Newsletter #91: Yemen and the Houthis w/ Helen Lackner

By Ben Mabie

In the years following World War II, a series of Marxist studies attempted to make sense of the globe-shattering conflict. There was a felt need to parse the distinct but parallel struggles that were bound up in its unfolding. This was not only a matter of shifting geographic theaters of conflict — in Northern and then Eastern Europe, and across the islands of the Pacific, as well as Burma, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaya, the Philippines, Singapore, and bestriding the British imperial holdings across the Middle East and in Northern and Eastern Africa — but also the singular character of these struggles, each possessing its own qualities, logics, and protagonists. 

The best-known study, from Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, provided a five-part typology of the war’s conflicts: the interimperialist contest for hegemony in the imperial chain carried out by Germany, Japan, the UK, and the United States; the USSR’s “patriotic” war of national self-defense against Nazi aggression that developed into a “revolution from above” over former fascist holdings across Eastern Europe; and finally, a series of wars for national liberation. For the latter, while Mandel argued these had distinctive features that made it possible to delineate between them — the Chinese eviction of Japanese forces that transformed into a social revolution, the anti-colonial movements of other colonized parts of Asia, and the resistance struggles of Nazi-occupied Europe — they were all commonly distinguished by the entrance of “the masses,” the independent social forces of everyday people, into the geopolitical tempest. 

Despite these distinctions, we still call it a world war because each conflict overlapped with and pressed upon the others, shaping the field of possibilities for those particular struggles as they were inserted into a turbulent global order. Mandel writes:   

By the end of 1945 the war had become not only a transcontinental but also a multifarious affair involving: revolutionary class struggle from below; revolution from above; national liberation movements under bourgeois and working-class leaderships; reform of the old order; and violent counter-revolution. The exact outcome in each instance depended on the strength and maturity of the class leaderships, the degree of importance the victors attached to a given area or country, and their ability to impose a political settlement.

So the war was not reducible to interstate combat. Its outcome also depended on the social balance of forces within particular theaters. 

This line of inquiry has been stretched further by successive generations of historians, such as the conservative Ernst Nolte (a key subject of our next newsletter) and the left-wing Enzo Traverso, for whom the history of “the European Civil War” encompassed both world wars and the period in between, involving strikes and coups, civil conflicts and interstate subterfuge, the germination of workers’ Soviets and the experience of the Shoah. It’s not only that World War II saw the explosion of various kinds of violent struggle, but that those struggles were nurtured in the soil of the decades of crisis that preceded them. 

For Traverso, though, atop these distinct conflicts was a common framework, whose various origins could be traced to the deep crisis of the pre-1914 political and social forms: “a total war between competing visions of the world and models of civilization.” Between revolution or counterrevolution.

This heuristic could be fruitfully applied to some more contemporary events. For instance, this analytic perspective — of viewing “[many] wars in one” — has been deployed by Susan Watkins to describe the ongoing war in Ukraine. Sitting upon the mudsills of a civil conflict in Ukraine kicked off by the Maidan Square protests are four other wars: Vladimir Putin’s “defense-revanchist” war against NATO, Ukraine’s war of national self-defense, Joe Biden’s proxy war for imperial primacy, and the outlines of a Sino-American cold war rivalry. From the intervening years since Watkin’s editorial, we might be able to add two further conflicts: on the one hand, an abortive intraelite Russian conflict with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s half-hearted coup, and on the other a proxy fight between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Sudanese Civil War. 

Helen Lackner’s recent forensic discussion of Yemen on The Dig — covering the Houthis’ recent maritime insurgency, but also the longer historical view of the country — suggests that this sort of analytical perspective might also be deployed in the Middle East. That Tufan al-Aqsa, only operational in the Gaza envelope, could inflame regional if not global tensions speaks to the need for a similar framework. As each of our Dig interviews have impressed, the response to October 7 has involved a dynamic interplay between local and national conjunctures and the regional system they’re caught up in — every event responds to the demands of local balances of power, but also events and forces that loom just beyond their borders. 

While we could say that about virtually every country, in this case there is no doubt a set of many simultaneous developments that don’t just rhyme but are parallel, intersecting, and overlapping. How do you parse regionwide processes on the one hand, especially for states that share similarly unstable relationships within the Arab state system and within the global imperialist chain, and on the other hand the specific dynamics internal to the determinate social formations of certain nations?

How might we both sort the types of conflict of the last few decades, as well as bring them together into a comprehensive understanding of their bounded sequencing? It is not entirely clear where one would start to periodize the region’s current conflagration. The region has occupied the center of the world stage for most of the post–Cold War era; should it begin with the vacuum of Soviet influence opened up in the 1990s, when securing a favorable interstate system in the region became a priority for Washington? Or does one start with the inauguration of the first — or second — intifadas, marked by a shifting locus of Palestinian insurgency back to the occupied territories rather than refugee camps within adjacent Arab states (who were, after all, increasingly making their peace with Tel Aviv?) Perhaps it begins with the US invasion of Iraq and its dislocations? Or maybe the start of the Arab Spring’s “revolutions of the squares” and their tragic transmogrification into militarized civil conflicts and then brutal foreign interventions? 

Maybe it would be better to apply a discontinuous chronology, as Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes does for the start of the twentieth century? In his narrative, World War I and World War II open the book, but then Hobsbawm retreats back to the October Revolution, before leaping forward to the Great Crash and the ascent of fascism. 

Perhaps our effort to plot the typology of conflicts and forces at work in the contemporary Middle East would also have to proceed on the basis of these time lags. Insofar as this analysis wants to track the interplay between different levels of the social formation and their interpenetration with other social formations, we should perhaps be skeptical of an account that proceeds with a neater chronological plot, which might flatten what are in fact relatively autonomous levels of the historical process — and blur distinct kinds of conflict that shape their surface.  

This sort of inquiry isn’t only important for academic or historiographical reasons. It bears directly on our ability to make sense of ongoing political turbulence that cannot be neatly characterized as a situation of polarization between emancipatory and reactionary forces. Rather, an effective emancipatory politics must comprehend the multiple logics of conflict at work in a given conjuncture in order to understand the conditions of possibility for an effective intervention. 

It also cautions against one-sided interpretations of complex events. For instance, it may be possible for a protest movement to be the grievous expression of a single sociological slice of the country, for that protest to nevertheless aspire to speak beyond sectarian boundaries, and for it to also be instrumentalized by the United States or a regional power for its own ends. Within every discrete theater, there are many kinds of contests: alongside one another are national-liberation struggles against settler colonialism, regional battles for leadership, grassroots sectarian tensions with their origin in the political distribution of spoils, and efforts to secure American hegemony. 

For those of us whose North Star is a fighting egalitarianism anchored by mass organization, such a situation of overdetermined conflicts can solicit fierce disagreement and debate in our camp. The residues of these conflicts do not form a superstructure that sits atop a more basic division between workers and capital — these sedimented layers of conflict exist within the people, within the social substance that might make a mass movement. It shapes the stuff of ideology, affects what alliances are possible, and entrenches constraints that a movement might experience in the course of its internal development. Stuart Hall once said that politics doesn’t reflect majorities, it constructs them — and it constructs them through the mediation of these various struggles whose logics are so alien to our own.