On Marxism and determinism

We appreciated Phil Gasper’s column on “Is Marxism deterministic?” (March–April 2008) and agree with his conclusion that it is not. However, as working scientists and Marxists, we must take issue with Gasper’s line of argument, which downplays or denies the predictive function of scientific theory, including Marxism. We think this is troublesome in that it neglects Marxism’s substantial predictive value by imposing an ultra-strict definition of “prediction” which does not prevail even in “hard” science. Furthermore, Gasper’s out-and-out rejection of the Popperian criterion leads to logical contradictions and philosophical idealism.

In the first place, Marxism does indeed make falsifiable predictions, the refutation of which would refute Marxism. For instance, Marxism predicts that class struggle is inevitable under capitalism, as are crises of overproduction, wars between nations, etc. None of these things are axiomatic; in fact, reformist theory denies them all. It is true that Marxism does not attempt to predict precisely when this or that struggle, recession, war, etc. will occur, but a prediction does not necessarily have to be associated with exact magnitudes and coordinates in time and space.

This is true even of the physical or “hard” sciences. Physical sciences are predictive to the extent something can be isolated and separated from the real world. Chemistry, for instance, can accurately predict the future of a reaction in a test tube, but it has much more difficulty with predictions in something like a pond. The isolated processes may be known, such as how chemicals react and how they depend on concentrations, temperatures, and pressures; however, how many thousands or millions of such processes occur in the pond? How do they interact? What is their variation over time and space? All of these details can be significant and very difficult to know, which makes life hard for chemistry outside the test tube. The deterministic aura of some science is based on its ability to perform useful work in the confines of a controlled setting like a test tube. Marxism, as it studies human society in its real motion and development, has no recourse to “test tubes.”

Additionally, even physical sciences are quite comfortable predicting the general tendencies or trends while abstracting from specifics. This is the distinction between thermodynamics and kinetics. Thermodynamics predicts the preference of matter for various configurations; kinetics predicts how fast the predicted configurations will be reached. While the thermodynamics may be known the kinetics are often fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, both thermodynamics and kinetics are sciences.

Let us now regard the question from the point of view of philosophy. Karl Popper was, as Gasper points out, fiercely hostile to Marxism, but we think Popper’s point that a scientific theory must be refutable by means of falsifiable prediction expresses a basically correct insight, especially as elaborated in a more rounded way by Imre Lakatos. (In fact, Alex Callincos’s Trotskyism employs Lakatos’s frameworks to usefully describe the development of revolutionary Marxism after the Second World War.) The ability of a theory to explain observed phenomena post facto cannot be a measure of its scientific value; if so, then any superstition would be “scientific,” as the presence of supernatural forces can “explain” anything.

Gasper certainly realizes this problem, so he caveats himself by saying we must judge not only by explanatory power, but also the “plausibility” of the underlying assumptions. Which begs the question: how do we judge what is “plausible”? The Law of Non-contradiction, that is, the axiom that a statement and its negation cannot hold simultaneously, is asserted in classical (formal) logic and rejected in dialectical logic. Is the Law of Non-contradiction a “plausible” assumption? The question as stated is hopeless. Indeed, the plausibility of the Law appears to depend on the viability of the theory in which it is used—but this is the very theory that we are attempting to evaluate by determining the plausibility of the law! We are thus caught in a vicious circle.

To give another example: Special Relativity postulates that light propagates at a certain fixed speed in all inertial reference frames. Is this a “plausible” assumption? Actually it is extremely strange, with implications that frankly defy common sense (e.g., the relativity of time). The theory isn’t good because the postulate is good; rather, the postulate is good because the theory is good! And the theory is good—is scientific—because it makes predictions that may be verified or refuted by observation of the objective world. Only in this way can the philosophy of science remain a materialist philosophy.

Science is ultimately a guide to action; in particular, Marxism is a guide to revolutionary action. But a guide, above all, points the way forward when the path cannot be immediately discerned. Or as Leon Trotsky observed: “To lead is to foresee.”

Shaun Joseph and Eric Rehder

Providence, RI

Phil Gasper responds:

Shaun Joseph and Eric Rehder (J&R) take issue with my argument that Marxism is confirmed mainly by its explanatory power rather than its limited predictive successes, but their views are based on a one-sided and mistaken conception of science.

Many theories in the physical sciences are confirmed by their ability to make precise predictions, sometimes about the outcome of controlled laboratory experiments and sometimes about events in the natural world (such as astronomical observations). But it’s a mistake to think that all of science is like this. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, was confirmed by its ability to explain a huge range of biological phenomena in terms of a very simple set of initial assumptions, not by its ability to make accurate predictions. Marxism is in this respect closer to Darwinian theory than it is to much of the physical sciences.

Of course it is true that Marxism makes some very general predictions, including the claim that capitalism gives rise to class struggle. But predictions that don’t specify time, place, or manner don’t lend much support to a theory even when they turn out to be correct.

J&R are also wrong to appeal to the ideas of Karl Popper, even as modified by the Hungarian philosopher Imre Lakatos. Popper held that genuine science makes precise predictions that can be cleanly verified or falsified by direct observation. But evolutionary biology simply doesn’t fit this model. Darwin’s theory, for instance, can explain why distinctive bat species are the only mammals indigenous to certain oceanic islands (their ancestors could fly there), and this counts in its favor even though it makes no predictions about what species will be found on any island.

Lakatos improved on Popper in some respects, in particular by emphasizing that research programs are not refuted by a single observation or experiment but need to be judged by their success or failure over a period of time. But, like Popper, Lakatos wrongly believed that success means predictive success. He argued that “Marxism [has never] predicted a stunning novel fact successfully,” and should be rejected as a degenerating research program.

J&R cite the use of Lakatos by the British Marxist Alex Callinicos, who argues that the version of Marxism developed by Tony Cliff represents, in Lakatos’s terms, a “progressive problem shift.” But Callinicos actually abandons Lakatos’s idea that predictive success is key, and defends Cliff’s Marxism on the grounds that it was able to explain the postwar economic boom, developments in the Third World, and other important events. The only predictions that Callinicos attributes to Cliff and his co-thinkers are that the class struggle in Stalinist Russia would eventually produce a revolutionary upsurge, that the boom would not last forever, and that economic development in the Third World was impossible. The first two claims are too vague to satisfy Popper or Lakatos, while the third turned out to be false. Cliff’s ideas were an advance not because of their predictive success, but because of their considerable explanatory power.

According to J&R, “The ability of a theory to explain observed phenomena post facto cannot be a measure of its scientific value; if so, then any superstition would be ‘scientific,’ as the presence of supernatural forces can ‘explain’ anything.” But the fact that they have to put ‘explain’ in quotation marks reveals the weakness of their argument. Scientifically plausible explanations with the ability to unify a wide range of phenomena are not so easy to come up with, which is precisely why genuine explanatory power is so highly prized.

J&R’s argument that some important scientific ideas are implausible rests on a misunderstanding. To claim that an idea is plausible does not mean that it does not have some counterintuitive consequences, it merely means that in the light of our background beliefs it deserves to be taken seriously. Scientists make such plausibility judgments, explicitly and implicitly, all the time. Some ideas are rejected out of hand as too outlandish, while others are viewed as worth pursuing (and, of course, different scientists may disagree about where to draw the line). Einstein’s special theory of relativity certainly has surprising implications, but physicists took it very seriously because it preserves the idea that the laws of physics are the same in every frame of reference.

J&R are also wrong to conflate materialism with the view that every scientific theory must be judged in terms of its predictive success or failure. Their assumption seems to be that this is the only way that a theory can maintain its connection with material reality. But this is false. The ability to generate good explanations is another way in which theories can be tested against the world. The most important evidence for the theory that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid collision is the existence of high levels of iridium in rock strata 65 million years old. The asteroid theory nicely explains the iridium layer, even though it did not predict it (because while iridium is found in many meteorites it is not present in others). Conversely, a theory’s persistent failure to explain important phenomena that fall within its domain (for example, the inability of non-materialist accounts of mind to explain the psychological consequences of brain damage) can give us strong evidence that it is false.

On one point, however, we do agree—Marxism is a guide to revolutionary action. But this is not because it is a crystal ball that reveals the future course of the class struggle, but because it provides us with tools for assessing which strategies for changing the world are doomed to failure and which have at least a chance of bringing success.

The “dictatorship of the proletariat”

I agree with Todd Chretien that many readers of the ISR will “be surprised to learn that revolutionary socialist activist and historian Hal Draper...paints Lenin’s views on the revolutionary state in colors generally used by the Right.” (“Democracy, revolution, and dictatorship,” ISR 58) Readers of the ISR who have also read the book that Chretien is sort of reviewing will be especially surprised.

For those who have not read the book or the basic work on Marx’s use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” (Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Volume III, KMTR) a few words might help clarify the debate. The big political picture of course is the use of this phrase, by both the Left and Right, for decades, to portray Stalin’s brutal counterrevolution as the logical consequence of the October Revolution and of something called “Leninism.”

In KMTR III Draper conclusively demonstrates that Marx and Engels used the term to distinguish their politics from those of the conspiratorial groups (most notably the group associated with François-Noël Gracchus Babeuf) that grew up in the period of reaction that followed the defeat of the French Revolution. What is refreshing about these groups is that they were very open in their insistence that only an “enlightened” elite could make the revolution, the masses being too brutalized and corrupted by their masters to offer any resistance. Marx used the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is, dictatorship by the class rather than the conspiratorial elite, to differentiate his views from what was almost universally seen as the “real” revolutionary position. Draper notes that Marx and Engels did not use this term in their writings at the time on the Commune. Nor did they use it when they discussed the question of force in a revolutionary situation. Engels did use the phrase to refer to the Commune in a dispute with the German social democrats in 1893 (Marx and Engels: Selected Works, 2:187). In this passage Engels placed heavy emphasis on the Commune’s democratic features; all officials elected by universal suffrage, unlimited right to recall officials, wages of public officials to be limited to that of workers under their supervision, etc.

So what about Lenin? Well, like practically every other social-democratic theoretician, Lenin used the term as equivalent to “revolution.” He was, as far as can be determined, ignorant of the background. It was a phrase.

The October Revolution was not a seizure of power by a conspiratorial group aiming at a “Leninist” dictatorship and suppressing its opponents as historian Eric Hobsbawm thinks. It was the result of an eight-month-long political campaign in the Soviets, probably the most democratic popular assembly that has ever existed, accompanied by strikes and demonstrations, during which the Communist Party, with Lenin as its main spokesperson, won the overwhelming support of the proletariat in uniform. When the majority of the Constituent Assembly attempted a coup to suppress the Soviets they were put down with little effort by all accounts. Nobody would support them. During this period the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” continued to be used as a simple synonym for revolution.

And then what? Well, the Russian Revolution was not defeated but stalemated by the failure of the revolution in Western Europe. The country was invaded by foreign armies proclaiming themselves the defenders of democracy against crazy revolutionaries. In the territories they occupied, of course, they set up puppet governments without bothering with elections. The country was divided between those who supported the communist government and those who supported the invaders. “Civil Society” in such conditions disappeared. There continued to be political debate and division within the revolutionary camp but it was of necessity subordinated to the military campaign.

The real problem arose after the end of the civil war. In a devastated country where the working class was reduced to living from hand to mouth only the Communist Party could hold the country together. The emergency measures of the civil war period were extended and formalized in 1920 creating a one-party state. It was in this period that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” formula took on its proto-Stalinist meaning. It was a theoretical response to the defeat of the October Revolution, not a summing up of the politics that led to its initial victory. It was a response similar to that of the honest revolutionaries who formed the Babeuf conspiracy.

Lenin was in good part responsible for this theoretical disaster. But the story doesn’t end there.

Todd Chretien is also right when he states that this rethinking of the politics behind the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” “also infects certain socialists from the Trotskyist tradition.” But Draper was not the first to be infected. Years before Draper wrote the book under discussion, an early Trotskyist summed it up in a phrase when he wrote: “The prohibition of oppositional parties brought after it the prohibition of factions. The prohibition of factions ended in a prohibition to think otherwise than the infallible leaders. The police-manufactured monolithism of the party resulted in a bureaucratic impunity which has become the sources of all kinds of wantonness and corruption.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1936, 104–05). And, indeed, an early dissident had tried to persuade a reluctant Trotsky to break with the one-party monopoly as early as 1922 (Collected Works: Volume 45, Vladimir Ilyich). Like Draper, neither comrade Lev nor comrade Volodya thought that they were repudiating the October Revolution. They thought they were defending it!

I can’t help but add a comment on Todd’s reference to the American Civil War. Marx and Engels were extremely critical of Lincoln’s conduct of the war. Not because he repressed the democratic rights of Southern slave owners. (The democratic right to own slaves? The democratic right to overthrow a democratically elected government?) But because Lincoln was not interested in freeing slaves but in preserving the union. He was extremely solicitous of the property rights of slave owners who remained loyal to the union. The first Emancipation Proclamation was issued by John Charles Fremont and his adjutant Joseph Weydemeyer (a political and personal friend of Marx and Engels and one of their U.S. correspondents) in Missouri in 1860. Unlike Lincoln’s later proclamation, which only freed slaves of anti-union slave owners in territories not under Union control, this proclamation actually freed some real, live slaves. Lincoln revoked it. In 1863 Fremont was the presidential candidate of a third-party movement to oppose Lincoln on an anti-slavery platform. Among other things they resolutely opposed Lincoln’s dictatorial attempt to suspend habeas corpus “for the duration.” Leading activists in this movement were Joseph Weydemeyer, Augustus Willich, and Adolph Sorge. The Central Committee of the Communist League in partibus infidelium [in the lands of the unbelievers]. Willich gave an especially impassioned speech opposing Lincoln’s dictatorial measures.

Ernie Haberkern

Todd Chretien responds:

I AM very happy that Ernie has contributed to this discussion. I learned a lot from reading Hal Draper’s very valuable Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution series and I hope this exchange leads to more interest in Draper’s ideas and activism, much of which Ernie has helped make available at the Center for Socialist History (http://csh.gn.apc.org/).

I agree with Ernie that Marx and Engels’ understanding of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has nothing to do with (and if fact, is the opposite of) Stalin’s police state. Draper makes very clear that the word “dictatorship” in the mid-nineteenth century really meant something more like “emergency government” and did not carry its modern connotations of one-party rule, censorship, etc. But I disagree with most of the rest of his points, which I’ll just take in order.

1. Ernie says that Draper “conclusively demonstrates” that M&E only used the phrase “dictatorship of proletariat” to distinguish themselves from their radical opponents of the day who believed in a “dictatorship” of the revolutionaries over the old ruling class and the uneducated working class. Neither Draper nor Ernie use the word only but that is really their point. That is, that M&E only used the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to mean a “political system of democratic control from below” in which universal suffrage, unlimited right to recall, etc. are the defining features (KMTR Vol. III, 274). And here, by only highlighting the “democratic” side of the revolution, and ignoring the (as Engels would call it later) authoritarian side, is where they are wrong.

M&E did want to differentiate themselves from the idea of an enlightened elite acting on behalf of the working class, but they also agreed that, as they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, it was necessary to “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class” and then make “despotic inroads into the rights of property.” That is, democracy, if was to mean anything, had to have a specific class content: if democracy for the rich means poverty for the working class, so too will democracy for the workers mean despotism for the rich. Despite not using the words “dictatorship of the proletariat” in their writings on the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels clearly demonstrate that they supported workers taking measures that the bosses no doubt saw as “undemocratic” in order to “expropriate the expropriators.” What appears “democratic” to the workers is “dictatorial” to the bosses, and vice versa.

2. Lenin was not “ignorant” of any of this, and in fact, dedicated his book State and Revolution to precisely these questions. He simply didn’t have access to all the translations that Draper had. Reading every word that Marx ever wrote is not a pre-condition for understanding his theories.

3. Ernie says that it was during the desperate circumstances of the Russian Civil War in 1920–21 that the “dictatorship of the proletariat took on its pro-Stalinist meaning,” and that “Lenin was in good part responsible.” Well, first of all, to simply lump together the rough conditions of 1920–21 with the full-on Stalinist counterrevolution that was still in the future is something of a sleight of hand. Second, blaming Lenin for Stalinism is a little like blaming the captain of a ship for the disaster that ensues once it has holes blasted in its sides by enemies, most of its skilled crew murdered by pirates, and then is forced to sail into a minefield. Just because the captain didn’t avoid all the mines hardly makes it his fault. Instead, it’s a wonder the workers’ state survived as long as it did.

4. Ernie is right that, looking back, Trotsky thought that banning factions within the Communist Party in 1921 contributed to the “bureaucratic impunity” that paved the way to Stalin’s power. However, unlike Draper, Trotsky does not lay this at Lenin’s doorstop, but rather explains in great detail how the economic reality of the 1920s crushed the revolution in its cradle. Stalinism did not spring out of “theoretical disasters,” but out of real, material disasters. Here is where Draper is at his weakest, replacing an idealist explanation of Stalin’s assumption of power for a historical materialist approach.

5. Yes, M&E were highly critical of Lincoln during the Civil War, but not primarily because he suspended habeas corpus, as Ernie implies. Instead, M&E criticized Lincoln (as did Frederick Douglass and the Radical wing within the Republican Party) for not freeing the slaves soon enough and not launching an all-out offensive earlier to crush the Confederacy, etc. However, this did not blind Marx to the fact that Lincoln was leading a ruthless, if belated, struggle to exterminate slavery. Here is the opening line that Marx wrote to Lincoln on behalf of the First International in November 1864: “We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.”

And what, if only for a brief time, followed in the wake of the Union victory? Suffrage for the ex-slaves and disenfranchisement for the Confederate leaders. Unfortunately, the newly freed Black population (in alliance with a section of the poor white farmers and their Radical friends in the North) proved unable to impose their own dictatorship on the Southern planters with sufficient force to break their will and their ability to foment counterrevolution. A lesson that was repeated in Paris in 1871 and Berlin in 1923, and one that oppressed and exploited people should not forget for the future.

Origins of housing discrimination

Petrino DiLeo’s article on the historical roots of the lending crisis in African-American communities begins an important discussion about the intransigence of institutional racism and housing discrimination in the United States. While DiLeo begins this history in the Second World War, in regards to housing discrimination, the history goes back much further.

By 1933, one-half of all mortgages in the United States were in foreclosure as a result of the economic meltdown that gripped the decade. The Federal Housing Administration, one of the many creations of FDR’s New Deal, was set up in 1934 to shore up the banking industry that was unraveling, in part because of the growing number of foreclosures. But it was also envisioned as part of a larger economic stimulus package to pull the economy out of depression. The FHA’s main role was to insure mortgages extended by private lending institutions, which in turn was to create the economic confidence to begin building new homes. Both banks and private real estate brokers viewed the creation of the FHA as a profiteering coup.

However, because housing was viewed as an economic stimulus and private real estate interests played a central role in developing the FHA, federal officials were consumed with containing “risk” factors like integrated neighborhoods, inner-city areas that were populated mostly by Blacks, and generally any property located in proximity to African Americans.

When crafting federal policy and guidelines, FHA officials turned to the conservative University of Chicago School of Sociology and hired noted, and racist, economist Homer Hoyt to shape federal attitudes toward mortgage insurance. Hoyt penned these guidelines in 1939 in a 500-page book called, The Structures and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities. When addressing the critical issue of maintaining property value, Hoyt wrote, “It is in the twilight zone, where members of different races live together that racial mixtures tend to have a depressing effect upon land values.” No statistical evidence or any other proof was ever offered to substantiate the claims that African Americans had a depressing effect on property values, but perception was enough when hundreds of millions of dollars were involved.

Moreover, in the FHA’s Underwriting Manual for 1938—required reading for all lenders interested in having their mortgages guaranteed—federal policy was established:

Areas surrounding a location are investigated to determine whether incompatible racial and social groups are present, for the purpose of making a prediction regarding the probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values.

In case there was any confusion, federal policy mandated the following questions be asked before insuring any loans: “Are inharmonious racial or social groups present in the neighborhood? If not, is there any danger of infiltration of such groups? When?”

Until the 1948 Supreme Court decision banning the enforcement of racially restricted covenants, which contractually bound signatories from selling homes or any property to non-whites, the FHA underwriting manuals included covenants and virtually required them in order for mortgages to be insured.

The result of these policies meant that by 1959 only 2 percent of homes owned by non-whites were insured by the FHA. While more than 7 percent of veterans of the Korean War and World War II were non-white, less than 3 percent of VA-guaranteed mortgages went to non-white veterans by 1956.

Because housing has, from its inception, been viewed as a scheme for moneymaking—even as a federal program––racism has been integral to housing policy decisions.

Finally, it was not only the imagined concerns of Blacks as risk to property value that limited the extension of credit and insurance, but it was also the reality that massive profits were to be made in Black segregated neighborhoods. Residential segregation essentially created a dual housing and financing market—one for Blacks and one for whites—in which Blacks were consistently charged more for less. The combination of both of these factors kept, and continues to keep, African Americans—above and beyond any of other group of homebuyers—locked out of traditional lending institutions.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor


Sectarianism in Iraq: A reality

In a letter published in ISR 58, Nick Kardahji criticizes my article, “Progress in Iraq?” for supposedly characterizing division between Sunnis and Shias as “something fixed, preexisting, and hence to be expected, at least to a certain extent.” (“Sunni-Shia divisions aren’t carved in stone,” ISR 58). He also claims that I treat consciousness as something that automatically flows from people’s sect or ethnicity. He concludes by equating my supposed arguments with the imperialist claims about “inevitably sectarian nature of Arab/Muslim societies.”

Kardahji has little evidence in my article to support any of these claims. In fact, as I point out even in the quotes that he cites, the U.S. occupation is manipulating and deepening the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq.

In my far longer article in ISR 55, “Anatomy of an imperial war crime: The invasion and occupation of Iraq,” I argue that the U.S. “exploited divisions between Iraq’s three main groups. They pitted each group against the other in the process of setting up the new Iraqi government, deepened sectarian and ethnic nationalist conflicts, and triggered a civil war.”

In neither article do I contend or imply that sectarian consciousness grew automatically out of people’s sect or ethnicity, and I certainly do not argue that sectarian consciousness is inevitable in Arab/Muslim societies, but that is the result of imperial conquest and the class base and politics of the resistance to capitalism and imperialism.

Kardahji is in political denial about the reality of sectarianism in Iraqi history and in the resistance. While journalist Dahr Jamail and others are absolutely correct to point out the history of intermarriage among sects and highlight the U.S. instigation of sectarian conflict, it would be wrong to argue that the U.S. created the sectarianism out of thin air.

There was oppression of Kurds and Shia prior to the U.S. intervention. How else can you explain the fact that after the Gulf War, Kurds and Shia rose up against Saddam? There was an ethnic and sectarian character both to Saddam’s regime and to the resistance to it within Iraq. That regime had also destroyed all the secular alternatives, especially the Iraqi Communist Party, that might have found a way to build a resistance that truly united all Iraqis into a national liberation movement.

Jonathan Steele explains how this reality was turned into full-blown sectarianism in his book Defeat. He writes, “Saddam started the rot. The Americans then played a significant part by emphasizing sectarian issues in the post-war policies. Iraqi Shia politicians and the death squads that were run by their militias compounded the problem and gave it a lethal dimension. Last came Al-Qaeda and the foreign Arab Jihadis they mobilized as well as the Iraqi Sunnis who agreed to work with them…. The Islamist forces that had already started to gather strength under Saddam had become the dominant power in a country fragmenting into sectarian enclaves, where Iraqis of whatever class or tribe lived in fear.”

As a result, there is no united non-sectarian resistance in Iraq. The Sadrists are a case in point. Sadr openly calls for Arab Sunni and Shia unity, but does not support Kurdish self-determination and his Mahdi Army carried out the worst of the sectarian attacks against Sunnis in Baghdad in 2006.

Contrary to Kardahji’s claims, the new Sunni Awakening Councils that are currently collaborating with the U.S. in putting down al-Qaeda are also sectarian. In his book, Muqtada, Patrick Cockburn quotes one of their key leaders stating, “After we finish with al-Qaeda here, we will turn towards our main enemy, the Shia militias.”

Of course, no one should conclude from these realities that a united resistance is not possible, that sectarianism is inevitable, or that because sectarianism hampers the resistance we cannot support it. Instead, we must support the resistance and criticize its weaknesses, especially its sectarian divisions, which have prevented it from forging a genuine national liberation struggle against U.S. occupation.

Ashley Smith

Burlington, VT

Roots of the Sunni-Shia split

Nick Kardahji believes he is defending the possibility of united Iraqi resistance to occupation against “essentialist” claims of the “inevitably sectarian nature of Arab/Muslim societies.” But his criticisms of articles by Ashley Smith and Tariq Ali are misplaced, and his ahistorical analysis unproductively denies the daunting obstacles to building such a resistance.

When Ali argues that, under chaos and occupation, “people retreat to their very basic, primitive identities,” he no more suggests that their divisions are “fixed” for all time than one would in noting that prison life sometimes forces inmates to join racial gangs for protection. Similarly, Smith’s points about the potential for “greater sectarian violence” and the antipathy of Sunni militias for the “Shia-dominated government” simply describe a current reality.

Kardahji is right to point to the self-interested role of the occupation in (disastrously) stoking sectarianism. But because of this history one must recognize that sectarian “cleavages” now exist in more than just “potential form.” Moreover, it would be absurd to deny that Sunni-Shia tensions have roots going back centuries, from their original split in the eighth century through the manipulations of British colonialism and later imperialist-backed Iraqi governments.

Pro-occupation media present an extremely exaggerated, one-sided account of historic Sunni-Shia relations. Here is where “essentialism” should be challenged, as Dahr Jamail has done well. But just as U.S. racism cannot be overcome by ignoring it to preach an abstract class unity, Iraqi sectarianism, whatever its origins, cannot be overcome by wishful thinking.

The real hope for united resistance lies in the ongoing brutality, racism, and looting of the occupation itself. This creates pressure for resistance forces to unite against their common enemy in spite of their very real sectarianism. So Sunnis have rejected al-Qaeda partly because they attacked Shia mosques when they could have attacked the occupiers, and the Shia have increasingly deserted the collaborationist Dawa/ISCI/Badr forces for the Sadrists.

In this sense Kardahji poses a false choice when he asks, “Is it not possible that the people of Anbar despise not the ‘Shia-dominated government’ but the ‘puppet government of the occupying power’?” The likely reality is that sectarian and anti-occupation sentiments co-exist in the same people, partially contradicting and partially feeding one another. The challenge of effective resistance is to develop one side of this contradiction while weakening the other.

Avery Wear and Chuck Stemke

San Diego


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story