Sunday, February 11, 2007

The ex-communism of fools.

Try, comrades and friends, to get into the mind of someone who could write a passage like this:

"Much is made, especially in recent days, of American militarism and belligerency: this is, the discourse of cowboy culture aside, a myth. No other major country has a record as cautious and restrained as the USA: it had to be dragged into World War in 1941, as it was dragged into Bosnia in 1995. The USA fought these wars in the 1990s – in Kuwait in 1991, Bosnia 1995, Kosovo 1999 – all in response to aggression against Muslim peoples."


These are not the words of a fool, at least not a complete fool. It only seems that way if you try to read the above as a serious argument, which it is not: it is a carefully constructed collage. It is a re-imagining of 20th Century history, clearly far from innovative but certainly meticulous in what it omits and includes. The most significant ommissions are of course the forty-five years between the end of WWII and the end of the Soviet Union, that period in which the author of this passage has nothing positive at all to say about US foreign policy and certainly perceives no restraint there. Others include the casual distortions that one was forced to make since 1990 if one wished to make the shift of loyalties from the Kremlin to the White House, and these needn't be rehearsed here.

The author of the above, published in 2002, is Fred Halliday, whose recent piece for Dissent sets feathers to the heels of his fantasy-life. With the expected didactic audacity and flair, he begins his piece by inviting us to 'leave aside' the "widespread, if usually unarticulated, sympathy for the attacks of September 11, 2001, justified on the grounds that 'the Americans deserved it'". If such sympathy was unarticulated, how does Halliday know it existed? How widespread was it, and where did it appear with the claim that 'the Americans deserved it'? But that devious aside aside, Halliday's thesis is the same one that he offered some months ago for Anthony Barnett's Open Democracy website. You can read the original article here, a riposte here and Halliday's reply here. I think the least that can be said about the latter is that Halliday is evasive: having launched a very aggressive polemic against the left (which included the greasy formulation in which the left sees "some combination of al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah, Hamas, and (not least) Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as exemplifying a new form of international anti-imperialism") he is suddenly rather coy, avoiding the most telling criticisms while adressing others less than adequately and with more than a hint of smug piety.

His latest is an updated version of the Open Democracy piece. The same instances of shocking Left-Islamist complicity and overlap are cited: Chavez in Tehran; Livingstone meeting Qaradawi; left-wingers denying Israel's legitimacy; a Basque militant raising the flag of Hezbollah. And so on and on, proof of the "international united front" being formed. What to say about this? On the one hand, an overlap with anyone else's ideological programme is not necessarily more than that. Solidarity with the Lebanese resistance in circumstances demanding it is quite a different affair. Chavez looking for friendly business relations with states that are hostile to the one which has recently tried to have him overthrown is, again, a different matter. And a bourgeois politician meeting a Muslim leader for talks is something different again. None of this quite adds up to the filthy plot that Halliday evokes.

On the other hand, for those who think that the left can make tactical alliances with Islamists, Halliday proposes some 20th Century lessons. These have to do with the historic combat between "communism and socialism, on the one side, and Islamism and organized Islam, on the other." Central for Halliday, without question, is what happened to the Soviet occupation that sought to prop up the PDPA in Afghanistan. He has lamented the critical stance toward that occupation adopted by his former colleagues on many occasions. The other instances raised are presumably more than familiar to most of his former comrades: the Saudi monarch's hostility to the left and its organisation under American tutelage of the forces of reaction; the various uses made of the petit-bourgeois Muslim Brothers in Egypt; Israel's encouragement of Islamist opposition to Fatah; Khomeini's fatwa against Rushdie; the killing if Naguib Mahfouz; the anti-socialism of the NIF in Sudan; the persecution of the left in the early years of the Iranian Revolution. Thus, the world-historic opposition between the left and the forces of Political Islam as adumbrated by Fred Halliday.

The left, then, by allying with Islamists to whatever extent and in whatever form, is making a mistake. There are a few problems with this picture. The first is that Halliday appears to have forgotten a deeper and more unambiguous conflict between imperialism and the left, one that was embodied in Russian Revolution. The second, which compounds the first, is that Halliday's range of examples by no means exhausts the complex interaction between the left and Political Islam in the 20th Century. I'll come back to this in a moment. The third is that Halliday repeats several claims whose rebuke he is already well aware of. For instance, he once again cites Franco's recruitment of Moroccan mercenaries to fight the Spanish Republic, but not the hundreds of thousands of north African troops recruited by the Allies who were instrumental in defeating fascism. Nor does he mention that Franco was able to recruit in Morrocco only after the colonial subordination of that country during which the generalissimo learned the techniques of 'pacification' that he would bring to Spain. Nor does he acknowledge that it was the colonial policies of both French and Spanish forces against the Islamic liberation leader Abd el-Krim and his guerilla forces that ensured that Morrocco would become the source of fighters. Krim was caught by French forces led by Marshall Petain (anyone recognise that name?) and imprisoned. The Popular Front government in France did not care to release him or the colonies, and the Popular Front in Spain did not fight for his release, even though he pledged to fight against Franco. To put it another way, a great Muslim anti-imperialist fighter (whose successful tactics would inspire Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara) had offered to be an anti-fascist as well. As a consequence, both Spain and France would be lost for years to fascist rule. The European social-democrats had stabbed themselves in the front.

Halliday's argument is also marred by the apologetic attitude to Stalinism which has always distinguished him, from his enthusiastic support for the pro-Russian parties in the Middle East to his covering for the PDPA in Afghanistan and the Derg's coup in Ethiopia. So, for example, he writes of "widespread religious and tribal opposition in Central Asia" that the Bolsheviks experienced in the 1920s and 1930s, and their attempt to "destroy the social bases of organized religion, above all by emancipating women" in response. Not for the first time, a theorist noted for his insistence on making distinctions here elides them even though he knows better. These are described by Dave Crouch here and of note is the difference between the early experimental attitude of the Bolsheviks when they sought to gain the trust of Muslims who had lost out to Russian imperialism, and the later repressive, centralising tendencies under Stalin (described in Moshe Lewin's The Soviet Century). It is true, for instance, that the First All-Russian Congress of Muslims agreed on political emancipation for women, but the idea that the puritanical abortion-banning Stalinist bureacracy that later emerged pursued female emancipation is utterly, utterly absurd. And it was under the hostile fire of the Stalinist regime (with its preposterous crusade against the veil), not under the conciliatory (and actually rather effective) policies of the Bolsheviks, that the revolts began.

We inevitably return to Afghanistan. Halliday writes: "Those who backed the Afghan Islamists in the 1980s seem to have been totally insouciant as to the later consequences of their actions. Yet the Afghan War was to the world of the twenty-first century what the Spanish Civil War was to the Second World War—the devil’s kitchen in which all the brews that later poisoned the globe were first prepared." Halliday elsewhere includes not only the CIA but Tariq Ali among those supporting the forces of 'reaction' in Afghanistan. He also explicates the ideological propinquities involved in supporting Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan and supporting American ones in Iraq, since in both cases the resistance is treated indiscriminately as a force of reaction. Some people, like Tariq Ali but also the SWP, had a different attitude to the Russian occupiers, the mujahadeen and later the Taliban. Making no concessions to Brzezinksi's puppets, Jonathan Neale rightly noted that the CIA-ISI opium warlords did not define, control or represent the indigenous resistance to the occupation. He also noted that the Russian occupiers were not even there to save the regime that issued from the 1978 revolt by a radical section of the state machine, but to impose a 'moderate' puppet regime on Afghanistan. The "devil's kitchen" in Afghanistan included not only American imperialism, but also Russian imperialism, a colonial policy cooked up by the decrepit inner circle of Brehznev's dying regime. This bitter inter-imperialist rivalry tore Afghanistan apart and saw over a million people killed. To have supported either power was as grotesque a mistake as it is to now support Washington in Baghdad, at the cost almost three quarters of a million Iraqis.

Yet it is his utter blindness to the possibilities of legitimate indigenous resistance that distinguishes Halliday, especially now in his explicit Warrenite phase. In their rebuttal of Halliday, Fouzi Slisli and Jacqueline Kaye refer to Halliday's outright refusal to grant anticolonial forces any legitimacy except that conferred on them by the ideological roots they find in Europe. Muslim freedom fighters are only legitimate to the extent that they are seen as pursuing a western-inspired project. Halliday sees "Muslims as raw material for the Soviets' modernisation project". It is no accident that Halliday's revisionism about the American empire followed so closely from his catastrophic disappointment over the collapse of the Russian empire. Have a look at the passage from 2002 again: whether in Yugoslavia, Iraq or Afghanistan, Muslims are so much raw material for what Halliday sees as America's modernising project. A Sivanandan has castigated the "racial arrogance" of Warren and much of the European left. "Where in colonial capitalism," he demanded to know, "was there even a suggestion of political democracy except at its end? When did the colonies ever enjoy 'the moral and cultural standards' of capitalism: 'equality, justice, generosity, independence of spirit and mind, the spirit of inquiry and adventure, opposition to cruelty, not to mention political democracy'?"

The slogan used to be Neither Washington Nor Moscow. Halliday's career suggests a different slogan: First Moscow, Then Washington.