Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2002
The other day in the pub, the local Trot took time off failing to persuade two rather attractive women students to go to a meeting on the rail dispute in order to beard me for this column’s line on Afghanistan. “Your trouble is you don’t understand imperialism,” he declared. “You see, this war is all about America securing access to oil.”
It was hardly an original point. Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard it from various Lefties. But leave that aside. The real problem was that he was talking fatuous nonsense.
Yes, I know that American oil companies are interested in exploiting the vast oil reserves of the former Soviet republics of central Asia and that a pipeline through Afghanistan would be a means of getting the oil out that doesn’t run through Russia or Iran. And yes, I know that George W Bush is an oil man and that one of the results of the Afghan war could be a substantial permanent American military presence in central Asia.
But the US did not launch its military action because of oil. It did so – to risk stating the obvious – because of the September 11 attacks and the role of the Taliban regime in sustaining the perpetrators. It was necessary to overthrow the Taliban in order to deny al-Qaida its most important supporter and to reduce (though of course not eliminate) its ability to mount further outrages. Oil had nothing to do with it.
Which is not to say that oil will not be a very important factor in American policy towards central Asia and Afghanistan from now on. Indeed, it might even be the determining factor, with Washington using all its influence to get governments in the region to agree to allow American oil companies in.
This, of course, is what the Trot denounces as “imperialism”. To me, however, it is by no means obvious that big oil companies descending on central Asia would be a bad thing. Afghanistan’s economy has been destroyed by years of war; and, largely because of the disastrous legacy of Soviet-style “socialism”, the countries of central Asia are economic basket cases. Oil is just about their only hope of prosperity in the medium term – but they need large-scale investment to be able to benefit from it. And, like it or not, American oil companies have the capital they desperately need.
Of course, the oil companies would certainly strike as hard a bargain as possible. And it is undoubtedly the case that, unless there is fundamental democratic reform of the central Asian states, the benefits of oil revenues coming into their hands will not be felt by all their citizens equally. There is a real danger that, as in the Middle East, America will use its muscle to prop up corrupt oligarchical regimes with appalling records on human rights.
All things considered, however, people in central Asia and Afghanistan are likely to be better off if American oil companies move in big time than if they don’t. As the old joke has it – I think it’s from Tanzania circa 1970, though it might be Polish: “There’s only one thing worse than being exploited by multinational capitalism. Not being exploited by multinational capitalism.”
The Trot also told me some interesting news about the Socialist Alliance, the ragbag of Leninist sects that fought the general election last year and won a derisory 57,553 votes for socialism in England and Wales. (Its Scottish counterpart did much better, but that’s another story.)
It has now split, with its second-biggest constituent sect, the Socialist Party — that’s the former Militant Tendency, otherwise known as the Revolutionary Socialist League – deciding it doesn’t like being bossed around by the Alliance’s biggest constituent sect, the Socialist Workers’ Party. Meanwhile, nearly all the non-aligned lefties who joined the Alliance during the election campaign in the belief that it would prove a genuinely pluralist democratic organisation have left in disgust at the sects’ antics.
The upshot is that the Socialist Alliance is now little more than the SWP and a handful of the looniest loonies in left politics, among them Socialist Organiser and the Stalinist fruitcakes who call themselves the Communist Party of Great Britain. (Aficionados of this sort of stuff will know that they are not in fact the Communist Party of Great Britain, which turned itself into Democratic Left, then into the New Times Network and subsequently into the New Politics Network. Nor are they to be confused with the Communist Party of Britain, the weird Stalinist organisation that publishes the Morning Star. But that’s yet another story.)
As regular readers of this column will know, I hate to crow when I’m proved right by the turn of events. But just this once, didn’t I say that the Alliance would end in tears?