War, Trotsky oriented his followers in Spain to intervene by supporting the republicans with a bourgeois leadership with Stalinist tendencies: “We participate in the struggle against Franco like the best of soldiers…” In another article, he added: “While we aren’t strong enough… we will fight under their flag (the republican one). But, on all occasions, we will voice our distrust of it…”
In these concrete conditions, the tactic of military unity in action is a necessity imposed on us by the current reality that implores us to push forward two principals: our participation in the struggle against imperialism (or fascism) and the introduction of our political program to try to win the leadership in the process of struggle. In other words, we are in the same military camp as the leadership of the bourgeoisie or bureaucrats that are leading the fight (and in this sense, we must accept their military direction) while these are the objective conditions. But we are not in the same political camp as them and we are constantly waging a fight over the political direction.
This is what Marxism has called the tactic of the united front. Because one part is the tactic of unity of struggle against imperialism and fascism, but the other is a constant and permanent struggle against the political leadership. We demand and push the measures necessary to win the struggle while we also fight against the fact that, under the excuses of necessary military discipline, this same leadership imposes the same anti-democratic discipline in the political terrain to impede (and even repress) the possibility of democratic decision-making amongst workers and the masses. In other words, in this specific case, under the tactic of unity of action, we never stop denouncing the political character of the Taliban.
Is it good or bad that imperialism was defeated?
After reviewing the criteria elaborated by revolutionary Marxism on wars of this kind and reminding ourselves of how we applied these tactics in the concrete case of the War in Afghanistan, we return to the initial question: is it good or bad that imperialism was defeated?
For us, considering what we have analyzed, this is a positive event, and for two reasons. The first is that imperialism has been weakened and is much more on the defense than if there had been a military win in Afghanistan. Imperialist nations leave this war in crisis and with profound contradictions about how to defend their interests through the politics of recolonization that we have already referred to.
We won’t discuss here whether this defeat is equivalent to what occurred in Vietnam in the 1970s. Both were military defeats, and they have, in this sense, a similar affect. It’s not a coincidence that in that period, imperialist political analysts coined the term “Vietnam Syndrome” to refer to leaving aside (at least for a time being) the aggressive and interventionist policies begun in the 1950s against the working-class and masses under the mantle of the “war against communism.”
Beginning with Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977, the government began to apply a soft power tactic elaborated by his security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski was very aware of the unfavorable opinion of military intervention after Vietnam and, for that reason, he made the military aspect secondary. According to his vision, there was a long game beyond just military conflict.
Bush, with his “war on terror,” provoked a return to the politics initiated in the 1950s. However, his project officially ends with the defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also not a coincidence that when, after a decade of conflict, defeat was on the horizon in both parallel wars, political analysts began to use the term “Iraq syndrome.” This was expressed in the initial turn towards international political cooperation applied by Barack Obama.
Even Donald Trump, who with his usual flair would have liked to have stumbled and punched his way out of the situation was stuck in the current reality. He couldn’t just bomb North Korea and instead had to opt for negotiations with China. He failed miserably in his threats to invade Venezuela, and, at the end of his government, Trump was the one who began to talk of definitively leaving the two war fronts in the Middle East, saying it’s time for all U.S. service members to leave Afghanistan. Joe Biden’s government would be the one to finally execute those plans.
The crisis produced by the Iraq-Afghanistan syndrome was revived with the recent admission of military defeat (although the severity of this crisis has likely been alleviated by the prolonged exit). Just look at the debates in the imperialist newsrooms and within the intelligence community and political bodies like in the Atlantic Council. These debates are also occurring on the media outlets of other imperialist countries suffering defeat, like the BBC or El País. In the articles produced in such outlets, we see a mixture of serious attempts to analyze the cause of defeat mixed with individual accusations of blame.
Biden’s government is left weakened although, as we’ve said, the blow is lessened because he’s simply executing what has been an apparent defeat over multiple governments. He’s even declared “the responsibility is mine” about the return to power of the Taliban while he continues to defend pulling out all troops.
Another aspect of imperialism that has been weakened: military demoralization, particularly for those soldiers that really believed in the struggle for “liberty and democracy.” For example, Jack Cumming (a former British soldier in Afghanistan that lost both legs in combat) has recently said: “I feel betrayed – I’ve lost my legs for our country and seeing what’s happening to Afghanistan is horrendous and heartbreaking.” This is a similar sentiment expressed by U.S. veterans. For example, Anthony Valdez (who fought for twenty years in Iraq and Afghanistan) declared: “It’s upsetting in some ways. All the work that we’ve done to try to build on things to help Afghanistan become a better country. I felt some kind of way about how things are going down.”
The impact of mass mobilizations
The concept of a “syndrome” (be it Vietnam or Iraq-Afghanistan) refers to the impact of imperialism and its defeats. This, however, always has another side, which is the triumph of mass mobilizations that demonstrate through difficult struggles that it is possible to defeat a bigger enemy.
For example, as discussed in a recent declaration of the IWL-FI, it’s hard to imagine the huge revolutionary ascent in the Arab and Muslim world after 2011 without recognizing that it was driven by imperialist attacks.
So let’s return back to the lucid imperialist position of Zbigniew Brzezniski, who in a 2014 interview stated that “America is the only superpower. But our leadership is being tested in the Middle East, and some of the things that we have done in the Middle East are contributing to a potential explosion region-wide. And if that explosion gets out of hand, we may end up being bogged down for many years to come in a conflict that will be profoundly damaging to our capacity to exercise our power, to address the problems implicit in this global awakening, and we may face a world in which much of the world turns away from us, seeks its own equilibrium, but probably slides into a growing chaos.”
Since 2014, much has changed and we’ve witnessed struggles outside the Middle East, including in the heart of global imperialism with the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd. Imperialism has in turn come up with new responses to our struggles. Regardless, what we know is that the defeat of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan, with all its contradictions, will have a net positive affect on working class struggles throughout the world.
We are left with one final point, which we will elaborate further on in future articles. We are aware that it is the Taliban that has taken power in Afghanistan, a group that we once again characterize as profoundly reactionary with fascist tendencies, that will likely attempt to install a theocratic dictatorship to consolidate the bourgeoisie in a capitalist country. Therefore, they will naturally halt any further attacks against imperialism.
For both factors, the unity of military action we’ve upheld thus far with the Taliban (the united front tactic we analyzed above) ends with the defeat of the imperialist power and the taking of the government. On the one hand, as expressed recently in a declaration by the IWL-FI, “we believe that the work now is to join the masses in Afghanistan, particularly the women and oppressed masses, in a struggle against the dictatorship.” For that reason, we defend and support the incipient mobilizations of women in defense of their rights that began in Kabul. On the other hand, we demand that the Taliban continue its struggle against imperialism, which, as all historical experience has shown (including with the Taliban) that if it remains limited to one country whose leaders choose to enclose themselves within their own national borders (particularly one like Afghanistan) it will be condemned to capitulating to imperialist interests.
The original Spanish-language version of this article can be found here.
- See Marxismo Vivo n.o 4, San Pablo, Brazil, December 2020.
- See Carl von Clausewitz, On War, t. I, art. I, chp. I, sec XXIV.
- See, among other versions, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/09/liberation.htm
- See Marxismo Vivo no 4, San Pablo, Brazil December 2001
- See https://litci.org/es/ta-thu-thau-lider-trotskista-vietnamita/
- TROTSKY, León. “La lucha contra el derrotismo en España”, Escritos, 14/9/1937.
- TROTSKY, León. La revolución española, T. II, p. 104.
- See: https://litci.org/es/la-reaccion-democratica-del-sindrome-de-vietnam-al-sindrome-de-irak/
- On the situation in 2009, we recommend the articles written by Bernardo Cerdeira, “Medio Oriente. Un nuevo e inmenso Vietnam para el imperialismo”. Publicados en la revista Marxismo Vivo n.o 22 (diciembre de 2009).
- See the dossier published on the website https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react-the-taliban-has-taken-kabul-now-what/
- See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/imbecilic-ex-uk-leader-tony-blair-slams-afghan-withdrawal/2021/08/22/36a029b0-0336-11ec-b3c4-c462b1edcfc8_story.html and for the El País article see https://elpais.com/internacional/2021-08-22/las-criticas-por-la-gestion-de-la-retirada-de-afganistan-acorralan-al-presidente-biden.html
- See https://www.terra.com.br/noticias/mundo/riqueza-mineral-do-afeganistao-pode-dar-ao-taleba-trilhoes-de-dolares-da-luta-contra-o-aquecimento-global,7339136a427860eb3d935496f8cd74f0jnvhlz47.html