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Paul Buchanan: When Communists Look Good

When Communists Look Good

By Paul G. Buchanan

In 1990, somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, someone in the Joint Chiefs of Staff is reputed to have said that the United States would rue the day that the Berlin Wall fell. At least the Communists running the Soviet Union and its allies shared the logics of conventional and nuclear deterrence that preserved the relative peace of the 45-year-old Cold War. The fear of one big conflict—thermonuclear war—led to the managing of smaller regional wars, avoidance of war in so-called “shatter zones” such as Central Europe, wars by proxy and unconventional wars in areas peripheral to superpower strategic interests, and the construction of an edifice of alliances, arms control treaties and geopolitical theories that constrained the strategic options of the capitalist and communist blocs. The operative idea on both sides of the Cold War was the opponent could be dealt with rationally, if not symmetrically on a political-military and diplomatic level.

In spite of their antagonistic relationship, capitalism and communism shared the virtue of being relatively contemporaneous—in fact, sequential--in origin. Both are modern ideologies, born out of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, inextricably wedded to technological advances that reduced the time and distance involved in human life, as well as to each other as dialectical antitheses. They also altered the concept of human space and property, to include notions of individual and collective possession, distribution and transmission of goods. Above all, they were considered to be supercedures of pre-modern ideologies, particularly those with a theocratic or ethnocentric bent.

They differ most with regard to conceptions of human rights in production, common economic entitlement and political decision-making. But this did not prevent communists and capitalists from seeing eye-to-eye when it came to the ultimate question of mutual self-preservation. In a perverse sense, each needed the other as justification for its preferability as a form of human social organisation.

The arrival of capitalism and communism gradually replaced theocratic and ethnically based ideologies as dominant perspectives on the proper social order. Of pre-modern ideologies, only those that were monotheistic and expansionist came into major conflict before the advent of the modern era, with a host of (polytheistic) others—Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Taoism, even Shintoism--content to accommodate not only each other, but the emergence of their modern counterparts as well. Monotheistic religions found it more difficult to reconcile with their ideological heirs, and the tension between them and secularism has been a feature of modern life.

The fall of the Stalinist bloc and the seduction of China by capitalism in the late 1980s removed the rationale of the Cold War, but it also removed the logics of collective action underpinning it. Worse yet, rather than an end of history that saw the triumph of liberal democracy world-wide, what emerged in parallel to global capitalist democratisation was the re-emergence of pre-modern, if not primordial conflicts rooted in monotheistic or ethnocentric beliefs

The first rumblings were heard in the heart of Europe, but perhaps only because they were located at the epicentre of the Capitalist-Communist divide. Beyond the ethnic and political disintegration of Yugoslavia percolated the millennial discontent of millions of Muslims there and elsewhere. For centuries reduced in their own eyes to be vassals of technologically superior but morally decadent infidels, they were now freed from the yoke of the Cold War to vent their pent up frustrations on the entire modern world, but most importantly, the victorious West. That is because of where the Western and Islamic worlds rubbed shoulders.

Most Muslims live in what used to be peripheral or secondary strategic regions (at least in Western eyes), and their primary connection with the West derives one way or another from the oil trade. The irony of petroleum is that it confers material wealth to those who live where it is extracted, but it also brings authoritarianism as the dominant form of political regime. During the Cold War both communists and capitalists understood that access to oil required cultivation rather than condemnation of authoritarian regimes in countries where oil was located. The main reason was that regardless of their specific character, the majority of post-war authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world were, as was the case elsewhere, secular in nature. They shared modern perspectives on human life and replicated the ideological struggles of the super-power conflict. Above all, they shared a common rejection of pre-modern ideologies as a basis for political organisation.

The first Gulf War opened the chapter on post Cold War military conflict, and the easy (in fact, overwhelming) victory of the US-led coalition against the Iraqi invaders of Kuwait taught lessons to all concerned. At first, Western proclamations heralded the era of a revolution in military affairs (RMA), an epic moment where technology, strategy and firepower could be brought to bear on a multiplicity of dimensions previously untouched (for example, outside the gravitational confines of planet Earth), which intensified the point of military contact with unprecedented precision in a way that reduced the amount of collateral damage done to non-combatants. However, rather than fold and submit to increasingly unipolar US military superiority, what emerged as armed opposition was a global unconventional guerrilla movement using modern communications and low-technology instruments as weapons motivated by pre-modern ideological convictions. Its emergence was not only unanticipated and initially downplayed by the US and other Western powers. It also reduced the comparative strategic advantage of RMA, bringing warfare back down to its basic principle: the element of will. Moreover, the emergence of militant Islam in the 1990s was not an issue of happenstance, but was the by-product of the Cold War logics at play throughout the Muslim world.

From the 1950s to the 1980s the Middle East was the site of a struggle between modern secular ideologies, but one that was waged in common against traditional Islamic control of political authority. Be they pro-Soviet nationalists such as the Algerian revolutionary regime or those of Nassar in Egypt, Ghadafi in Libya, or Assad in Syria, or be they pro-Western nationalists such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, King Hussein of Jordan, King Hassan in Morocco, the Shah of Iran (although Persian) and the post-Atuturk regimes in Turkey, all of these authoritarian regimes had the virtue of their Western ideological progenitors: they were secular, suppressed Islamic political expression as a matter of priority, and understood the strategic logics of the bi-polar world.

Yet the approach of the Cold War superpowers to their kindred in the Islamic world differed markedly. Whereas the Soviet Union and its allies encouraged pro-Soviet Arab regimes to destroy religious based political movements, the West encouraged Islamic resistance against Soviet-backed regimes (including most Arab nationalists). An example is Western support for the Muslim Brotherhood against Nassar. In turn, the main emphasis of the West was to thwart communist influence in the pro-Western Arab world, hence the pampering of conservative family-based and theocratically oriented oligarchies throughout the Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa.

The West succeeded in its strategy. During the Cold War pro-western Arab authoritarian regimes like the Baathists in Iraq and Syria and the Shah’s regime in Iran slaughtered Arab and Persian communists by the thousands. Further afield, the Suhuarto/Sukarno regimes in Indonesia did likewise to what was until the 1970s the largest Communist Party in the Muslim world, and the insurgent challenge of the Malayan communists was also put down ferociously. Even when faced with the loss of an ally such as the Shah during the 1970 Iranian revolution, the first move of the US was to support exiled mullahs against the communist Tudeh Party in their struggle for post-revolutionary power (though it was Tudeh that led the armed uprising against the Shah). In contrast, pro-Soviet Arab authoritarians dealt harshly to Islamicists of all stripes, preferring to accommodate, or at least not eliminate pro-western political opponents. For regimes like those of Algeria, Egypt or Libya, the main danger came from Islamicists, not supporters of western capitalism.

As the shackles of the Cold War came off, Islamicism re-emerged in force. The rise of the Khoemeni regime in Iran was an early harbinger, and the defeat of Soviet forces and ouster of its puppets in Afghanistan by US-backed muhajaddin led to the rise of the Taliban. Their influence spilled over into Pakistan, found financial sustenance from dissident Wahibbists and Salafists on the Arabian Peninsula, and spread to the Western Pacific and ex-patriot communities in Europe and elsewhere. The collapse of the USSR unleashed Islamic irredentism throughout Central Asia, and today al-Qaeda admirers in all of the “stans” compete for power with former communists, nationalist authoritarians and neophyte democrats. As for the West, Osama’s sucker punch on 9/11 removed any doubt that ideological conflicts would revert to pre-modern terms, and the fact that today’s clash of civilisations occurs over cartoons is proof that his ploy has worked. As a political entity and as a symbol of resistance to Western hegemony, al-Qaeda may well be here to stay (even as its original human capital disappears), with its influence extending deep into the heart of Europe and other Western outposts.

Thus for Westerners there is a nostalgic appeal for communists in the Muslim world. Compared to jihadis, commies seem reasonable. They hold different views on proper social organisation and political control, but at least their strategic perspectives are grounded in the hard facts of modern reality, not pre-modern, faith-based belief. This is not say that the leaders of the global Islamic resistance are irrational. If so, they are crazy like foxes, and their cunning and determination has paid significant dividends. US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that the battle of hearts and minds, or perhaps more correctly, the propaganda battle between Islamicists and the West (or at least the US) is being won by the former. Political life is the Muslim world and Europe has been deeply scarred by the rise of Islamicism, and regimes throughout the world have found themselves forced to handle what for lack of a better term can be called an ideological pandemic of pre-modern challenges to the modern (and post-modern) world. Jihadis may be at the forefront of the armed struggle against the West, but other pre-modern groups, indigenous people’s movements in particular, have also joined the resistance against capitalist globalisation (to which can be added a number of western sympathisers as well).

Whatever the intrinsic merits of its belief system, the current success of al-Qaeda as an ideological movement has its roots in the failure of the post Cold War non-Islamic world to realise the difficulty of fighting a pre-modern belief system with a modern (or even post-modern) ideology. Throughout the twentieth century Marxist-Leninist vanguards were drilled that a pre-modern ideology could not be defeated frontally. That is, socialist revolution could not succeed when it attacked pre-modern ideologies like religion or ethno-nationalism because their roots ran far too deep. What was required was a steady infiltration of the body politic by Marxist ideas masquerading as common knowledge, if not common sense, in tune with but re-orienting the dominant pre-modern ideology. The objective over time was to replace religious consciousness with class consciousness that altered public perspectives on the proper way of life.

As an example, consider that one of the pillars of Islam is the concept of charity. Arab communists long used that pre-modern belief to rally support for socialism as an organising construct. Their elimination as a viable political force removed a third column that worked against Islamicist influence within the Muslim world. Without a secular, modern update of a traditional ideology that stands in opposition to Western capitalism, Islamicists now dominate the arguments of resistance throughout the Muslim world.

Thus, from the distance afforded by time, it appears that the Cold War logics of communist suppression in the Muslim world have been counter-productive. Pro-Soviet Arab regimes had to reform in light of its collapse, but in general have been better equipped to channel Islamicist sentiment in ways that are understandable to the (modern) capitalist world. For pro-Western Muslim regimes, there is no such option, since the end of the Cold War removed the barriers to Islamicist expression in a context where there was no secular alternative.

It is no wonder then, that at least in the Muslim world, Communists look good retrospectively as far as the West is concerned. That should give pause for thought, and should make policy-makers in places like the US think twice about reacting viscerally and negatively to the advent of left-leaning political movements within and without the Arab world. After all, better to have an opponent who shares basic notions of logic and rationality than one whose motivations and reasoning are rooted in prophecy and scripture. If nothing else, that is because the former can be deterred or countered by modern means, whereas the latter ultimately cannot.


Paul G. Buchanan writes about comparative and international politics at the University of Auckland.

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