Workers Vanguard No. 937

22 May 2009


From Vietnam to Afghanistan

ISO: “Third Camp” Apologists for U.S. Imperialism

Correction Appended

While President Barack Obama has been largely effective in his attempts to refurbish U.S. imperialism’s image, sections of the U.S. ruling class are beginning to fret that he may have bitten off more than he can chew in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The New York Times (12 May) reported: “Already some prominent members of Congress—including from Obama’s own party—are questioning whether Afghanistan is a lost cause.” Over 50 Democrats in the House of Representatives defected on the final vote of the president’s war funding bill. The Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee repeatedly likened Obama’s stance on Afghanistan to President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policy in the late 1960s.

Echoing such sentiment, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) ran on its Web site an article by Eamonn McCann, a prominent supporter of the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland, under the headline “Will Afghanistan be Obama’s Vietnam?” McCann opined that Vietnam “may provide the precedent and parallel” to the Afghanistan war, from “the initial declaration of an idealistic motive” (!) to the “gathering anger and disillusionment at home.”

The U.S. ruling class carried out the Vietnam War under the banner of “rolling back world Communism”—i.e., smashing the Vietnamese social revolution. That aim was indeed an “idealistic motive” to the ISO’s predecessors in the mid 1960s, as it is to the viscerally anti-Communist ISO today.

We Spartacists were for the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution and raised the call, “All Indochina Must Go Communist!” Today we stand for the military defense of the deformed workers states of Vietnam, China, North Korea and Cuba against imperialism and internal counter-revolution. At the same time, we fight for proletarian political revolution to oust the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy and establish a government based on elected workers and peasants councils.

The initial position of the ISO’s predecessors, then organized in the International Socialist Clubs (ISC), on the Vietnam War was fully consistent with their position of the “third camp”—supposedly neither with the imperialists nor with the Vietnamese Stalinists and their Soviet allies, but in reality always with the imperialists. The ISC, while calling for U.S. withdrawal, advocated a “democratic foreign policy for the U.S.” and “independent democratic movements” in Vietnam against the National Liberation Front (NLF) (Independent Socialist, January-February 1967). This was a reactionary “plague on both your houses” position based on the Cold War myth of “Soviet imperialism.”

However, by the late 1960s, there was growing support among youth for the NLF’s victory in the Vietnam War, as part of a broader radicalization in the U.S., which resulted from the Cuban Revolution and the civil rights movement. The ISO’s predecessors found themselves increasingly unpopular as young leftists sought in various ways to solidarize with the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants, from identifying politically with Third World Stalinism and the writings of the Third World nationalist Frantz Fanon to embracing genuine Marxism (i.e., Trotskyism). In response, the ISO’s predecessors “redefined” the Vietnam War as a struggle for national self-determination. This allowed them to call for military victory for the NLF, which was in utter contradiction with their underlying “third camp” politics. In fact, during the 1950-53 Korean War, carried out at the height of the Cold War, the forerunners of the ISC in Max Shachtman’s International Socialist League refused to defend the Stalinist-led forces, claiming that their victory “would mean nothing but the extension of the slave power of Stalinism over the whole territory of Korea” (New International, July-August 1950).

To understand the roots of the ISO’s anti-Communism, it is useful to look back at its history. The ISC grew out of the Socialist Party (SP), splitting away in 1964, following the SP’s dissolution of its youth group for refusing electoral support to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

In a sense, the ISC represented the political continuity of the old Workers Party (WP) of Max Shachtman. The most important expression of this continuity was the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, which saw the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy as a new type of ruling class. Shachtman had broken from the then-Trotskyist U.S. Socialist Workers Party in 1940 over his rejection of the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state. Following their break with Trotskyism, the Shachtmanites pursued an uneven 18-year-long course to full-blown social democracy. Shachtman’s WP maintained some pretenses to Marxism while the Soviet Union was relatively popular in its wartime alliance with U.S. imperialism against Nazi Germany in the Second World War. But as the Cold War intensified in the late 1940s, Shachtman’s group—which became the International Socialist League in 1949—moved to the right in response to the prevailing pressures. This culminated in their liquidation into Norman Thomas’ SP in 1958.

In 1961, Shachtman ended up an apologist for U.S. imperialism’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. In the early 1960s, a section of Shachtman’s supporters centered on Hal Draper—who opposed Shachtman’s support for the Bay of Pigs invasion—formed the ISC as an educational appendage to the SP. But Draper stayed in the SP despite its support for U.S. machinations against Cuba and the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. As the student protest movement grew more radical, the ISC gradually grew more “independent,” renaming itself the International Socialists (I.S.).

The ISC/I.S. differed from the SP chiefly in that it used formal Marxist rhetoric about revolution, which the SP had long abandoned. While reviving Shachtman’s theory of bureaucratic collectivism, the ISC/I.S. maintained a loose association with Tony Cliff’s group in Britain, which advocated the equally pro-imperialist line that the USSR was “state capitalist” (see “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999). When, after a series of debilitating splits in the 1970s, the I.S. was reborn as the ISO, it was firmly in Cliff’s orbit.

Driven by anti-Communism, the ISO denies that the victory of the workers and peasants of Vietnam against U.S. imperialism resulted in a social revolution—that is, the overturn of capitalist property relations. An article by ISO leader Joel Geier bragged, “We knew the NLF would set up a state capitalist regime that would deny all democratic rights and powers to workers and peasants in order to better exploit them” (International Socialist Review, Summer 1999).

In fact, along with the army of the North Vietnamese deformed workers state, the workers and peasants of the South made monumental sacrifices because they were fighting not only for “national liberation,” but to overthrow the rule of the landlords and capitalists. And they inflicted a major defeat on U.S. imperialism—i.e., a victory for the international proletariat.

For the ISO today to draw a parallel between the heroic workers and peasants of Vietnam and the fundamentalist-led forces in Afghanistan is simply grotesque. As proletarian-internationalist opponents of U.S. imperialism, we recognize that when the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan aim their blows against the U.S. occupiers and their lackeys, such acts coincide with the interests of the international proletariat. But we do not imbue the forces presently organizing guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces with “anti-imperialist” credentials. We have repeatedly warned that in the absence of working-class struggle in Iraq and internationally against the occupation, the victory of one or another of the reactionary clerical forces is likely to come about through an alliance with U.S. imperialism.

In the name of “democracy,” the ISO has always stood on the side of capitalist counterrevolution. They denounced the progressive Soviet intervention into Afghanistan (see article, page 1), tailing the cutthroat mujahedin reactionaries. The ISO has often had an affinity for Islamic fundamentalism, for example, supporting the reactionary 1979 “Islamic Revolution” in Iran.

When the Kremlin Stalinists criminally announced that they would pull out the Red Army’s troops from Afghanistan, the ISO drew a grotesque parallel between the USSR, which was fighting on the side of social progress, and the U.S. imperialists’ counterrevolutionary war to smash the Vietnamese social revolution, writing in Socialist Worker (May 1988): “Just as socialists welcomed the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, we welcome the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. It will give heart to all those inside the USSR and in Eastern Europe who want to break the rule of Stalin’s heirs.” This was a call by the ISO, in lockstep with the imperialists, for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and East Europe.


In the article “ISO: ‘Third Camp’ Apologists for U.S. Imperialism” (WV No. 937, 22 May), we incorrectly referred to Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League as the “International Socialist League.” We also incorrectly referred to the 1960s Independent Socialist Clubs as “International Socialist Clubs”; these were the predecessor organizations that formed the International Socialists in 1969.(From WV No. 938, 5 June 2009.)