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   Vol. 70/No. 33           September 4, 2006  
‘We are for whatever strengthens the
confidence and capacity of the toilers’
Letter from SWP leader on
Israel’s murderous war on Lebanon
(feature article)
The following letter from Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, to Ma’mud Shirvani was written in response to a report by Shirvani on his presentation and the discussion at an August 12 Militant Labor Forum in Washington, D.C. The fighting title of the talk chosen by supporters of the Militant in Washington was, “U.S. Hands off Iran! Israel Out of Lebanon and Gaza!”

Earlier that day, Shirvani, along with others attending the forum, had taken part in a march of 10,000 in Washington to oppose the U.S.-backed Israeli assault on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Over the last two months Shirvani, the Farsi editor for Pathfinder Press, has spoken at Militant Labor Forums in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago.

Shirvani also spoke August 19 at a Militant Labor Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, on “Middle East: Capitalism’s World Disorder and Prospects for Revolutionary Change.” He will speak August 26 at a forum on the same subject in New York City. These two events are part of wind-up educational weekends of local socialist summer schools in the Twin Cities and New York, sponsored by the Young Socialists and Socialist Workers Party. Summer school sessions were also held in Los Angeles, where Shirvani spoke in July, as well as in Atlanta.

Copyright © 2006 by New International, reprinted by permission. Subheadings and footnotes are by the Militant. Footnotes appear on page 9.


August 17, 2006
Ma’mud Shirvani
New York

Dear Ma’mud,

Thanks for the note about the forum in Washington on Saturday, and the outline both of your remarks and of the back-and-forth during the discussion period. If you have no objection, I think it would be useful to circulate it for the information of the National Committee [of the Socialist Workers Party]. The points we discussed by phone on Saturday before the forum are nothing new to the communist movement. But we need to step back and remind ourselves of the ABC’s of class politics. Steve [Clark] and I worked up the following short summary of major aspects of our discussion, which I’ll post for the movement along with your report.  
What we are for
1) Our starting point in analyzing and responding to the war in Lebanon is what we—the international communist movement—are for.

Most of the petty-bourgeois radical left start with what they’re against: in every case the Bush administration, and, in this particular case, Israel as well. (Some would add “the West,” “Christendom,” or capitalism.) Then comes the unspoken enabling clause: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Voila! Hezbollah—literally the “party of God”—is suddenly transformed and hailed by many as a revolutionary national liberation organization. Sheikh Nasrallah is its admired leader. And “We are all Hezbollah!” starts resounding as the new watchword for much of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois far left.

The communist movement, on the other hand, is for whatever strengthens the working class and rural toilers, their confidence and capacity for independent struggle within the anti-imperialist resistance. We are for whatever increases working people’s space to politically organize and fight to move toward workers and farmers governments that can lead the toilers in overturning imperialist oppression and capitalist exploitation. We are for whatever advances the working class along that line of march. With that as our strategic guide, communists call for the defeat of Israel in the current war, as we did in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 19821—and as we do in any military conflict between an oppressed nation or nationality and an imperialist power (or a regime such as the Israeli capitalist state that defends and advances imperialist interests).

At the same time, communists give no political support to Hezbollah, any more than we did to the Egyptian, Syrian, or other bourgeois governments (whether “republican” or monarchical) in the earlier Arab-Israeli wars, or to the Kuomintang2 or the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie3 during the resistance to Japanese and Italian imperialism in the 1930s. All such misleaderships, claiming to speak for the popular masses and for patriotism, are obstacles to an effective fight for national liberation, as well as class enemies of the workers’ and peasants’ march toward power.

Just because Hezbollah stands at the head of the military forces in combat with the Israeli Defense Forces does not turn it into a national liberation movement. It is not the Vietnamese National Liberation Front or North Vietnamese Army—fighting to defend and extend a workers state—much less the revolutionary-led July 26 Movement and Rebel Army in Cuba. It’s not comparable to the FLN of Algeria, the FSLN of Nicaragua, the New Jewel Movement of Grenada, nor the African National Congress of South Africa during the anti-imperialist struggles in those countries.4  
Hezbollah, counterrevolution in Iran
Hezbollah, as you explained based on firsthand experience as a leader of a communist party in Iran during the revolutionary period opened in 1979, is an outgrowth in Lebanon of the bourgeois regime and political forces in Tehran that organized the “street vanguard” of the counterrevolution against proletarian forces in Iran in 1979 and the early 1980s.

I'm sure those attending the forum in D.C. were interested in your description of how the goon squads in those early years that broke up meetings and headquarters of workers organizations, supporters of women’s rights, oppressed nationalities, and the communist movement took the name “Hezbollah”—there was no party but the “party of God,” and Ayatollah Khomeini was its leader.5

That, in turn, was the political inspiration for the organization that adopted the name Hezbollah when it was established in Lebanon in the early 1980s, with direct involvement of elite military and intelligence units of the Iranian regime. Hezbollah carried out bombings against U.S. and French troops in Lebanon in 1983. Along with other organizations in Lebanon, it organized attacks on Israeli forces during Tel Aviv's 22-year occupation of the south, becoming the dominant force by the 1990s. It simultaneously built up large business interests and established itself as a bourgeois political force in south Lebanon, with a populist and “charitable” face. It consolidated a base among Lebanon’s large Shiite population, creating an extensive military network along the southern border when Israel withdrew its troops in 2000.

Hezbollah's goal is to establish an “Islamic Republic” in Lebanon, that is, a capitalist regime modeled on the one that emerged from the bourgeois and bonapartist counterrevolution in Iran.  
Fight for workers,’ peasants’ power
As we discussed by phone on Saturday, Israel is not the major obstacle to the struggle against imperialist oppression and for the class interests of workers and peasants in most countries of the Middle East. It is in Palestine, of course. But the most direct and immediate class enemy in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere—through which the superexploitation and military penetration of imperialism are mediated—are the capitalist rulers and other bourgeois political forces in those countries. It is they who prevent the toilers from organizing and fighting to achieve national liberation, carry out a thoroughgoing agrarian reform, and organize and agitate to establish popular revolutionary dictatorships that act in the interests of the exploited producers. Within that class and historic framework, toilers throughout the Middle East also confront Israel’s military and political weight as a bastion of imperialism in the region.

The political attitude of communists toward movements such as Hezbollah is not something new. Lenin’s draft theses on the national and colonial question, prepared for the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, stressed “the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.” (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, pp. 149-50.)

And in his report to the Congress on that resolution, Lenin emphasized “that we, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organising in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited.” (LCW, vol. 31, p. 242.)

It makes little difference whether such bourgeois movements or organizations operate under a “religious” or a “secular” banner. From a class standpoint, there is little to distinguish Hezbollah from the Ba’athists, or to set apart Hamas from what Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization6 had degenerated into by the late 1980s.  
Political crisis in Israel
2) The indecision of the Kadima-Labor coalition government, unpreparedness of Tel Aviv’s armed forces, and conduct of its officer corps since Israel launched the war last month has brought on a political crisis there. (It is not totally dissimilar to what is happening in Washington now.) Likud, its current leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and others are already fighting to turn the situation to their advantage, likely shortening the lifespan of the current coalition regime.

Among other things, Netanyahu’s backers draw attention, often not so subtly, to a fact underlined in the political report discussed and adopted by our convention earlier this summer: that Ehud Olmert is “the first Israeli prime minister who is neither a military figure from one or more of Israel’s wars from 1948 to today nor a veteran leader of the Zionist organizations that established the Israeli state.”7 The same is true of Amir Peretz, Israel’s defense minister and leader of the Labor Party. Ehud Olmert may be the most recent of Golda Meir’s successors but not an heir apparent, either politically or militarily. Nor is Amir Peretz a knockoff of Moshe Dayan.8

Nothing could be further from the truth, however, than the claims by certain sections of the bourgeois press—echoed hopefully by many petty-bourgeois radicals and liberals, and by the Hezbollah leadership itself—that Israel sustained an unprecedented defeat in the war, and Hezbollah a glorious victory. Or that the alleged universal belief—a myth—of all Arab or Muslim regimes and political currents in Israel's military invincibility has now been shattered, opening the way to increasing and more devastating setbacks to Israel in years to come. To the degree such a belief may have taken hold among some bourgeois Arab forces in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars, it had already been badly eroded by Israel’s overreaching in the occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000.

Tel Aviv and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are paying a political and military price for the fact that they have not fought a war since 1982. What are fundamentally militarized police operations by the IDF against the Palestinian resistance, even major operations, are not the same thing as combat against trained regular or irregular military forces in a war.

Jews in Israel remain subject to universal conscription—men for three years, women for two. But both the numbers and readiness of the IDF reserves, which were a decisive factor in the 1973 war with Syria and Egypt, have declined. While for many years all conscripted Israeli men remained in the reserves until they were 51, being called up for training one month each year, the period of reserve service has now been cut back to age 40 and call-ups have become more infrequent. Such weakening of the IDF will now be reversed, even in face of grumbling among some middle-class and professional layers who’d become comfortable with it. (Those who slide far enough along the bell curve9 anywhere in the world want other folks’ kids dying to protect their privileges. Israel is no exception.)

Israel’s capitalist rulers are preparing for new and wider wars. They will take the deaths and casualties necessary to defend the state of Israel. Anything else would be suicide for them, and the toilers cannot base our course of action on the illusion the enemy will self-destruct. To advance these war preparations, as you pointed out in your forum presentation, the Israeli rulers now recognize they must embark on their own military transformation, much as the U.S. ruling class has been doing for half a decade10 (as well as the rulers—at varying paces and in different ways—in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and parts of Continental Europe). With whatever factional divisions among them, Likud, Labor, and Kadima will all carry out this political course. They have no alternative.

Nor should we jump to conclusions that either the war in Lebanon or the crisis of the Kadima-led government means the Israeli rulers will permanently reverse engines on their course in Gaza and the West Bank.

Even prior to the Lebanon conflict, the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian forces based in Gaza had already slowed the process, and the war in Lebanon will have further consequences for the shape and timing of what’s to come. But the objective trends impelling the course of the Israeli rulers, presented in our 2006 convention document, have not changed.  
End of ‘Greater Israel’ prospect
“The prospect of a ‘Greater Israel,’ stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, is over for a decisive majority of the ruling class there,” we said. Sharon, Olmert, and other leaders of the Israeli state and armed forces were determined “that Tel Aviv’s goal, above all, must be to ‘ensure a Jewish majority in the country.’” And we pointed out, “What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a ‘peace process,’ as it’s dubbed [by the liberals] in the big business media…. Its newly imposed borders will roughly correspond to the 400-mile-long wall the Israeli rulers are building inside the occupied West Bank, which lops off up to 10 percent of that occupied territory for Israel. What’s more, Tel Aviv intends to hold onto East Jerusalem, selected large suburban Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as strategic military locations along the Jordanian border.”

Kadima’s illusion of the “doctrine of disengagement” as some kind of cure-all has been dealt a rude comeuppance. The conditions for Tel Aviv to hold on indefinitely to a “Greater Israel,” however, are no more favorable today than what has evolved over the past decade. The wall will continue to go up, and the Israeli rulers will still be compelled to attend to these unalterable contradictions.  
Capitalism: death trap for Jews
3) As I said during our phone conversation, the phrase we often use, that “Israel is a death trap for the Jews,” becomes politically misleading when it is lifted out of time and space. It has increasingly become a substitute for concrete thought—a catchphrase, and one that’s not true in any literal, military sense for the foreseeable future.

In paraphrasing that insight from Trotsky’s unfinished 1940 article, we tend to truncate what he said and thus miss the main point—the point that’s truer than ever today. Yes, Trotsky pointed out that the Zionists, if successful in their efforts to establish a colonial-settler state in Palestine, would transform that region into “a bloody trap” for the Jews there. But then he moved immediately to his political conclusion: “Never was it so clear as it is today,” Trotsky wrote, “that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.” (Leon Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p. 16.) It's unambiguous, moreover, that Trotsky was talking about the Jewish people throughout the world, not the tiny percentage then living in Palestine.

The world domination of finance capital in crisis: that’s the real death trap for Jews today, as it has been all along. The death trap is throwing in your lot with politically dominant and “culturally advanced” sectors of the imperialist world order, as the social composition of the Jewish population in the United States and—possibly to a lesser degree, I’m not sure—in Europe shifts in its substantial majority away from the working class. That, too, we addressed in this year’s convention document. Just by looking at the worldwide demographics of the Jewish population, we pointed out, the United States, not Israel, turned out to be the “promised land.” Nearly half the Jews on earth live in the United States, substantially more than in Israel. And while the big majority of Jews who emigrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were workers—many of them socialists or communists—“the class composition of the Jewish population has changed dramatically over the past half century, with a majority of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these immigrants moving into better-off layers of ‘rent’ collectors among the middle classes and professionals.”

And we concluded: “So long as the imperialist system prevails…neither the United States nor anywhere else will be a ‘promised land’ for the Jews. For Jews in this country, the consequences of the long hot winter world capitalism has entered will bring more—and much worse—than the mounting economic instability and insecurity that will hit widening layers of the middle classes. It will bring in its wake a new rise of fascist organizations that will target not just the labor movement, Blacks, women, and others among the oppressed and exploited, but will also lace their radical anticapitalist demagogy and conspiracy mania with Jew-hating filth and carry out physical assaults on Jews.

“The U.S. bourgeoisie and their petty-bourgeois spokespersons—including many who are Jewish—promote comfortable assurances that ‘it can't happen here.’ But such delusions offer no greater protection to Jews in the imperialist United States (or Europe) than to those convinced in the 1920s and 1930s that they had fully ‘assimilated’ into capitalist society in Germany.”

That, above all, is the death trap for the Jews that the communist movement must not only explain in clear and uncompromising class terms, but must join with other vanguard workers to prevent, by any means necessary.  
Bourgeois vs. revolutionary methods
4) I noticed from your notes on the discussion period in D.C. that you said something to the effect that “we should also remember that the Arab regimes in the recent period have carried out massive massacres of Arab toilers which dwarf Israeli atrocities.”

Be careful. That bourgeois Arab regimes “have carried out massive massacres of Arab toilers”—and Kurdish, Turk, and other toilers—there can be no doubt. But communists are not in the business of weighing relative degrees of atrocities by conflicting regimes of our class enemies. That’s never a reliable political guide for the proletarian movement, including which side, if any, to support in a war.

The point I tried to make during our phone conversation on Saturday afternoon was a different one, related specifically to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and maimed on both sides during that war. Hundreds of thousands! Inside and outside Iran, communists called for the defeat of the Iraqi regime. While Washington and other imperialist powers officially declared themselves “neutral,” they in fact supported Baghdad, both politically and materially.

The U.S. rulers hoped an Iraqi victory would wipe out all vestiges of the revolution in Iran and make possible the reimposition of a regime there directly subservient to imperialist interests.

My point was twofold: (1) that communist workers in Iran, and our world movement, gave no political support to the capitalist government in Tehran; and (2) that the bourgeois political and military course of the reactionary Iranian regime resulted in untold needless deaths of soldiers and civilians, both Iranian and Iraqi. Those methods were neither necessary nor defensible in pursuing the goal—a goal we supported—of defeating Baghdad’s invading army. As we know most recently from the record of the Rebel Army and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, the military strategy and tactics of a revolutionary working-class leadership are consistent with our proletarian habits and political program, not contrary to them.

That, as you know from your own direct political experience in Iran, was the line and course of our organization there during the Iran-Iraq war.

That’s why, when we published “The Opening Guns of World War III” in New International no. 7, we included along with it the 1980 and 1982 documents of our organization in Iran (See “Communism, the Working Class, and the Anti-Imperialist Struggle: Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War,” pp. 327-351).  
By the way, our movement in Iran set another good example that I was reminded of just this morning. A column by a well-known bourgeois conservative in today’s Wall Street Journal points out (correctly or not, I have no way of knowing) that it was a French “Marxist” who first referred to the Islamic Republic in Iran as “Islamofascism,” way back at the end of the 1970s. There were “Marxists” inside Iran, too, who, as the counterrevolution was consolidated, used similar language to describe the regime there. And that’s also the term, in one form or another, that President Bush is now using—in recent comments on an alleged London-based plot against airliners, as well as his State of the Union address in January—to portray those whom “this nation is at war with,” i.e., the “long war.”

Comrades in Iran didn’t fall for that political sucker bait a quarter century ago, just as communists don’t do so today. We analyzed the bonapartist capitalist regime in Iran concretely and accurately as it emerged and crystallized. And we’re capable of responding to the anti-working-class courses of bourgeois political regimes and currents in oppressor and oppressed nations alike—from the Bush administration, to the Islamic Republic in Tehran, to others too numerous to list—without confusing workers and farmers about what fascism really is. [For a brief discussion of fascism, see article in this issue.—Ed.]

It is, in fact, political forces who throw around rhetoric such as “Islamofascism”—both on the bourgeois right and left—whose policies are seeding the ground in which real fascist movements will germinate as the crisis of the imperialist world order deepens and the toilers organize to threaten capitalist rule.  
Building proletarian parties
5) Finally, the most important point is that in explaining all this to workers, farmers, and youth, we always find ways to tie it concretely to what communists in this country—or wherever we’re functioning—are doing as we participate in the class struggle and build the proletarian movement here. Otherwise, no matter how accurate, it’s just commentary. It’s not communism. It’s not part of the line of march of the working class to the dictatorship of the proletariat.


I hope these observations will be useful to you when you speak at the regional educational conference in the Twin Cities this coming weekend, and at the final session of the New York summer school the following weekend. And on from there.

Jack Barnes

1. Following the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948 based on a United Nations-imposed partition of Palestine, Israeli troops terrorized Palestinians into fleeing their land and homes and defeated five Arab governments that sought to block the seizure of these territories. In 1956, after the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal, Israeli troops invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula with support from British and French imperialism; Washington, advancing its own imperialist interests in the region, successfully pressed London, Paris, and Tel Aviv to withdraw. In the six-day 1967 war, the Israeli military seized the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and Golan Heights from Syria. Tel Aviv also won the 1973 war against Egypt and Syria. During Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon, Israeli armed forces collaborated with Lebanese rightists in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut; Tel Aviv occupied the southern part of the country until 2000.

2. The bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), headed by Chiang Kai-shek, became the ruling party in China in 1928, having drowned in blood many thousands of workers and peasants during the Second Chinese Revolution. When Japanese imperialist troops invaded China in 1931, communists around the world waged an international campaign calling for Tokyo’s defeat in the war against the Chiang-led regime. The Japanese occupation forces were defeated in 1945. The Kuomintang regime was overthrown in the 1946-49 civil war led by the Chinese Communist Party.

3. Haile Selassie was emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. When Ethiopia was invaded by Italian imperialist forces in 1935, communists campaigned for Rome’s defeat. Selassie’s monarchy was overthrown in a popular revolution in 1974.

4. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front led the resistance to U.S. imperialist domination of southern Vietnam from 1960 to 1975. The war ended in a victory over Washington and its imperialist allies, opening the way to the reunification of the country, extension of the workers state from north Vietnam to the entire country, and the overturn of the murderous Pol Pot regime in neighboring Cambodia. The July 26 Movement and Rebel Army led a revolutionary war in Cuba in which working people toppled the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959 and subsequently brought to power a workers and farmers government that overturned capitalist rule. The National Liberation Front (FLN) led the 1954-63 popular struggle in Algeria that defeated French colonial rule. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of Nicaragua and New Jewel Movement of Grenada led revolutionary struggles by working people that overthrew U.S.-backed dictatorships in 1979. The victories in Algeria, Nicaragua, and Grenada led to the establishment of workers and farmers governments that, for concrete reasons in each country, were unable to lead the toilers in overturning capitalist rule. The African National Congress (ANC) led the struggle to overturn the apartheid regime in South Africa.

5. In Shirvani’s report on his presentation to the Washington, D.C., forum, he described, “How extralegal goons calling themselves Hezbollah gained notoriety in Iran in 1979, smashing independent democratic assemblies, left groups, and workers organizations. Three of the headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party of Iran were smashed in the middle of the night in Tehran in the summer of 1979, with books, typewriters, and copy machines destroyed.” Shirvani said he had then explained, “How the organization called Hezbollah in Lebanon was an extension of the counterrevolution in Iran—what its class character and trajectory were.”

In an insurrection in February 1979, workers, peasants, and other popular forces had toppled the U.S.-backed Iranian monarchy of the shah. The government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power on the crest of that revolutionary upheaval and, in the absence of working-class leadership strong enough to lead workers and farmers to take power, was able to consolidate the capitalist Islamic Republic that stifled and eventually reversed many of the gains of the 1979 revolution.

6. Fatah is the dominant political group in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was formed in 1964 and led the Palestinian national liberation struggle for several decades. For more on the political evolution of the PLO, see “Washington’s Assault on Iraq: Opening Guns of World War III” by Jack Barnes in New International no. 7, pp. 87-90.

7. The resolution, “The World Crisis of Imperialism and the Contradictory Dynamics of the Labor Vanguard,” was adopted at the Socialist Workers Party’s national convention in June 2006.

8. Golda Meir (1898-1978) served as Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974. Moshe Dayan was commander of the Haganah forces in the 1948 war that played a central role in the dispossession of the Palestinian people and establishment of the state of Israel. He was commander-in-chief of the Israeli army (1953-58) and defense minister (1967-73).

9. The reference is to the 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The book seeks to provide a “statistical” and “scientific” rationalization for the wealth and high income of middle-class and professional layers by arguing that these and other privileges are rewards for being smarter. According to the authors, as you move from lower to higher test results along a statistical distribution of IQs (the “bell curve”), those in the upper middle classes (the “the cognitive elite”)—due to “innate” intelligence—will be bunched at the right, or “smarter,” end. The authors contend that Jews, “specifically, Ashkenazi Jews of European origins,” are more intelligent on average than other people, thus explaining “their disproportionate level of success.”

10. For an explanation of the shift under way in the global deployment and structure of U.S. imperialism’s armed forces and its military strategy, see “Their Transformation and Ours,” a resolution adopted by the Socialist Workers Party at its 2005 convention. It is published in New International no. 12.
Related articles:
U.S. military blocks Iranian arms shipment to Hezbollah
Israeli troops conduct raid deep in Lebanon as deployment of int’l force delayed
Fascism: not a form of capitalism but a way to maintain capitalist rule  
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