Review of Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror
Monthly Review Press, 2004
287 pages $19
Review by GEOFF BAILEY
AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, mainstream pundits rushed to proclaim that the attacks had "changed everything." Eastern Cauldron, by Gilbert Achcar, documents much of what has changed, but also attempts to draw out the continuities in the U.S. governments current attempts to "remake the Middle East." It situates the current crisis of the Bush administration within the larger politics of the region and its ongoing relationship to Western, and particularly U.S., imperialism.
The essays in Eastern Cauldron were written over the course of the last twenty years. They have a wide scoperanging over Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalismbut the essays are united by "a persistent attachment to a method inspired by that which Marx used to tell the history of his own time." It is a testament to that method that they provide a better analysis of the Middle East than much of what has passed for political analysis over the past three years. They provide a necessary background for understanding the current U.S. occupation in Iraq and its growing crisis.
Throughout the book, Achcars first concern is to examine the relationship between the Middle East and Western imperialism. He takes apart the Wests so-called commitment to democracy, showing how support of dictatorial regimes has been a necessary part of their ability to maintain control over the oil-rich region.
It is an old script that is today being replayed in Iraq. Foreign powers invade on the pretext of bringing civilization and democracy. When the native population resists, the pundits of empire declare that the ruled are not ready for enlightenment and will listen only to force. In this, the invading power is all too willing to cooperate with local dictatorships to enforce U.S. interests in the region. One has only to witness the rehabilitation of Hussein-era generals to help put down the rebellion in Falluja to see just how shallow is the American governments commitment to democracy. The persistence of dictatorial regimes, writes Achcar, "does not result from some cultural specificity; rather, it is in part a result of Western policies." No matter the pretext, democracy is never imposed at gunpoint by invading armies. On this, the chapters on Afghanistan are particularly insightful.
The discussions of Afghanistan focuses on the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the ten-year occupation that followed. But as Achcar writes in the introduction, if one replaces the words Soviet forces with U.S. and allied forces, many ingredients of the Afghan situation today are recognizable. Achcar takes apart the argument made at the time by left-wing apologists for the Soviet Union that the Russian invasion could bring about a more progressive governmentarguments that bear a striking similarity to the position of todays neoconservatives that the occupation of Iraq will be a stepping stone to a more democratic Middle East. Achcar shows how the USSRs increasing grip on the country only served to turn larger and larger sections of Afghan society against the occupation.
Once enmeshed in the conflict, the USSR could not pull out for fear of giving confidence to other oppressed nationalities within the Soviet Union and for fear that defeat would be taken as a sign of weakness by other imperial powers, particularly the United States. Instead, the USSR was drawn further and further into a bloody guerrilla war. It is not hard to draw parallels between the Soviet occupation and the one thats currently underway.
The chapters on Iraq look at the reasons that drew the U.S. into war with Iraq, first in 1991 and again in 2002its hopes to control Iraqs vast oil reserves and to use that control as leverage against other competing powers. While much of the mainstream debate about Iraq, particularly from members of the Democratic Party, has focused on the war being a diversion from the fight against al-Qaeda that began in Afghanistan, Achcar shows the continuity of purpose that runs through both wars:
In part the motives [for going to war in Iraq] are the same ones that led to U.S. military expansion into Central Asia. Central Asia lies at the heart of the continental mass formed by Russia and China, so their strategic considerations supplemented the economic prize of hydrocarbons. By controlling Iraq, similarly, the United States would strengthen its hold over the whole Gulf region.
The Bush administration may have succeeded in its initial invasion of Iraq, but the invasion unleashed forces that are getting beyond its control. Here Achcar documents how war and then occupation fueled both resistance in Iraq and a powerful antiwar movement in the West. Some of the best essays in the book look at the dynamics of resistance that occupations produce. The essays on the two Palestinian Intifadas and the 1991 uprising in Iraq explore those resistance struggles and the various political currents competing for leadership.
The political backdrop for the resistance, particularly in Palestine, has been the failure of Arab nationalism and the historic capitulation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), seen by many as the symbol of Arab nationalist resistance after the defeat of Gamel Nassers Egyptian forces in the 1967 war with Israel. Achcar points out that the PLOs willingness to accept an "apartheid" solution in Palestine is less a historic break than it appears and will do little to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. He shows how from early on, the PLO, while maintaining a verbal commitment to struggle and a single-state solution in Palestine, was maneuvering towards a two-state solution. Unable to defeat the military forces of Israel through its combined strategy of guerrilla resistance and alliances with other Arab regimes, "the Fatah/PLO had become a state apparatus without a state looking for a state at the least cost."
The failure of the Palestinian Left to put forward an independent alternative gave Arafat and the nationalists a left cover to abandon the traditional goals of the Palestinian strugglewhile at the same time opening the door to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalists as the main beneficiaries of growing disillusionment with the nationalists.
The section on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism includes some general theses on the middle-class nature of the movement along with a series of essays that deal primarily with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He shows how, in the absence of a left alternative, Islamists were able to gain a hearing among wider layers of Iranian society. Achcar writes about the roots of fundamentalisms growth:
In [all the countries where Islamic fundamentalism has gained ground], middle-class living standards have manifestly deteriorated.
In addition, bourgeois and petit bourgeois democratic-nationalist leaderships have been discredited.
With the nationalists discredited and the Left "opposition" compromised, the Islamic fundamentalist groupsmany of which had initially been supported by the nationalists and the West as a bulwark against the influence of the Leftemerged as the main beneficiaries of growing anger among millions in the Middle East.
But Achcar is also quite clear that the fundamentalist forces can offer little in the struggle against imperialism or for the liberation of the oppressed. Their anti-democratic beliefs, their oppression of women, gays, and lesbians, and intense hostility to Marxism, mean that they cannot simply be approached uncritically. While the Left can never side with the states repression of the Islamists, it must also not compromise its independence: "While striking together at the common enemy, revolutionary socialists must warn working people against any attempt to divert their struggle in a reactionary direction."
Finally, Achcar draws together the analysis of the Middle East to assess prospects for rebuilding an antiwar resistance in the West. In his "Letter to a Slightly Depressed Antiwar Activist," Achcar concludes:
This movements spectacular growth has only been possible because it rested on the foundations of three years of progress by the global movement against neoliberal globalization, which was born in Seattle. These two dimensions will continue to fuel each other, to strengthen peoples awareness that neoliberalism and war are two faces of the same system of dominationwhich must be overthrown.
This goal can be accomplished only by rebuilding mass movements both in the U.S. and Middle Eastand building a left alternative that is clear both on what it is fighting against and what it is fighting for.