ISIS and the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution

The events in the Middle East and the relationships between the major powers involved in the crisis have changed with kaleidoscopic speed.

A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa
(photo credit: REUTERS)
History has never repeated itself word for word. Still, the past can provide a valuable clue for understanding the present, and predicting the future. The Bolshevik Revolution, which took place exactly 100 years ago, provides such a clue.
The Bolsheviks survived because their enemies were not united.
The same possibility exists with regard to Islamic State (ISIS) and similar Islamist groups – they could well survive if their enemies are disunited.
The events in the Middle East and the relationships between the major powers involved in the crisis have changed with kaleidoscopic speed, even though all who have been engaged in the melee have underlined their unquestionable hatred of Islamists. In this they are quite similar to those Western powers and Japan that professed their deep hatred of the Red “Islamists” 100 years ago.
At the same time, they pursue strategies which actually ignore and are often hostile to each other’s interests. A cursory examination shows clearly that the tension between the major powers hardly helps to eradicate Islamists.
The Kurds are possibly the only viable force which can tackle ISIS in earnest. Still, if they were unleashed they would immediately antagonize the Turks, who are already been quite wary of them. Turkey, unsettled by the prospect of even a quasi-Kurdish state on their borders, could change its approach to ISIS. It could even start to support ISIS again, as it has done in the past, for example when it had open borders with ISIS, making it possible for ISIS to receive fresh recruits and supplies.
Nevertheless, one could argue, it is inevitable that ISIS territory will be taken over by anti-ISIS forces.
Even if this is true, it would be just the first step. Anti-ISIS forces controlling the major cities would still leave the countryside controlled by ISIS, as the experience of Afghanistan shows. The insurgents could remain in control in parts of the country for many years, lying in wait to retake the cities and finally the capital when their enemies become weak. ISIS and other Islamist groups could also spread into various parts of Asia and Africa.
The true defeat of ISIS would require considerable military presence in the countryside and willingness to take considerable losses for years, if not generations.
It will require a truly global cooperation. This should be the aim of all members of the anti- ISIS coalition. History provides a good example of what could happen if they do not put aside their rivalries to accomplish this.
The Bolsheviks were, in a way, quite similar to Islamists. Both Islamists and the early Bolsheviks were merciless to their real and imaginary enemies. They also did not spare their own lives.
Both Bolsheviks and Islamists were “internationalists” willing to embrace anyone, regardless of ethnicity, if he/she followed them. Finally, both groups entertain the vision of a utopian society – communism for the Bolsheviks and the caliphate for ISIS.
ISIS and Bolsheviks faced universal condemnation from the political elite of all Western powers and Japan. During the Russian Civil War, many of these states sent their troops to help the “Whites” – the Bolsheviks’ enemies.
Bolsheviks would not have survived a full-fledged assault, but the anti-Bolsheviks were riddled with mutual suspicion and open animosity. Some of the anti-Bolshevik forces openly fought each other. And it was this which saved the Bolsheviks, as Lenin, their, leader acknowledged.
The survival of the Bolshevik regime – the first truly totalitarian society – brought a dramatic change in the world, and this was hardly pleasing to the Western powers, which clearly underestimated the Bolsheviks at the beginning of their rule, despite the Bolsheviks’ universal condemnation as political and social outcasts. History, of course, never repeats itself word by word. Still, it can and often does repeat itself as far as the major outlines are concerned. And there is a great danger that the Islamists will survive in some form unless their enemies join hands despite their differences, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The author is an associate professor at Indiana University.