Imperialism in light of the Afghan war

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #28, January 2002)


Unending war
Ever-increasing military spending
Seeking world domination -- via unilateralism or multilateralism
The UN -- no alternative to imperialism
Imperialist power politics
Fighting over world resources
The Unocal gas pipeline
The tendency towards reaction
Anti-imperialism, real and sham
Terrorism and imperialism

. War is once again on the international agenda. Now it's no longer a matter of tragedies in Africa or in East Timor, involving millions of people but treated by the American news as something affecting only faraway peoples. Now the Bush administration has declared that there will be a series of military adventures "against terrorism", of which the Afghan war is only the first. Moreover, the announced US withdrawal from the 1972 ABM arms control treaty raises the possibility of a new arms race centering on ballistic missiles and anti-missile systems. All this sheds a new light on the question of imperialism. Are all these events mere accidents or the consequences of some bad mistakes by a few evil men, or are they the result of an international system which can't live without wars and crises?

. The ruling bourgeoisie likes to present imperialism as an unfortunate episode that is long past. Most of the colonies are independent; the cold war that split the world into two hostile blocs is over; so supposedly capitalism has become civilized. They pretend that, aside from a few rogue states, the capitalists are simply reasonable people seeking the best way to increase trade, development, and progress. If some countries are desperately poor or powerless, this is allegedly due merely to some transient historical legacy, but supposedly everyone is united in a common quest for justice and development. The days when the world was run on the basis of the rich raping the poor are supposedly over.

. So fashionable books such as Negri and Hardt's Empire deny the Leninist theory of imperialism. Negri and Hardt say that the "combination of national and supranational organisms united under a single rule of logic" is what they call "empire". But, they insist, "By 'Empire,' however, we understand something altogether different from 'imperialism. '"(1) True, America is "privileged" in this empire, and carries out incessant military action, yet supposedly neither the US nor any other country is an imperialist great power like in the old days. Instead Negri and Hardt see a global civil society and constitutionalism, if also corruption, pervading this "Empire".

. But the continued domination of weak countries by the strong shows that imperialism still exists. Every meeting of the world economic agencies shows the wealthy industrial countries turning the screws on the poorer countries. Nor is today's imperialism merely economic. The war on Afghanistan is but the latest of a series of military adventures that show that not only does imperialism still exist, but its addiction to war still exists. The international alignments have changed in the more than a century of imperialist rivalry; the products and means of producing them have changed, and so have the weapons of war. But the class basis of imperialism has remained. The division of society between a laboring majority and a privileged elite, under conditions of monopoly capitalism, still results in the division of the world between rich and poor countries as well as between the rich and poor inside each country. It still results in the partitioning of the world by powerful countries and economic monopolies. And the rich and powerful countries, such as the US superpower, still dominate and exploit the poor and weak ones.


. One of the features of the old imperialisxm was continual wars of domination. As Lenin wrote in 1919, describing "the epoch of imperialism", "the inevitable outcome of this is imperialist wars". (2) And today? Now we see that Bush has declared that the "war on terrorism" is not a matter of a single military campaign, and that it will not end with the conclusion of the war on Afghanistan. This is not just a matter of "war" as a metaphor. This is real war. Already there is speculation on which country is to be attacked next: Somalia? Sudan? Yemen? Iraq? And there is worry about the possibility of additional wars, not desired by the US, that may nevertheless be triggered by the "war on terrorism", such as a possible war between the two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.

. Putting Bush's actions aside for the time being, it is hard to find a year since World War II when there has not been one country or another at war. The hot wars were not directly between the great powers themselves, but between large powers and small countries, or wars between small countries where the large powers acted by proxy. (3) While the two imperialist superpowers, the Soviet Union and the US, avoided an all-out clash, the threat of global nuclear war hung over the world, and the gloomy doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" expressed the type of "peace" that prevailed. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of total nuclear war has receded, but peace has not come. Wars and interventions continue to play a major role in world politics.

. As for the US, since the end of the Cold War it has fought the Gulf war, the Kosovo war, and now the war in Afghanistan. Aside from these major engagements, it has continued military intervention in Latin America (often under the banner of the "war on drugs"), carried out continual hostile flights around the border of China, and maintained military bases all around the world. Bush's declaration of a long "war on terrorism" thus carries on a long tradition.

Ever-increasing military spending

. But the intent of the "war on terrorism" isn't just to wage more wars, but also to militarize the national life in general. One of the main goals is to increase the military budget and to spur spending on new weapons of all sorts.

. In fact, US military spending is already at sky-high levels. Yale historian Paul Kennedy estimates that the US alone accounts for 36% of the world's military spending, more than the total of the next nine largest spenders. (4) This huge spending both enriches a relative handful of defense contractors and provides US imperialism with the killing machine needed to enforce its military hegemony over the world.

. But the military spending of other countries, while small compared to that of the US, is a major burden on them. In fact, military spending remains a major item of the imperialist world economy. Armaments are one of America's major exports. A huge amount of oil wealth goes to the arms merchants, as rich oil countries arm to the teeth. Indeed, one of the main ways that the "petrodollars" that accumulate in the Arab oil countries allied to the US are recirculated back to the US is as inflated payment for military hardware from the US, including charges for service contracts on the weapons and for high salaries for American technical personnel. For example, in the years since the Gulf War, Saudi Arabian income fell as oil prices dropped, but the burden of armaments remained. This is one of a number of mass grievances among Saudis, and it not only undermines the Saudi regime, but inspires hatred for US imperialism.

. Moreover, the arms merchants feed not just on oil regimes, but on countries of all types -- each war, each international tension, each reactionary regime arming itself against its own people, provides more grist to their mill. Thus even when countries aren't at war, the military budgets remain a heavy burden on the masses of poorer countries, providing a hefty income to arms-exporting countries while propping up the exploiting classes against the local working masses.


. In his presidential debates with Gore, then-candidate Bush vowed that he would carry out a foreign policy of "humility". Once he was in office, "humility" flew out the window, and Bush has put forward a policy of "unilateralism", whereby US imperialism will recognize no limit on its power of decision. Bush will "consult" with other countries, but only to tell them what the US is going to do anyway. Bush has withdrawn the US from one international obligation after another, on the plea that the US should not have its hands bound. For example:

. * In mid-December the Bush administration announced that it would soon give the required six months notice for withdrawing from the 1972 ABM arms-control treaty. Instead the Bush administration seeks to build a star-wars anti-missile system which will supposedly protect the US from ballistic missiles launched by "rogue" countries. The Bush administration never obtained agreement from Russia for changes in this treaty, so it is acting unilaterally. This might create a new arms-race, as China may decide it needs enough missiles to overcome any proposed American missile defense, in which case India may react to China's increase in weapons, Pakistan to India's, and the US to that of all of the other countries, and so on. But then again, the Bush administration would regard this as an additional plus: it would allow it to seek a still larger military budget.

. * Also in mid-December, the Bush administration sabotaged a conference seeking to prevent germ warfare. This conference was seeking to strengthen the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention by providing for on-site inspection to ensure that countries weren't preparing for biological warfare. But the Bush administration is opposed to any inspections that would take place on US soil. The US is willing to impose heavy sanctions on other countries, like Iraq, that seek to evade inspection, but wants its hands free to develop its own germ warfare capability. Such capability in US hands is called "defensive", while it is regarded as "terrorism" in other countries' hands. But US "defensive" research includes studying how to create and disperse toxic germs, on the plea that it is impossible to learn how to defend against germ warfare weapons without first creating these weapons.

. * At the beginning of his presidency, Bush denounced the efforts to give life to the Kyoto treaty on global warming (which the US had never ratified). He insisted that the weak and developing countries should bear the brunt of environmental regulations, and backed away even from the weak measures being taken by the Western European powers. In fact, Congress wouldn't back any serious environmental measures even under the Clinton administration, which had all but given up on them and had instead begun proposing various sham substitutes to the Europeans. Today, what was the shame of the Clinton administration has become the proud banner of Bush's.

. * The Bush administration, while building a coalition for the Afghan war, sought to prevent any other country from having a say over how the war would be conducted. In general, the "war on terrorism" is a policy of resurgent imperialism, whereby the US seeks to settle a series of foreign policy problems by direct military means. The US is to decide, and then other countries are to ratify these decisions and help the US carry out its military plans.

. This policy isn't all that different from what the US has been doing all along. The Bush administration will not jettison international agencies, and it will have to build coalitions for various of its foreign adventures, as it has had to build a coalition for Afghanistan. But the Bush administration is trying to adjust the role of international agencies and coalitions, and to highlight the hegemony of the US. It is seeking to ensure that these agencies remember their place as a chorus to back US actions. The Bush administration is asserting, in effect, that international treaties and organizations are there to restrict the other guy, not to tie the hands of US imperialism.

. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was left as the dominant country in the world, the world's only superpower. Yet the economic base of the "Pax Americana" is slowly slipping away, as the economies of other major powers grow. Right after World War II, with much of the rest of the world in ruins, the US was as great an industrial power as the rest of the world combined. Today, while the US economy is immensely larger than it was half a century ago, and is still the single biggest and most powerful economy in the world, other gigantic economies have grown up as well. For this and other reasons, US world supremacy can't last forever. The other traditional imperialist powers--and even some newly developing powers--seek to maintain and expand their own spheres of influence, and they are pushing in the direction of a "multipolar world".

. Yet the US bourgeoisie isn't voluntarily going to give up its privileged position as the world's chief exploiting class any more than any other great power has ever abandoned its drive for domination. US policy has to been to use its military advantage to shore up its world domination. This helps explain the truly gigantic US military machine, and the lack of any substantial "peace dividend" after the end of the Cold War. The "unilateralist" policy is to make more direct use of American military and economic strength to crush any irritants. The advocates of unilateralism see the "multilateralist" policy of alliances, not as a way to maintain US hegemony in an altered situation, but a surrender of US prerogatives. They threaten to push US domination to an absurd extreme, even as the basis for that domination slips away.

. In fact, US policy has vacillated back and forth between unilateralism and multilateralism throughout the post-World War II period. These policies are two aspects of US imperialism, intertwined with each other, with sometimes one or the other coming to the fore. The multilateralist policy has encouraged the illusion that US imperialism will gradually cede its authority to a just and democratic world authority. Supposedly wars and power struggles will be replaced by debates in the UN and enforcement of decisions via impartial world courts. When unilateralism comes to the fore, the naked power relations of imperialism tend to stand out a bit more. The US can neither dispense with either multilateralism or unilateralism, nor permanently combine them harmoniously.

. Thus the unilateralism of the Bush administration is another sign of the inevitable tensions in great power relations that lie ahead. US imperialism is using militarism and the "war on terrorism" as a way of maintaining its predominant position, and it will fight to the end to maintain this position. So long as world capitalism exists, the relative strengths of the great powers will constantly be changing, and this will result in tensions and struggles to redivide the spheres of influence in the world and revise the leadership of capitalist world.

. But how long it will be before the economic shifts in the world are reflected in a major undermining of US hegemony or other major political changes isn't clear. The other great powers also have their own troubles. In the final analysis, the US won the Cold War with the Soviet Union mainly through its economic strength, and the collapse, after a long period of stagnation, of the Soviet economy. Meanwhile the Japanese economy, a strong rival of the US economy, went into a long depression throughout the 90s, from which it still hasn't emerged. The economic power of other rivals also faces major question marks. Moreover, many US "unilateral" actions are heartily welcomed by a good many other bourgeoisies, who see the US as doing the dirty work which they themselves could not do. Each time US imperialism dodges the bullet and survives another crisis, each time unilateralism appears to be successful, the American bourgeoisie will be more convinced that its supremacy will last forever and more convinced of the wisdom of forcefully maintaining, indeed extending, this hegemony. This is the state of mind of the Bush administration. This is the state of mind underlying the "war on terrorism".

. Thus most likely, a major shift in power relations will only take place against the background of a series of spectacular failures of the US-led world order, whether deep and prolonged depression, unparalleled environmental disasters, major foreign policy fiascoes, and/or unsuccessful wars, large or small. What is certain is that world capitalism means a constant series of tensions and clashes, large or small. The unilateralist policy shows that such imperialist tensions still exist.

. Socialist revolution is another way that US global hegemony might be ended. Revolutions in other countries would establish a true alternative, not just to American imperialism, but to the imperialism of all major powers and the exploitation of the different bourgeoisies everywhere. And a revolution by the American working class would convert the US economy from a burden on the working people of the whole world to a source of hope and progress for all. But at the present time the working class movement is disorganized and in theoretical crisis all over the world. The immediate task facing militant workers everywhere is building up an independent movement of the working class, and thus not only defending their immediate conditions but preparing for the development of the revolutionary movement in the future. To do so, the workers must be hostile to imperialist policies of all shades, multilateralist or unilateralist. It will be some time before a renewed mass Marxist workers' movement is built up and becomes a factor in world politics. This will require many struggles, as well as clearing away the remnants of the sham communist (read: state-capitalist) movements of the past. But the world will never emerge from this or that form of the imperialist horror until the working masses themselves push the bourgeoisie off the stage of history.

The UN -- no alternative to imperialism

. What is an example of multilateralist imperialist policy? It is reflected in the building, and giving of a certain authority to, capitalist "world" institutions. One example is the UN. It trumpets itself as the unity of all countries on behalf of lofty goals. In fact, it is an organization not of the peoples of the world, but of their exploiting governments. At times it passes resolutions differing from the current US policy, but it remains within the imperialist orbit. In the way it is organized, and financed, it is dominated by the imperialist powers, and in large part by US imperialism.

. Some of the agitation against the Afghan war contrasts Bush's policy with the UN. It is claimed that the Afghan war is illegal and violates the UN Charter and the two UN resolutions on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (resolution 1368 of Sept. 12 and resolution 1373 of Sept. 28). It is said that the war would have had to be authorized by the Security Council, or it is claimed that the two General Assembly resolutions were really just talking about suppressing terrorism inside a country's own borders and didn't authorize attacking another country. There may also be a good deal of talk about what type of "self-defense" is authorized by the UN Charter. But as far as the UN itself is concerned, its resolutions authorized the Afghan war and were in line with its Charter, and it has done a great deal to facilitate this war. In fact, the UN has been particularly enthusiastic about the Afghan war.

. In short, those who expect the UN to stand against imperialism look not at what it actually is, but at what they would like it to be; they are not looking at what the UN Charter really means, but what they would like it to mean. They are substituting arguments over the definition of words for a scientific consideration of the class balance of forces in the world. They believe the same governments that they might recognize individually as imperialist, become civilized representatives of humanity when taken collectively. And in some cases, belief in the UN represents illusions in such big powers as Russia and China or even France and Britain.

. In reality, the UN and the International Court of Justice and similar institutions are no more an alternative to imperialism than are other world agencies such as the WTO. The UN is mainly a part of the political side of the world imperialist order, while the WTO, IMF and World Bank are parts of its system of global economic regulation. In the WTO, and the various rounds of world trade negotiations, every country supposedly has a voice, just as they do in the UN, but in fact the poor countries are at the mercy of the rich. And if the UN is addicted to lofty--and empty--platitudes on every subject under the sun, from child exploitation to women's rights, so the World Bank and the IMF have long learned to speak the language of do-gooders, and to present all their austerity plans to squeeze the masses to repay bankers, all their privatization plans to eliminate all public services so as to further enrich a few multinational corporations, as really plans to ensure future development and thus provide better service to the poor.

. The UN is not just promoted by various reformist groups, but by some groups that regard themselves as anti-imperialist. The Trotskyist Workers World Party, for example, promotes every UN resolution that favors one of their causes, while lamenting those that they believe reflect US influence. They do a good deal of their work through the "International Action Center", which has a similar policy with respect to the UN. This amounts in practice to promoting hopes in the UN. The fact that they are critical of certain UN resolutions by no means distinguishes them from non-Marxist reformists who are hopeful about the UN, because such reformists are also aware that the UN undertakes many objectionable actions. In fact, such hopes reflect illusions in what can be expected of various bourgeois governments. Many reformists look towards various of the European imperialist powers, while the WWP is not only fond of governments with a sham socialist veneer, such as Cuba and China, but zealously campaigns in favor of such blood-stained tyrants as Serbia's former ruler Milosevic. The WWP regards itself as the greatest anti-imperialist on the left, because it may defend any government, no matter how reactionary, when it has a contradiction with US imperialism. It never occurs to them that the only consistent opposition to imperialism is that based on support for the working class against all the exploitative governments in the world. It never occurs to them that their enthusiasm for certain UN resolutions reveals hopes, not in the proletariat, but in the bourgeoisie.

. World imperialist policy may put more or less emphasis on the UN and other international agencies. This depends on which groupings of imperialists become more powerful, as well as what types of economic challenges the world economy faces. In opposing Bush's military unilateralism, the working class cannot afford to put its trust in multilateralism, which reflects the consensus, not of the working people of the world, but of the exploiting governments of the world.


. The US may be the most powerful imperialist country, but nevertheless it does not, and cannot, determine everything that goes on in the world. Even a unilateralist like Bush has to build alliances to carry out military actions. To attack the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a country devastated by 20 years of war and not fully unified under a single government, Bush had to build a coalition, albeit one in which the US made all the key decisions by itself. But, Bush's talk of good versus evil aside, this coalition wasn't based on morality, democracy, women's rights, anti-terrorism, or any principle other than going along with the US policy of the moment.

. Let's look at some of the members of this coalition. Such countries as Saudi Arabia and forces such as the Northern Alliance are barely distinguishable from the Taliban with regard to women's rights. Pakistan had backed the Taliban until now because, among other things, the Taliban allowed them to establish camps in Afghanistan to train fundamentalist terror squads to be sent into the part of Kashmir that is located in India. (5) Neither Pakistan nor the Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan could really be described as democracies; indeed, Pakistan's leader General Musharaf had come to power in a military coup on October 12, 1999. The Afghan war coalition is simply a coalition of thieves, based on adherence to the US policy objective of the moment, whether through common interest or bribery or simply a concern to side with the winner.

. This is the way the US government makes alliances. It is based not on morality and considerations of good and evil, as Bush claims, but on power politics and profitability. The US bourgeoisie may attracts allies who have a similar interest in plundering the same part of the world. It also uses pressure on governments who resist and bribery for compliant governments. Sometimes there are shifting alliances that appear as plain old balance of power politics. For example, in the long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the US government was officially neutral. Yet, behind the scenes, at various times it provides arms and intelligence information to both sides. It thus helped prolong the war and bleed both sides. In this way, it hoped to ensure that neither Iran nor Iraq would be strong enough to threaten US influence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

. The result is that many US alliances change from moment to moment, and US allies of today may be US enemies of tomorrow. The Afghan war coalition is itself evidence that cynical imperialist power politics still characterizes world politics. The enemies of yesterday, including Russia, are the friends of today, while the friends of yesterday are pursued as the war criminals of today.


. Of course, it is not just the US which may change horses in midstream, but the bourgeoisie and reactionary gangs of various countries may also decide to change sides. If US imperialism has "no permanent friends, only permanent interests," as the diplomats say, the same applies to its one-time allies. When the CIA aids a group or trend, only to find that it has fostered people who later strike back at the US, this is called "blowback". The attacks of Sept. 11 were blowback, and this was not some exceptional accident. It follows from the imperialist nature of US foreign policy. The pattern of imperialist alliances that the US has built up with fundamentalist regimes and movements in the Middle East and Asia account for this "blowback". The examples of this blowback abound:

. Bin Laden: Most dramatically, bin Laden and al-Qaeda are examples of "blowback". The CIA poured a huge amount of money into a "dirty war" in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and this went to financing extremist fundamentalist forces which came to dominate the resistance to the Soviet occupation. This war served as a training school for many fundamentalists that flocked to Afghanistan, the so-called "Arab Afghans", and that would later join al-Qaeda or otherwise take part in terrorism. Bin Laden himself was among the fundamentalists which the CIA smiled on. If the FBI were really investigating people with links to bin Laden, it wouldn't be engaging in mass repression of Islamic immigrants, but questioning CIA and diplomatic officials.

. Of course, the CIA pretends that it had no relation to bin Laden. In a letter to the Nation William Harlow, a public relations official for the CIA, writes that the CIA never paid or employed bin Laden. Replying to this, a Nation writer points out that they, in fact, funneled the money through Pakistan's secret service, the ISI, and were even involved in various of bin Laden's construction projects in Afghanistan. (6)

. Saudi Arabian fundamentalism: But the US alliance with reactionary fundamentalists is much broader than its one-time ties with bin Laden. The US is closely allied with the Saudi Arabia monarchy, which is one of the more extreme fundamentalist regimes in the world. A milestone in the development of these ties took place near the end of World War II, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw an opportunity to break into what might otherwise have continued to be a British sphere of influence. On February 14, 1945, liberal Democratic icon FDR met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on board the destroyer USS Quincy, and worked out a deal. The US wasn't interested in promoting democracy, but in getting oil concessions and guaranteeing the continuation of the fundamentalist regime. And, as time went on, the US government no doubt also saw the spread of fundamentalism as something useful in combating secular and nationalist movements and regimes in the Arab world. Indeed, the Saudi regime has been active in financing the spread of the Wahhabi trend of Islam and the development of extremist religious schools around the world. Today, however, a section of Saudi fundamentalists, including bin Laden, have turned critical of the Saudi monarchy and of the US itself, but still have connections with the Saudi ruling class. There have been a number of exposures that both the Clinton and Bush administrations have refrained from pushing the Saudi government too hard for cooperation concerning bin Laden for fear of jeopardizing US ties with Saudi Arabia, or even of destabilizing the Saudi regime. So not only does Sept. 11 appear in general as blowback from the long-standing US ties with Saudi reaction, but these ties have also directly hindered the US government's pursuit of bin Laden and investigation of al-Qaeda.

. Pakistani fundamentalism: The US government made extensive use of the Pakistani ISI, or secret service, as a conduit for financing the dirty war of the 80s in Afghanistan. In turn, the ISI and various Pakistani governments have not only backed fundamentalism in general, but have backed the development of fundamentalist terror in Kashmir and helped put the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. The Taliban was, in large part, the ISI's creation, and so not just bin Laden, but the Taliban represents a sort of blowback for US policy. The Bush administration had to give extensive rewards to the Pakistani government to have it break with the Taliban. These range from removing US sanctions imposed for Pakistan's detonation of nuclear weapons to a recent debt deal from the "Paris Club" of creditors to put off the repayment of Pakistani debt for decades. Meanwhile there is at least a possibility that the extreme fundamentalists in the ISI and the army may remove the present government and replace it with one more in the Taliban spirit.

. The Taliban: The US government was friendly to the Taliban itself for several years. This was partially to humor the Pakistani and Saudi governments, which were closely tied to the Taliban, and partly because it was thought that the Taliban might defeat all the other Afghan factions and create a stable situation in which energy pipelines might be built.

. Anthrax: The anthrax letters may turn out to be a very peculiar sort of blowback. The AMES strain of anthrax on these letters is produced only in US laboratories. It is a product of US germ warfare research, although of course it wasn't intended for use inside the US. Moreover, despite protracted efforts to pin blame for the anthrax terrorism on the US government's favorite foreign devils, such as Iraq, a number of law enforcement officials are now looking more and more for domestic perpetrators.


. Imperialism involves not just a political division of the world into spheres of influence, but an economic division of the world's economic resources, raw materials, and sources of cheap labor. It is possible that a war, or other imperialist intervention, is based directly on obtaining or monopolizing a certain resource by gaining the territory on which this resource resides. Thus, in order to build the Panama Canal, the US stripped Panama from Colombia. But often the direct motivation of imperialist wars is to obtain political domination of a region (such as spheres of influence, or the unseating of this or that government), or smash the power of rivals, and not any one resource in itself. Such domination will facilitate the seizure of economic resources by the winning bourgeoisie. Nevertheless the immediate issue on which the war is fought is which bourgeoisie will gain political domination and, thus, an increased ability to plunder resources in general. Thus World War I was fought not over any one resource, but over a general redivision of the world between the large imperialist blocs.

. The US government maintains that the Persian Gulf is an area of vital US interests, and that this justifies the US maintaining a major military presence there and fighting wars such as the Gulf war. This shows that the imperialist struggle for world resources remains a matter of the present. It is precisely the oil and gas of the Middle East that the US bourgeoisie sees as its vital concern. Thus the Gulf war was very much an oil war: the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein wanted Kuwaiti oil, while the US government not only opposed this, but believed that the takeover of Kuwait would upset the security of Saudi Arabia and of Gulf oil in general.

. The oil and gas of the Middle East also serves as a major motivating factor in the war in Afghanistan, albeit less directly. Bin Laden is concerned directly with driving the US military out of the Arab oil lands in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Aside from bin Laden's preoccupation with this issue, the general effect of the consolidation of a pan-Islamic bourgeoisie along the lines of bin Laden's fundamentalism would inevitably be to challenge US control over Middle Eastern oil. The overthrow of the Saudi regime, which controls about a fourth of world oil, would be a major event for world oil and gas markets. It would also upset the entire US system of alliances in the Middle East, thus causing further repercussions on world energy supplies.

. However, important as this is to US imperialism, it is not the only reason that the US went into Afghanistan. The series of attacks by al-Qaeda on US installations, climaxing in the Sept. 11 attack, was a direct challenge to US imperialism by a would-be rival bourgeoisie. US imperialism would respond to this in the bloody way it responds to all threats.

. Moreover, the Bush administration took bin Laden's attacks as a useful pretext for a policy of resurgent militarism, something which US imperialism has been contemplating for some time. It is part of a policy of settling accounts in blood with irritants around the world, stepping up a policy of military hegemony, and cracking down on domestic dissent. The Bush administration implemented the reactionary plans which it wanted to use anyway; and it stepped up its own use of the mass reprisals against civilians which it claims to be opposed to. One of the main motivations for the Afghan war is to serve as the kickoff for a global policy of resurgent imperialism.

The Unocal gas pipeline

. As we have seen, the Afghan war is part of the struggle over who will control world energy resources. But it has little to do either with the oil and gas inside Afghanistan itself, or with that which might be carried across Afghanistan by pipelines. It has been, in large part, a war over Middle Eastern oil fought on Afghan territory.

. Some commentators have held that the real source of the war lies in the desire of the US government to push forward the Unocal plan for a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan natural gas pipeline, or other oil and gas pipelines across Afghanistan. It is pointed out that there is a good deal of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea basin, such as in Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan that border Afghanistan (there actually is also some oil and gas in Afghanistan itself), and a major issue is how this oil and gas can be shipped out. Alternatively, it might be thought that Afghanistan would provide a convenient base for strengthening US influence in the Caspian basin region.

. There has, of course, been a lot of US imperialist maneuvering concerning the oil and gas of the Caspian region, and a lot of US interest in developing influence in the region's former Soviet republics that are now independent of Russia. But as far as Afghanistan itself, US imperialism lost most of its interest there once the Soviet Union had been forced out. The US became relatively indifferent to what happened next in Afghanistan, and willing to give a pretty free hand to Pakistan to pursue its goals. It wasn't until the issue arose of bin Laden using Afghanistan as a refuge while attacking US installations, that the US government began to get really interested again in Afghanistan.

. Meanwhile, insofar as the US maintained any interest in Afghanistan, oil and gas did play a role. Various US officials favored the Taliban in the hope that it would vanquish the various military factions and provide the stability in which the Unocal pipeline might be built. But this never became a major part of overall US planning for the Caspian region.

. Up to 1997, the US government promoted a multi-pipeline strategy, in the hope that the building of pipelines along several routes would prevent Russia or any other country from having a choke hold on Caspian oil and gas. The existing pipelines went through Russia, and then-president Yeltsin was heavy-handed in seeking extravagant prices for the use of these lines, and even at times brutally cutting off oil and gas altogether in order to pressure former Soviet republics. At the same time, as part of its general policy of isolating Iran, the US government was opposed to any pipeline that went from the other Caspian countries through Iran, although such a pipeline would provide an alternative to the Russian lines. By 1997 it was clear that US policy wasn't having much success in getting anything at all built, and the US government began promoting a particular pipeline proposal, the BTC plan for a pipeline from Baku (in Azerbaijan), through Tbilisi (Georgia), ending in the port of Ceyhan (Turkey). This was envisioned as the heart of an east-west corridor for moving oil and gas, which could be linked up with Turkmenistan through a pipeline under the Caspian Sea. This didn't rule out also building a pipeline through Afghanistan, but it meant that US government interest in the Unocal plan was limited.

. The Bush administration doesn't yet seem to have changed much in these priorities. So far, it also seems that it wishes to get out of Afghanistan as soon as the military campaign is over; it would prefer, as far as possible, to leave it to other powers and the UN to try to patch the country together again. This is consistent with the US government's lack of much interest in Afghanistan throughout most of the 90s. This doesn't mean that squabbles won't break out over Afghan pipelines and Afghan oil and gas in the future, whenever there is sufficient stability to allow energy development. But it suggests that these things haven't had much to do with the present war. This may partially reflect the many obstacles the building of an Afghan pipeline would presently face. (7)

. All this shows that the Bush administration is fighting a war in a country which it doesn't much care about. It not only doesn't care about how many Afghan civilian casualties it causes, it doesn't much care about the entire country. This is as condemning a picture of imperialist war as a war directly over Afghan oil and gas would be.


. Lenin pointed out that the imperialism of his time involved not only the struggle to crush rivals abroad, but to crush the democratic rights of the masses at home. It was reaction all along the line. He wrote in 1916 that in domestic politics as well as foreign affairs, "imperialism strives towards violations of democracy, towards reaction. "(8)

. If this meant that there would never be elections or any democratic rights in an imperialist power, it obviously wouldn't apply to the present (nor to the world of Lenin's time either, for that matter). The world would indeed have outgrown the theory of imperialism long ago. But Lenin was not denying the existence of bourgeois-democratic imperialist powers, but pointing to the instability of democratic rights under imperialism. And this is exactly what we see today. Bush's "war on terrorism" has shown that, with a stroke of the pen, the most cherished rights can be stripped from the population: from the right to private communications to the prohibition of preventive detention; from the right to confront one's accusers to the right to criticize government policy without fear of reprisal, and more. This is an example of the tendency under imperialism towards reaction: it shows how the results of years of mass struggle for rights can be negated in a crisis.

. It may have been thought that the country had come far from the days when Japanese-Americans could be rounded up and interned in World War II simply by virtue of their ethnic status. Today however there is mass questioning, arrests, and harassment of Islamic immigrants and Arabic-looking people. Over 1000 people were subject to secret arrest, and then the government stopped releasing comprehensive figures of the number arrested. Only a handful of those arrested have any possible connection to terrorism, so the Bush government--with the cooperation of the courts and judges--instituted heavy sentencing for minor offenses that would barely merited a slap on the wrist prior to Sept. 11. Bush has gone as far as to declare that military tribunals (actually kangaroo courts that don't even rise to the level of procedure of a court-martial) may be used to try non-citizens. Bush gave himself the right to decide personally how to proceed in the case of each individual accused person. whether to send them to the tribunal or not, no doubt according to political expediency and what is necessary to obtain conviction. Moreover, whenever necessary to avoid embarrassing the government, such as when the evidence is weak, secrecy will be permitted.

. Alongside the government repression, there has been an ongoing attempt to foster mass hysteria. The population is told over and over again to look for suspicious people and events. If there haven't been more examples of harassment of immigrants and Arabic-looking people, it is due to the resistance of the working masses to this incitement.

. The notable thing is how fast most politicians, Democrat or Republican, as well as almost the entire legal and police apparatus have gone along with these changes. A gigantic apparatus of repression has been built up under imperialism, ready for use in times of crisis. This apparatus was used against the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, various labor struggles, and now Bush is wielding it during the "war on terrorism", which becomes a war on the American working masses as well as a war on foreign rivals.

. The reactionary measures of Bush's the "war on terrorism" have met with imitation around the world, with Britain, Canada, India and other countries proposing and enacting new draconic laws which might be used to suppress demonstrations. Especially repressive governments have been encouraged by this new wave of "anti-terrorism" measures. They see it as justification and approval for their own bloody acts, from Russian brutality against Chechens and Israeli savagery in the occupied territories to Chinese executions of Islamic national minority activists in its border regions. They now feel that they can deflect criticism of their own military tribunals, arbitrary procedures, and brutal repression by referring to the Bush model.

. Repression in the name of anti-terrorism usually starts by striking a racist chord and coming down especially hard on minorities. Thus in the US, Bush is focusing on immigrants and racial profiling. This brings the inherent connection of racism and imperialism to the fore. But an attack on the rights of some working people is inevitably an attack on the rights of all working people. Once secret evidence, preventive detention, and police state measures against minorities are accepted as necessary to fight terrorism, they will then be ready for use in general.


. Leninism differs from other theories of imperialism in dealing consistently with the class basis of colonialism and imperialism and the struggle against it. It recognizes that various classes oppose the great powers for different reasons, and that not all of this opposition is progressive.

. Today there are some opportunist forces, such as certain trends of Trotskyism, that hold that any conflict with US imperialism is thereby progressive. The WWP, for example, believes that reactionary tyrants who have enslaved the working masses of their own country and inflicted grievous harm upon the working masses of neighboring countries, such as Milosevic of Serbia and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, are anti-imperialists because they came into conflict with US imperialism. It is somewhat more conflicted about the Taliban and bin Laden, because its past hatred of these forces was too intense and because some of its international friends condemn the Taliban. So the WWP still talks a bit about the reactionary history of the Taliban. Nevertheless, its paper Workers World holds that the Taliban is waging an anti-imperialist war, although being hindered in this by its "reactionary character". (9)

. Some "left" Trotskyist groups are much more zealous in openly backing the Taliban's military struggle, while the WWP mainly seeks to prevent the anti-war movement from condemning it. In general, the WWP stands only for the most general anti-war and anti-repression slogans. This more restrained stand of the WWP fits in with its subordination of the anti-war movement to liberals and reformists, as seen in its work with the "International Action Center". The liberals, and other forces the WWP wants to attract, may not agree with the WWP on the Taliban or even with a condemnation of "imperialism", but the WWP would reduce the movement as a whole to the use of slogans with which these forces will agree.

. The WWP is similarly opposed to having slogans condemning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at anti-war actions or coalitions. (10) WWP does say that these attacks are horrifying or devastating or tragic or misguided, and does express sympathy for the victims. Most people might think that this means that WWP condemns these attacks, especially as the WWP takes part in coalitions with people who do condemn these attacks and sometimes reprints their statements. But however tragic WWP might believe these attacks to be, it still sees them as somehow having an anti-imperialist character, and it holds that American activists should not oppose what the WWP sees as the anti-imperialist movement of a dependent country.

. Lenin, on the contrary, thought it was absolutely essential for communists to examine the different class currents in colonies and dependent countries. He had no reluctance to note the existence of reactionary trends anywhere in the world, and their relation to the class struggle. Thus Lenin, while stressing the need for socialist proletarians to support the bourgeois-democratic national-revolutionary movements against imperialism in oppressed countries, distinguished between these and various conflicts of the reactionary classes with stronger imperial powers. He wrote in 1920 about

"the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries" and "the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc. "(11)

. Indeed, Lenin noted that not just the reactionary and medieval elements, but the national bourgeoisie might be waging war on the oppressed masses. He wrote that

"There has been a certain rapprochement between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies, so that very often--perhaps even in most cases--the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries, while it does support the national movement, is in full accord with the imperialist bourgeoisie, i. e. , joins forces with it against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes. "(12)

. Thus he held that one had to examine the national movement concretely to see what the different forces were, and what their role was. Earlier, in 1915 during World War I, Lenin had also pointed to the importance of supporting various national revolts in the colonies, even though they were "bourgeois-progressive" and not proletarian revolts. He wrote out that,

in the "dependent countries", there had been "during the past decades a policy of rousing tens and hundreds of millions of people to a national life, of their liberation from the reactionary 'Great' Powers oppression. A war waged on such a historical basis can even today be a bourgeois progressive war of national liberation. " And it would be such, "irrespective of who would be the first to attack", the colonizer or the colonized. (13)

Here the support for the national uprising is based on an assessment that it continues a policy of rousing the masses to a new national life and opposing colonial oppression. True, Lenin didn't judge on the basis of who attacked first in the anti-colonial war, but this didn't mean that Lenin didn't make any assessment of what was going on, but that he made a serious assessment based on the key and important class factors, rather than making a superficial one. An assessment has to be made of what is taking place in the colonies. Thus there is a continuity from this to the C. I. debates of 1920, where Lenin strongly advocated the importance of the proletariat backing the anti-imperialist revolt, but pointed to the need for a concrete assessment of the different class forces in the movement. Leninism has nothing to do with the idea that, always and everywhere, any force in the national movement was automatically revolutionary, or objectively revolutionary, or even simply anti-imperialist.

. So when the WWP supports the military efforts of the Taliban (rather than condemning both imperialism and the Taliban), independent of the Taliban's relationship to the masses in Afghanistan or elsewhere, on the sole grounds that Afghanistan is a dependent country being attacked by a superpower, this is not Leninism, and certainly not any progressive kind of "anti-imperialism". Leninism would require one to assess what the Taliban stands for, what relation it has to the masses, what relation it has to the main bourgeois forces in the current world system of imperialism (which include the developing Islamic fundamentalist bourgeoisie), and so forth. Leninist anti-imperialism is as far as one can imagine from a simple mechanical rule--"the Taliban resides in Afghanistan, and has ended up in conflict with the US, therefore its military efforts, if not its miserable ultra-reactionary decrees, are anti-imperialist and deserve support". The WWP turns the anti-imperialist slogan into something ugly, that would enchain the masses to one or the other oppressor. The WWP abandons altogether the interests of the working masses of Afghanistan, as well as presenting the alternative to US imperialism as being something utterly repulsive. Lenin, on the contrary, held that there were antagonistic class trends even within a struggle for independence against colonial regimes.

. Since Lenin's time, most of the colonies have won independence. This hasn't ended the division between rich and poor countries, or between rich and poor inside each country. But it has changed the relations of the classes, and given more prominence to the class struggle. It has given an immense impulse to the development of the local bourgeoisies, and to the integration of the landowners with the bourgeoisie. The basis for the development of the fundamentalist movement has now become increasing bourgeois. The reactionary Saudi regime pays with its oil wealth for the spread of Wahhabist fundamentalism, and bin Laden represents a dissident wing of the Saudi bourgeoisie. Meanwhile the Taliban came to the power mainly on the basis of its support from the Pakistani bourgeoisie. In these conditions, the "anti-imperialism" of supporting such forces is that of backing one reactionary bourgeoisie against another.

. However, the fundamentalist trends gain support by playing on the grievances of the masses. They seek to influence the struggle for the right to self-determination in Chechnya, Palestine, Kosovo, and other places where a mainly Muslim population has suffered grievous repression. They also denounce the mass misery that exists under various regimes in Muslim areas where the anti-colonial struggle is over, and they provide a certain amount of welfare help to the poor. They denounce some of the crimes of US imperialism. This is important to bear in mind as to why these trends have gained some support among the masses. But the nature of these trends is reactionary. When would-be socialist trends ignore this nature, this is not real anti-imperialism but sham anti-imperialism.

. It is usual for one bourgeois power to denounce the imperialism of another. For example in World War II the Japanese fascists portrayed their own colonial empire as the means for the liberation of Asia from white colonialism. But a revolutionary anti-imperialist would have had to be a fool to take the catchwords of fascism as its real essence. Similarly, a famous aphorism from the late 19th century socialist movement labeled the posturing of various anti-Semitic parties, who claimed to be opposing capitalism when they denounced "Jewish money", as the "socialism of fools". The supposed "anti-imperialism" of the apologists for the Taliban is of the same nature.


. Thus, taking all these features of the situation together, the Afghan war illustrates some of the basic features of imperialism, as well as the connections between imperialism and terrorism. As we have seen, much of Bush's "war on terrorism" is directed at forces originally sponsored by the US when they were useful in the struggle against the Soviet Union. More generally, US imperialism has repeatedly made use of death squads, dirty wars and terrorist assassinations in its struggle against popular movements and imperialist rivals. Nor is the US unique among imperialist powers in this regard. Such methods have been also used by the major European imperialist powers and Japan, and also by lesser powers and would-be regional bullies. So the imperialist powers are not going to fight terrorism in general; they will only fight the terrorism of their rivals, and they will always keep terrorism in reserve to attack uprisings of the masses. They don't want to end terrorism, but to monopolize it.

. The connection between imperialism and terrorism shows the hypocrisy of the "war on terrorism". To defend themselves from terrorism, the working masses must oppose US imperialism and the other imperialist powers, as well as the terrorist fundamentalist groups. The imperialist politicians aren't going to challenge the "vital interests" of their own bourgeoisie. It is necessary to build up independent working class movements in every country to do this. To accomplish this, it is especially important--at this time of flag-waving hysteria--to develop links between the workers of different countries, because both the terrorist attacks and the "war on terrorism" aim to pit the workers of one nationality or background against those of another. It is also particularly important to defend immigrants and workers of oppressed nationalities because not only is this the only way to defend the rights of all workers, but these particular workers can play a tremendous role in linking the class struggles of different countries. <>


( 1) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Preface, p. xii.   (Return to text)

(2) Lenin, "Draft Program of the RCP (Bolsheviks)", pts. 12 & 13, Collected Works, vol 29, p. 122. (Text)

(3) Perhaps the Korean War counts as the closest to a direct military clash between large powers, with Chinese troops and Russian pilots facing American troops. (Text)

(4) "MILITARY PROWESS: A superpower displays its fighting calibre", Stephen Fiddler, Financial Times, Dec. 8, 2001. (Text)

(5) This is not to endorse the repression which, over the years, India has repeatedly unleashed in Kashmir. Neither India nor Pakistan have respected the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people. (Text)

(6) See Harlow's letter and Chalmer Johnson's reply in the Nation for Dec. 10. 2001, p. 2. (Text)

(7) There would have to be sufficient stability or else the pipeline would be subject to military attack from various factions, just as energy pipelines in Afghanistan were attacked during the war against the Soviet occupation. The idea has been floated that Afghan pipelines are particularly advantageous because it would allow energy to be sold to India and other Asian countries, whose demand for energy will probably be going way up over the years. But it is questionable whether India, at least, would want to be supplied by a line that goes through its arch-rival Pakistan. This is one of the obstacles that has held back a proposed pipeline between Iran and Pakistan. Some commentators also raise other potential difficulties facing an Afghan pipeline, such as energy pricing policies in Pakistan, but I don't know much about this. (Text)

(8) Lenin, "A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism", Sec. 3, Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 43. (Text)

(9) For example, the WWP's journal Workers World for Sept. 27 reprinted an article of theirs from Oct. 10, 1996, which called the Taliban the "hideous face of counterrevolution", and on Oct. 4, 2001 they approvingly cited Afghans saying that bin Laden was of "the brotherhood of Satan". Yet Workers World for Nov. 8 carries an article by Deidre Griswold entitled "First British Empire, now the U. S. /Afghans resist foreign domination" that promotes the military action of the Taliban. Of course, when it promotes Taliban actions it attributes them to "Afghans" in general, and diplomatically leaves out that it is the Taliban that is being referred to. It only mentions the word "Taliban" in such a context as saying that the bombing is rallying people around the Taliban, as if the article regretted the Taliban's war rather than promoting it in other paragraphs.

. Similar support, albeit somewhat conflicted support, for the Taliban is shown in an article of Nov. 22 by Fred Goldstein entitled "With terror bombing of Afghanistan/Pentagon extends U. S. empire to Asia". It says that the Taliban are not "a revolutionary or progressive force in any way beneficial to the Afghan people", but nevertheless, it insists that "they are fighting imperialism" and their fall would "be a major setback for the world". It expresses hope that the Taliban is still holding out in southern Afghanistan. It admits that "In this struggle the Taliban's greatest weakness flows from its reactionary character". But it recites a litany of disasters if the Taliban should fall, and concludes that, "for the world movement, and for the people of Afghanistan", the defeat of the Taliban in the Afghan war would be "the worst possible result". So, instead of condemning both sides in this war, the WWP rallies behind the Taliban.

. So, while these articles don't use this phrase, they are examples of the typical Trotskyist fraud of "military but not political support". The WWP believes that its "military support" of the Taliban (that is, backing a Taliban military victory) has nothing to do with "political support" of the Taliban. The military struggle of the Taliban and its oppression of the people are supposedly two entirely different things. As opposed to Marxism, which holds that war is the continuation of politics by other, i. e. violent, means, the WWP separates war and politics into two separate spheres--at least when it is a matter of the Taliban. (Text)

(10) The struggle of the WWP in Chicago, inside a coalition organizing for the September 29 demonstrations, against having slogans that condemned Sept. 11 or terrorism gave rise to an extensive debate on the internet between WWP's Lou Paulsen and a variety of other people on Louis Proyect's "Marxism Mailing List" (archives for this list can be found at www. Marxmail. org). For example, in a message of October 2 on the subject "Re: Some rhetorical questions (was: Re: A historical question about a certain type of violence in the national liberation struggle)", Lou Paulsen defended the WWP policy of opposing any condemnation of terrorism or of the Sept. 11 attacks. He sought to explain why he thought it was one thing for Castro (whom WWP regards as a socialist) to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks, but American activists shouldn't do so. In a message of October 3 (on the subject "The Global Class Struggle in a Period of Retreat and Confusion"), Paulsen advocated that those who carried out these actions were better than the Taliban, and he insisted that the Sept. 11 attacks were an "anti-imperialist act", part of the "anti-colonial struggle", and, implicitly, that they were part of the progressive side in the "global class struggle". He admitted that these actions showed contempt for the lives of American workers, and clearly regarded them as misguided and horrifying acts, but he refused to recognize that acts could be carried out by a reactionary trend, and he opposed condemnation of these acts.

. Paulsen occasionally says that one shouldn't rely on his statement of WWP policy, but should read WWP's official statements. But Workers World articles don't deal with such controversies. (Text)

(11) Lenin, "Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions/For the Second Congress of the Communist International", thesis 11, Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 149. These theses talk about giving support to "the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement" in backward countries. Lenin's final "Report on the Commission on the National and the Colonial Questions" at the 2nd Congress of the C. I. discusses a change in formulation, to talking about giving support to the "national-revolutionary movement" rather than "bourgeois-democratic movement" in backward countries. Lenin says that the national-revolutionary movement could only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, but one has to distinguish between different sorts of bourgeois-democratic movements. (Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 242) (Text)

(12) Ibid. , vol. 31, p. 242. (Text)

(13) Two different passages are being cited from the pamphlet "Socialism and War: The Attitude of the R. S. D. L. P. Towards the War", July-August 1915. The first is from the section "'War is the continuation of politics by other' (i. e. : violent) 'means'" (Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 304). The second is from the section "The difference between wars of aggression and of defense" (Ibid., p. 300. ) (Text)

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