Afghanistan, the left and the "third camp"

Submitted by martin on 31 August, 2021 - 5:07 Author: Martin Thomas
Third Camp

In conflicts between big powers like the USA, and reactionary forces which conflict with those big powers without to any degree fighting for national-liberation or democracy, socialists must support neither side. We instead fight for the "third camp" of the working class and the oppressed, against both the big powers and forces like the Taliban, even if that "third camp" is at present weak and undeveloped.

Workers' Liberty has long argued that way. Most other groups on the British left have disagreed. In 2001 some explicitly advocated siding with the Taliban ("anti-imperialist united front", they said). The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) long "refused to condemn" the Al Qaeda attack on New York and Washington of "9/11". It decried explicit pro-Taliban slogans as inopportune and off-putting, but said their basic idea was right. Few argued as we did for denouncing the terrorist-Islamism of the Taliban as sharply as the militarism of the USA.

In some recent conflicts, more of the left edged towards a "third camp" view. No-one hailed Daesh taking Mosul in 2014 as a "blow against imperialism". Few have celebrated Assad's victory in Syria against forces backed (erratically) by the USA.

But now Socialist Worker hailed the Taliban victory as "a colossal defeat for British and US imperialism", and The Socialist similarly as "a devastating blow to the US and Western imperialism".

Socialist Worker adds that the Taliban will impose a "brutal, suffocating, and reactionary regime"; The Socialist, that it will bring "nothing remotely progressive". But they headlined the joy about the "defeat of imperialism", and made the reservations about the Taliban secondary.

Socialist Worker had the front-page headline "Twenty years of horror", indicating that the PDPA-Islamist civil war in Afghanistan 1978-9; the Russia-Islamist war there 1979-89; the Islamist war to overthrow the rump Stalinist regime followed by intra-Islamist war 1989-96; the Taliban regime 1996-2001; and the coming years of renewed Taliban rule were or will be less horrible.

It also had a good front-page strapline, "Open the borders to all the refugees". The strapline is relevant because conditions are now getting more horrible in Afghanistan.

Socialist Worker opposed all thought of extending the Kabul airport evacuation beyond 31 August. The negative principle of getting troops out even a few days earlier, even from an operation to evacuate civilians, overshadows the positive principle of solidarity with the Afghan opponents of the Taliban.

Socialist Worker tries to square its circle by describing the Taliban as "terror that the US made".

This is a reference to the US jockeying with Afghan Islamist groups during Russia’s war in 1979-89, in order to sap the USSR, and to find some group or coalition it could do business with afterwards. But the war “made” those Islamist groups. US financial aid, directly or via Pakistan, was secondary.

Blandly to hail "blows against imperialism" means reducing socialist thought to negativism, depriving it of its essence as the positive advocacy of something better. "Blows against imperialism" are good only if they are blows for something better.

When in 1988-9 Russia was defeated by scrappy Islamist militias,that was a "blow against imperialism" in the sense that it closed the door on a drive by Russia to establish more-or-less colonial control in Afghanistan, and broke the will of the USSR military to try to suppress the democracy movements in Eastern Europe in 1989.

If in 2001 the Taliban had defeated the operation mounted against it by the Northern Alliance with US help, arguably that would have forestalled the later US invasion of Iraq. But then that "blow against imperialism" was only one element, and a speculative one, which could not be allowed to blot out the immediate import of a Taliban victory for the life and rights of the peoples of Afghanistan.

There is a smaller "blow against imperialism" element now. The USA's rulers dropped the "neo-conservatives'" triumphalism of 2003 long ago. Trump and Biden have calculated that extricating the USA from a war which it hadn't bargained for will improve its capacity to act elsewhere. The Taliban victory will embolden terrorist-fundamentalist types elsewhere, but gives no boost to socialist or democratic anti-imperialists.

The "Heterodox Trotskyists" established the principle of a "third camp" in the 1940s and 50s as one of opposition both to the USA and the USSR (and, rightly, combined it with explaining also that the Stalinist USSR was worse, for working-class development, than US-type capitalism).

In those days, colonial empires or semi-colonial spheres of influence still covered much of the world. By the 1940s, and for decades after, popular nationalist movements of one stripe or another had emerged in almost all the colonies and semi-colonies. A clash between a big power and the local forces would almost certainly be between imperial force, aiming to sustain some degree of imperial control, and some measure or degree of national liberation. Socialists took sides with those liberation movements, even under bourgeois leadership. "Anti-imperialism" was shorthand for support for national emancipation.

The Europe-centred colonial empires were overthrown by 1974-5, when Portugal's colonies won independence. Fifteen or so years later, Russia's empire in Eastern Europe was overthrown. There are still struggles for national liberation. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq still deny the Kurds independence; China denies rights to the Tibetans and the Uyghurs; Morocco dominates Western Sahara; Israel occupies the West Bank and (with Egypt) blockades Gaza. But for the last 30 years or so the world has been mostly an "empire of capital" rather than of colonialism or semi-colonialism.

We now have imperialism in the sense of economic domination by the big centres of capital. And we have varieties of "reactionary anti-imperialism", in the sense of local movements in conflict with those big centres but seeking local hegemonies even more brutal than the "dull compulsion" of global economic relations. The "third camp" idea becomes urgent in a new way.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.