Aug 3, 2006

Defending my enemy's enemy

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


Francis said...

Hey there,

I like this piece a lot; it reflects my current inarticulate thoughts much more clearly than I could have put them down on paper. Mostly, I just have more questions to add to the list at the end of Matthew's essay.

For instance, as a novice in the world of Islam, I have occasionally seen the argument made that many (most?) revolutionary Islamists reject the concept of distinctions between religion and government, arguing from the premise that Islam’s early expansion was the direct result of territorial conquest. If this is true, it presents obvious problems for anarchists and others on the revolutionary left – to the extent that we would oppose a Christian theocratic state, we presumably also oppose a Muslim theocratic state.

But some of the stuff I have read recently about Hezbollah (for instance, the MERIP analysis) seems to contradict this linkage of state and religion among Islamists, insofar as it suggests that Hezbollah has shown a willingness to accept a multi-ethnic and “multi-confessional” (multi-religious) state in Lebanon. If true, this is somewhat encouraging.

It also raises an interesting point of comparison: in the 1980’s, apart from a small fringe of atheist anarchists, most of the radical left in North America supported movements in Latin America that were heavily influenced by the Christian concept of liberation theology. Very few of these movements, in my understanding, had particularly progressive or liberatory politics around sexuality and gender (although women’s leadership was in many cases encouraged), but they had popular support as a result of their efforts on behalf of the poor. Others may disagree, but I don’t think it was a mistake in the 1980’s to (critically) support many of these movements.

Without overstating the case, I do wonder how different this really was from the context in which Hezbollah operates today. Matthew asks how our support for right-wing resistance movements should differ from our support for left-wing movements. But in the real-world context of Lebanon, how sure are we that Hezbollah is of the right and not the left? This is an honest question, not rhetorical, and I am still trying to learn what I can about the situation that will shed light on these distinctions.

In a way, I am wondering if some of us don’t apply different standards of support, not so much based on left vs. right, but based on familiar vs. unfamiliar. That is, I know enough about Latin America and about Christianity to have a nuanced position on many of the various (now defunct or marginal) movements built partly around liberation theology. By contrast, I know relatively little about the Middle East or Islam, and I find myself second guessing my initial, knee-jerk categorization of Hezbollah into the second “them” grouping of the three way fight.

My broader question, then, is this: beyond Hezbollah specifically, are there, or could there potentially be, muslim social movements built on a religious basis that would fall into the “us” column of the three way fight? (I mean movements not built around “secular” politics, ala the PLO, PFLP, etc.) If so, what would such movements look like? If not, why not? What is the fundamental difference between Christian-oriented social movements and Muslim-oriented social movements that allows us to critically engage the former while we struggle to find ways to tactically defend but fundamentally oppose the latter?

Again, these are honest questions, and any criticism implied here is a self-criticism. In particular, I don’t know enough about Matthew’s perspective to know whether or not these problems are also his problems. But in general, I’m willing to bet that they apply to more of us than just me. I’d love to learn what others think.

Anonymous said...

The idea that keeping the US troops busy and distracted may leave space for liberatory movements to move and flourish--yes, this would be good. I appreciate this cogent discussion of the situation in the Mid-east and continue to envision clarity and sanity having the final say--and soon!

keitai said...

Direct left support for Hezbollah should be limited to their military victory over imperialism. In the present balance of forces, their military opposition to imperialism places them on "our" side whether we like it or not. The important thing is what has placed then against imperialism: their social base.

Like the "Madhi Army" in Iraq, Hezbollah has based itself within the poorest strata of workers and rural folk in their respective countries, a natural constituancy of the left as well. The understanding of and use of this class criterion is not to be confused with some sort of "support" for such political forces. Rather it explains the reason why they have come into collision with imperialism as the natural strategic enemy of such social strata.

This same question can be raised in "converse" fashion in connection with the US AFL-CIO. In truth, the AFL-CIO is a politically reactionary right wing trade union organization. The axis for their reactionary politics lies in their proven pro-imperialism. Since imperialism is strategic to the survival of global capitalism, their very active pro-imperialism - shall I mention that American trade unions are some of the few mass organizations supporting the likes of Joe Lieberman, a fanatically right wing religious ideologue? - casts a reactionary pall over everything else they do, no matter how otherwise progressive.

Nevertheless, leftists would not hesitate to jump to the defense of any AFL-CIO union under attack from the bosses or the government. It should be no different with any other organization with roots in the working class or rural poor.

Oread Daily said...

I am in agreement with most of what you have written until almost out of the blue you somehow conclude we have to "...defend rightist forces, in specific ways and specific situations..." You lose me there. There is no reason we cannot oppose both sides and defend neither. We simply argue for what we believe in and apply it to the current situation. We condemn both sides for that about them which needs condemning. Why would we ever defend a right wing organization. How would you go about defending any part of a movement that you yourself state "... 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." Do you think such an organization which you place in that movement can really have the best interests of the Lebanese people at heart? What that organization has is the best interests of Hezbollah and/or its ideology at heart. I believe that Hezbollah believes with all its might in its ideology (this is not to say that there may not be Hezbollah fighters who believe something else - or for that matter Israeli soldiers who have different beliefs then the government and ideology for which they are fighting). But that doesn't change the equation. What Hezbollah wants, one way or another, is a "Hezbollah" state and a "Hezbollah" state is something neither you, nor I, want or could ever support.

In the end, you can't have the position you want to have and then slide out of it when it is inconvenient.

In any event, I appreciate you simply bringing this up. The discussion you have started is an important one.

Anonymous said...

I liked Matthew Lyon's article until I reached the end, where he call for a critical defense of Hezbollah. Tout ça pour ça?

I my opinion this is a ridiculous, self-defeating position. If Hezbollah is essentially a right-wing political movement like Lyon's write, then why the hell should we defend them? What message does it send to our 'alter ego', the secular leftist and social forces on the ground in Lebanon?

I think our main task should be to oppose our own governement support for the slaugther. We should also oppose the Israel state while at the same time making damn clear that we dont support the Hezbollah. Those we should support are the victims of the agression and the ordinary people of Lebanon.

Oh, and we should also publicise the fact that there are people in Israel that oppose the war, that there are peace demonstration and that there is a (small) anti-zionist revolutionary left. These people too deserve our support, just like the leftist forces in Lebanon.

RX said...


first, i qualify this entire response with the following position, i do consider Hezbollah a Right movement. It is hierarchical and authoritarian. ultimatley, i think it is oppossed to the libertarian tradition. however, in practice it operates politically as a blend of religious Conservatism and social democracy. it is widely supported as a movement with its popular programs, aid work, and its attempt to build across sects. although it is "Islamicist", i think, at this point, it is VERY different than other groups. it does not enegage in actions that typify some of the other Islamist movements. It is not fascist Al Quaida. it is not even as rigid and repressive as fellow Shi'ia groups like the Sadrists. Hezbollah is a unique movement and should be treated as such.

with that said...

what are the the forces you speak of here, "the secular leftist and social forces on the ground in Lebanon"? what are thier political lineage? i have seen some aid organizations that appear independent and autonomous. but in terms of resistance groups, it appears that Hezbollah is the primary force. you have communist groups but they appear to come from the authoritarian Left.

as far as libertarian groups they appear to exist and have taken part in important aid work but i have yet to see any involved as specific resistance groups. i think the discussion on anarkismo may illustrate this :

for those of us from the radical anti-authoritarian and class srtuggle anarchist tendency, there is a fundamental question to be asked, "if we were in Lebanon and lacked an independent organization, with who would we collaborate with? and on what basis?". i think Hezbollah as a movement and army controls the greatest infrastructure. i think it is likely that even libertarians would have to critically engage with Hezbollah. it appears Hezbollah is willing to do this as it has changed from a sect to broader social movement.

in regards to the authoritarian Left, we as anarchists often engage with it and work within limited coalitions if neccessary. this does not mean that we withdraw or renounce our objections, and in fact we often remain active in the attempt to foster/create new understandings and relationships. why would it be any different with Hezbollah?

i think the task is to develop relations with the rank and file and masses. we must always be looking to relate and participate, as equals, with popular insurgencies. but being from a minority political position, we sometimes have limited options. if we remain critical to the point of non-participation then we become irrelevant.

we are faced with a difficult and paradoxical situation.

Anonymous said...

You're doing the imperialists' work for them. Re-title your blog, "Three Way Flinch."

Anonymous said...

I'm a member of Bring the Ruckus and we've been developing a "three-cornered fight" analysis that parallels the one in this article in many ways. (See, for example, "A Three-Cornered Fight" at ).

However, I don't see why this article, and anti-authoritarians in general, are so concerned with who to support or how to "critically support" this movement or that. Unless your sending money and guns, "support" for a movement, critical or not, is an empty gesture. Rather than trying to figure out the right "anarchist" line on conflicts like in Lebanon, wouldn't it be better to simply understand the underlying forces of the conflict, using the best tools of materialist analysis, as well as the connections to U.S. domestic politics (not just foreign policy)? This would enable us to concentrate on our real task: building a radical working class in this country. In other words, the problem for revolutionaries is not to lend abstract "critical support" to this or that struggle overseas but to build a movement here, one that renders the U.S. incapable of propping up apartheid states like Israel or right-wing fundies like the Mujahadeen.

I agree that the war in Lebanon presents a real danger to those of us who want a libertarian communist society. It does so because we WANT a two-cornered fight (that's what a revolution is, after all), but the two corners are both enemies of human freedom. So, we have to figure out how to build a third corner that can wipe out the others. (That, of course, is what the Spanish anarchists had to do in 1936, too.) But figuring out an "anarchist analysis" of HIzbollah doesn't help build this third corner a bit.

In solidarity,


RX said...


I think the importance of Matthew's article is that it

1)takes on a) the general trend in Leftism to uncritically support movements that opposse U.S. interests (or the Imperialism of other ruling class factions) simply because they are an "opposition" .

b) runs counter to much contemporary libertarian thought that critiques hierarchical, authoritarian movements while failing to offer real ideas and examples of solidarity to people engaged in popular struggle, or figuring out what space exists for alternative and autonomous politics to emerge and grow.

Some of the anarchist responses to the Lebanese struggle is to argue for a united, international resistance to ALL States and would be Statists, ie Hezbollah. But most of these statements dont offer concrete examples of how to do this. I posted the RASH interview on this blog because it DOES offer a small, but signifigant example of aid and support organized independently and autonomously. And hopefully the actions of RASH will create new relationships and networks that are distinct from any of the dominant forces.

2) offers a perspective that may help clarify the situation, or as you state "the underlying forces" and thier politics

3) contributes to the discussion of what are the real tasks put on us here in the capitalist centers (the US, Europe) and how do we go about "building a radical working class in this that renders the U.S. incapable of propping up apartheid states like Israel or right-wing fundies like the Mujahadeen", to quote you.

I think we have to understand what we are for and against in the process of being able to aid in the development of a resistance movement here. And i dont think that discussion of Lebanon is abstract or at odds to aiding in the development of a radical class movement here. It, like the War and Occupation in Iraq (and aid/support to Israel) are linked to the conciousness here and can be factors in the development of oppositional political movements capable of disrupting the State and capitalist hegemony.

Unknown said...

It took me a while, but here's my response to Mathew's My Enemy's Enemy and Michael Staudenmaier's Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Three Way Fight:

Islamism is not Fascism: A Critique of the Three Way Fight
By Rami El-Amine
Published on: October 30, 2007

Author's note: The following article is from Issue #5 of the journal Upping the Anti. Please help support this "Journal of Theory and Action" by ordering hard copies and a subscription at

Michael Staudenmaier's talk Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Three Way Fight presented at the 2007 National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) uses an article I wrote for Left Turn magazine, Anti-Arab Racism, Islam and the Left, to critique what he refers to as a "bi-polarity" common on the left. Staudenmaier defines bi-polarity as "the dualistic and anti-dialectical tendency to reduce complex situations to two opposing, and static, sides." He says that I offer an "us" (anti-imperialists) vs. "them" (the imperialists) approach to analyzing events in the Middle East and Islamist movements more specifically. His main proof of this is my criticism of Defending My Enemy's Enemy, a posting by Mathew Lyons on the Three Way Fight blog during Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon in which Lyons characterizes Hezbollah as "essentially a right wing political movement." Staudenmaier singles out (and is particularly irritated by) my suggestion that Lyons' argument may one day be used by Hillary Clinton or Bush in justifying an attack on Hezbullah and/or Iran.

However, the purpose of his talk seems to be more about showing the superiority of the Three Way Fight (TWF) theory in making sense of the world today, particularly with respect to the Middle East and US imperialism. Staudenmaier argues that the TWF approach is a much more dynamic and useful way of analyzing the world because it sees things not just in terms of "us" and "them" (a two way fight) but in terms of "us," "them," and "them" (a three way fight). In this three way fight, "the two sets of 'them'...represent the capitalists and the fascists, and the 'us'...the anti-authoritarian revolutionary left." So in the case of the Middle East, he argues, "Zionism represents a particular example of global capitalism, while some (but definitely not all) versions of Islamic fundamentalism serve as examples of contemporary forms of fascism." Therefore, what's needed and what TWF has to offer is both anti-fascism and revolution rather than just revolution, which is, according to Staudenmaier, a weakness of the position of Left Turn and others on the left.