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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Whose war guilt? The Taliban as the American Left’s mirror

Whose war guilt? The Taliban as the American Left’s mirror

Wes Vanderburgh

Platypus Review 143 | February 2022

IT TOOK THE AMERICAN LEFT until the end of this past summer to formulate a response to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. military retreat. Indeed, only after a silence so suspicious as to suggest that the Left had nothing at all to say on the matter did it finally find the words it was looking for. As perhaps should have been expected, this response took the form of blaming U.S. imperialism for Afghanistan’s woes. The U.S. was the real enemy, for not only had it waged a decades-long war it had no ability to decisively win, all for the profit interests of a few giant corporations; but it also trained and funded the very group that now terrorizes the country. Any way you slice it, the American Left’s anti-imperialist stance is virtually the same as it was during Iraq and Vietnam.

And now that the Left is back to not caring about Afghanistan, we can see through the smoke that has finally cleared. Just as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were disastrous attempts by the ruling class to move beyond its own Vietnam Syndrome, equally as disastrous has been the Left’s play-by-play revival of its anti-Vietnam War orientation. The Left has engaged in a misguided attempt to resuscitate the New Left by channeling an anti-imperialism that is no longer grounded in the contemporary moment. But for the words “Vietnam,” “Iraq,” and “Afghanistan,” you could find identical statements and tactics deployed across 60 years of capitalist dynamism. Such stasis hardly seems appropriate.

Beyond that, though, such an uncritical anti-imperialism obscures the fact that the Left has been constitutive of U.S. imperialism since the latter’s origin. To seek to intervene in the phenomenon labeled “U.S. imperialism” assumes a starting point that is no longer available, namely an objectively viable, international movement for socialism. As such, any analytical claims to generate knowledge of the current situation in Afghanistan (or anywhere else) are doomed to an unintelligibility characteristic of the world-historic absence of socialism. Rather than point the finger at the U.S. imperialists, the Left ought to interrogate itself. It just may find that it has been the primary antagonist this whole time. But such a discovery would be to its credit, as that admission would itself reveal the path forward.

The Left as imperialism

To begin with, then, the Left ought to remember that Marxism did more for imperialism than the bourgeoisie ever did. The imperialist World War I, far from being the end of the road for capitalism as many Marxists predicted, ended up rebirthing capitalism on a stronger basis than ever before. This is because socialism itself, once perhaps capitalism’s existential threat, became a pillar bolstering it in the post-war world. Socialists and socialism became affirmative of the capitalist status quo. This is evident not only in the “economy” (think of the diffusion of economic-planning methods formerly denounced as “socialist”) but also with the general technologizing of social life. Indeed, reducing the complexity of the modern freedom problem to sociology and public policy is an even greater index.

Socialism can also be credited with the newfound liberty with which individuals conducted new social relations, a liberty that ended up generating new markets for alternative or dissenting lifestyles, evidencing the latter’s full integration within capitalism. All this is not even primarily due to the machinations of capitalist governments or rightist repression. Rather, it all began with Stalin’s USSR, only to be taken up by the Nazis, and culminated in the Democrats’ New Deal coalition. The global governance characteristic of today fully owes itself to Marxism. None of this would be possible without generations of dutiful socialists pushing for greater rights, setting the cities on fire in protest, and resentfully voting Democrat as the “lesser of two evils.” It all counts, and it’s all guilty.

But all this is old news. Indeed, the anti-Vietnam Left was already trying to address just this crisis of faith in Marxism. What confronts us as new is the obsolescence of socialism right at the moment of its profound urgency. The Old Left helped create a world in which the distribution of surplus value was no longer an issue. Thus the Trente Glorieuses, to borrow Jean Fourastié’s phrase: the post-World War II boom that would not have been possible without socialism’s hand in defeating fascism. The New Left in turn was pivotal in facilitating the neoliberal integration of all segments of the working class into the administered society. We now inhabit a world in which production, distribution, and consumption have all been solved as pure economic realities. And yet we are still missing something. That something is freedom, a problem that the world has utterly avoided in the process. Only socialism could have allowed us to fully face up to the demands of such a problem, yet the time for socialism has already passed.

History has ended, and yet it persists: that is today’s crisis. But today’s Left misses that completely by superimposing slogans and “theory” from an earlier moment, a moment in which reconstituting the modern freedom project was much more visible. If only ours were a problem of U.S. imperialism!

This means that it is not as simple as equating the U.S. of LBJ and Nixon with the U.S. of Bush through Biden, or the Viet Cong with the Taliban. Not all of Afghanistan’s woes owe themselves to the U.S., and the Taliban is by no means an anti-imperialist poster child. Rather, the world is crying out for change but finds itself impotent to take the first step. The pace of contemporary capitalism compels the world to run at full speed, yet it has forgotten how to walk!

The post-socialist dilemma of truth

Thus the Left’s finger-pointing must be read dialectically as a statement of untruth. That is, the U.S. is not to blame, and socialism is not the answer. But both could be true. If they were true already, then they would not need to be said. Recall Hegel’s splendid little phrase to the effect that “the rational is real.” Reality is not rational, yet it has the potential to be so. Similarly, U.S. imperialism is not the Left’s enemy, yet it could transform the nature of the fight such that the former could be the only obstacle left in its path. Socialism is not the solution, but the Left could reignite the flame of modern freedom such that it became the only rational answer to the questions of history and freedom.

How do we make such things true? How do we re-engage the dialectic of history once more? At the risk of reifying the 11th thesis on Feuerbach, we might start by remembering that truth in the modern age is practical. Philosophy has willed its claim to truth to the class struggle. The age of emancipated labor makes possible the practical experimentation with truth and falsehood to a degree never before experienced in human history. Not despite but because of the antinomy of thought and action can human beings now make their society true or false, instead of merely philosophizing or divining these categories as in ages past. Theory, critique, science — all attain the possibility of truth or falsehood to the extent that society is engaged in a practical, institutional struggle to come into a more complete consciousness of itself. Such properties do not exist “out there” in the world; rather, they are premised by the industrial mode of production.

For our post-1848 moment, then, socialism becomes this vehicle for practical intervention in reality. But in the absence of socialism, we find ourselves in a situation in which truth and falsehood themselves are taken off the table. Every analytical move toward truth chokes on its own self-contradictoriness. The Left probably doesn’t wish to recall that, during the early days of the Iraq War, the Iraqi Communist Party supported U.S. intervention. This apparent paradox is only too relevant in our case. In the absence of socialism, capitalism itself becomes progressive. In fact, this is nothing but a necessary form of appearance, but the appearance becomes truer than the substance underlying it. The only true-false scenario left open to us now regarding Afghanistan devolves into the following: permanent foreign intervention or Taliban rule.

Every news commentary, every forced recollection of Afghanistan’s democratic past, every statement against the crimes of U.S. imperialism thus falls utterly flat. Socialism could become the truth content toward which each of these gestures point. But for this to be so, the practical, organizational means of making socialism viable again would have to be actuated. Whether this means resurrecting an International remains up to us to decide. Indeed, whether this is even desirable in the first place remains an open question.

Until then, though, every attempt to flip the imperialist script will only end up bolstering imperialism all the more. The fact is that the world needs imperialism, if only because socialism is immature. The real tragedy, in other words, is imperialism’s truth. Imperialism will remain true so long as socialism remains false. Imperialism will appear progressive so long as socialism appears reactionary with its head stuck in the sand of its own regression. But socialism’s falsehood will only remain immature so long as the possibility of freedom exists. That this possibility persists is by no means a guarantee — it is the living challenge of the contemporary moment.

The Taliban’s future can only end with the Left’s past

For us now, though, and even more so for those in Kabul, it appears too late for Afghanistan to signify such a move toward freedom for the American Left. The latter has revealed its hand, and it went all-in on anti-imperialism. It is thus already too late for Afghanistan, and the Left alone is responsible. What will it take, then, to avenge the Afghan people? What will it take for their sacrifices not to be in vain? More than hopeful news coverage, and certainly more than negative critique. It will take theory and action adequate to the task of whipping back up the paltry ember of modern freedom into the world-consuming blaze it was just 100 long years ago.

But tell that to the civilians on the ground, huddled in makeshift camps for fear of Taliban rule. Tell that to the women and religious minorities forcibly excluded from the promise of bourgeois freedom. Seriously — who dares to uplift the project of freedom in these bleak times? Nothing less is required, though it now seems the last option to consider. |P