Anti-imperialism and the class struggle

(Part two of "the socialist debate on the Taliban")

by Joseph Green
(From Communist Voice, vol. 8, #2, issue #29, June 20, 2002, with a correction, May, 2010)


Leninist anti-imperialism
Stalin and the Emir of Afghanistan
Trotsky and the Emperor of Ethiopia
Trotsky's mechanical rules
Donovan and the Emperor of Ethiopia
Selassie, Bismarck, and the bourgeois-democratic revolution
The nature of the Ethiopian Empire
Turning the rule upside down

. Bush's "war on terrorism" is taking US imperialist troops around the world. More US military bases are being established; the war in Afghanistan is to be supplemented with stepped-up intervention in Colombia and the Philippines; an invasion of Iraq is in the works; etc. These actions are bringing US troops up against a variety of forces, including both progressive movements and reactionary rivals of US imperialism.

. The anti-war movement is opposing the stepped-up imperialism which is being carried out under the banner of the "war on terrorism". It's clear that it should support popular movements that are being attacked by the Bush administration. But what should its attitude be to reactionary movements like the Taliban, or reactionary governments like Iraq?

. There are differences about this in the left, and they came up over the assessment of the Afghan war. Such groups as WWP advocate that the Taliban and al-Qaeda may have bitterly oppressed the Afghan people, but they are carrying out an anti-imperialist struggle insofar as they attack US targets. They hold that the left, if it were to condemn the struggle of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, would be helping US imperialism. But other leftists, on the contrary, hold that anti-imperialism is a sham unless it means strengthening the ability of the working masses to fight both US imperialism and other rival imperialisms and reactionaries. It is not only possible to oppose both sides in the Afghan war, both US imperialism and the Taliban/al-Qaeda, it is necessary to do so, on pain of betraying the working people to their class enemies. For example, the organizations of workers and peasants in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan have been under direct attack from both imperialism and the fundamentalist movements and parties. To support either imperialism or the fundamentalist would be to abandon the Afghan and Pakistani workers and peasants to one or another gang of self-interested reactionaries.

. One would think that such a major question would be zealously debated in the left, and all sides would publish major articles elaborating their views and the reasons that they advocate these views. But WWP and its associated coalitions disguise their views. They don't believe that the controversial questions of revolutionary theory should be set before the mass of activists. Their views lead them to oppose slogans or articles denouncing various reactionary forces, and to give other slogans with disguised support for certain reactionaries, but they prefer not to give their views directly. As a result, during the months after September 11, discussions about the stand of WWP and its coalitions toward the Taliban and al-Qaeda were stifled, as most activists who had attended their demonstrations didn't really know what WWP's stand was. So instead of an open debate between opposing positions, in which activists could gain political experience, matters were settled behind the back of demonstrators and rank-and-file leftists.

. Thus in part one of this article we were forced to look to Britain to find an example of a vigorous public debate on this policy in the part of the left that claims to be Marxist. The SWP of Britain follows a similar policy to the WWP, both in dressing up Islamic fundamentalism as anti-imperialism and in disguising its views. But its policy was the subject of a public exchange in the letters column of the CP of Great Britain. We reprinted letters from Bob Pitt and Ian Donovan, arguing for and against the SWP policy, and commented on them. (1)

. This time we dig deeper into the theoretical background to this debate. We dwell in particular on the connection that Leninism makes between the class struggle in an oppressed country and anti-imperialism. We show that both Stalinism and Trotskyism negate this connection. Key Trotskyist views, such as opposition to the idea of the different stages of a revolutionary struggle, make it impossible to understand the connection between anti-imperialism and support for the class struggle in the oppressed countries.

. In the course of this discussion, we will refer to letters from Hoskings, Pitt and Donvan which continue the earlier exchange between Pitt and Donvan. This time, for lack of space, we cannot reprint these letters here. However, these letters are available at the CPGB web site, and the CV web site will also have either these letters or links to them. (2)


. One of the most well-known features of Leninism is its support for anti-imperialism. Lenin oriented the Communist International towards making an alliance between the socialist struggle in the advanced industrial countries and the national liberation movement in the colonial world. In the US, the communists not only became known for their staunch opposition to racial discrimination inside the US, they also championed the liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Prior to Leninism, the socialist movement in America had, at best, a very spotty record as far as internationalism. It was the communist movement that cemented the cause of the left to that of the oppressed nationalities inside and outside the US.

. Today, however, it is mainly Stalinists and Trotskyists who speak in the name of Leninism. As a result, a caricature of Leninism prevails in much of the left. It is presented that Leninism means supporting any reactionary government or movement that happens to have a contradiction with US imperialism. Under such circumstances, it is supposedly sectarian and hypocritical for American activists to be concerned with the political and class struggles in a country with such a regime or movement. Instead it is supposed to be "anti-imperialism" to root for the victory of any regime, however reactionary, that has some contradiction with US imperialism.

. This, however, is a travesty of Leninism. Leninism doesn't regard that anti-imperialist struggle provides a recess or vacation from the class struggle in the oppressed nations. It doesn't just deal with the class struggle in the developed capitalist countries, but with the class struggle in the colonies and throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

. * Leninism lays stress on the key role of the toiling masses in the oppressed nations. Its criterion of what strikes a blow at capitalism and imperialism isn't simply whether this or that government's policies are frustrated, but how the position, organization and activity of the working masses are affected.

. * It doesn't talk of an undifferentiated struggle for liberation or emancipation, but it looks into the specific features of different types of struggles. It recognizes that national liberation is only one step on the road to the emancipation of the working masses, and it follows the Marxist method of distinguishing between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions.

. * It discusses the class alliances that arise in these struggles, and the treacherous role which the liberal bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation is bound to play.

. * It promotes the independent role of the proletariat (in any country that has a proletariat), and not just its participation inside the broader democratic and anti-imperialist movements. It shows that, at all stages of the struggle, the tasks of socialist activists go beyond the general democratic and anti-imperialist tasks.

. * It promotes proletarian internationalist solidarity between the workers of the oppressed and oppressing countries. This requires the workers of the imperialist countries to support the general liberation movements against the imperialism of their bourgeoisie, and it also requires that they give special support to the proletarian and toiling elements in the oppressed nations.

. This doesn't mean that Leninism insists that every demonstration put forward slogans on all these points. A demonstration generally has only a few basic slogans. Moreover Lenin advocated united front tactics and other means of uniting the communists with masses of workers who hadn't yet drawn communist conclusions but who were in struggle against their own bourgeoisie. But Leninism held that anti-imperialist agitation should help the masses move towards support of the global class struggle, not towards neglect of it. This progress, especially in backward times such as the present, may be very slow. Nevertheless, it is possible even today for communists to distribute their own independent leaflets at demonstrations, workplaces and working class communities.

. A more detailed outline of how Lenin connected the class struggle to anti-imperialism is given in the accompanying article An outline of Leninist anti-imperialism. Here we shall proceed to some views of Stalin and Trotsky that have been used to oppose this connection.


. We'll start with a passage from Stalin that denies the connection between the class struggle and revolutionary anti-imperialism. This passage has been cited a couple of times by people seeking to regard the Taliban as carrying out an anti-imperialist struggle, but it was cited more often back in the 70s in debates in the communist movement about various national movements. . Coincidentally, Stalin was discussing the attitude to be taken towards the Afghan government of his time.

. The passage comes from his pamphlet of 1924 entitled The Foundations of Leninism. Stalin went through a political evolution: he started as a revolutionary communist but ended up as the autocratic leader of a state-capitalist regime. Lenin died in January 1924. Although the revolutionary character of the Soviet government was already threatened, it would still be years before the Bolshevik revolution shrivelled up completely and the Soviet Union became a Stalinist state. But even here, in 1924, Stalin's discussion of the Emir of Afghanistan tears the heart out of the Leninist stand on the colonial question.

. Stalin wrote presenting the Emir as a flaming revolutionary. His reasoning was that the revolutionary nature of the Emir's regime was independent of its internal nature: it sufficed that the Emir sought to maintain Afghan independence against the former British overlords. He wrote:

. " . . . The unquestionably revolutionary character of the vast majority of national movements is as relative and peculiar as is the possible reactionary character of certain particular national movements. The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican program of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism; whereas the struggle waged by such 'desperate' democrats and 'socialists,' 'revolutionaries' and republicans as, for example, Kerensky and Tsereteli, Renaudel and Scheidemann, Chernov and Dan, Henderson and Clynes, during the imperialist war was a reactionary struggle, for its result was the embellishment, the strengthening, the victory, of imperialism. "(3)

. First, let's recall the context that Stalin was writing in. Afghanistan had only just recovered control of its own foreign affairs a few years previously, following the brief Third Anglo-Afghan War in May 1919. It was ruled by the Emir (later Padshah, or King), Amanullah. The Emir established relations with the Soviet Union, relations which far outlasted the Emir's own rule. At the time Stalin wrote, the Emir was a Westernizer who, inspired by the Kemalist regime in Turkey, sought to carry out a series of reforms as well as to consolidate the hold of the central government over the entire country. However, his reforms met with opposition from tribal chieftains and religious conservatives. Civil war would break out in November 1928, and Amanullah stepped down in January 1929.

. The Soviet Union's relations with the Afghan government of the Emir were part of its support for the anti-colonial movement. The Emir wanted support against British imperialism. Moreover, Soviet friendship with Amanullah probably encouraged the trend towards local reforms. The Emir's government was no Taliban, and Amanullah was no Mullah Omar. But neither was the Emir a revolutionary. In fact, there was no revolutionary mass movement in Afghanistan, the proletariat was almost nonexistent, and the peasants were very much under the thumb of the local exploiters.

. But, it may be asked, how then could this quote be used to present the Taliban as anti-imperialist? The Emir was a reformer, not a fundamentalist reactionary. But the point is that Stalin brushed aside the internal situation in Afghanistan as irrelevant. The quote implied that it didn't matter if the Afghan government was composed of revolutionaries, reformers from above like the Emir, or raving fundamentalist fanatics like the Taliban. It didn't matter if there was an ongoing revolutionary struggle, or whether the government had any democratic features. All that mattered was that Afghanistan had just become independent and still had some contradictions with Britain. This supposedly made the Emir, "objectively", into a revolutionary anti-imperialist.

. Stalin comments on the Emir are part of his discussion of the Leninist strategy of an alliance between the world proletarian movement and the anti-colonial revolt in the colonies and dependent countries. In the overall section "The National Question", which contains his comment on the Emir, it talks a lot about "a common revolutionary front". But there is no mention of the wave of democratic revolution in the colonies and dependent countries, of the different types of movements in these countries, of the need for struggle of the peasantry of these countries against its exploiters, of the thorny problem of alliances between the the communist and proletarian elements and various types of nationalist movements, and so forth. It's not in the passage on the Emir; nor is it anywhere else in the section "The National Question"; and it's not anywhere in Foundations of Leninism. This is the Leninist stand on anti-imperialism with its entire revolutionary core removed. (4)

. Stalin did say:

. "The question is as follows: Are the revolutionary potentialities latent in the revolutionary liberation movement of the oppressed countries already exhausted, or not; and if not, is there any hope, any basis, for utilizing these potentialities for the proletarian revolution, for transforming the dependent and colonial countries from a reserve of the imperialist bourgeoisie into a reserve of the revolutionary proletariat, into an ally of the latter?"

. You would expect that the answer to this would depend on the existence and nature of the revolutionary movements in the oppressed countries. But Stalin didn't discuss that question at all. He simply said that "Leninism replies to this question in the affirmative, i. e. , it recognizes the existence of revolutionary capacities in the national liberation movement of the oppressed countries, and the possibilities of using these for overthrowing the common enemy, for overthrowing imperialism. " Did this have anything to do with the possibilities of a peasant revolt against landlordism? He didn't say. Did it have anything to do with the spread of a democratic revolutionary movement? He didn't say. He gave no reason at all for why these potentialities exist. A couple of pages later, however, we learn that it didn't have anything to do with existence of "proletarian elements in the movement" or of the "existence of a democratic basis of the movement".

. Stalin replaced a discussion of the class nature of the various anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements with a classification into the vast majority of countries where the national movement was revolutionary and some countries where it might be reactionary. In this conception, since the Emir wasn't a reactionary, he must therefore have been a revolutionary. Lenin, by way of contrast, noted the variety of movements in the colonial and dependent countries. There were bourgeois-democratic movements of various types: there were liberal bourgeois in the national movement, there was the revolutionary peasant movement, there were the elements of independent proletarian parties, etc. There were forces who sought to channel the anti-imperialist movement to the benefit of local reactionaries, or to channel the movement against one imperialism into support for another imperialism. All these different type of forces could and did exist within national movements which were overall progressive movements against oppression. But in Foundations of Leninism, Stalin mixed all these movements together into a single, undifferentiated movement for liberation from all types of oppression and exploitation.

. The importance of whether there really is a revolutionary movement can be seen in Afghan history. Afghanistan is famous for its many battles against invaders, and for having given the British hell over the years. But there was no movement of the peasants, the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people, against their exploiters. This has been key to the 20th century tragedy of Afghanistan.

. The article "Background notes on Afghanistan" in the last issue of Communist Voice outlined this tragedy. There have been a series of attempts at reform, and a repeated history of failure. In the absence of a revolutionary movement in the countryside, it has served again and again as a stronghold for reactionary forces, while various reformers have relied on ruling by decree and even repression. The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan took this path after it came to power through a military coup in April 1978, a "revolution" it achieved mostly through infiltration of the army, not through raising the masses in struggle. The PDPA regime soon lost popular sympathy, and then came the Soviet invasion of December 1979. The subsequent bloody occupation cemented the popular hatred of most of the population for both the Soviet occupiers and the pro-Soviet PDPA regime. During the political revival in Afghanistan in the 60s and 70s, there had been, aside from the pro-Soviet PDPA, some forces of the radical left who opposed the Soviet revisionists and the PDPA as well as the local reactionaries and Western imperialism. But this radicalism barely penetrated the countryside, which still represented the bulk of the population. This was one of the reasons that the resistance to the Soviet occupiers ended up dominated by the fundamentalist reactionaries. The fundamentalist mujahedeen received heavy foreign support from the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia but that was not the sole factor behind their ability to smash any other trend of opposition to Soviet occupation.

. Thus the Afghan people have paid dearly for the lack of a revolutionary peasant movement. It has left them prey in the 20th century to both internal reactionaries and foreign intervention.

. Let's look briefly at some of Stalin's reasoning:

. * Stalin granted that the Emir was not a conscious revolutionary, but said that the Emir was "objectively" revolutionary. But it's not that the Emir simply didn't call himself revolutionary. If the word "revolutionary" is to have any serious meaning in distinguishing between various types of struggle, it simply doesn't apply to the struggle waged by the Emir of Afghanistan in the 1920s. By praising the Emir as revolutionary, Stalin's remarks directed attention away from the central problem of the Afghan movement, the lack of the revolutionary ferment in the countryside. He thus helped pave the way for the type of views held by the pro-Soviet PDPA of later decades. The PDPA, in a sense, duplicated the Emir's method of administrative reform from above, rather than ensuring a mass social base for reforms. The PDPA ended up ruling by repression. And since it fell, Afghanistan has suffered over a decade of domination by the fundamentalists and warlords.

. * Stalin said that the revolutionary character of the movement "does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement". This is certainly true of a peasant movement in a country without much of a proletariat. But the point was that there wasn't a revolutionary peasant movement either in Afghanistan. It doesn't make much sense to talk of a revolutionary movement of the oppressed masses that doesn't have much connection with the masses at all.

. * Stalin said that the revolutionary character of the Emir's struggle did "not necessarily presuppose . . . the existence of a democratic basis of the movement". The democratic revolution was one of the main things giving a dramatic impetus to the struggle in the dependent countries. The lack of the democratic struggle would generally mean that the masses were still downtrodden and weren't rising in struggle. It is one thing that a particular revolutionary movement might not have certain democratic demands, and yet overall might still represent a democratic movement. It's another thing to imagine that there could be a revolutionary movement that was rousing the masses and yet not fighting against the anti-democratic and exploitative institutions that were oppressing them.

. * Stalin didn't bother with the distinction between different types of revolutionary movements, bourgeois-democratic and socialist, when discussing the colonial and dependent countries in the Foundations of Leninism. He talked only of a "revolutionary struggle against imperialism" without distinguishing the class nature of the different types of struggle this might be referring to. Otherwise, he would have been faced with the ticklish issue of whether the Emir of Afghanistan was "objectively" waging a bourgeois-democratic or a socialist struggle. If a socialist one, he would have had to explain how a movement could be "objectively" socialist without a proletarian element or a democratic (to say nothing of socialist) program. If a bourgeois-democratic one, then Stalin would have had to suggest that the communist elements in Afghanistan--since communists might temporarily ally with, but shouldn't merge completely into, the bourgeois-democratic movement--should not restrict themselves to praise of the supposed revolutionary virtues of the Emir.

. Stalin replaced talk about the social and class nature of the struggle in the colonial and semicolonial countries with talk about the national question as a whole having changed its character. He said that it used to be regarded as an "independent question", but now it was a part of "the general question of the power of capital, of the overthrow of imperialism, of the proletarian revolution". But he left the meaning of this rather vague.

. Stalin referred repeatedly to the need for an alliance between the "proletarian revolution" and the "liberation movement of the colonies and dependent countries against imperialism". Very well. But how does this show that the national question is no longer an "independent" question? And what would that mean? Would it mean that the national liberation movement had thereby lost its specific features, which distinguish it from the socialist revolution? Had the distinction between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution become less important, because now both struck at imperialism, one at the imperialist bourgeoisie and the other at certain forms of imperialist domination? Could it now be expected that the proletariat would always come to the fore in a bourgeois-democratic revolution or a national liberation struggle in a colonial or dependent country, and that the bourgeois-democratic revolution would always pass over rapidly to a socialist revolution? Could it be expected that the alliance between the proletarian revolution and various bourgeois-democratic struggles would be durable, if not permanent?

. Stalin's answers to these questions varied at different times and as he dealt with different countries. But by connecting his general formulas on anti-imperialism with extravagant praise of the Emir of Afghanistan, he showed by example how to present an unrevolutionary stand--the separation of anti-imperialism from the class struggle--in a very revolutionary phraseology,

. Stalin would repeat the idea that the national question was now a part of the proletarian revolution in different circumstances, and always without clarifying the matter. For example, in an article the next year, 1925, he repeated the view that the national question had changed. He wrote of the time "before the imperialist war [referring to World War I--JG], when the Marxists' fundamental demand for the right to self-determination was regarded not as part of the proletarian revolution, but as part of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. " Did this mean that the right to self-determination was no longer a bourgeois-democratic demand? Or did it simply mean that it was important for the revolutionary proletariat to champion the right to self-determination (which it had been before the war as well)? Stalin continued " . . . since then the international situation has radically changed, that the war, on the one hand, and the October Revolution in Russia, on the other, transformed the national question from a part of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a part of the proletarian-socialist revolution. As far back as October 1916, in his article, The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up, Lenin said that the main point of the national question, the right to self-determination, had ceased to be a part of the general democratic movement, that it had already become a component part of the general proletarian, socialist revolution. "(5)

. So here Stalin suggested that Lenin had changed his mind on the class nature of the right to self-determination and hence, on the class nature of the anti-colonial struggle. But, as shown in the accompany article, An Outline of Leninist Anti-imperialism, this is contradicted by Lenin's emphatic statements during the discussion of the national and colonial questions at the Second Congress of the CI in 1920. Nor does Lenin's The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up, which Stalin appealed to, abandon the distinction of different types of revolution. It did, however, use the term "democracy" rather than "bourgeois democracy", a difference without much significance as the two terms were often used interchangeably. It was written several months after another article, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. This article covers some of the same material and says things such as that "Socialists . . . must also render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries [the colonies--JG] . . . "(6) So before, during and after World War I, Lenin referred to the bourgeois-democratic nature of the national movement.


. What Amanullah, the Emir of Afghanistan, was to Stalin, Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was to Trotsky. With his remarks on Haile Selassie, Trotsky promoted that an absolutist dictator could be an anti-imperialist hero. He separated the class struggle and anti-imperialism, just as Stalin had done in his remarks on the Emir. Despite the bitter rivalry between Stalin and Trotsky, their basic stands on many questions were quite similar.

. Trotsky's remarks on Haile Selassie have been quite influential among Trotskyists. As we first saw in part one of this article, both Pitt and Donovan, although they take opposite stands with respect to the Taliban, draw support from Trotsky's remarks on Haile Selassie. Trotsky's remarks are also one of the sources of the later Trotskyist "military but not political support" for various notorious dictatorships that have been in conflict with imperialist powers, such as that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Thus Trotsky's remarks on Haile Selassie are not a minor sidepoint among the many volumes of his writing, but an important part of his theoretical legacy.

. First let's recall the context of these remarks. While Africa was being partitioned among the imperialist powers, the Ethiopian Empire had survived thanks to its military victory over Italy in 1896 at Adwa. It was a feudal empire, with a bitterly oppressed peasantry. As well, the dominant Amhara nationality (and to some extent the Tigrayans as well) dominated and oppressed the other peoples of Ethiopia. But it was black-ruled and independent. In October 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia again. This time it was the fascist Mussolini regime which was responsible. It engaged in a war of slaughter with the aim of subjugating and annexing Ethiopia and building an Italian empire in East Africa.

. Trotsky wrote an article in April 1936 denouncing some leaders in the Independent Labor Party of England who took a hands-off attitude to the Italo-Ethiopian war. This was his main and longest article on this war. Trotsky correctly supported the Ethiopians against Italian aggression, but he phrased this as support for "the Negus" (which was another name for the Emperor of Ethiopia, i. e. , Haile Selassie). He didn't refer to the difficulties that faced the Ethiopians because of the feudal conditions in Ethiopia and their subjugation to an absolute monarch, but instead completely identified the cause of the Ethiopian people with the leadership and rule of Haile Selassie. He didn't suggest that the Ethiopian masses should make use of the crisis to try to wage an anti-colonial war against Italy in a revolutionary fashion, but instead rhapsodized about the virtues of progressive dictators. He compared Haile Selassie, the king of kings, to leaders of major bourgeois revolutions against monarchy, such as Oliver Cromwell, leader of the English revolution of the 17th century, and Maximilien Robespierre, the main figure of the Reign of Terror during the French revolution. (7) He wrote:

. "Maxton and the others opine that the Italo-Ethiopian war is 'a conflict between two rival dictators. ' To these politicians it appears that this fact relieves the proletariat of the duty of making a choice between two dictators. They thus define the character of the war by the political form of the state, in the course of which they themselves regard this political form in a quite superficial and purely descriptive manner, without taking into consideration the social foundations of both 'dictatorships. ' A dictator can also play a very progressive role in history; for example, Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, etc. On the other hand, right in the midst of the English democracy Lloyd George exercised a highly reactionary dictatorship during the war. Should a dictator place himself at the head of the next uprising of the Indian people in order to smash the British yoke--would Maxton then refuse this dictator his support? Yes or no? If not, why does he refuse his support to the Ethiopian 'dictator' who is attempting to cast off the Italian yoke?
. "If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this. "(8)

. The Italo-Ethiopian war was the continuation of a long struggle by Italian imperialism to enslave Ethiopia. Trotsky was right to denounce the idea that the outcome of this war was irrelevant to the working masses, just as Stalin was right to defend the Soviet policy of relations with Afghanistan. But Trotsky was wrong to sing psalms of praise to the Ethiopian dictatorship and speculate over revolutionary dictators, just as Stalin was wrong to theorize about the "objectively" revolutionary nature of the Emir of Afghanistan. Trotsky ignored the "social foundations" of the Ethiopian dictatorship, and he ignored the tragedy which this dictatorship was bringing to the Ethiopian people. The class nature of this dictatorship would hamstring Ethiopian resistance to the Italian invasion.

. Trotsky was so enthusiastic about the supposed "very progressive" nature of absolutist dictatorship that he envisioned an autocrat like Haile Selassie leading a revolt in India against British colonialism. India, unlike Ethiopia, had a significant proletariat, substantial class movements of the toilers, and an active communist movement, which was faced with the issue of dealing with a powerful bourgeois nationalist movement. But Trotsky envisioned that the Indian revolt might be led, and in a progressive manner, by an absolutist despot. This underlines the fact that Trotsky, in this passage, utterly separated the class struggle from anti-imperialism. He converted anti-imperialism into simply supporting this or that dictator or regime.

. Well, the fact is, that the emperor Haile Selassie provided a poor model for the colonial peoples around the world. His example of absolutism could only have done great harm to their movements. It's not just a matter that Trotsky believed that Haile Selassie could serve as a revolutionary scourge against imperialism, while other people believe the opposite. In the case of Haile Selassie, we depart from the hypothetical to the actual. We can see what actually happened during the Italo-Ethiopian war and afterwards. We shall see that the class character of the Ethiopian regime was a major obstacle to the anti-colonial struggle. We will further see that, insofar as Haile Selassie gained some prestige from the eventual Italian defeat, this had a harmful affect on the anti-colonial movement in Africa.

. In the first half year of the Italo-Ethiopian war, the Ethiopians suffered many devastating defeats. True, the Italian fascists were much better armed than the Ethiopians. They also slaughtered the Ethiopians with aerial bombardment and the ruthless use of poison gas. But there was more to the story. Ethiopian resistance suffered from the nature of the Ethiopian Empire. The fierce national hatreds generated by the long-standing suppression of the subject nationalities, as well as the feudal disunity in the ruling class, compromised Ethiopian unity, and the Italian fascists were able to exploit some splits among the Ethiopian people. As well, the army was directed by a feudal nobility on top, commanding a mass of peasants who had been kept in ignorance and degradation.

. Indeed, Haile Selassie would flee Ethiopia on May 2, 1936, barely a week and a half after Trotsky compared him to Cromwell and Robespierre. At the time he left, the fall of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa was imminent. But this still would leave much territory yet unconquered. Selassie's entourage debated whether he should retreat deeper into Ethiopia. One of the reasons he fled, was that he would have had to retreat past areas inhabited by the Oromo people (called the Galla in older books). The Oromo had seen their lands annexed, and the mass of Oromo had seen their living conditions decline, as the Ethiopian Empire had expanded from the mid-19th century on. The Ethiopian government couldn't count on their support, and its troops had already met hostility from some of the Oromo.

. Selassie's departure was a sign of the defeat of the official armies and the upper nobility by the Italian fascists, yet his absence didn't mean the war was over. The Italians ended up controlling all the towns and main roads, but Ethiopian resistance continued in the countryside. It was carried on by people who were called the Patriots. It was mainly led by local landowning chiefs in the countryside (balabats), although some members of the nobility took part. It was not a revolutionary movement of the peasantry and was not aimed against the old exploitation, as the Patriots were led by chiefs and landowners, although mainly not the nobility. But its existence showed that the fallacy of dreaming that Haile Selassie would be the revolutionary dictator liberating the Ethiopian people. Indeed, during the war, there was grumbling among the Patriots against the failures of the Selassie regime, and some talk of eliminating the absolute monarchy or, at least, cutting down Selassie's powers.

. It was the Patriots, not the organized forces of the Selassie dictatorship, that continued the internal struggle against the Italian fascists and sapped the fascist strength. However, they weren't strong enough to drive the fascists out by themselves. The British eventually joined the war, and they propped up the Selassie dictatorship and helped organize his troops. A joint force of British and Ethiopian government troops entered Ethiopia and, in 1941-2, pushed out the Italians. As for the Patriots, due to their class nature they were not determined enough or strong enough to force reforms on the Selassie dictatorship. Thus Selassie was able to restore the absolute monarchy that had lapsed during the war years.

. And what of the prestige that Ethiopia acquired from its resistance to the Italian fascists? Was this used, as one might expect from Trotsky's passionate words, to help inspire the anti-colonial revolt in Africa?

. Actually, in the years immediately following World War II, Haile Selassie showed little interest in the anti-colonial movement. Instead, his main concern was consolidating his absolute powers and maintaining Ethiopian control over subject nationalities. As part of this, he successfully sought to have the British administration of Eritrea replaced, not by independence, but by union with Ethiopia. This set the stage for years upon years of bloody warfare against the Eritrean independence movement that eventually arose.

. It wasn't until about 1958 that Selassie decided to take part in the general anti-imperialist movement in Africa. He succeeded in obtaining a good deal of influence among newly-independent states, and when the Organization of African Unity was formed, Addis Ababa was the site of its headquarters. His main goals were to restrain anti-western tendencies among newly-independent African states, and to to avoid condemnation of Ethiopian oppression of the empire's subject nationalities. He was one of the moving forces behind the idea that the right of national self-determination should not be applied to the borders of independent African states.

. A revolutionary movement finally arose against Haile Selassie. A series of struggles by different sections of the people shook the empire and set the stage for a revolt by junior military officers in September 1974. Selassie and the monarchy were overthrown. Unfortunately, the traditions of the empire weren't so easy to get rid off. The rebellious military officers turned on the revolutionary masses and set up a military dictatorship, the Derg. And the denial of national rights that Selassie never wavered from, even through the struggle against Italian fascism, lived on in the wars that would be waged by the Derg against the Eritreans and other oppressed nationalities. Even the present Ethiopian government, which came to power when a coalition of liberation movements of different nationalities overthrew the Derg, is still bedevilled by the issue of national oppression. It allowed the Eritreans to become independent, but it later fought another war with them. (9) And other nationalities inside Ethiopia, especially the Oromo people, are still discontented.

. Thus history hasn't been too kind to Trotsky's theory of the revolutionary autocrat, Haile Selassie. Trotsky said that to oppose Italian fascism, one had to choose between two dictators, while the Ethiopian Patriots, who actually fought Italian occupation after Selassie fled, wanted to eliminate, or at least reform, the Ethiopian monarchy. Trotsky believed that Ethiopian victory would result in Selassie inspiring other anti-colonial movements. Instead Selassie misused the prestige of Ethiopian resistance to help him annex Eritrea and consolidate Ethiopian oppression of other nationalities. It was only the upsurge of other independence movements in Africa that finally led Selassie to belatedly present himself as an anti-colonialist, and then only so that he could moderate and hold back the anti-colonial movement.

. The Leninist view of anti-imperialism goes far beyond "the duty of making a choice between two dictators". It denies this choice. It orients itself to the development of the independent activity of the millions upon millions of workers and peasants, not to the dream that various tyrants will play a revolutionary role. It accepts the need for temporary alliances of various types, including with the Ethiopian Empire, but it never abandons the task of encouraging the independent activity of the toilers. There had to be enthusiastic aid to the struggle of the Ethiopian people against Italian fascism and colonialism. But the communists should also have told the workers of the world the truth about the class nature of Selassie's regime. This had to be done carefully, with tact towards the bitterly oppressed black masses of the world, among many of whom Selassie was a hero. But Leninism required that one should watch vigilantly for chances to encourage an independent trend in the resistance to Italian fascism; that one should put forward a more helpful program for Ethiopian resistance than simply supporting the Emperor; and that one should seek to show other colonial peoples both the positive and negative lessons of Ethiopian resistance to fascism, both the inspiration of continued Ethiopian resistance and the harmfulness of the feudal monarchy.


. But why did Trotsky take such a superficial attitude to Haile Selassie? Trotsky usually claimed to consider politics from a class angle. Even with respect to Ethiopia, he claimed to be concerned with the "social foundations" of Italian fascist rule and the Ethiopian Empire, but in fact he said nothing about them at all. He considered only the question of whether there can be different types of dictators, those who do good things and those who do bad things.

. This is because his basic principles -- such as his version of "permanent revolution", the replacement of minimum demands with transitional ones, and opposition to "socialism in one country" -- didn't give any guidance at all to the situation in Ethiopia. His theory really has a hard time dealing with the issue of the right to self-determination, the anti-colonial struggle, and especially with the anti-colonial struggle in a mainly peasant country like Ethiopia.

. Trotsky knew that the Italian invasion should be opposed. (However, he actually displayed little interest in this question, with the cited article being his main comment on the Italo-Ethiopian war. ) But he had no idea how this followed from his idea of politics. He felt it should have something to do with the "social foundation" of the different regimes, but what? He didn't say anything about the social foundations of the Ethiopian regime. He didn't know what type of influence the world working class movement should strive to have on the internal situation in Ethiopia.

. Indeed, why, from the point of view of his theory, should one support the Ethiopians at all? In his comment demanding that people to support the supposed progressive dictator, Haile Selassie, Trotsky mentioned that one reason was that an Italian victory would mean "the reinforcement of fascism". Very true! However, three-quarters of a year earlier, in July 1935, in the months preceding the Italian invasion, he had insisted that the question of fascism was irrelevant. He wrote a brief two paragraph comment on the impending war that mentioned that "we want to stress the point that this fight is directed not against fascism, but against imperialism. " Trotsky was proud of his denigration of the issue of fascism, and insisted that this was one of the things that set the Trotskyists apart from the Stalinists. (10)

. And how should one support the Ethiopians? In his article of April 1936 Trotsky said that the workers had the duty "of making a choice between two dictators". Yet in July 1935 he had said that "for us it is not a question of who is 'better,' the Negus or Mussolini". And several years later, in a fundamental work of 1938 summing up his views called The Transitional Program, he insisted that, when supporting the war waged by a colonial or semicolonial country that was a victim of imperialism, "the proletariat does not in the slightest degree solidarize . . . with the bourgeois government of the colonial country. "(11) But whether Trotsky was giving full support or no support to Selassie, he never was able to give a class analysis of the internal situation in Ethiopia and of what this meant for anti-imperialism.

. In the debate on the Taliban, Bob Pitt raised the issue of Trotsky's remarks in 1938 on a hypothetical war between Brazil and England. Here Trotsky again reiterated that the issue of fascism is irrelevant, and claimed that one always supported the dependent country against an imperialist country. He said that

. "I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist 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. "(12)

. This emphasized the point, which is also apparent in the Transitional Program, that Trotsky had a simple rule to deal with such a war. All you have to know is that England is an imperialist country, and Brazil is a dependent country. Nothing else matters. The question of fascism is a diversion. The question of the circumstances is irrelevant. That's why Trotsky, in giving his example of a possible Anglo-Brazilian war, doesn't bother with the circumstances of the war and what it is about.

. In fact, there are different types of wars that might break out between Britain and a Latin American country. Trotsky seems to envision a war to recolonize Brazil. But, for example, the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1982 was not fought over whether Britain would recolonize Argentina. It was a reactionary war not just on Britain's side, but on Argentina's as well. The Argentine military junta of the time sought to distract popular discontent with a military adventure to obtain some small islands.

. Although none of the Trotskyists involved in the Taliban debate seem to think so, Trotsky's remarks on an Anglo-Brazilian war differed somewhat from his remarks on the Italo-Ethiopian war. While Trotsky demanded that the working class choose between Mussolini and Haile Selassie, he implies that one can back a Brazilian war against Britain without having anything to do with the Brazilian government. He claimed that the only way to get rid of a fascist Brazilian government would be to have Brazil win the war, as "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. " This was in line with the Transitional Program, where, as we have seen, he claimed that one can back a government in its war against imperialism without giving it the slightest support. He wanted to have it both ways--to ally with the government to this or that extent, while claiming that he had nothing whatsoever to do with the government.

. However, he didn't concretely show how can this be done. Presumably even the Trotskyists had a hard time with this concept, until they converted it into a rhetorical formula. Nowadays they generally say that one should give "military support" to the fascist government, but not "political support". They thus admit that they are giving some type of support, but it is only "military support", and allegedly does not include the slightest bit of "political support", not even an atom's worth. So, in their conception, if they support some non-military policy of a government, that's "political support", but if they support that government crushing its opponents with bombs and guns, then that's merely "military support" and allegedly has nothing to do with politics. This might explain why Trotskyists like Pitt see no contradiction between Trotsky's remarks on Ethiopia and Brazil, even though Trotsky praises Selassie to the hilt but pretends to have no support at all for the Brazilian tyrant Vargas. The formula of "military but not political support" is elastic enough to include both stands, reconciling them, but unfortunately only in the realm of fantasy.

. Thus Trotskyism has replaced the Leninist analysis of anti-imperialism with a few formulas or mechanical rules. These rules separate off imperialism from the class struggle in the weaker countries.

. Trotsky replaced the assessment of a particular war by the politics that gave rise to it, with the simple rule that communists should always support a colonial or semicolonial country against an imperialist one. The rule seems plausible because many wars, especially wars of national liberation, have conformed to this pattern. But not all wars.

. Trotsky also believed that, when a fascist country waged a colonial war, one had to stress that the issue was only imperialism, not fascism. If one talked about fascism, Trotsky thought, this would prettify the imperialism and colonial wars of those imperialist countries with bourgeois-democratic governments. However, when it came to bourgeois-democratic Spain possessing Morocco as a colony, Trotsky forgot about it. He ignored the issue of the right to self-determination of Morocco from Spain during the Spanish Civil War, in which Franco's fascists overthrew the Spanish republic. He referred in his writing on the Civil War to Franco's use of "colonial slaves" as cannonfodder for the fascist side, but it didn't strike him to demand that the republican side of the Civil War grant the right of self-determination to Spanish Morocco, the homeland of these colonial slaves. (13) Spanish Morocco had risen in an unsuccessful revolt in the 1920s, and the Spanish Communist Party had demanded the right to self-determination for Morocco for some time. But the Stalinists dropped this demand during the Civil War, presumably not to upset the liberal bourgeois, and Trotsky was silent on this demand too. Yet recognition of the rights of the Moroccan people would have been essential for any serious effort to stir the Moroccans to a new revolt, this time against Franco.

. So it turns out that Trotsky's mechanical rules didn't guarantee a revolutionary struggle against imperialism and colonialism. He forgot about the right to self-determination of Spanish Morocco. He stumbled when he painted Haile Selassie as a progressive and compared him to bourgeois-democratic revolutionaries of the past. He didn't know how to encourage the political independence of the Ethiopian masses while supporting the Ethiopian war against Italian fascist aggression. Aside from the rules he directly stated, such formulas as "military but not political support" have been popular among later Trotskyists, but they have only deepened Trotsky's error, and facilitated support for reactionary tyrants around the world.


. Trotsky's formulas have been used by Bob Pitt and other Trotskyists to claim that the Taliban was waging an anti-imperialist struggle. As we have seen, according to Trotsky, to judge the nature of the struggle, one didn't have to know anything about the Taliban, and one didn't have to care about what one did know about the Taliban. Applying this to the current situation, all that counts is that the US is an imperialist power and Afghanistan is a dependent country. Trotsky had emphasized that it didn't matter if the regime of the dependent country was dictatorial--after all, he reasoned, the world had known revolutionary dictators before. It didn't matter if it were fascist--Trotsky was so anxious to make this point that he imagined that the notorious Vargas dictatorship in Brazil might wage a liberating war against Britain. One didn't have to know why the war was being fought. The war was automatically a liberating war for the dependent country--it couldn't be, say, reactionary on both sides.

. Ian Donovan opposes this talk about the anti-imperialism of the Taliban, and rightly so. But he tries to maintain as much of possible of the Trotskyist framework while so doing. And this has led Donovan into some strange positions of his own.

. Donovan maintains that Trotsky's stand on Haile Selassie was right, but that it is a misuse of Trotsky's formulas to apply them to the Taliban. He has two basic arguments.

. He argues that Trotsky's formulas about supporting a colony or semicolony against imperialism were correct in Trotsky's day, but are outdated today. Today, he believes, one can support the struggle of a weaker country against an imperialist country only when it aims at breaking the chains of capitalism. It is supposedly opportunism and stage-ism to support to support any mere bourgeois-democratic struggle. He regards the struggle for national independence as the one great exception to this rule.

. We will return to this view of Donovan later. For the moment, we will consider his other basic argument. He apparently considers that Trotsky was not just correct to back the Ethiopian struggle against Italian invasion, but to praise the anti-imperialist virtues of the Emperor of Ethiopia. He writes that

. ". . . Selassie was the leader of a progressive, national struggle, despite his social origins. Selassie's struggle had a democratic content, and was no different in essence from any other of the anti-colonial struggles for nationhood and independence that were characteristic of the period."

. Here Donovan identifies the Ethiopian struggle with Selassie. He is not just saying that Ethiopian resistance to Italian colonialism and fascism was correct and had a democratic content, despite the role of the absolutist emperor Selassie. Instead he seems to say that Selassie, "despite his social origins", was essentially a progressive leader, and his leadership was no different from that of any of the other trends in the anti-colonial struggle. Donovan apparently regards the existence of the Ethiopian autocracy as no more significant than an individual's "social origins", which they might transcend in their life activity.

. Moreover, in focusing on the virtues of Selassie, Donovan ignores the different trends that have existed in the various anti-colonial struggles, the different forces which have led these struggles, and their varying relation to the democratic revolution. Similarly, he doesn't take note of the different trends that existed in the struggle against Italian fascism. In Ethiopia, it was the Patriots who we referred to earlier in the article, who resisted the Italians from inside Ethiopia, and they were somewhat discontented with the Selassie dictatorship. Selassie, on the other hand, did his best to eliminate any challenge to his absolutist monarchy, working closely with British imperialism in regaining control of the country in 1940-2, and especially closely with US imperialism after World War II.

. Donovan writes with enthusiasm about the virtues of the Selassie regime. He backs up his claim that Selassie was something of a progressive, by pointing out that Selassie was a modernizer, who was bringing some rudiments of bourgeois development to Ethiopia. He quotes approvingly an article by an admirer of Selassie about the Ethiopian construction projects and development plans prior to the Italian invasion. (14) Donovan goes on to write that

. ". . . Selassie built hospitals and schools. . . . The Negus systematically sought to promote industrialisation and economic growth behind tariffs walls, to lead his backward empire to modernity and international legitimacy. " (Emphasis as in the original)

. But this is only one half of the picture of Selassie's autocracy. It is true that Selassie was a modernizer and Westernizer. But there is more to materialist analysis of the class and social nature of a regime than the contrast between bourgeois development and what Donovan calls "reactionary anti-capitalism", or attempts to restore pre-capitalist conditions. There are different types of bourgeois development. A revolution that frees the peasantry and eliminates the monarchy will usher in bourgeois development, and the gradual bourgeoisification of the landlords and the nobility while the mass of peasantry is denied all rights and squeezed ever more tightly is also bourgeois development. Ethiopia's struggle against Italian colonialism was just, and had democratic content, not because Selassie was a progressive leader, but despite Selassie's absolutist despotism.

Selassie, Bismarck, and the bourgeois-democratic revolution

. To prove why Selassie was worthy of support, Donovan compares him to Prussia's Iron Chancellor, Count Otto von Bismarck, and to the Hohenzollern dynasty. This is an important comparison, that does raise the essential issue at stake. From the Marxist point of view, Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns were enemies of the workers movement and not figures who should have been supported. Yet Donovan argues that Trotsky was right to support Selassie, because Selassie was like Bismarck.

. Donovan writes:

. "What kind of regime was Haile Selassie's? The fact that Trotsky characterised him as a feudal monarch, of course, is an important point. However, there have been other feudal monarchs in history who have not exactly acted the way such figures are supposed to behave. One thinks, for instance, of the 19th century regime of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia/Germany, and his chancellor, the Prussian aristocrat Count Otto von Bismarck. In 19th century Europe, . . . , the German aristocracy carried out a bourgeois social transformation of their essentially pre-capitalist society from above, in the process constituting Germany as a unified bourgeois nation. Of course, 19th century Europe is different from mid-20th century east Africa, but nevertheless the point is the same. Just being led by a feudal monarch does not in itself make a regime a reactionary opponent of capitalism."

. Donovan goes on to describe the modernizing features of Selassie's regime, and then concludes that,

. " . . . far from being a programme of reactionary anti-capitalism, [Selassie's program] was a classic programme of bourgeois modernisation, carried out from above by a monarchy of pre-capitalist origins, in a manner that bears a considerable similarity to the example of Wilhelm I/Bismarck,"

. All Donovan can see is the contrast between "bourgeois modernization" and "reactionary anti-capitalism". He doesn't see, or doesn't regard as important, that there are different paths of bourgeois development. There is the path of revolution, sweeping away the old feudal conditions, eliminating the existence of landlordism and aristocracy, and providing the broadest democratic freedoms. There is the path of slow reform, where the reactionary classes maintain their special privileges for decades, and the workers and peasants are kept for as long as possible in the most backward conditions. Both paths lead toward bourgeois modernization, but the struggle between these two paths fills a whole epoch in many countries. One didn't have to be either an opponent of German unification or a "reactionary anti-capitalist" to have organized in opposition to Bismarck and the Junker (Prussian landlord)-dominated system he built.

. To worry about the struggle between opposing paths of capitalist developments seems like reformism to the Trotskyists. They denounce it as "stage-ism" or "the Menshevik theory of 'two-state revolution'". As pointed out in An Outline of Leninist Anti-imperialism, they see it as a theory of trailing behind the bourgeoisie. They don't realize this theory actually helps orient the fight against the Bismarcks and Selassies. Of course, it wasn't a matter of opposing Selassie by backing the Italian fascists. It would be a matter of working to strengthen the Ethiopian struggle against Italian invasion and occupation by giving it a democratic content. It would be a matter of strengthening the anti-colonial movement by showing that Selassie's absolutism was not the path to follow.

. Donovan compares Selassie to Bismarck. Very well. But the Prussian or Bismarckian type of bourgeois development is an example of what communism fought against, both at the time of Bismarck and since. For example, bourgeois agriculture gradually replaced feudal agriculture in Germany, but because of the defeat of the revolution of 1848 this change took place in the most painful way for the peasants. Prior to the revolutions of 1917, Lenin wrote repeatedly about the two paths of bourgeois development that might take place in Russia. He used Prussia as an example of the reactionary path. For example, in 1907 he wrote that economic development was going to eliminate the old feudal estates in the Russian countryside. He said that,

. " . . . In that respect, Russia has only one path before her, that of bourgeois development.
. "But there may be two forms of that development. The survivals of serfdom may fall away either as a result of the transformation of landlord economy or as a result of the abolition of the landlord latifundia, i. e. , either by reform or by revolution. . . .
. "These two paths of objectively possible bourgeois development we would call the Prussian path and the American path, respectively. In the first case feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois, Junker landlord economy, which condemns the peasants to decades of most harrowing expropriation and bondage, while at the same time a small minority of Grossbauern ('big peasants') arises. In the second case there is no landlord economy, or else it is broken up by revolution, which confiscates and splits up the feudal estates. In that case the peasant predominates, becomes the sole agent of agriculture, and evolves into a capitalist farmer."(15)

. A democratic revolution that breaks up the feudal estates doesn't eliminate capitalism. It is a bourgeois-democratic revolution that clears the way for a faster, broader and more rapid capitalist development and a broader and more consistent class struggle. But for Donovan and most Trotskyists, the idea of the bourgeois-democratic nature of a revolution is the Menshevik theory of "two-stage revolution"; it's "stage-ism". They think that to support such a revolution means trailing along behind the bourgeoisie. They don't recognize the struggle between different paths of capitalist development, or don't see its significance. They think that thereby they are fighting reformism. But here we see that this negation of bourgeois-democratic revolution and movements, this failure to appreciate the difference between two opposed paths of capitalist development, leads Donovan to prettify Bismarck and Selassie.

. It also leads Donovan to believe that the Islamic fundamentalists must be anti-capitalist, albeit a "reactionary anti-capitalism". He confuses the ideology of the movement with its actual class significance. The development of capitalism is going on in such fundamentalist states as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. The working class is deprived of various rights which it could use to oppose exploitation, and the form of capitalism may be varied, but bourgeois development continues. The Taliban was so involved in underground capitalism, and so neglectful of the ordinary apparatus of a state, that its orientation is harder to see. But it was part of a movement that doesn't aim to eliminate capitalism, but to build up a rival to theWestern capitalist powers.

The nature of the Ethiopian Empire

. Now let's look a bit closer at the "bourgeois development" in the Ethiopian empire. What's important isn't just a list of construction projects, but a picture of the class nature of the Ethiopian Empire.

. Ethiopia has a long history, extending back into ancient times. But by the 18th century, the central authority had decayed, and the country essentially broke apart into a myriad of feudal localities. This was the "Age of the Princes", which lasted until the middle of the 19th century. At that time, a new series of emperors, beginning with Tewodros II and ending with Haile Selassie in the 20th century, sought to re-establish the authority of the emperor and to expand the empire's territory.

. Military conquest and territorial expansion were central to these plans. At the end of the 19th century, the division of Africa was completed by the European powers. In a way, the Ethiopian Empire took part in this division of Africa, expanding its control in the Horn of Africa, and conquering neighboring tribes and regions. This was not a question of simply uniting squabbling factions in Ethiopia, but of extending the Empire to take in new subject peoples. So long as the Empire existed, the drive for imperial domination never stopped. As mentioned above, Haile Selassie continued it even after World War II, and managed to get the Western powers to turn over Eritrea to Ethiopia.

. Ethiopia was weaker than the Great Powers of Europe, so it sought to cooperate with Italy and others in subjugating its neighbors. In turn, Italy thought it might gobble up Ethiopia. Ethiopia maintained its independence only by defeating bourgeois-democratic Italy in 1896 at the Battle of Adwa, and by fighting the later occupation by fascist Italy.

. Not just Haile Selassie, but this line of emperors in general were essentially modernizers. To conquer and expand, they needed guns and a trained army and roads. To centralize power in their hands, they needed a bureaucracy loyal to themselves alone. They also had to establish their authority over the traditional nobility and the Church, and the maneuvering between all these feudal factions was a constant theme of imperial rule. They sought to use modernization as a way of obtaining and maintaining absolute power.

. While the emperors fostered a certain amount of bourgeois development, this was done at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the population, the peasants. The emperors needed money for guns and for development projects, and they got it by taxing the peasants. The emperors took land from peasants in conquered areas and gave it to reward the military for conquests, or to win the loyalty of the nobility; the former peasant owners becoming tenants with taxes but not rights. Thus alongside the development of the bourgeoisie and money economy, the peasants sunk deeper into a feudal-style of servitude. Moreover, this increasing oppression of the peasantry intensified the national oppression of the conquered peoples. The nobility of the conquered region might be offered integration into the Ethiopian nobility, but the masses faced the most bitter oppression.

. Haile Selassie's modernization included giving Ethiopia a constitution in 1931, but it specified that he was the absolute ruler of Ethiopia. Chapter II, Article VI stated that "In the Ethiopian empire supreme power rests in the hand of the emperor. . . . He ensures the exercise thereof in conformity with the established law. " And Article V specified that "The person of the emperor is sacred, his dignity is inviolable, and his power indisputable."(16)

. This system was a combination of a sort of military-feudal imperialism and bourgeois modernization. It is the misfortune of the Ethiopian people that the lack of a revolutionary peasant movement allowed this system to live on until 1974.


. Now let's return to Donovan's argument that Trotsky's formula about supporting a colony or semicolony against imperialism was correct in Trotsky's day, but outdated today. Donovan puts forward an opposing formula --that, aside from the socialist revolution, every struggle between an imperialist country and a backward country is reactionary on both sides. He writes that:

. ". . . it is utterly futile and pointless for the masses to support their own ruling class in a so-called war against imperialism. Any such struggle between the ruling class of a backward capitalist country that possesses state independence and the imperialists themselves cannot by definition harm a hair on the head of the imperialist world system while the ruling classes of both sides remain in power. Such wars are necessarily about matters in which the working class had no direct interest, such as territorial aggrandisement, who will be the dominant regional oppressor, or other such matters."

. Donovan's reversed rule has a certain plausibility, because there are so many cases where other Trotskyists seek to give an anti-imperialist veneer to such reactionary regimes as that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Milosevic's in Serbia, etc. Donovan also ridicules those Trotskyists who have gone so far as to oppose the extradition of the bloody Chilean despot Pinochet to Spain, because they feared that this would violate Chilean rights. But once again the use of a simple mechanical rule doesn't always work, because there are cases where dependent countries do wage just struggles against imperialist intervention.

. Let's take an example. In the 1980s, the United States sought to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which came to power by overthrowing the dictator Somoza. Was this struggle a matter of irrevelance to the working class? On the contrary, it was important to support the Nicaraguan people against US aggression, and this could be done while maintaining a critical attitude to the Sandinista regime. One could support the independent forces of the working class, represented for a time by the Marxist-Leninist Party of Nicaragua (formerly MAP(ML)), and maintain a critical attitude to the Sandinistas, while nevertheless defending the Nicaraguan people against the US-backed contras and the US blockade. No doubt, this amounted to a certain amount of alliance with the Sandinistas against the US ruling class, but it would be correct to distinguish between the counter-revolutionaries and the Sandinistas. It did not require one to praise the Sandinistas in the way that Donovan and Trotsky praised Haile Selassie or Stalin praised the Emir of Afghanistan. One could continue to support, against Sandinista repression, the building of an independent proletarian force in Nicaragua.

. But did the revolution that overthrew Somoza "by definition harm a hair on the head of the imperialist world system"? No democratic revolution can, by itself, abolish capitalism. Yet such revolutions are of vital importance for the organization and class consciousness of the working class. They clear the way for a broader development of the class struggle, but they do so by also clearing the way for a broader development of capitalism. The particular plans and alliances of this or that imperialist might be upset by a democratic revolution, or even an inter-imperialist war, but world capitalism as a system will survive such changes. Nothing but the socialist revolution will abolish capitalism. The great wave of anti-colonial revolt of the 20th century brought down the major empires, but in doing so it accelerated capitalism on a world scale, rather than harming it. But this is clearing the way for a future anti-capitalist world revolt on a scale never before seen.

. Donovan's new mechanical rule amounts to the view that the working class shouldn't be interested in anything but socialist revolution. It would imply that the US-Nicaraguan conflict of the 1980s was reactionary on both sides.

. But actually, Donovan would no doubt support the Nicaraguans against US intervention and similar struggles. But to do so, he would have to pretend that the Nicaraguans actually were breaking the chains of imperialism. For example, he supported the Cuban revolution, but he has to justify this by pretending that it uprooted capitalism, albeit temporarily. He writes:

. "Comrade Hoskings talks about Cuba. But it is rather odd for her to do so -- it is certainly true that in a limited way Cuba managed to break temporarily with the political influence and rule of imperialism. It did so by becoming assimilated into the Soviet bloc, . . ."

. But the Soviet bloc was a state-capitalist bloc, not a socialist bloc. Mind you, Donovan himself doesn't think the Soviet bloc was socialist, but instead says that it merely "claimed to embody a socialist alternative to capitalism. " If we look, not at the claim, but at the reality, we will see that Cuba's membership in the Soviet bloc subordinated it to one of the two great imperialist blocs that divided the world between themselves during the Cold War. So Donovan's mechanical rule, which is supposed to liberate us from subordination to the bourgeoisie, leads us right back to illusions about this or that bourgeoisie. Donovan can't do without these illusions, since he can't support various struggles without them.

. Donovan does allow one exception to the rule that no struggle of a backward country, except for the socialist revolution, deserves support. This is the case of a struggle for independence. He writes that

. "The working class has no interest in merely modifying the relationship of forces in a world that remains dominated by the monopoly-capitalist (imperialist) world system. The only circumstances where the working class has an interest in taking a side in such struggles is where the denial of format state independence by direct colonial rule produces a deep sense of national oppression that cripples the ability of the proletariat to crystallise as an independent class: ie, an illusion of a common national interest between the oppressed masses and ruling classes that amounts to a formidable obstacle to class consciousness among the oppressed proletarian, semi-proletarian and/or peasant masses."

. Donovan is right to support certain struggles for independence. Despite the collapse of the old colonial empires, there are still a number of cases around the world where the right to self-determination is still an important issue. Sometimes this requires class-conscious activists to support independence, and in other cases, it simply requires them to support that the question should be solved according to the democratic will of the oppressed nationalities, without requiring them to recommend independence.

. But Donovan wrongly believes that the issue of independence can be separated out from all other bourgeois-democratic issues. He thinks he can support the struggle for one such bourgeois-democratic right, as an exception, and rule out all others.

. But look at his argument for the importance of the right to self-determination. He talks of the "illusion of a common national interest" being an obstacle to class consciousness. And that, indeed, is part of the story. But the denial of democratic rights in general can have a similar effect. This has been seen over and over again in the struggle against various dictatorships and tyrannies. The existence of tyranny may create the appearance of a common interest between different classes, because they are all deprived of the right to vote, the right to speak, etc. The overthrow of tyranny may bring starkly out into the open class differences and class exploitation that were somewhat hidden before.

. Donovan's awkwardness over the right to self-determination springs from his holding to Trotskyist dogmas against "two-stage revolution" and bourgeois-democratic struggles. He makes national independence into the one exception that he recognizes. By banning all other struggles of dependent countries except socialist revolution and national independence, he can set up a mechanical rule to oppose the old Trotskyist rule about supporting any struggle of a dependent country. He wants to replace the mechanical rule that any struggle of a backward country against an imperialist country is anti-imperialist with the opposite mechanical rule, that nowadays no such struggle is anti-imperialist. He is, in essence, fighting Trotskyism with Trotskyism, and it doesn't work very well

. Instead one has to judge each situation according to its class and political nature, as Lenin did. This requires much more work than a simple rule that equates any struggle of a dependent country versus an imperialist power to any other such struggle. But in return, it gives one the framework for figuring out the class tactics of the proletariat, its relations to other classes, and the tasks needed if it is play an independent role.

. Despite his theoretical difficulties, much of what Donovan says against Pitt and Hoskings is quite reasonable. He highlights a number of features about the present situation which Pitt and Hoskings wish to ignore. The CPGB, in carrying the debate on the supposed anti-imperialism of the Taliban, and Donovan, in supplying the bulk of their theoretical material on this subject, have done a service for the movement. But Donovan's theoretical position is weakened by his continued adherence to a Trotskyist framework. If even an experienced and thoughtful comrade such as Donovan can be led astray by the Trotskyist method, this is another illustration of the fact that it's well past time that the movement jettisoned Trotskyism altogether. <>


(1) See "The socialist debate on the Taliban" in Communist Voice, vol. 8, #1 (Jan. 9, 2002). Also see the section "Anti-imperialism, real and sham" in the article "Imperialism is light of the Afghan war" in the same issue of Communist Voice. It contained some of the few quotes from WWP literature that illustrate WWP's towards the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (Go to text)

(2) Three letters are involved, and they can all be found at the CPGB web site at The first, by Liz Hoskings, appears in the letters column of Weekly Worker for November 1, 2001. Weekly Worker gives it the title "Backing fundamentalism", but note that it appears in the column underneath another letter entitled "Democracy and anarchism". It can be found at The second letter is in Weekly Worker for November 8, 2001, under the title "Taliban bloc: Bob Pitt replies to criticism of his support for reactionary anti-imperialists". It can be found at And the third letter is Ian Donovan's reply, in the Weekly Worker for November 15, 2001. It appears under the title "Should we defend the Taliban? Ian Donovan takes up the arguments of two socialists who believe that it is a duty to defend the Taliban against imperialism. The first is Bob Pitt, a Labour Party member and editor of What Next? The other is an orthodox Trotskyist Liz Hoskings". It can be found at (Text)

(3) "The Foundations of Leninism" (Lectures delivered at Sverdlov University in 1924),Ch. VI "The National Question", Section 1 "The presentation of the question", italics as in the original. (Text)

(4) Stalin did mention elsewhere that there were some class issues with respect to the national question. Thus, in his replies to Semich, he denounced Semich's "refusal to regard the national question as being, in essence, a peasant question. " ("Concerning the National Question in Yugoslavia: Speech Delivered in the Yugoslav Commission of the E. C. C. I. , March 30, 1925", Works, vol. 7, p. 71. Also see "The National Question Once Again: Concerning the Article by Semich", Works, vol. 7, pp. 219-230. ) Here, however, he mainly raised this simply to say that the national question shouldn't be reduced simply to a fight between different bourgeoisies. He also discussed some class questions in his various articles on China, and referred to the class nature of the Chinese revolution. None of these considerations made it into the passages of the Foundations of Leninism on the national question. (Text)

(5) "The National Question Once Again: Concerning the Article by Semich", Works, vol. 7, p. 226. (Text)

(6) Section 6 "Three Types of Countries with Respect to the Self-determination of Nations" in "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination", Collected Works, vol. 22, pp. 151-2, written Jan. -Feb. 1916 and first published in April 1916. (Text)

(7) Seeing the name of Robespierre, perhaps someone might imagine that Trotsky intended some criticism of Selassie. After all, Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety didn't just fight the counter-revolution but extended the terror unduly, curbed the revolutionary initiative of the sans-culotte masses in Paris, and butchered many revolutionaries on the left. But at the time Trotsky was writing, Robespierre was a popular revolutionary hero in the French radical left. Something similar could likely be said of Cromwell's reputation among the English. In any case, Trotsky made no criticism of Cromwell and Robespierre in this article, and made use of them simply as positive examples of revolutionaries. (Text)

(8) "On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo: A Letter to an English comrade, April 22, 1936", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), Pathfinder Press, Inc. , New York, pp. 317-8. (Text)

(9) See the series of articles "Denounce the Ethiopian-chauvinist aggression!" by Frank in Communist Voice. Part one of this series, "On the Ethio-Eritrean war", was in the issue of Nov. 27, 2000, and part two, "The right to self-determination and the Ethiopian-Eritrean war", was in the May 1, 2001 issue. (Text)

(10) "The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict, Published July 17, 1935", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), Pathfinder Press, Inc. , New York, p. 41. (Text)

(11) See the section on "The struggle against imperialism and war" in "The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International" (Spring 1938), The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, New York, p. 92. Trotsky doesn't mention the possibility that the colonial or semicolonial country would have anything but a bourgeois government. Therefore, although it is arguable whether the Ethiopian autocracy could be regarded as a bourgeois government rather than as based on the nobility and landlords, it clearly would fall under the sentence quoted in the text. (Text)

(12) "Anti-imperialist struggle is key to liberation: An interview with Mateo Fossa, September 23, 1938", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39), Pathfinder Press, Inc. , New York, p. 34. (Text)

(13) See, for example, "The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning", from "Socialist Appeal", Jan. 8 and 15th, 1938, on the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive. < www.marxists. org/archive/trotsky/works/spain/1938-sp01. htm >. (Text)

(14) He cites the article "Haile Selassie vs Mussolini" by Harold G. Marcus, available on the internet at the "One World Magazine" site, www. webstores. co. nz. The article is one of uncritical praise, and it highlights several quotations from the January 6, 1936 issue of Time in which Selassie was proclaimed "Time Magazine Man Of the Year". Naturally, the article doesn't have anything about, say, the conditions of the vast majority of the peasantry, and how they fared under Selassie. (Text)

(15) "The Agrarian Program of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution, 1905-1907", Collected Works, vol. 13, Chapter 1, Section 5 "Two Types of Bourgeois Agrarian Evolution", p. 239.

. Although Lenin talked here of "the American path", he noted in other works that American agriculture itself differed according to region. He wrote in 1915 that "the economic survivals of slavery are not in any way distinguishable from those of feudalism, and in the former slave-owning South of the the U. S. A. , these survivals are still very powerful. " He noted that "there is a startling similarity in the economic status of the Negroes in America and the peasants in the heart of agricultural Russia who 'were formerly landowners' serfs'. " "New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture. Part One. Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States of America", Ch. 3. "The Former Slave-Owning South", Collected Works, vol. 22, pp. 24, 27, emphasis as in the original).

. Thus the two paths in capitalist evolution of agriculture can be seen in the history of US itself, by comparing the South to other regions. However, in the last few decades, the extensive mechanization of agriculture in the South has brought it closer to other regions, and it has also driven much of the black population from the land. (Text)

(16) Keller, Edmond J. , "Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People's Republic", 1988, p. 71. (Text)

Correction - May 5, 2010: In the article above, I originally mistakenly wrote that the monarchy was overthrown in 1978, when in fact the PDPA's military coup of that time overthrew the republic of Prince Daud, which itself had come into existence by an earlier military coup in 1973 that overthrew the monarchy. This error occurred in a brief and too-hasty summary of an article "Background notes on the situation in Afghanistan" (, an article which correctly described the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973, the nature of the resulting republic of 1973-8, and the opportunist stands of the PDPA, and its Parchem and Khalq factions, during the republic. I have corrected the mistaken sentence above. And thank you to the reader (B.D.) who brought this to my attention. (Joseph Green)

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