Question to the U.S. left and anti-war movement about the current war in Lebanon: If we want Israel to fail in its stated objective to destroy Hezbollah, does that mean we want Hezbollah to win?
The Israeli attacks on Lebanon are a mass atrocity, a calculated, long-planned campaign of terror that is inflicting vastly more suffering on civilians in Lebanon than Israelis are facing from Hezbollah missiles. Since 1978, Israel has invaded or occupied Lebanon repeatedly and has killed tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians. This is closely bound up with the long history of Israeli land theft, persecution, and mass violence against the Palestinian people, and the current Lebanon war is bound up with the latest Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank. In these attacks, the Israeli state has acted largely as U.S. imperialism's number one client and proxy, its actions interlinked with Washington's occupation of Iraq.
So let's be clear: We have a pressing responsibility to defend the Lebanese people, demand an immediate end to Israeli attacks, and expose the deadly U.S. role in the conflict.
But let's be clear about something else too: The fact that Israel and the United States want to destroy Hezbollah does not make it a positive political force. To be sure, Hezbollah has staunchly resisted Israeli aggression for years. It runs a sizeable network of social services and has a solid base of popular support centered in the largely poor Shi'i community but cutting across denominational lines. Yet no matter how courageous its fighters may be, no matter how many schools and hospitals it runs, Hezbollah is essentially a right-wing political movement. Its guiding ideology is Khomeini-style Islamic fundamentalism. Hezbollah's political ideal, the Islamic Republic of Iran, enforces medieval religious law, imposes brutal strictures on women and LGBT people, persecutes religious and ethnic minorities, and has executed tens of thousands of leftists and other political dissenters. This is not exactly a liberatory model.
In the framework of our basic opposition to the Israeli attacks, it's important for us to be open about our political criticisms of Hezbollah. That doesn't mean echoing the U.S. government/mass media line -- criticism doesn't mean demonization. Even if we accept that some Hezbollah armed actions have wrongly targeted civilians, it's transparent nonsense to say that Hezbollah is a group of "terrorists" and Israel is just trying to defend itself. It's quite possible that Hezbollah sometimes engages in anti-Jewish scapegoating, but the organization is not continuing Hitler's work and does not exist in order to kill Jews. Rather than try to impose Islamic rule on Lebanon by force, Hezbollah has repeatedly acknowledged the country's pluralistic character. And Hezbollah is not the root cause of the conflict with Israel. It is primarily a response -- a deeply flawed one -- to Israeli and western aggression in Lebanon and the Middle East, and to the oppression of the Shi'i community.
Among the statements on the Lebanon war I've seen so far from U.S. leftist and anti-war groups, most condemn the Israeli attacks against the Lebanese people but say little or nothing about Hezbollah's politics. Two notable exceptions are the Workers World Party and the Spartacist League, both in statements dated July 21, 2006. Workers World describes Hezbollah as the leader of a "national resistance movement" and argues that, for both Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, Islam "is the ideological form whose actual content is the struggle against imperialism." An article published in Workers World newspaper four days later describes Hezbollah as "a guerrilla resistance army with Islamic leadership" which "gained wide political legitimacy for its determined resistance and its well-organized, non-corrupt social services."
The Spartacist League takes Workers World to task for "prettifying" Hezbollah in this manner, and notes that during the Cold War both the United States and Israel "fostered the growth of Islamic reaction as a counterweight to Communism and secular nationalism." The Spartacists declare, "As Trotskyists, we in the Spartacist League militarily defend Hezbollah against the Israeli military machine in this conflict, while maintaining our political opposition to this reactionary fundamentalist outfit."
I know it's not popular to say nice things about the Sparts, but on this issue they take a good position and Workers World takes a bad one. To treat Hezbollah as anti-imperialist while glossing over its right-wing religious ideology is dishonest, simplistic, and short sighted from a propaganda standpoint, because it leaves you open to easy critique. The Spartacists' double-edged position -- we oppose Hezbollah's politics but defend them against Israeli attack -- respects people's intelligence more and offers U.S. activists a clearer and more principled way of relating to the conflict. It acknowledges the war's political complexity, instead of reducing it to Good Guys versus Bad Guys, but it also doesn't treat the two sides as equivalent or mirror images -- it takes a stand.
What's missing from the Spartacist League position, however, is a clear recognition that Hezbollah is both right wing and anti-imperialist. I don't mean Hezbollah is inconsistent -- I mean its opposition to Zionism and its U.S. patron is rooted in a right-wing philosophy. This doesn't fit conventional leftist categories, but it's not unique. Although the Islamic right was helped by the United States and Israel during the Cold War, today it includes some of the most militant and strategically important opponents of these same governments. (Hamas, the Taliban, and al Qaeda are other prominent examples, very distinct from each other and from Hezbollah.) We may not like this situation, but we need to find ways to understand it and deal with it.
The title of this essay refers to the book My Enemy's Enemy (Kersplebedeb, 2001), which warned that far-right politics were strong and growing within the anti-globalization movement -- and that many leftists were wittingly or unwittingly complicit in fostering this growth. My Enemy's Enemy helped crystallize the concept of a "three-way fight" to describe the global political situation. Instead of an essentially binary struggle between right and left, between the forces of oppression and the forces of liberation, three-way fight politics posits a more complex struggle centered on the global capitalist ruling class, the revolutionary left, and the revolutionary right. The latter encompasses various kinds of fascists and other far rightists who want to replace the dominance of global capital with a different kind of oppressive social order. This means there is no guarantee that militant challenges to global capitalism -- including popular anti-imperialist struggles -- will take a progressive or liberatory form.
Three-way fight politics is still a new and primitive analytic tool, but I think it's an important framework for discussion and a helpful corrective to oversimplifications that are common on the left. The Lebanon war highlights the concept's usefulness as well as the need to develop it further. Three-way fight politics has largely been used to draw a line between leftist and rightist versions of insurgent politics, to help leftists recognize the differences and warn them against dangerous alliances. Sometimes -- as with the anti-globalization movement -- that's exactly what's needed. But sometimes -- as with the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and the people of Lebanon -- what we need to do is defend rightist forces, in specific ways and specific situations, against a greater political threat. My enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend, but sometimes we need to defend people who are not our friends.
This approach to the Lebanon war raises many questions that I won't try to answer here. Within the basic outlines I've presented, what does critical defense of Hezbollah include and what does it exclude? What kinds of tactics and slogans best represent this position? Beyond the immediate situation, when does this kind of stance make sense, and when is it counterproductive? How, concretely, does it differ from solidarity with leftist forces? Given that right-wing anti-imperialist fighters are tying down U.S. imperialism and its allies in several countries, to what extent, if any, could this widen the space for liberatory movements? Such questions merit serious discussion, and that can only happen if we go beyond a simplistic Us-versus-Them model of politics. George Bush declared after September 11th: Either you are with us or against us. Surely we can do better than that.
Related posts on Three Way Fight:
Right-wing anti-imperialists are not promoting feudalism: A reply to Michael Karadjis by Matthew Lyons, 10 October 2006
Michael Karadjis on "Hizbullah, Iran and 'Right-Wing Anti-Imperialism'" 23 September 2006
Lebanon: Roundtable on the Borderline 11 September 2006
Eyewitness Lebanon: In the land of the Blind by Michael Schmidt, 7 September 2006
Anti-Arab Racism, Islam, and the Left by Rami El-Amine, 7 September 2006
Further thoughts on Hezbollah by Matthew Lyons, 26 August 2006
Interview with anarchist militants in Lebanon 22 August 2006
On Islamic radicalism and the left by Don Hamerquist, 9 August 2006
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- For Women Only: After Anti-War Movements win or lose in Iraq...there's still Women (Butch Lee)
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