Marxist theory

The “Grand Chessboard”: It’s not as simple as you think!

The “Grand Chessboard”.
The world is not as simple as many socialists think it is.

By Michael Karadjis

Introduction by Oaklandsocialist: The following article is by Australian Marxist Michael Karadjis. He uses a couple of terms that may be unfamiliar to some. “Tankies” refers to those on the “left” who support bringing out the tanks to crush a workers’ uprising if those lefts oppose the goals of those workers. For example, when Polish workers rose up against the bureaucratic dictatorship there in 1980 and were crushed militarily. The “campists” often take a similar position, but what that term refers to is how some on the left only see struggles within a country in terms of how it affects rival imperialist blocs; they don’t see what is happening in the class struggle within that country. They almost always feel compelled to find an excuse to oppose whatever side the US is on. In effect, they ignore the working class. What Karadjis shows is that who is in which camp is never as simple as it might seem.

Some might think all this is just a tempest in a teapot, since the socialist movement is so tiny. However, socialism has always led the workers movement and the utter confusion, its self-imposed distance from the working class matters. Without becoming clear on these issues, socialism will never develop any real influence.

Karadjis writes:

“Tankies” always base their “principles” upon some Grand Chessboard geopolitical-economic perspective – just as their erstwhile “opponents” in US/NATOland do. While doing such analysis is considered by some as being a little bit “tankie”, nothing could be further from the truth.  It is essential that we refute the “counter-hegemonists” on their own terrain.  It’s all they got.

Nearly all the campist assumptions were based on various Old Left activists living 50 years or more in the past.  

Arab Countries and Russia
Take Yemen for example. The point has been made that while the US and western imperialism are condemning Russia’s invasion, they do not have the same attitude to years of Saudi terror-bombing Yemen. But while that is a very good point to make about western hypocrisy, a geopolitical analysis won’t help the campists usually trying to make it.

Putin high-fives Saudi Prince bin Salman. Which “camp” is Saudi Arabia really in?

The alliance between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt with Russia, is now so solid that, despite these countries depending on US weaponry, they abstained in the UN General Assembly, the UAE abstained on the Security Council (joining India and China), both Saudi and UAE leaders have allegedly been refusing to take Biden’s phone calls, and they are steadfastly refusing US requests that they pump out more oil to make up for the shortfall caused by sanctions on Russia. The Saudis in particular argue they are loyal to their oil agreements with Russia. The UAE has declared a “strategic alliance” with Russia, while last year Saudi Arabia signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia, and is still considering purchasing the Russian S-400 air defence system. Egypt meanwhile has been buying masses of Russian arms.

Yes, it is a US-backed Saudi war in Yemen, but the Yemeni government that the Saudis are defending (in such a monstrous way) against the Iran-backed Houthi Islamist militia is the internationally-recognised government, which means the one continually voted as such by the UN Security Council, ie by Russia and China, not only the US. Meanwhile, despite their apparent alliance, the UAE has been playing its own sub-imperial game against the Saudi-backed government by supporting South Yemeni separatism, the logic of which is, yes, also opposed to the northern-based Houthis, but at the same time amenable to a division of Yemen with them. Which are the pro- and anti-imperialists in this?

Israeli PM Bennet and Putin. Which “camp” is Israel in?

In the case of Israel the famous alliance between Putin and Netanyahu is too well-known to warrant much space here, just to say that it continues with (current Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali) Bennet, the first “world leader” to make a high profile visit to Putin following the invasion, and while (Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister, Yair) Lapid has generally gone along with the US pressure to say something, the far-right Bennet steadfastly refuses to mention Russia and banned his ministers from doing so; meanwhile the Netanyahu opposition condemns the government for even buckling to US pressure at all by saying anything at all.

It is notable that the entire world media has explained, as if common knowledge, that Israel and Russia cooperate in Syria, where Russia allows Israel to bomb Iranian positions by not activating its air-defence system there, as long as Israel doesn’t bomb the Assad regime (which it has no interest in doing). Useful info in case anyone thought that Russia and Iran were both in some imaginary anti-American “camp.” But while all true, the fuller explanation is that Israel always preferred an Assad victory over the rebels, just that it prefers Russia rather than Iran to be the main benefactor of that victory.

Two years ago, Russia, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Assad regime in Syria and French imperialism led a coalition in support of the right-wing warlord Hafter who was waging war on the Libyan government, which was backed by Turkey and Qatar, with the support of Iran. Try doing dumb campist politics with that! Which is the “US-backed” and “anti-US” side?

Turkey, Syria & NATO
When Turkey invaded Syria to attack the US-backed, leftist Kurdish-led SDF in 2019, this was furiously condemned by Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Assad regime also condemned it, but at the same time made clear that it aimed to do the same as Turkey was doing to the SDF; basically it was angry that someone else was doing its job, but not too angry. Palestinian Hamas declared its support for its Turkish ally. So does that mean the SDF (ie, Syrian PKK) is in the pro-US imperialist camp and Hamas in the anti-US imperialist camp? But hang on, Turkey is in NATO, while Israel/Egypt/Saudi/UAE are not …

Incidentally, if Turkey attacks the SDF, the key US ally in Syria since 2014, while being a NATO member, and NATO-leader US’s key ally in Syria is the Syrian wing of the PKK, Turkey’s arch nemesis, this might also raise questions as to the effectiveness of NATO in ever acting as a united vehicle in some kind of offensive capacity against Russia, as much left-magical theory suggests (even perhaps aimed at “Balkanising Russia”, according to some truly out-there left-conspiracist fantasy). As we might remember, the loudest voices against the US invasion of Iraq came from NATO France and Germany, while NATO Turkey refused to allow the US to stage its invasion from Turkey. Four NATO members still refuse to recognise Kosovo, despite the Kosovo war having been virtually the only ever united NATO action, and even now NATO member Hungary rejects sanctions on Russia or arms to Ukraine.

In recent years, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco and Oman have re-established relations with Israel (or long had them, eg. Egypt/Jordan), with the somewhat silent and more reserved backing of Saudi Arabia. In the very same recent years, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco and Oman have re-established relations with the Assad regime, with the somewhat silent and more reserved backing of Saudi Arabia. Tell me again, which “camps” are these countries in?

Russia and Syria
When Russia launched its war of aggression against the Syrian people in 2015 on behalf of the genocidal tyrant Assad, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan released a statement welcoming the invasion, while Netanyahu’s already existing bromance with Putin began its true blossoming. When the US launched its war against ISIS in Syria in 2014, it was welcomed by the Assad regime.

In other words, the entire edifice of imaginary ‘camps” in the Middle East simply does not exist, not at all, nothing, zilch, nada, but many leftists (and liberals for that matter) still imagine they are living in 1969 or 1975 or something.

Conclusion: Get back to basics!
But if this summary shows that conventional geopolitical assumptions are purely imaginary, what explanation can we make of this apparent geopolitical mess? How can we “geopolitically” analyse this mess? Seems to me we need to get back to the basics about class, revolution and counterrevolution, and combine this with recognition that powerful sub-imperial rivalries can at times ‘play’ with these class dynamics, try to ride them, coopt them, exploit them to their advantage against rivals, at closer range than larger imperialist powers, producing at times confusing alliances, but at all times the main dynamic is fundamental alliance against revolution and in defence of the the ancien regime system throughout the region, where the ruling classes of all these reactionary regimes were threatened by [the Arab] Spring.

A few years ago in reply to a friend I wrote this piece on the question [in relation to Syria], though of course much has changed since. 

Michael Karadjis is a lecturer at the University of Western Sidney, Australia. His blog site,, contains some of the most penetrating analysis of the war in Syria and should be a “go-to” reference site for any study of that war.

The “Grand Chessboard”.
The world is not as simple as many socialists think it is.

Categories: Marxist theory, war

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