The Faux Marxism of the International Socialist Organization

The International Socialist Organization, a group which for the past few years has largely absented itself from the antiwar movement — except for occasionally issuing articles critical of it — has published a lecturing article on its website titled, “Why is the antiwar struggle weak today?” (SW, 10-29-14).

It is a bit odd to receive such a lecture from an organization whose own analysis has left their membership flat-footed and confused in the face of major international crises of the last few years, and which recently discredited itself by publishing an article that referred to the ranks of Jabbat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) as “decent revolutionaries” who are “just going where the money and arms are.” One might hope for an article full of retractions and self-criticisms, but sadly this one was not.

They argued instead that the “two main weaknesses that have long plagued the U.S. antiwar movement” are 1) liberal organizations, such as United for Peace and Justice, that have fostered illusions in U.S. imperialism, and 2) groups such as the ANSWER Coalition, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and others who they accuse of “faux (false) anti-imperialism” for not supporting the “mass democratic revolt” in Syria. The ISO promises a “new and genuine anti-imperialism” to rescue the movement from these twin evils.

If misleadership is the problem, one might wonder why this enlightened group, which claims to be the largest socialist group in the country, has not stepped in earlier to show us all the way? The critique reads like that of an outside observer who has just stumbled across the antiwar movement, as if the ISO has no record of its own to be reviewed and summarized. Let us refresh our memories.

On the liberal side of the antiwar movement

The 2001-2007 U.S. antiwar movement to which the ISO unfavorably compares the current moment was indeed characterized by two main political trends: the anti-imperialist ANSWER Coalition and the liberal and social-democratic UFPJ. The ISO article omits the fact that these trends were in fact engaged in sharp political struggle and debate, a contest over leadership, and that the ISO itself was part of UFPJ during these years. It carved out a space as the “left” within UFPJ, but it was fundamentally loyal to it in its struggle against ANSWER.

The ISO’s recent critique claims that the “faux anti-imperialism” of ANSWER will “alienate the newly radicalizing students and workers who are the potential base of the antiwar movement. Many are still influenced by liberal ideas, but they can be won to an anti-imperialist movement that meets their desire to see justice and democracy. They won’t be won to one that champions tyrants like Assad in the name of anti-imperialism.”

This is a fundamentally opportunist method to begin with: as if the top priority of a social justice movement should be to not alienate those with liberal prejudices. But it is also factually untrue.
January 18 2003 anti-war protest

Anti-war protest in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2003.

The antiwar movement of the Bush era did not begin on Feb. 15, 2003, as the ISO article implies. In both October 2002 and January 2003 hundreds of thousands of people marched in protests organized by ANSWER. Feb. 15 in New York City was the first major action organized by UFPJ, which was formed explicitly as the liberal alternative to rival and oust ANSWER from leadership.

At that time, UFPJ’s chief argument was that ANSWER’s anti-imperialist politics — notably its inclusion of the Palestinian struggle and refusal to condemn the Iraqi government in the lead-up to invasion — would “alienate” those who would otherwise attend anti-Iraq war protests. But for all the liberal attacks and shrill red-baiting, and UFPJ’s sectarian declarations to never work with ANSWER, ANSWER repeatedly brought out tens and hundreds of thousands of people — with the same core politics that it holds today.

The ANSWER Coalition also pursued a policy of creating a united front with UFPJ, despite sharp political differences, in order to maximize the size and impact of large-scale antiwar mobilizations. On September 24, 2005, as a consequence of this united front policy, more than 350,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. to demand an end to the US occupation of Iraq and in support of the Palestinian people.

The article’s call to “begin building an antiwar opposition” also rings hollow. As the ISO knows, the Obama administration has been at war every year, not only continuing the occupation of Afghanistan, but carrying out illegal drone wars in numerous countries, while orchestrating a massive bombing campaign to overthrow the government of Libya.

Over these last few years of imperialist attacks and conflict, the ISO has either been inactive in the antiwar scene, showing no leadership whatsoever and essentially boycotting antiwar events related to Libya and Syria. ANSWER and other anti-imperialists organized with precisely the general antiwar points of unity — “U.S. Out of the Middle East,” “Stop the War on Libya,” and “Money for Jobs and Education, not for War and Occupation” — that the ISO claims must be the foundation for the movement. It did not show up to these events because the Syrian and Libyan opposition forces with which the ISO showed solidarity were overwhelmingly pro-intervention.

The ISO on Libya

The ISO championed the Libyan rebels who demanded NATO airstrikes while ignoring Libyans who rallied against intervention (left). ISO allies in the Libyan exile community chanted

The ISO championed the Libyan rebels who demanded NATO airstrikes while ignoring Libyans who rallied against intervention (left). ISO allies in the Libyan exile community chanted “Thank you, NATO” at a pro-war counter-protest in front of the White House (right).

In 2011, the ISO made similar charges against the PSL at the time of the NATO-led overthrow of the Qaddafi government in Libya, which ushered in the chaos and destruction besetting that country down to the present day. The ISO has never uttered a word of self-criticism for their support of the forces that collaborated with imperialism in the destruction of Libya.

In fact, the ISO joined street demonstrations with and organized alongside the exile forces in the U.S. that were demanding a U.S./NATO bombing campaign. These were the same groups that then counter-protested the “No War on Libya” actions.

Just weeks before the bombing of Libya began, the ISO was still trying to maintain the pretense that the “rebels” were somehow anti-imperialist and that NATO leaders wanted the Qaddafi government to remain in power. On the same day that the PSL published an article warning of Western intervention, the ISO distributed an article under the title, “The West’s fear of Qaddafi’s fall,” proclaiming that the U.S. and UK governments “really, really don’t want Qadaffi to fall.”

Within days, those very governments had put warships off Libya’s coast and were publicly discussing a No-Fly Zone—an act of war by any measure. On Feb. 28, 2011, the day the British government confirmed it was preparing the no-fly zone, the ISO published not an attack on NATO, but on the PSL for refusing to champion the opposition movement and join the chorus of condemnation against the “savage assault” of the Libyan government.

This farce collapsed when on March 19, 2011 the NATO assault began, rescuing the “rebels” from impending defeat. Six months later, the NATO-led war succeeded in achieving regime change in Libya and sending the country into a disastrous downward spiral that continues to this day.

Mazda Majidi wrote in the PSL pamphlet, “Socialists and War,” regarding the struggle in Libya :

“Groups like the International Socialist Organization promoted the contradictory and academic slogan of ‘Yes to the Revolution, No to Intervention,” which only spread confusion in the anti-war movement. After all, the Libyan ‘revolution’ was the loudest champion of of NATO’s intervention in the form of murderous air strikes. Its fate, whether it succeeded or failed, was based on the relative successes of the NATO intervention. All the actors in the Libya conflict (the government, the masses who rallied against intervention, the rebels and the imperialists) understood very quickly that the ‘revolution’ and the Pentagon/NATO intervention had become indissolubly linked. The only ones who denied this reality were groups like the ISO which believed they could magically separate the two with a rhetorical contrivance.

“As the imperialists bombed away, the ISO ignored the masses of Libyans who rallied in defense of national sovereignty against imperialism since they did not fit the conventional schema, invented by the imperialist media outlets, of the “people versus the dictator.”In practice, instead of joining a united front with all those standing up against intervention, they formed an anti-Qaddafi united front with the Libyans in exile who championed intervention.”

Same mistakes with Syria

Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the ISO was propagating a similar line in regard to Syria. A 2013 article headlined the question, “Will the U.S. hijack Syria’s revolution?” This renewed indulgence in fantasy contends that a truly independent, revolutionary movement is fighting the government of Syria and that the imperialists are worried. In fact, the FSA and its civilian wing – both made up of many organizations — have been brought together by U.S., British, French and other foreign operatives.

All the forces engaged in armed struggle against the government in Damascus, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS) and the FSA, have been supported, armed and funded by outside forces. Far from being worried about being “hijacked” by the U.S. and other imperialists, the FSA has been seeking, like the “rebels” in Libya before them, more arms, more money, more intervention from the U.S., NATO and regional states.

FSA leaders expressed bitter anger when Obama, under intense domestic and international pressure, pulled back from launching a bombing war on Syria in September 2013. But now they are set to receive $500,000,000 (and perhaps much more) in the way of arms, training and funding to pay the salaries of their troops to fight the government.

This mercenary army will be built on the explicit orders that the training will be carried out by the Pentagon and CIA. It is truly absurd that the ISO can still maintain the illusion that there is a “Syrian Revolution” led by the Free Syrian Army. Just this week, huge sections of nominally FSA units defected to the advancing al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) army.

In Libya and Syria, internal conflicts divided both countries into warring camps. In both Libya and Syria, the U.S., and its NATO and regional allies intervened on the side of those seeking to overthrow the government, the same side supported by the ISO.

The ISO’s historical pattern

There is no fundamental difference between the Libya and Syria interventions and earlier contra wars against Cuba, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and other countries. The aim in all cases has been “regime change,” to replace the existing governments with ones that would toe the U.S. line.

In almost all these cases, the ISO got it wrong. It sees revolutions where there are none, and it fails to see revolutions where they actually exist. The following table provides a sample of their historical positions:

Movements and organizations the ISO showed solidarity with (at least initially)

  • The “mujahideen” in Afghanistan against the socialist government and the Soviet Union
  • The “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia which brought neoliberal capitalism to power
  • The pro-Western “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine
  • The “Rose Revolution” in Georgia
  • The 1991 overthrow of the USSR (trumpeting Boris Yeltsin)
  • The Kosovo Liberation Army (a fascist force)
  • The middle-class and pro-Western Green movement in Iran
  • The Libyan rebels that championed NATO intervention
  • The Free Syrian Army that champions NATO intervention

Movements and organizations the ISO tendency refused to support, and attacked instead as “Stalinist”

  • The Chinese Revolution and the Communist Party of China including during the Mao era
  • North Korea, even during the Korean War
  • The Cuban Revolution and the Communist Party of Cuba
  • The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
  • The Philippines’ National Democratic Revolution and the Communist Party of the Philippines
  • The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution

Although the ISO hedges its analysis here and there with various criticisms or supportive comments on both sides of this table, in reality its historical tendency has stood out on the Left for its most hostile attitude towards actual revolutions, and its apologetics on behalf of Western-backed “democracy” movements that are always (magically) “hi-jacked” later. If one were to create a table of which “revolutionaries” and movements the U.S. imperialists supported, and which they condemned, it would be more or less identical.

What this history and the latest ISO polemic reveals is how close the ISO is to liberalism and how far from revolutionary Marxism and Leninism.

Imperialism and national oppression

The writer, Ashley Smith, states that the PSL

“consider[s] U.S. rivals like China and Russia and various Third World dictatorships like North Korea to be ‘anti-imperialist.’ By siding with these oppressive states [sic] they fail to side with the oppressed people who live under them . . . Genuine anti-imperialism does not choose between rival states in the capitalist system, but supports national liberation struggles against all imperialisms as part of the international workers movement to get rid of capitalism and its system of states. That means standing with mass democratic revolts, regardless of whether the regime is an ally or opponent of the U.S.”

There are so many fundamental errors in the above sentences it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, it’s not just China, Russia, etc., that are “oppressive states.” As Lenin put it, “the state is a special organization of force; it is the organization of violence for the suppression of some class.” He was not just talking about Czarist Russia or the Roman Empire, but all states. To refer to some states as “oppressive” but “forget” to mention that the state we live in, the most powerful in the world, is as well, panders to liberal illusions.

“Genuine” anti-imperialists, particularly those who live in the center of world imperialism often must make decisions about which side they defend in struggles between states in the capitalist world system. Otherwise the concepts of national liberation and self-determination are just empty slogans. When an oppressed country is attacked by an imperialist state or alliance of imperialist states, anti-imperialists support the oppressed country, as in the cases of Ethiopia, Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, Panama, Angola, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, etc. This does not necessitate political support to the government in question, but defending its basic right to determine its own destiny.

To not defend oppressed countries – capitalist or otherwise — that are under attack by imperialism is a complete abandonment of the Leninist position on the right of oppressed nations to self determination. Revolutionary socialists inside an imperialist country are required to struggle against “their government” when it targets and attacks a state that has been subjected to colonialism and imperialist oppression.

Only anarchists can subscribe to the view that we are today in the stage of eliminating “the system of states” in the world. Clearly, that will only be possible after the worldwide triumph of socialism.

In another bow to mainstream political discourse, the article refers to Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, as a “butcher” and “tyrant,” terms the ISO s refrains from attaching to the leaders of world imperialism.

Smith calls the PSL “Stalinist,” with no clarification of what that term means and no evidence supporting this characterization. In other words, it’s just one more regurgitation of a bourgeois anti-communist slander – particularly popular in liberal circles — intended to discredit revolutionary socialists with no explanation required.

The government of Syria and former government of Libya have been highly demonized in the West, making defending those countries against imperialism more difficult. The ISO’s substitution of imagination for reality in regard to both Libya and Syria has contributed nothing but more confusion.

No one active in anti-war organizing has any doubt that the movement needs to be stronger. In recent years, the ANSWER Coalition, together with other organizations, has initiated national days of action against the U.S. wars and interventions against Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and has played a major role in mobilizing solidarity with the Palestinian people under assault by the U.S.-backed Israeli regime.

ANSWER has worked together with March Forward!, which carries out organizing work among vets and active duty service members. There is much more to do and the new U.S. wars on Iraq and Syria make the tasks of the movement more urgent.

A key foundational requirement for building a powerful anti-war movement is political clarity, especially here in the United States, the center of world imperialism.

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