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Proletarian issue 16 (February 2007)
Theory: Imperialism in the Middle East
Why is the Middle East so important to imperialism? And why should British workers be interested?
It would require not just several articles, but several volumes really to do justice to this important subject, so in this article we have concentrated on a few crucial themes, which provide the key to all the rest. These are:

-    The relationship between the imperialist countries and the oppressed countries

-    The importance of the Middle East to imperialism

-    Imperialist support for Israel

-    Arab nationalist resistance and our attitude towards it

The relationship between the imperialist countries and the oppressed countries

The role of imperialism in relation to the oppressed countries is as follows:

1.    All imperialist countries are involved, by definition, and to a greater or lesser degree, in the export of capital, that is, in financing, or directly participating in, production in the oppressed countries. The reasons for this are that the labour is cheaper, travel costs can be reduced where these countries also supply the raw materials for production, and simply that capitalists must find some use for their profits – they must turn profit into capital in order to remain in business and continue to make profits. Therefore, when the opportunities for profitable investment at home have become saturated, the owners of capital must look elsewhere.

2.    The oppressed countries provide an extensive market for the products of capitalism (the supply of which almost always exceeds demand in the home market), and the battle to secure this market is one of the defining factors of modern international relations.

3.    Many oppressed countries are important sources of raw materials for capitalist production. Despite the location of these raw materials in far-off lands, all imperialists consider the raw materials required for production in their particular branch of industry to be their birthright. The fight between imperialist countries to secure unrestricted access to these raw materials, and to deny that access to the indigenous population (which, by any other logic, would be considered the ‘owners’ of the raw materials), has been the root cause of most of all recent conflicts – this is certainly true for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Congo and Palestine.

In short, imperialists consider the oppressed nations as an economic prop. The labour, markets and natural resources of these countries provide a means for perpetuating the existence of capitalism, without which assistance capitalism would have become a spent force over a hundred years ago. Therefore, historically, the oppressed countries have been reserves of imperialism; they have given an extra lease of life to a decaying and outmoded system.

The communist view of the role of the oppressed countries is, of course, different from the imperialist view. To quote from Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism:

“Imperialism is the most barefaced exploitation and the most inhuman oppression of hundreds of millions of people inhabiting vast colonies and dependent countries. The purpose of this exploitation and of this oppression is to squeeze out superprofits. But in exploiting these countries imperialism is compelled to build there railways, factories and mills, industrial and commercial centres. The appearance of a class of proletarians, the emergence of a native intelligentsia, the awakening of national consciousness, the growth of the liberation movement – such are the inevitable results of this ‘policy’. The growth of the revolutionary movement in the colonies and dependent countries without exception clearly testifies to this fact. This circumstance is of importance for the proletariat inasmuch as it saps radically the position of capitalism by converting the colonies and dependent countries from reserves of imperialism into reserves of the proletarian revolution.”

That is to say: the monopolies export capital in order to increase profits. However, in doing so, they inevitably (although this is an unintended side-effect) increase the level of development of the population of the countries in question. A working class and intelligentsia grow up, and along with them grows a radical movement against imperialism. Therefore, as Stalin says, the colonies cease to be reserves of imperialism, making capital stronger, instead becoming agents of the weakening and collapse of imperialism.

Ireland is a good example of this phenomenon. For hundreds of years, Britain has colonised Ireland in order to profit from its land and labour; Ireland was a reserve of British imperialism. However, the struggle for Irish liberation has made life so difficult for the British state that the maintenance there of an occupying army costs considerably more than can be retrieved through the exploitation of the people of northern Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish liberation struggle has served as a great inspiration for the oppressed masses worldwide. Therefore, Ireland has gone from being a reserve of imperialism to being a reserve of the revolutionary proletariat.

Thus far nothing very contentious. But what relevance does this have to the British working class? We have our own issues to deal with! The Leninist response to this question is that anything that weakens imperialism is of the greatest interest to the working class. This is what constitutes the whole basis of proletarian internationalism and of the solidarity between the working class in the imperialist countries and the oppressed masses of the world.

We turn again to Foundations of Leninism, in which Stalin explained that: “The road to victory of the revolution in the West lies through the revolutionary alliance with the liberation movement of the colonies and dependent countries against imperialism … Support must be given to such national movements as tend to weaken, to overthrow imperialism, and not to strengthen and preserve it.”

Further: “The interests of the proletarian movement in the developed countries and of the national liberation movement in the colonies call for the union of these two forms of the revolutionary movement into a common front against the common enemy, against imperialism.

“The victory of the working class in the developed countries and the liberation of the oppressed peoples from the yoke of imperialism are impossible without the formation and consolidation of a common revolutionary front.

“The formation of a common revolutionary front is impossible unless the proletariat of the oppressor nations renders direct and determined support to the liberation movement of the oppressed peoples against the imperialism of its ‘own country’, for ‘no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations’. (Engels)”

So the working class in the imperialist countries must unite with the oppressed nations struggling against imperialism. Very simple, very easy to understand, very logical. But where we get into difficulties is when those struggling against imperialism don’t quite fit in with our idealised notions of what anti-imperialist fighters should look like. For example, when these anti-imperialist fighters are not democrats but are driven by obscure religious beliefs; or when these anti-imperialist fighters have a tarnished record – perhaps of collaborating with imperialism in the past. What then? Can we really abandon all principles? Does anti-imperialist solidarity mean forgetting that we are communists, Marxists, atheists, dialecticians, revolutionary democrats?

The following passage from Foundations of Leninism sheds light on this subject with remarkable clarity and incisiveness:

“The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism; whereas the struggle waged by such ‘desperate’ democrats and ‘socialists’, ‘revolutionaries’ and republicans, as, for example, Kerensky and Tseretli, Renaudel and Scheidemann, Chernov and Dan, Henderson and Clynes, during the imperialist [first world] war was a reactionary struggle, for its result was the embellishment, the strengthening, the victory, of imperialism. For the same reasons, the struggle that the Egyptian merchants and bourgeois intellectuals are waging for the independence of Egypt is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the bourgeois origin and bourgeois title of the leaders of the Egyptian national movement, despite the fact that they are opposed to socialism; whereas the struggle that the British ‘Labour’ government is waging to preserve Egypt’s dependent position is for the same reasons a reactionary struggle, despite the proletarian origin and the fact that they are ‘for’ socialism. There is no need to mention the national movement in other, larger, colonial and dependent countries, such as India and China, every step of which along the road to liberation, even if it runs counter to the demands of formal democracy, is a steam-hammer blow at imperialism, ie, is undoubtedly a revolutionary step.

“Lenin was right in saying that the national movement of the oppressed countries should be appraised not from the point of view of formal democracy, but from the point of view of the actual results, as shown by the general balance sheet of the struggle against imperialism, that is to say, ‘not in isolation, but on a world scale’.”

Stalin makes the point as clearly as it can be made. In assessing the role of this or that movement, one must not consider simply whether its protagonists come from good working-class families, or whether they sing The Internationale at the end of their meetings. The key question is: objectively, do they weaken imperialism? If they do, then their struggle is our struggle.

We will return to this subject with some specific examples shortly.

The importance of the Middle East to imperialism

Why exactly is the Middle East so important to imperialism? What is so special about the Middle East that the imperialist countries will spend literally trillions of dollars fighting wars and maintaining puppet states there? This question is answered in some detail in the preface to Harpal Brar and Ella Rule’s book, Imperialism in the Middle East, which begins as follows:

“He who would understand the economics and the politics of the Middle East from the beginning of the twentieth century must learn to spell, pronounce and really grasp the significance and meaning of just the word – oil. This single word furnishes the key which unlocks the door to an understanding of all the burning questions of war and peace in this area, ranging from the struggle of the leading imperialist powers to carve up the Middle East in the aftermath of the first imperialist war of 1914-1918 to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war in Lebanon, the Gulf war, the war in the Balkans, and the war in Afghanistan presently being conducted with characteristic brutality by US and British imperialism.”

The Middle East contains two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves. Now consider for a minute exactly how important oil is to the running of modern capitalism. Where would industry be without oil? Where would transport be? Car travel, aeroplane travel, generation of electricity, heating, lighting, combustion engines, plastics, and so on. All these things are heavily dependent upon oil in its various forms. It is not an overstatement to say that oil is the lifeblood of modern capitalism.

Again quoting from Imperialism in the Middle East: “It is impossible to understand either the two world wars and the campaigns during those wars, or the wars in the Middle East from the mid-twentieth century to the present day, unless one grasps the crucial importance of raw materials, especially oil, in these titanic struggles. Equally it is impossible to understand either the establishment of the Zionist colonial state, and the continuing imperialist support for its existence and the outrages it perpetrates on the Palestinian and other peoples of the Middle East, or the alliance between imperialism and a string of medieval relics and puppet regimes in that part of the world, unless one relates it to the struggle of the leading imperialist powers for the control of the Arab peoples’ oil and gas resources.”

Thus it is abundantly clear that imperialism’s interest in the Middle East is based almost entirely on its desperate need for this precious fossil fuel, the supplies of which are fast dwindling.

This thirst for oil was at the heart of Britain’s colonisation of Iraq and other areas of the Middle East. It was at the heart of the CIA-engineered anti-democratic coup against the Mossadeq government of Iran in 1952. It was at the heart of the British, French and Israeli intervention against the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. It is almost universally recognised to be the motivation behind the current war against Iraq. Most significantly, it is the reason for the support given by the imperialist countries to the setting up of Israel.

Imperialist support for Israel

Zionism – the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine – is of itself a ridiculous, obscure, fantastical idea, with very little basis in history. Without the material and financial support of the imperialist countries, there would have been no question of a state of Israel being established. So why was this support given by the imperialist countries, and in particular by Britain?

Simply because the leaders of the zionist movement made it clear in their representations to imperialist politicians that, if installed in Palestine, they would be more than willing to play the role of imperialist policeman in the Middle East. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern zionism, put it this way: “for Europe we shall create there in Palestine an outpost against Asia, we shall be the vanguard of the civilised world against barbarism … England with her possessions in Asia should be most interested in Zionism … The shortest route to India is by way of Palestine. And so I believe in England that the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should easily be understood.” How the mouths of the British imperialists must have watered! How much more effective a colonial-minded little fascist statelet right in the heart of the Middle East is in comparison with any standing army!

This was very succinctly expressed by Lord Melchet, then chairman of ICI, and a former First Commissioner of Works and Minister of Health (and therefore very well qualified to speak in the name of British capital!): “The advantages to the British Empire [of a Jewish state in Palestine] are obvious. The Suez Canal and air stations, the oil-pipe outlet in Haifa and its harbour, have become vital to our naval strategy in the Mediterranean. The security of the imperial complex of interests can be better assured by a large European population than by the few battalions that can be spared.” (Cited in Imperialism in the Middle East)

Imperialism, in particular British imperialism, rallied behind the zionist movement and used the universal sympathy for the Jewish people that was aroused by the Nazi holocaust to push through the setting up of the state of Israel in 1948. Note in passing that the Labour Party’s attitude on this question did not differ from that of British imperialism in general. A resolution passed at the Labour Party’s 1944 conference stated: "Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in ... The Arabs have many wide territories of their own."

Since then, Israel has not failed its masters. It has been a reliable servant first primarily of British imperialism and later, since the Six-Day War in 1967, primarily of US imperialism.

Arab nationalist resistance and our attitude towards it

As mentioned above, the relationship between oppressor countries and oppressed countries is not a static thing. As imperialist exploitation grows, so does anti-imperialist consciousness and the anti-imperialist resistance movement. A working class, a petty bourgeoisie and a national bourgeoisie have all emerged as class forces in the Middle East, gradually replacing the old feudal order. These classes have a definite interest in freeing their lands from the neo-colonial plunder that keeps the people of the Middle East – resource-wise one of the richest areas in the world – poor. As the nationalist, anti-imperialist struggle grows, so the Middle East is being transformed from being a reserve and source of strength to imperialism into being a reserve and source of strength to the working class.

In spite of the best efforts of the imperialist governments and the various lackeys they have installed in the governments of the Middle East, militant Arab nationalism has been a major force since the late 1960s, with the emergence of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The Palestinians have, for a long time, been the vanguard of the struggle against imperialism in the Middle East. This status was largely born of necessity – kicked out of their homeland and left to rot in shanty towns and refugee camps in various middle-eastern countries, the Palestinians had only two choices: to fight or to be forgotten about as a people.

If it weren’t for the resolute nationalist struggle of the Palestinians, there would be no ‘Palestinians’ as such today. Thanks in no small part to the remarkable vision and organisational and military skill of Arafat and Fatah, the Palestinians became universally recognised by progressive people as a heroic, courageous and creative people with a just cause of driving imperialism and its agents out of the Middle East and re-establishing Arab Palestine. By 1970, the fighting force of the PLO numbered around 20,000 – a significant army for a nation deprived of territory!

When, in 1981, Israel invaded and bombed Lebanon with a view to eliminating the PLO and establishing Lebanon as a client state, the Palestinians were joined in defending Lebanon by a vast, popular Lebanese resistance movement composed of communist, socialist, nationalist and islamic elements. Since this time, the Lebanese resistance has stood alongside the Palestinians at the cutting edge of the Arab anti-imperialist movement. Israel was completely driven out of Lebanon, its last troops leaving in 1997 after losing decisively to the Lebanese resistance, led by the islamic group Hizbollah. Last year, Israel tried again to bomb Lebanon into acquiescence, and again it was roundly defeated by the Hizbollah-led Lebanese resistance.

Since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, and the subsequent ruthless wars, sanctions and occupation that have been perpetrated against Iraq, mainly by Britain and the US, Iraq too has become a leading centre of Arab resistance.

At this point, it is worth saying something about the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, since this is a little-understood event, even among people professing to be socialists and communists.

First, it must be understood that Kuwait is, historically, part of Iraq. It was carved out of the province of Basra by the British for no other reason than that there was an extraordinarily high concentration of oil lying under it. Restoration of Kuwait to Iraq has been a central national demand of Iraq since that country gained independence in 1932.

Added to this, at the time of the invasion, Kuwait had been engaging in economic dirty tricks in connivance with the US to weaken Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait had been stealing oil from Iraq’s side of the Rumaila oilfield. It used this surplus to sell quantities of oil far in excess of its OPEC production quota, causing a massive drop in oil prices that resulted in a devastating blow to the Iraqi economy, which had already been hard hit by the ridiculous US-inspired war against Iran.

This is the context in which Iraq invaded Kuwait. This is the context in which Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath movement, who had until that time been willing to follow the diktat of US imperialism in the interests of a few pieces of silver, broke their ties with imperialism and became, objectively, anti-imperialist forces.

Iraq’s refusal to bow down to the demands of imperialism was a major confidence boost for Arab nationalism in general, as it was the first real case of an Arab state genuinely standing up for the Arab people. Throughout the two Iraq wars, the sanctions and now the occupation, the people of Iraq have shown themselves to be determined and resilient fighters. It is now clear to all who have eyes to see that the British and US forces in Iraq cannot and will not win. Every day this becomes more apparent. The Iraqi resistance is winning.

But the anti-imperialist struggle in Iraq throws up a difficult question for communists. As I mentioned before, we rather like our anti-imperialists to have a clean record, to at least be democrats, and preferably to have a portrait of Che Guevara in their offices (the Irish at least are very obliging on this score!). Saddam Hussein does not fit the bill.

In 1987, the anti-imperialist journal Lalkar referred to Iraq’s part in the Iran-Iraq war as “a reactionary and unprovoked war of aggression launched by the regime of Saddam Hussein at the behest of US imperialism” . It stated that “the war was aimed at stemming the internal popular resistance to the bloodthirsty Iraqi dictatorship, as well as achieving the expansionist ambitions of the Iraqi regime through replacing the Shah as US imperialism’s policeman in the gulf”. Lalkar further wrote that “the Iraqi regime has conducted mass terror in Iraqi Kurdistan; it has the dubious distinction of having used chemical weapons against its own people in several Kurdish villages; it has made students liable to military rules; and, under the pretext of making them ‘civil servants’, it has dissolved the trade unions and ‘abolished’ the working class” . It seems implausible that a ‘bloodthirsty dictator’ would die a martyr of anti-imperialist struggle, but then history does play some strange tricks.

This is a true test of our ability as dialecticians! This is where our analysis must go beyond the metaphysical: it’s not enough simply to view such complicated phenomena in isolation, without looking at them in historical context, without looking at them in the context of the world situation, without casting off form and analysing the essence, without studying the contradictory forces within a phenomenon.

Dialectical philosophy and natural science show that, given the correct alignment of forces, a thing can turn into its opposite. Saddam Hussein hoped to be the US’s favourite in the Middle East. He did everything to please the US imperialists, but was eventually sold down the river by them. The Ba’athists could easily have continued to go along with the diktat of imperialism and earned a decent income in the process, but they decided to fight. Just as revolutionaries have, under capitalist pressure, become reactionary, so is it possible for reactionaries, under the influence of nationalist pressure, to become anti-imperialist fighters.

And thus Saddam Hussein went to the gallows not as the ‘butcher of Baghdad’, not as a US puppet, not as a murderer of communists and Kurds, but as a genuine and militant fighter against imperialism and a defender of the rights and national sovereignty of Iraq.

Hamas, the militant islamic Palestinian group that currently dominates the Palestinian Authority is another difficult case for communists. The aims and objectives of Marxism Leninism do not usually coincide with those of fundamentalist Islam. They certainly didn’t, for example, during the British-funded Mujahideen’s fight against the socialist regime in Afghanistan, when the ‘radical islamists’ allowed themselves to be used by imperialism as a battering ram against a democratic, progressive regime.

In fact, Hamas and the groups that preceded it received substantial Israeli funding and political support, as they were set up specifically in opposition to the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which at the time was the uncontested broad front representing the interests of the Palestinian people. Ample funding appeared for the construction of mosques, schools, clinics, and so on, on the back of which Hamas was able to become a political force, particularly in the impoverished and overcrowded ghettos of the Gaza Strip.

The Israelis hoped that, via Hamas, they would be able to divide the Palestinian people, and further they hoped that religion would be a pacifying force. What they failed to take into account was the fact that external circumstances had not changed: in or out of mosques, with or without kindergartens, the Palestinian people were still suffering daily injustices on a terrible scale – they were still a people under occupation. Therefore, rather than the mosques pacifying the people, the people radicalised the mosques, and the Islam of Hamas became a jihadi (struggling) Islam, with its main focus the driving out of Israel from Palestinian territories using any means necessary. Ironically, a strong belief in god and heaven is probably very helpful for a suicide bomber.

The Hamas Charter contains all sorts of bizarre statements that we wouldn’t for a minute associate with, for example stating that the zionists used their wealth “to stir revolutions in various parts of the globe in order to fulfil their interests and pick the fruits. They stood behind the French and the Communist Revolutions and behind most of the revolutions we hear about here and there.” Apparently the French revolution and the October revolution were both part of the zionist conspiracy!

Nonetheless, the kernel of Hamas’s policy is militant anti-imperialism, even if this is cloaked in the language of the Qur’an. Again quoting from the Hamas Charter: “Hamas regards nationalism as part and parcel of the religious faith. Nothing is loftier or deeper in nationalism than waging jihad against the enemy and confronting him when he sets foot on the land of the muslims. And this becomes an individual duty binding on every muslim man and woman.”

What should be our policy towards Hamas? Again, we have a responsibility to view the issue in terms of the “general balance sheet of the struggle against imperialism” . Is Hamas hurting the interests of imperialism? Yes. Does this make imperialism weaker? Yes. Would we prefer a secular, communist-led Palestinian resistance? Of course. But we can’t argue with reality. It’s like the old joke where someone asks “How do you get to Dublin?” and the other person answers, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”! We can’t just ignore the situation on the ground just because it doesn’t suit us.

Especially since the death of comrade Arafat in 2004, Fatah has lost a great deal of support to Hamas for the simple reason that, whereas Arafat had extraordinary skill in combining resistance with negotiations, his successors appear to have all but given up the resistance part of the equation. Meanwhile, Hamas has retained its militant stance against Israel, and this resonates with the Palestinian people, who have had enough of false promises and shifting goalposts.

Israel has had every chance to make peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians have offered a compromise that is generous to the point of ridiculous – that is, a two-state solution, the Palestinian side to be composed of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, ie, just over 20 percent of historic Palestine.

And yet, despite the generosity of what the Palestinians were offering, the Israelis would not come through on their part of the bargain. Despite the Israelis' withdrawal from Gaza, which in any case is only a partial withdrawal, they have continued to bolster their illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; they have continued to build the illegal separation wall, which makes heavy incursions into Palestinian territory and divides the remaining land and population into hundreds of tiny, isolated and unviable ghettos; and they have continued to use every dirty means (such as house demolitions, land confiscation and denial of residency permits to husbands and wives of Jerusalem citizens) to reduce the Palestinian population in Jerusalem.

Israeli politicians have recognised that the writing is on the wall, that the occupation has little support these days even among Israelis, and that the Palestinians are not going to give up on the idea of their own state. Therefore, Israel is doing everything possible to prejudice the borders of the future Palestine, in the hope that the Palestinians will accept a state that is geographically arranged in a way that will render it impotent and thoroughly dependent upon Israel’s goodwill for survival. Hamas’s recent election victory sent a strong message back to Israel that by no means was such a scenario acceptable to the Palestinians.

Our responsibility is to support the whole Palestinian resistance, secular and religious. All the resistance groups are contributing toward the defeat of Israel and, ultimately, to the defeat of imperialism across the Middle East.


From all that has been stated above, it follows that it is the duty of the working class in the imperialist countries to support any movement that is striking blows at imperialism, on the basis that whatever makes imperialism weaker makes the working class stronger, and therefore brings forward the day when we put this wretched and redundant system, which causes such misery, poverty, destruction and devastation, to rest, and build in its place a socialist society based on meeting the needs of all.
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