Marxism & Islamic Reaction
Polemics on Khomeini, Morsi & Erdoğan
The contents of this bulletin originated in a July 2016 disagreement within the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) over what attitude to take to the attempted military coup against Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the course of the exchange a number of related questions arose. Comrades on both sides of the debate agreed that the issues posed in Turkey were essentially the same as those in July 2013 when the Egyptian military toppled Mohamed Morsi, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure who had been elected president a year earlier. At that time a majority of the IBT leadership adopted a position of defeatism on both sides, although Josh Decker, Mikl and several others argued in favor of defending Morsi.
Three years later a majority of the IBT leadership favored siding with Erdoğan against a coup attempt in Turkey. Several comrades who had previously upheld a dual defeatist policy in Egypt reversed their position and retroactively supported blocking with Morsi against the military. A minority, which upheld the original defeatist position in Egypt and argued for taking the same approach in Turkey, drew a parallel with Iran circa 1978-79 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist movement confronted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In that instance the then-revolutionary international Spartacist tendency took a dual defeatist position, codified in three slogans: “Down with the Shah! No to the Mullahs! Workers to Power!” Virtually every other ostensibly Trotskyist tendency celebrated Khomeini’s insurrectionary movement and its triumph over the bloody Pahlavi regime, while ignoring or downplaying the ugly theocratic core of Iran’s “Islamic Revolution.” Subsequent developments thoroughly vindicated the Spartacist position.
The International Socialist Tendency (IST—originally founded by Tony Cliff in the 1950s and today led by Alex Callinicos) was an enthusiastic backer of the Islamic revolution in 1979. After the hated Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the IST called for workers to vote for Mohammed Morsi, the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist analogue to Khomeini’s movement in Iran. The Brotherhood had a substantial rural Islamist base, but to get elected it needed to attract support from working people and others who did not embrace their theocratic program. In an attempt to broaden his appeal, Morsi issued vague promises of democratic reform and played down his Islamist politics. This enabled him to pick up votes from many Mubarak opponents who were wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather than challenge illusions in Morsi, the “Revolutionary Socialists,” the IST’s Egyptian affiliate, went along with them.
After winning the election Morsi’s clumsy efforts to push through his reactionary agenda rapidly alienated many of his less devout supporters. In June 2013 a wave of mass anti-Morsi protests took place that were significantly larger than the demonstrations that had undermined the Mubarak dictatorship two years earlier. The IST, always sensitive to which way the wind is blowing, eagerly jumped aboard the mass movement against the reactionary who they had promoted as a lesser evil only a year earlier:
“Mursi has been so bad that he has pushed people beyond democratic boundaries. They don’t care that he was elected—he hasn’t delivered what people wanted so he has to go.
“People say, ‘We’ll get rid of you like we got rid of the last one’.
“Everyone feels Mursi will go, though it’s not clear how. Even if the army move to force him out, people will see it as a victory for mass action.”
—Socialist Worker (UK), Issue No. 2360
When the army did move against Morsi it became very clear that rather than a “victory for mass action,” Egyptian workers were facing a restoration of a Mubarak-style dictatorship. Sidestepping responsibility for pimping for Morsi the previous year, the IST leadership primly observed that opposition to him was concentrated among “the workers and the poor, who wanted to improve their social conditions, and rejected the continuation by the ‘Mursi Mubarak’ regime of policies which entrench social inequality” (Socialist Worker [UK], Issue No. 2382).
The responsibility of revolutionaries is to provide leadership—not to adapt to whatever is currently popular. The inability of the IST to tell workers the simple truth in 2012—that Morsi was their enemy who they should therefore not support—was of a piece with their willingness to echo illusions a year later that his ouster by the military might somehow turn out to be a “victory.” Any such hopes were quickly dispelled when the Egyptian military promptly imposed a virtual dictatorship, crushing opposition and ruthlessly murdering hundreds of Morsi’s supporters.
While Callinicos et al withdrew their support for Morsi as soon as the masses recognized his commitment to “entrench[ing] social inequality,” Decker and his co-thinkers (most of whom were from the New Zealand component of the IBT) used a different measuring stick. For them Morsi’s imposition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s reactionary social and economic policies was less important than the fact that he had won an election, which they thought somehow made it obligatory to defend him. This wooden formalism, while entirely different from the grossly opportunist willingness of the International Socialists to align with anything currently popular, is no closer to a genuinely Marxist approach.
When two wings of the ruling class come to blows, revolutionaries ask what, if anything, is at stake for working people. Sometimes workers have an interest in the victory of one side over the other, but more often they do not. It all depends on the program and social base of the contending forces, and that can only be determined on a case by case basis.
Marxists backed Salvador Allende against Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973 and stood with Spain’s elected popular front in 1936 against the rightist military revolt led by Francisco Franco. In these situations, as in Russia in September 1917 when General Lavr Kornilov attempted to overthrow Russia’s Provisional Government, the essential issue was the defense of the organizations and cadres of the workers’ movement from murderous repression. The situation in Russia was very different when two qualitatively similar gangs of anti-working class counterrevolutionaries, one led by president Boris Yeltsin and the other by vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi, came to blows in 1993. In that case working people had no side. The struggle between the bloody Pahlavi dictatorship and Khomeini’s theocratic insurgency in 1979 was another example of a situation in which workers had no reason to back either side.
In July 2016, when elements of the Turkish military launched a coup against Erdoğan, he immediately summoned his supporters into the streets in defense of his government. The pictures of the civilian protesters climbing atop tanks and facing down armed military units were widely featured in the global media. But the huge crowds were overwhelmingly composed of Erdoğan’s Islamist base, with only a sprinkling of his Kurdish, liberal and leftist opponents. On 5 August 2016, a few weeks after the attempted coup, Decker posed the issue as follows:
“The more important question is whether or not the pre-coup regime fell into the category of bourgeois democracy (i.e., permitted space for open working-class political activity). If it did, then we had a duty to intervene to defeat the forces that were attempting to replace it with a military dictatorship, and our intervention would have included shooting in the same direction as Erdoğan’s forces and not, at that moment, at those forces.”
Tom Riley, who had opposed any support to Morsi because of his reactionary Islamism, argued that the issue posed in Turkey, as in Egypt, was essentially similar to that in Iran circa 1979:
“The [Iranian] mullahs posed as the agents of liberation and issued a lot of vague promises of increased freedom and respect for workers’ rights etc. Much of the left latched on to that while the iSt [international Spartacist tendency] pointed to the reactionary core of the Islamic Republic project. For a short period there was indeed a lot more freedom under the mullahs than there had been under the Shah—roughly as long as it took for the Islamic state to get properly organized. The intent of Morsi to operate a dictatorship of the pious against the ungodly was unmistakable. Likewise Erdoğan.”
On 8 August 2016 Decker replied:
“As we’ve indicated several times, we don’t accept the analogy of Iran 1979, since in that case the existing government (the Shah) was already a dictatorship, and it was a question of an equally undemocratic movement (the mullahs) attempting to replace it. You begin by equating the two sides in Turkey, and then work backwards to say that Iran 1979 is the precedent for determining our position on this sort of thing – except that that assumes what needs to be demonstrated, i.e., that we are comparing apples with apples and not oranges.”
Riley countered by challenging Decker’s assumptions about the absence of democratic space in Iran:
“I suspect that it might be easier to make a case for Khomeini’s movement in January 1979 representing democratic rights than Erdoğan’s in July 2016. There was, as I have noted, the legalization of unions and leftist press and even the creation of Islamist workers’ councils, all of which the fake left celebrated. The analogy seems apt to me at least to the extent that the SL dual defeatist position did not imply ‘staying at home’ …. our differences seem to revolve around our concrete estimate of what the two sides represented.”
The Turkish coup was the central issue in dispute at the Eighth IBT conference in April 2017. Early in the preconference discussion period Riley submitted a document pointing to the parallels between Iran in 1979 and the situations in Egypt in 2013 and Turkey in 2016 (reprinted as Document No. 1, “Revolutionary Continuity & Islamic Reaction”). Riley’s document presented considerable evidence that in 1979 the Iranian workers’ movement had enjoyed far more democratic space than Turkish workers did under Erdoğan at the time of the coup.
One awkward question for those upholding the historic Spartacist position on Khomeini who also wanted to bloc with Erdoğan, was the fact that the Iranian military had attempted a coup in Tehran in July 1980. In attempting to depose Khomeini’s regime, which had won a convincing electoral mandate, the coupsters targeted parliamentarians, just as in Turkey in 2016. In both cases the coups failed because most of the officer corps withheld support. One outstanding difference noted in the introduction to “Erdoğan, Pilsudski & Khomeini,” (reprinted as Document No. 4) was that, “The Khomeinites, unlike Erdoğan’s AKP, won a parliamentary majority in an election which all parties, including leftist ones, agreed had accurately reflected the views of the electorate.” Erdoğan’s defenders in the IBT, guided by the old adage that “discretion is the better part of valor,” refused to comment on the July 1980 coup attempt, presumably because they could not come up with a plausible explanation of why the logic of their attitude to the coups in Egypt and Turkey would not have translated into a bloc with Khomeini.
Most comrades who wanted to defend Erdoğan’s regime treated it as a flawed bourgeois democracy—roughly analogous to the 1936 Spanish and 1970 Chilean popular front governments which faced rightist military revolts. In Document No. 2, “On Erdogan’s Bonapartist Regime,” comrades H. Breitman and Riley sketched the history of the schism within Turkey’s ruling elites between traditionalist clericalists and modernizing secular-nationalists. They pointed out the many similarities between Erdoğan’s pseudo-democratic regime and Joseph Pilsudski’s in Poland during the 1920s and 30s. Their document traced the steps through which Erdoğan’s government had, over a dozen years, undergone an incremental transformation from relatively liberal bourgeois-democratic to overtly reactionary, and demonstrated that this process was qualitatively complete by 2016, even though a formally democratic veneer was retained.
The comrades who advocated backing Erdoğan against the coup did not challenge any of the facts presented in the Breitman/Riley document. They simply ignored it, secure in the knowledge that they had enough votes to carry the issue at the conference. The refusal to engage on serious programmatic issues is of course a morbid symptom in a Marxist organization, and perhaps even more so in a very small propaganda group. Erdoğan’s defenders in the IBT did submit a document (“Turkey and the Tactic of the Military Bloc” by Barbara Dorn and Adaire Hannah, reprinted as Document No. 3). Ignoring the substantive historical/factual issues, Dorn and Hannah blithely claimed that “Erdogan was in the contradictory situation of resting on the nominal structures of bourgeois democracy that elected him but which he was trying to destroy.” Riley replied:
“Erdogan’s situation was not contradictory—he had already effectively gutted all ‘democratic’ restraints. What he ‘rested on’ was not the ‘nominal structures of bourgeois democracy’ but rather his control of the repressive apparatus, his mass Islamist popular base and the ability of his Ottoman Hearth thugs to crush potential opposition.”
A third grouping within the IBT, led by cde. Mikl, was indifferent as to whether Turkey’s Islamist regime was bourgeois-democratic or bonapartist-authoritarian. In a 9 October 2016 communication Mikl bluntly declared that “even though Erdoğan and the forces which attempted the coup were exactly same, we should have opposed the coup even in that case too.” When Riley pointed out that Mikl’s approach contradicted that of his bloc partners who defended the Islamist regime on democratic grounds, Decker awkwardly responded:
“[Riley] incorrectly makes a distinction between Mikl and the rest of us. For my part, I don’t see a difference. We have all, as Mikl said, viewed Erdoğan as ‘having an anti-democratic orientation.’ The difference between us and Tom is that we do not, unlike Tom seems to do, frame the problem in terms of trying to quantify how much commitment Erdoğan had to bourgeois democracy.”
—Decker, 19 October 2016
Riley asked: “If we were to ‘quantify how much commitment Erdoğan had to bourgeois democracy’ as something approaching zero would it really make no difference? Why would Josh wish to defend him in that case?” Decker and his co-thinkers once again opted for discretion over valor and did not reply.
As the discussion proceeded it gradually became clear that Mikl’s framework was entirely different from the tradition the rest of the group identified with. Unlike Decker, who claimed to uphold the Spartacist position on Iran, while denying that it had any application in Egypt or Turkey, Mikl recognized that the three situations were all fundamentally similar, but he was increasingly inclined to suspect that the Spartacists had been wrong about Khomeini’s movement in 1978-79.
In the aftermath of the 2017 conference Riley and Mikl continued to engage politically. Riley challenged Mikl’s proposition that in the past the Marxist movement had only taken a dual defeatist position in conflicts between imperialists, an assertion intended to bulwark his inclination to support one gang of reactionaries against another in Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Riley refuted this by citing Trotsky and Lenin’s writings on the Balkans prior to World War One (reprinted as Document No. 5, “Lenin & Trotsky’s Dual Defeatism on the Balkan Wars”).
On 4 June 2017 Mikl sent Riley a short statement indicating that that he and his co-thinkers had definitively concluded that revolutionaries should have militarily sided with the forces fighting for an Islamic republic in Iran in 1979 (reprinted as Document No. 6). While acknowledging that Khomeini’s victory ultimately culminated in an Islamist theocracy, the comrades claimed that this was not a foregone conclusion and that at least for the first few years other outcomes were possible.
Riley’s 28 June 2017 response (“On Khomeini & Counterrevolution,” Document No. 7) documented how Khomeini had emerged as the leading figure in the anti-Shah movement months prior to the final showdown in January 1979. He also described how, during the first few years after taking power, the mullahs went about systematically eliminating all competing political organizations in order to secure their uncontested supremacy.
While discussion continued over the next year, Mikl and his co-thinkers did not produce another formal statement until 29 May 2018 when, in “Iran, nationalism and imperialism,” (reprinted as Document No. 7) they observed:
“Tom et al have argued that the iSt’s neutralist position in 1979, ‘Down with the Shah, Down with the Mullahs’, should apply to Egypt and Turkey as well. From the point of view of the political components, Egypt and Turkey’s situations in 2013 and 2016 were quite similar to that of Iran in 1979, so that might be formally logical and consistent, but that position is tactically incompetent and ultra leftist.”
Mikl also thought that revolutionaries should have sided with the Ukrainian regime in 2014 and with the Syrian Baathists in the recent civil war and in virtually any other situation where one side in a domestic conflict had some sort of connection to U.S. imperialism. We responded by pointing out that very frequently the leaders they want to defend as “anti-imperialists” (including Khomeini and Erdoğan) have their own histories of collaboration with one or another imperialist power. Marxists defend neo-colonial regimes against aggression by imperialists or their proxies, but we refuse to take sides in intra-bourgeois squabbles in which both sides are qualitatively similar.
By explicitly renouncing the political legacy of the Spartacist tendency, Mikl et al put themselves outside the common political framework shared by two founding components of the IBT—the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) and the New Zealand-based Permanent Revolution Group (PRG). Despite deep divisions over the question of whether contemporary Russia should be considered to be an imperialist power (an issue with profound programmatic implications) representatives of both groupings co-signed a response to Mikl and his co-thinkers (reprinted as Document No. 8), which observed:
“Our organization was founded on the basis of a nuanced analysis of the degeneration of the Spartacist League, in which elements of future degeneration were present during a period where it was qualitatively revolutionary and uniquely defended and developed revolutionary politics—on Iran 1979 and on the national question in particular, as well as issues of special oppression and trade union work based on the transitional program, to name but a few.”
The document concluded:
“Comrades of the IBT have dedicated our political lives to upholding and continuing the revolutionary heritage of the RT/iSt, and you are not going to convince us to change our minds on issues that are so fundamental to that tradition. This opens up a wide political gulf between your politics and ours, one which seems ultimately impossible to sustain in a common organization.”
After more than a year of serious and intense discussion, it was clear that there was no likelihood of reaching agreement with Mikl. But it was also obvious, after a decade of debate, that there was no realistic prospect of convergence on “Russian Imperialism,” an issue which impacts a wide range of global geopolitics. (For a selection of the most important documents in this debate see “Is Russia Imperialist?”, which was published in November 2018.)
The ex-PRGers’ attachment to the specious notion of Russia as an imperialist power, and their flat refusal to seriously engage on the close parallels between the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini and those of Morsi and Erdoğan, made it clear that even after the inevitable departure of Mikl et al the IBT would be as divided as ever. Rather than attempting to continue a sterile and pointless dialogue of the deaf, we opted to undo the 1990 fusion with the former PRG comrades and resume independent existence as the Bolshevik Tendency. In our 24 October 2018 statement “Why Things Fell Apart” we observed:
“Political clarity is an essential attribute for a small revolutionary propaganda group if it is to play a positive role in the struggle to forge a viable Leninist leadership rooted in the working class. We uphold the political contributions of the RT/iSt in its revolutionary period as well as the entire published record of the IBT to date. We are only breaking with comrades with whom we have worked for decades because, after a lengthy and protracted series of discussions and debates, it has become clear that defending and advancing the Trotskyist program requires a new organizational framework.”
24th January 2019