The International Situation and Perspectives (Part 2)

Continuing with his analysis of the world situation, Alan Woods looks at the growing crisis in the Middle East. Explaining the interdependence of everything on a world scale, he points out how the war in Iraq affects the United States and other countries, and how this affects the developing revolution in Latin America.

Introductory note:

The bloodshed in Iraq took a new turn last week with the brutal attack on one of Iraq's smaller minorities, killing at least 400 people and wounding hundreds more in areas populated mostly by adherents of the Yazidi religion in the remote north-west region of Sinjar. Four co-coordinated blasts together constituted the deadliest single attack of the whole war.

Yazidis, most of whom are Kurds, practice a pre-Islamic religion. Because they venerate an angel many Muslims associate with Satan, they are sometimes accused of being devil-worshippers. As part of his notorious Arabisation campaign, Saddam Hussein uprooted Yazidis from their ancestral land, herding them into new "towns" that were initially more like concentration camps. One of those was targeted by the suicide-bombers this week.

The madness of religious sectarianism and communal slaughter has spread to Kurdistan, which, as I predicted in my speech to a meeting of the IMT in Barcelona (published below) will be far worse than anywhere else. As I pointed out, the insurgents displaced by the American "surge" in central Iraq have moved elsewhere - to Kurdistan. An earlier bombing in the north killed 150 in the town of Emerli.

Ethnic tensions have also been sharpened by the coming referendum on the disputed province of Kirkuk and neighbouring districts. Sunni Arabs and others are nervous about a vote that might result in large swathes of the region joining an autonomous Kurdistan.

Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, is struggling to put together his national-unity government in response to American pressure. But in the past four months three big blocks have left it: the radical Shias associated with Muqtada al-Sadr; the secular-leaning Iraqi List of Iyad Allawi, a former Shia prime minister; and the main Sunni coalition, the Iraqi Consensus Front. In other words, the "surge" has failed and the coalition is collapsing before our eyes.

Alan Woods 

[London 21/8/07]

The International Situation and Perspectives (Part 2)

The most important thing to note is the enormous interdependence of everything on a world scale. That's why we always start with a discussion on World Perspectives. It is impossible to understand perspectives in Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Venezuela, etc. without understanding the larger context.

Marxists are not economic determinists but dialectical materialists. The economic cycle is important, but it does not exhaust the question of class consciousness or revolutionary perspectives. It is also a political question. For example, the effects of the instability in the Middle East, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have had a big political impact in Italy, Spain. Also in the USA there is a serious political crisis over Iraq. At the other end of the world Pakistan (where we have a strong section) has been totally destabilized by events in Afghanistan.

We are not meeting here for academic purposes. Our purpose is to analyze the general crisis of capitalism in order to intervene. And in order to intervene we require the forces. We must build those forces. In the past we were often mostly spectators. For example, during the Allende period in Chile we had an absolutely correct analysis but we were only onlookers, not active participants in events. Today in Pakistan we are a force. In Venezuela we have a growing force that has built important points of support. In Mexico we have an outstanding group that is intervening very effectively in the mass movement. This affects the whole nature of our discussions.


US imperialism is behaving, not like a bull in a china shop but like an elephant in a china shop. Afghanistan is in a complete a mess and as a result Pakistan finds itself in a major crisis, which we have covered in articles on our website. There was the lawyers' crisis, then there was the Red Mosque crisis, etc. It is clear that Musharraf is hanging by a thread and they are preparing for Bhutto's return to Pakistan. Important developments are on the order of the day and our comrades are in a good position to take advantage of them.

The war in Afghanistan drags on and Western casualties are mounting. The US plan to rely on air power in Afghanistan in order to avoid American casualties has failed. Instead the bombing has caused heavy civilian casualties Afghan aid groups estimate that foreign and Afghan forces killed 230 civilians in the first six months of 2007-as many as in the whole of last year. Since the start of 2006, some 6,000 people are believed to have died, perhaps 1,500 of them civilians.

Most are caused by America's Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which is separate from the NATO-led stabilization mission, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This is the Pentagon's version of the gentle art of winning friends and influencing people.

British-led troops are fighting on the ground in Helmand province, advancing along the Sangin valley in the hope of reopening the road to the Kajaki dam, to allow the refurbishment of its hydroelectric plant. But they are taking a lot of casualties in a war they cannot win.

The Taliban avoid head-on battles and are now resorting to more suicide attacks and roadside blasts. These "asymmetrical" (i.e. guerrilla) tactics are very effective and are used even in Kabul. A suicide-bombing on June 17th killed 22 police-academy instructors and 13 bystanders. A similar attack almost killed Dick Cheney.

The former ISAF commander, the British general, David Richards, is said to have warned colleagues in London this month that NATO was making "the best of a bad job"; it was short of troops and had to compensate with heavy firepower. This means even more civilian casualties.

However, they cannot get more soldiers. If anything, allies could start to drop out. Some, such as Britain, Denmark and Poland are increasing their forces. But others are not keen to lose more lives. The Germans are present but their troops are confined to the north (where there is little or no fighting) and are forbidden to leave barracks at night. The Afghan mission is unpopular in Germany, and almost brought down the Italian government in February. The Netherlands are also shaky and will decide in August whether to extend its operation in Uruzgan after 2008. And Sarkozy has said he would also like to leave ISAF though officials say no such move is imminent.

The Taliban, by contrast, have plenty of money, men and arms, financed by the Afghan poppy crop. The opium economy and the insurgency are mutually reinforcing; drugs finance the Taliban, while the fighting encourages poppy cultivation, especially in Helmand, which is set to harvest another record crop this year, producing more opium (and from it heroin and other illegal drugs) than the rest of Afghanistan put together.

The drugs business is highly profitable, earning some $320 billion annually. The opium trade is worth about $3.1 billion (less than a quarter of this is earned by farmers), the equivalent of about a third of Afghanistan's total economy. The Afghan opium trade is worth around $60 billion at street prices in consuming countries- and is out of control. Afghanistan last year produced the equivalent of 6,100 tons of opium, about 92% of the world total. At least the Taliban exercised some control, now there is none. These days Taliban commanders and drug smugglers are one and the same.

Some of the biggest drug barons are reputedly members of the national and provincial governments, even figures close to Hamid Karzai. The Economist (28/6/07) wrote: "The whole chain of government that is supposed to impose the rule of law, from the ministry of interior to ordinary policemen, has been subverted. Poorly paid policemen are bribed to facilitate the trade. Some pay their superiors to get particularly ‘lucrative' jobs like border control."


In Iraq, despite the presence of over 160,000 troops the Americans have lost the war. This has produced a crisis of the regime. The ruling class has lost confidence in Bush. As with Nixon, it was easy to put him in office, but much harder to get him out. The Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker, a trusted representative of ruling class, gave quite sound advice from the perspective of the U.S. bourgeoisie. They said: "We've lost - let's get out as quickly as possible; do a deal with Syria and Iran, let them sort out the mess." Instead GW sends in more troops and threatens Iran.

His slogan is: "One last push and we will win". This is like the generals in World War I, who were always ordering their soldiers over the top for one last time. Now the "Surge" is in place. An extra 21,000 of them are now there, bringing their tally in Baghdad up to 31,000-plus and nationwide to 155,000, the highest troop level since late 2005. Senior American officers say that a third of Baghdad now has a degree of "normalcy"; a third, especially those districts with a sectarian fault-line running through them, is still very violent; and a third is in flux.

Once the Americans have secured Baghdad, so the theory goes, they hope to tackle the so-called "belts" just outside Baghdad, in particular the nearby mainly Sunni towns to the south-Mahmudiya, Latifiya and Yusufiya. But this has resolved nothing. Pushed out of Baghdad, the guerillas just move to other areas. Some 2.2m Iraqis out of a population of 27m are now reckoned to have fled Iraq, while the UN estimates that another 2m have been internally displaced.

In theory, the Americans are putting faith in Iraq's own police and army to take over as soon as possible. Of 188,000 police trained by the Americans, no less than 32,000 have been lost-through death (8,000-10,000), injury (similar numbers), desertion (5,000-plus) and other reasons. The 137,000-strong army is said to be better and less obviously sectarian. But it is useless against the insurgents.

The government of national unity is no such thing. It is a group of factions, each grabbing a share of the spoils. Even the chief American general Petraeus has warned that "counter-insurgency operations can last nine to ten years." That is completely crazy. They do not have nine to ten years. Public opinion in the USA is now overwhelmingly against the war. Even the Republicans have had enough.

Whatever the Americans do now will be wrong. If they remain it will mean more casualties and solve nothing. But if they leave it will be even worse. There is a bloody sectarian civil war in Iraq. The government and the Americans can't solve the problem. The Americans demand that the Iraqis build a broad based national government, state, police, etc. But they can't do it. U.S. imperialism is responsible for this nightmare. They stoked the flames of sectarian conflict when they based themselves on the Kurds and Shiahs against Saddam Hussein, who had based himself on the Sunnis. Now the situation is out of control.

General Petraeus candidly admits that the surge will be in vain unless the breathing space his troops are trying to create is used by the Shia-led government to embrace a wider range of Sunnis. Last week America's defence secretary, Robert Gates, was in Baghdad, assessing the surge. "Our troops are buying them [the Iraqi government] time to pursue reconciliation," he said. "Frankly, we are disappointed with the progress so far." General Petraeus's masters in Washington know that if the puppet Maliki cannot do better, America's surge-and the increased loss of American life that it is already entailing-is doomed to fail.

They try to take comfort from the fact that until recently Kurdistan was relatively quiet. "The North is OK," they used to say. But the worst bloodshed and violence will take place in the North. Kurdistan is ethnically mixed. The national question cannot be resolved under capitalism, either in Iraq or anywhere else. Now there is conflict between Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Turkmens and other groups. And Turkey is looking threateningly at Iraq. Ankara will never accept an independent Kurdistan on its borders. The PKK has recommenced its guerilla war inside Turkey and has bases inside Kurdish Iraq. The Turkish army will move to crush them. It is already massing its forces on the border, just looking for an excuse to invade.

Imperialists don't wage war for fun, but for plunder, markets. But they are not getting money out of Iraq - it is costing them a colossal amount - at least two billion dollars a week and thousands of dead and wounded. Iraq has the world's third-largest reserves but they are of little use as long as the crude remains mostly beneath the ground. The oil infrastructure is in parlous condition after 17 years of war and sanctions. Output remains well below the (depressed) pre-war peak of 2.5m barrels a day.

In addition, the war has had unforeseen consequences. By destroying the Iraqi army, they removed the only power in the region that could counter-balance Iran, which is a regional power. There is also a big revolutionary potential in Iran. Ahmedinejad is playing at anti-Americanism as means of diverting the attention of the masses. The Iranians are undoubtedly intervening in Iraq and the balance of forces in the region has been upset. The whole area is destabilized. The Saudi monarchy is now hanging by a thread, and the Saudis and the other Gulf states fear the growing power of Iran and the Shias. As a result the Americans are secretly supporting the formation of an anti-Shia front in the region.

Israel and Palestine

At the centre of the crisis in the Middle East are Israel and the Palestinian question. The crisis in Gaza is a civil war between Hamas and the PLO under Abbas. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical move intended to strengthen its stranglehold on the West Bank. We see the cynicism of the imperialists (not only the Americans but also the EU) when they immediately suspended funds for the Hamas government, which, say what you will, was democratically elected.

As soon as the clash between Abbas and Hamas occurred, they restored funds to W. Bank and the stooge Abu Mazen. They want to use one side to split the Palestinians and thus ensure the continuation of Israeli dominance. The fact that they have chosen Tony Blair as Middle East emissary is itself a recognition that the Americans have no interest in solving it.  

No solution to the Palestinian question is possible on this basis. The only possible solution is to divide Israel along class lines: to break the stranglehold of reactionary Zionism. But this demands a class position. It is difficult to put forward this position in the given circumstances, but events will provide us with openings as the masses come to realize the futility of the old methods. In the meantime it is necessary to patiently explain our ideas to the most advanced elements. In future our ideas will find a mass echo.

Latin America

In world revolution as a whole, Latin America remains at the front line. This is the final answer to all reformists, cowards before imperialism, etc. In the past, the Marines would have landed long ago. Today this is impossible, politically and even physically. They are tied down in Iraq. This is not to say they won't attack - they are attacking - but they can't invade openly and must resort to indirect methods, diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, intrigues, above all within Venezuela and within the Bolivarian movement.

The imperialists understand what we understand: there is a revolutionary process in Venezuela, and the masses are moving to change society. In the old days, all socialists were "communists" as far as Washington was concerned, but now US imperialism needs to deal with "good" socialists like Lula and Kirchner to isolate Chavez. They are trying to draw in Morales also. That is the meaning of Bush's tour of Latin America and the attempt to sign bilateral trade agreements with Brazil and other countries in the region.

Revolutions do not respect frontiers and the revolutionary ferment is spreading to countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, etc. That is why they are trying to isolate Venezuela. U.S. imperialism can't tolerate the Venezuelan Revolution. But as happened in Cuba, U.S. imperialism could push Chavez beyond the limits of capitalism. If this occurs, its effects will be felt throughout the continent and beyond.

That explains the campaign of hysteria around the RCTV issue. The imperialists want to maintain the pressure on Chavez in order to halt the Revolution. They are basing themselves on the right wing of the Bolivarian leadership and the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy. But the workers and peasants are pressing from below. The result of this struggle will determine the fate of the Revolution - one way or another.

Marxists must base themselves on the fundamentals, as Ted Grant always said, not this or that accidental feature. There are no schemas that explain everything. We must set out from the world as it is, and the class struggle and workers' movement as it is. We always approach things dialectically. We see things as they are, as they were, and do best to see how they will develop. The class struggle has a certain rhythm. Lulls in the class struggle are inevitable. We cannot be empiricists. Moreover, it is not always to our advantage that masses are in constant action.

There are many analogies between class struggle and war. Wars do not consist of constant battles. Any soldier who has seen action will tell you that battles are the exception and between battles there are long periods of inactivity. Such periods must be used to clean weapons, dig trenches, drill and make new recruits: in short to prepare for the next battle, which will come sooner than we expect. We must think like good soldiers. We must use the pauses in the class struggle to build our forces and perfect our organization.

The workers are not always ready for struggle, it is true. But let us take Bolivia, where the working class staged two general strikes and two uprisings, and overthrew two governments in the space of 18 months. I ask: what more do you want from the working class? The failure to seize power was not due to the low consciousness of the masses (as Heinz Dietrich says) but to the absence of leadership.

In all countries the situation can change very rapidly. We must be prepared so as not to be taken by surprise. Something seemingly trivial can provoke a movement that can take us by surprise. Under certain conditions formerly backward elements can become the most militant, as we know from dialectics and from history. In Russia in 1905, the workers staged a peaceful march to the tsar (the Little Father) to petition for reforms. At the head of this peaceful demonstration was a priest - Father Gapon. The Marxists were in a tiny minority and completely isolated from the working class. Then there was the massacre of 9 January and the consciousness of the masses was transformed in the space of 24 hours.

What is the lesson of Venezuela? How can one explain the rapid rise of Chavez? It cannot be explained by magical powers. The process of discontent was already present among the masses, but had no vehicle through which to express itself. Once they found a means of expression, they poured onto streets in an unstoppable movement that has lasted for almost 10 years. It is really astonishing that the movement has lasted so long. The December 2006 elections showed that 63% supported Chavez after nine years of the process. This shows a very high level of revolutionary consciousness!

Class consciousness is not only measured through strikes. If the workers are checked on the industrial front, they will look for an outlet on the political front, and vice versa, etc. But they will only do this through their traditional mass organizations, because the masses do not understand small groups, even if they have correct ideas - which the sects do not in any case.

In the turbulent period that is opening up we will see big crises in all the traditional mass organizations at a certain stage. Look at Britain. You couldn't imagine a more rotten leadership than that of the Labour Party. Over the last ten years, all the sects have been busy setting up all kinds of electoral blocs and alliances to stand against the Labour Party. But they have gone nowhere.

Mexico is a good example of the way in which the masses move. We've said many times that there is not a single stable country in Latin America from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. Not long ago Mexico seemed stable. But our perspectives were fully confirmed by the events of last year. The sects understand nothing. They accused us of supporting a bourgeois party. The PRD can be considered a bourgeois party - from the point of view of its leadership and policies. But the masses don't understand that - as we saw last year.

Millions came onto the streets to protest against electoral fraud and support Lopez Obrador. Were these all bourgeois? I don't suppose there are that many bourgeois in the world. No! These were ordinary people: workers and peasants. Our comrades fought side by side with the masses, while simultaneously explaining our programme and policies and trying to take the movement forward. That was the only correct thing to do!

This gave rise to a crisis of leadership. Lopez Obrador was like the Sorcerer's Apprentice - unable to control forces he conjured up. We must understand how the working class moves - through its traditional mass organizations, not through tiny sects. But the masses cannot always be on the streets putting up barricades, as the ultra-lefts imagine. If they see no change, the movement dies down for a time. This is normal.

On the surface, it seems Calderon has won, but it's not finished yet. The Calderon government is weak and split. It is a government of crisis. The Mexican ruling class is too weak to crush the mass movement at this stage, but the working class is unable to finish the job, due to the leadership. This results in a stalemate. But this unstable equilibrium will not last long. The Mexican revolution has begun. Calderon is trying to reinforce the state, using drug war as an excuse for repression. Lopez Obrador may win next election. The masses will go through the school of reformism and they will learn from their experience. Meanwhile, like good soldiers, we must prepare our forces!

Everywhere the process is prolonged. This was not the case in the past, when a pre-Revolutionary situation would very quickly move either to revolution or counterrevolution. Now we have a kind of slow motion revolution in Venezuela. It has lasted nearly 10 years now. Why? There is a very favorable class balance of forces. The workers could relatively easily take power but they lack leadership. Chavez is honest and courageous but he is not a Marxist and therefore inclines to vacillate. As for the official leaders of the workers' movement (the UNT), they have played a most negative and pernicious role.

As in Mexico and elsewhere, the bourgeoisie is not strong enough to crush the revolutionary movement, but the workers are being prevented from taking power by the leadership. This explains the prolonged nature of the process. But sooner or later this must be settled one way or another. The imperialists understand what we understand. They know that the present unstable correlation of forces cannot be maintained. And they are preparing.

There is sabotage of the Venezuelan economy. There are serious shortages and inflation of 19%. The masses are loyal to the Revolution but they will not permanently accept this situation. Sooner or later it must be settled. Chavez has taken important steps forward but he is still hesitating on fundamental questions like the army. The outcome is still not clear.

We have a special session on Venezuela - and this is an extremely important discussion. We must follow the revolution concretely through all its stages, we must have all the facts and figures, we must participate actively in all the debates, and play a leading role in the establishment of the new socialist party - the PSUV. But we must do so as the Marxist wing, we must organize our intervention as a clearly delineated tendency.

We have some time, but not indefinite time. We must build our own forces. The comrades in Venezuela have done marvellous work, but we are lagging behind the movement. The key to the Revolution is the building of a powerful revolutionary cadre organization in the shortest possible time.


See also:


The International Situation and Perspectives - Part 1 by Alan Woods (August 13, 2007)