[Marxism] Socialist Action on Libya and Syria - Reply to Louis Proyect

Joseph Green jgreen at communistvoice.org
Sat Oct 22 12:58:58 MDT 2016

Louis Proyect wrote:
> On 10/22/16 8:58 AM, Joseph Green via Marxism wrote:
> > But it's not a bastardization of Trotsky's view
> > of anti-imperialism, it's directly in line with it.
> So you think it was wrong to support Ethiopia against fascist Italy's
> invasion? As I pointed out, precapitalist revolts against capitalist
> states, especially in MENA, don't fit neatly into stagist schemas as I
> pointed out by referring to Omar Mukhtar. I should add that this is a very
> old debate that pitted Eduard Bernstein against Belfort Bax:

Louis, I emphatically agree with supporting the Ethiopian people against the 
Italian imperialist and fascist aggression of the 1930s. This was discussed 
last year on the Marxism list, and you were part of this discussion. True, 
you didn't agree with the distinction I drew between backing Haile Selassie 
in the way Trotsky did, envisioning that the Ethiopian emperor might well be 
a wonderful anti-imperialist dictator who would inspire all of Africa, and 
instead supporting first and foremost the Ethiopian people in their 
resistance to Italian aggression, a resistance which was upset with 
Selassie's absolutism as well as with the  fact that he fled Ethiopia in the 
face of Italian aggression. You didn't even understand the distinction I was 
making, and you claimed that it was "splitting hairs. In the concrete 
situation, one ruler (Mussolini) made war on another (Selassie). It makes no 
sense to say that you support Ethiopia but not the head of state."  But in  
the discussion on this list and elsewhere at the that time, I not only posted 
a history of the Ethiopian resistance to Italian aggression, but also showed 
how Selassie's absolutism impeded the resistance. This was not simply or even 
primarily a war between two rulers: it was a war that involved the peoples of 

It's notable that the Trotskyist movement has had an almost complete 
conspiracy of silence about what happened in the Italo-Ethopian war. It has 
praised Trotsky's stand in this war and used it as a model, but refused to 
evaluate this stand in the light of what happened. I wonder how many 
Trotskyists even know that Selassie fled Ethiopia right after Trotsky praised 
him to the skies. 

Naturally it's a sensitive question about how Selassie should have been dealt 
with at the time of the war. It wasn't a question that the Ethiopian people 
were about to overthrow him. But the resistance wanted reforms so that 
absolutism would not continue after the war, and the Oromo people in Ethiopia 
was so angry at the national oppression represented by Selassie's rule that 
it is said that when Selassie fled Ethiopia, he was fleeing them and not just 
the Italian troops. How does one support an Ethiopian resistance officially 
led by Haile Selassie but in fact with major internal divides? Surely saying 
the war is simply a war between two rulers or two dictators is not the way to 
do it. 

So it was right for Trotsky to support Ethiopian resistance, but the way he 
did it gave rise to bad effects which we are still feeling today. It was not 
a bastardization or misuse of Trotsky's views when Socialist Action denounced 
the Libyan democratic movement.  It is  not a bastardization or misuse of 
Trotsky's views when various Trotskyist groups defend reactionary rulers in 
the name of anti-imperialism. Indeed the Trotskyist movement has even debated 
whether the example of Trotsky's stand towards Selassie would justify support 
for the Taliban. 

Moreover, there is a strong connection between Trotsky's mechanical stand on 
anti-imperialism and his theory of permanent revolution. Permanent revolution 
was bankrupt in dealing with the class and social struggles inside Ethiopia. 
It had nothing to say on this subject. That's why Trotsky praised Selassie to 
the hilt instead. And in the years since, the theory of permanent revolution 
and Trotsky's stand on anti-imperialism have worked together in obscuring the 
class struggles in various countries.

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, Louis and assume that you just forgot 
the discussion on the Marxisn list  last year, and also that you forgot that 
I am part of a trend that has fervently supported the anti-imperialist and 
anti-colonial struggles from day one. You deal with many things on this list 
every day, and I understand that you might forget some things. But really, 
Louis, if you want to know my views you should look at what I have written, 
not the debates between the revisionist Edouard Bernstein and Belford Bax. 
Perhaps its time to move into the 21st century and not imagine that the 
modern criticism of Trotskyism is a repetition of old arguments from random 
figures in the  past.

Below I reproduce one of the articles I wrote on this subject for the Detroit 
Workers' Voice list last year. It refers to the debate on the Marxism list, 
and it points out that then too there were those who "pretended that 
criticism of Trotsky´s extravagant backing of Selassie meant refusing to back 
the Ethiopian side of the war with Italian imperialism".


August 31, 2015:
The sad story of Leon Trotsky
and Haile Selassie (part one)

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the vicious, criminal murder of 
Trotsky on August 21, 1940, carried out at the behest of Stalin. This has 
encouraged a flurry of interest in the new articles and books that continue 
to come out about Trotsky.

Trotsky was one of the prominent members of the Bolsheviks, and he also stood 
up against Stalin and was murdered for it. But his theorizing was flawed, and 
he never repudiated the essence of Stalinism. This is the reason why, over 
the years, the Trotskyist movement has made one horrible mistake after 

One example of how this happened is the story of Trotsky´s extravagant praise 
of Haile Selassie. This might seem like a dusty old topic. But it´s a live 
topic in Trotskyist circles, and it affects major issues of recent times, 
such as the attitude to the Taliban and the conception of anti-imperialism. 
So let´s look into it.

Selassie was one of the absolute rulers of the Ethiopian Empire; he was 
Regent from 1916 to 1930, and Emperor from 1930 to 1974. Trotsky was right to 
back Ethiopia against Italian invasion and occupation during the latter 
1930s, but wrong to prettify Selassie´s absolutism and wrong to regard 
Ethiopia as a blank slate, without significant internal struggles. On April 
22, 1936, Trotsky wrote that workers faced "making a choice between two 
dictators", either Mussolini or Haile Selassie. He didn´t look towards the 
victory of the Ethiopian people, but the "victory of the Negus"; "Negus" 
referred to Haile Selassie, and Trotsky was saying something like "victory of 
his royal majesty". Trotsky held that "the victory of the Negus ... would 
mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a 
whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the 
oppressed peoples."

Trotsky also suggested that Selassie would play a role like major figures of 
the past bourgeois revolutions in England and France. However, on May 2, 
1936, a mere week and a half after Trotsky described him as a powerful leader 
whose defeat of Italian imperialism might "play a very progressive role in 
history", Selassie fled Ethiopia. Oops. The imperial regime was crumbling in 
the face of Italian advances. The resistance to Italian occupation would not 
be led by Selassie but, instead, turn into a partisan war against Italian 
occupation, led mainly by a movement called the Patriots. It was a forerunner 
in the Horn of Africa of the more well-known resistance movements in Europe 
in World War II. Moreover, the Patriots wanted not only to throw out the 
Italian fascists, but to achieve reforms in the Ethiopian regime. (Selassie 
returned to Ethiopia in 1941 with the help of British imperialist bayonets; 
the Italian fascists were thrown out, but hopes for reform in the 
Ethiopian regime were dashed.)

This makes a mockery of what Trotsky wrote about Selassie. Errors and wrong 
predictions can be corrected, but Trotsky refused to do so. Moreover, to this 
day, the Trotskyist movement continues to close its eyes to what really 
happened in Ethiopia. It hides the fact that Selassie fled Ethiopia. Instead 
it insists on regarding Trotsky´s comments on Selassie as the gold standard 
of anti-imperialism.

As a result, Trotskyist errors kept getting worse and worse. At least Trotsky 
was on the right side of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. This was *not* a war 
in which workers should have opposed both sides, but one in which it was 
crucial to back the Ethiopian side. But some Trotskyist groups have backed 
Saddam Hussein or the Taliban as anti-imperialist fighters. These 
Trotskyists couldn´t understand how to oppose both Saddam Hussein and US 
imperialism, or both the Taliban and US imperialism. And some Trotskyists 
have denigrated popular movements against reactionary regimes, such as those 
against Qaddafi or Assad.

To do so, they have cited various Trotskyist dogmas, including Trotsky´s idea 
of Selassie´s anti-imperialist role. Yet, for example, to prettify the 
Taliban is to betray the Afghan people, and it is a repudiation of everything 
the left should stand for. It´s astonishing that some Trotskyists, such as 
the Workers World Party in the US or the Socialist Workers Party 
in Britain, could sink to this level. But so they have. I wrote a two-part 
article in 2002 about the struggle among Trotskyists over whether to support 
the Taliban. It dealt with the debate among British Trotskyists on this 
issue, as it was more open and informative than what appeared in Workers 
World. In this debate, the issue of Trotsky´s stand on Haile Selassie was 

See "The socialist debate on the Taliban" (January and June 2002):

Part one (www.communistvoice.org/28cTaliban.html) gives an analysis of the 
opposing views of Bob Pitt and Ian Donovan on the Taliban, both of whom refer 
to Trotsky´s view of Selassie. Their articles are appended as important 
reference material.

Part two (www.communistvoice.org/29cEmir.html) contrasts Leninist view of 
anti-imperialism with Stalin´s view about the Emir of Afghanistan and 
Trotsky´s view about Haile Selassie. Trotsky´s views about Haile Selassie 
echo those of Stalin about the Emir.

Well, it´s been 79 years since Selassie fled Ethiopia in 1936. But the 
Trotskyist movement is still silent about this. It is astonishing to see one 
Trotskyist article after another that discusses Trotsky´s stand on Selassie, 
and fails to mention that Selassie fled. For example, an article in 2006 in 
Socialist Worker was devoted to discussing Trotsky´s stand on Ethiopia, and 
not only never mentioned that Selassie fled, but glorified his military role 
with a picture captioned "Emperor Haile Selassie inspecting his troops during 
the invasion". The famous three-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac 
Deutscher ignored Ethiopia completely. Pathfinder Press published volume 
after volume of Trotsky´s writings, including the letter that praised Haile 
Selassie as an anti-imperialist: it footnoted this and that, but neglected to 
mention Selassie fleeing Ethiopia, the partisan war in Ethiopia, or what 
happened after Selassie returned.

Earlier this month, I raised on Proyect´s Marxism list the issue of Trotsky´s 
glorification of Haile Selassie. Several people sought to defend Trotsky´s 
stand, but not one of them would address the issue that Selassie had fled, or 
what really happened in the resistance against Italian occupation. Instead 
they pretended that criticism of Trotsky´s extravagant backing of Selassie 
meant refusing to back the Ethiopian side of the war with Italian 

This says a lot about the Trotskyist method. It isn´t a materialist method. 
It doesn´t compare Trotsky´s views to the events in Ethiopia, but relies on 
pretending that opponents of Trotskyism are devils who don´t support the 
anti-imperialist struggle. Meanwhile, since the Trotskyist movement hasn´t 
examined the history of the struggle in Ethiopia, how can it learn from it? 
And doesn´t hiding for 79 years Selassie´s flight from Ethiopia mean that the 
Trotskyist movement is as guilty of the falsification of history as the 

In part two, I will outline some of the events in the Ethiopian struggle 
against Italian invasion and occupation. This will provide background for 
part three, in which I will discuss in more detail the difference between 
Trotsky´s extravagant praise for Selassie and a standpoint that would have 
been more useful to the world working class with respect to the 
struggle in Ethiopia.

(The quotes from Trotsky glorifying Selassie are from "On Dictators and the 
Heights of Oslo: Letter to an English Comrade", 

April 22, 1936. It is available in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1936-36), 
Pathfinder Press, pp. 317-320, or at 
www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/04/oslo.htm.) <>


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