Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 15, 2007

Socialism and Islam

Filed under: Islam,socialism — louisproyect @ 11:03 pm

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, told the British that “the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility.”

(This is the last installment on socialism and religion in a continuing series on “Does Socialism Have a Future”. My next post will be a commentary on state capitalism.)

Given the new Crusade mounted by Anglo-American imperialism since 9/11, it is completely understandable that some radicals would identify with those under attack in the same way that the war in Vietnam led young radicals to break with their class and explore socialism in the 1960s. If we are in the throes of a new kind of Cold War, perhaps it makes sense to align oneself with Washington’s new enemies. If one can reach the conclusion that the Kremlin stood for historical progress, despite its hidebound bureaucratic top layers, why not see political Islam in the same fashion? If secular and socialist forces are exhausted, why not form alliances with a powerful global movement that seems to have inexhaustible reservoirs of anti-imperialist fervor?

This tendency will no doubt be accelerated by the growing ties between the Latin American left and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a January 14th NY Times article, we learn that Chavez greeted a visiting Ahmadinejad with “Welcome, fighter for just causes” and described him as a “revolutionary” to the National Assembly. Meanwhile, in a December 9th article titled “Anti-Americans on the March,” the Wall Street Journal reported:

Some of Hezbollah’s biggest fans are in Europe. There, the hard left, demoralized by the collapse of communism, has found new energy, siding with Islamist militants in Lebanon, in Iraq and in a wider campaign against what they see as an American plot to impose unrestrained free-market capitalism.

“We are all Hezbollah now,” read posters carried through London this summer during an antiwar protest march. Earlier, London Mayor Ken Livingston, once known as “Red Ken,” invited a controversial Egyptian cleric to the British capital, arguing that his views have been distorted by the West.

Within the “hard left”, as the WSJ puts it, there is little doubt that the British Socialist Workers Party has gone further than any other group in trying to reconcile Marxism and political Islam, so much so that French Trotskyist intellectual Gilbert Achcar has begun to attack the SWP for departing from Marxist norms as he sees them. In a 2004 article titled “Marxists and Religion – yesterday and today” that criticizes the SWP alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), Achcar concludes:

The radical left, on one or another side of the Channel, should return to an attitude consistent with Marxism, which it proclaims. Otherwise, the hold of the fundamentalists over the Muslim populations risks reaching a level which will be extremely difficult to overcome. The gulf between these populations and the rest of the men and women workers in Europe will find itself widened, while the task of bridging it is one of the essential conditions for replacing the clash of barbarisms with a common fight of the workers and the oppressed against capitalism.

For its part, the SWP has been quite diligent in trying to establish that such alliances are actually “consistent with Marxism.” In “The Bolsheviks and Islam,” an article written by Dave Crouch in the Spring 2006 International Socialism Journal, we learn:

sharia law had been a central demand of Muslims during the February Revolution of 1917 and, as the civil war drew to a close in 1920-1921, a parallel court system was created in Central Asia and the Caucasus, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia law side by side with Soviet legal institutions. The aim was for people to have a choice between religious and revolutionary justice. A sharia Commission was established in the Soviet Commissariat of Justice to oversee the system. In 1921 a series of commissions were attached to regional units of the Soviet administration with the purpose of adapting the Russian legal code to the conditions of Central Asia, allowing for compromise between the two systems on questions such as under-age marriage and polygamy.

Although Crouch alludes to the Bolshevik goal of seeking “to split the Islamic movement between right and left”, there is very little historical context in the article. For that you have to consult other sources, such as volume one of E.H. Carr’s “The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923”. There we learn that Bolshevik policy reflected trial-and-error more than Marxist doctrine. When an “enforced sovietization of the eastern border-lands based on the hypothetical support of native revolutionary masses hostile to both bourgeois nationalism and Islam, proved a fiasco,” the Bolsheviks moved toward the policy described by Crouch.

While one can certainly learn from the experience of the early Soviet Union on matters such as these, it is not quite clear what practical political lessons can be drawn. Should socialists back demands for sharia law arising within Muslim communities? These are questions that cannot be simply resolved by stating that if it was good enough for the Bolsheviks, it is good enough for us. I can see the merits of supporting a demand for sharia that arose in Ontario last year. In a debate on this question that arose on Marxmail, Richard Fidler, a long-time socialist, wrote:

The anti-sharia campaign cannot be viewed in isolation from the overall political context since 9/11, in which Muslims have been singled out repeatedly as the enemies of “civilization” as we know it, in a sustained media attempt to justify the racist war drive. That’s why I maintain that the campaign was “racist”.

Meanwhile, the proposed Iraqi constitution calls for sharia law. Should we back this constitution because the Bolsheviks backed sharia law in the 1920s, or because it makes sense to back such demands in Ontario? Unfortunately, much of the discussion around Marxism and religion loses sight of the all-important criterion in such cases, namely the need to place them in the context of the class struggle. Strategy and tactics go by the board, while the relationship between socialism and religion gets turned into a principle.

Sometimes I wonder whether this new found enthusiasm for religion is a function of the exhaustion of socialist forces in the Middle East and elsewhere. As the WSJ article puts it, a “hard left” demoralized by the collapse of the Soviet Union might feel compelled to look for energy wherever it can be found. Looking back in our history, I would be hesitant to put that much confidence in any religion, particularly Islam.

In Rashid Khalidi’s recently published “The Iron Cage,” there is very little confidence placed in Islam. While most people regard the PLO as a symbol of secular ineptitude that had to give way to a less corrupt and more militant Hamas, there is evidence that the greatest betrayal of Palestinian aspirations ever took place at the hands of a religious leadership in the 1930s that incorporated exactly the same mix of faith-based radicalism and paternalistic welfare that typifies political Islam throughout the Arab East and Iran today.

In chapter two, there’s a section titled “The Communitarian Paradigm: Invented Religious Institutions” that details how the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem rose to power. Basically, the British Empire adapted traditional religious institutions that existed under Ottoman rule for their own purposes:

In Palestine, where the British had taken on the daunting responsibility of creating a Jewish national home in an Arab land with a 90 percent Arab majority, they faced an especially difficult task. In keeping with their hierarchical view of all societies, particularly subordinate ones, the British saw that one essential precondition for achieving this task was preventing the resistance to the Zionist project by a critical mass of the Palestinian elites, the notables who dominated Arab society and had previously served as intermediaries between that society and the Ottomans. While refusing the notables any official standing, and frustrating their national aspirations along with those of the rest of the Palestinians, the British nevertheless treated them with a certain ostensible deference, and were careful to allow them a limited role as intermediaries for the rest of Palestinian society, as well as certain other prerequisites. This was in line with the well-established British predilection, already mentioned (and seen most spectacularly in India, but also elsewhere in the British Empire), for developing privileged relations with real or invented aristocratic elites, rather than political formations rooted in the middle classes or the mass of the people. Among the most successful means for achieving this end in Palestine was the establishment and empowering by Britain of refashioned, as well as entirely new, Islamic institutions dominated by some of these traditional notables: institutions like the shari’a court system, the network of public charitable foundations, and the administration of Muslim holy places in Palestine.

You will note that the British helped to facilitate a sharia court system and a network of public charitable foundations. These are obviously the two constants of political Islam. Meanwhile, the Islamic institutions that were based on them condemned the Palestinian people to defeat. When they rose up against the British from 1936 to 1939, they were hobbled by an Islamic leadership that had spent most of the past 25 years temporizing with the British and being bribed by the Zionists.

Sir Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner, who appointed Hajj Amin al-Husanyi to the post of Grand Mufti, was a Jew and a Zionist. Khalidi states that al-Husanyi assured Samuel of his “earnest desire to cooperate with the Government and his belief in the good intentions of the British Government toward the Arabs,” as well as that “the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility.”

The Americans, like the British who preceded them, have always sought to curry favor with local religious elites. This was exactly the ploy that was attempted in Iraq, when Shi’ites were promised that they could become dominant, even if it was at the expense of their national sovereignty. A sectarian war ensued with Sunnis arrayed against Shi’ites. Mosques are blown up on both sides and ethnic cleansing proceeds relentlessly just as it did in India after independence or many other regions that were once part of the British Empire.

In the early 1980s, I developed a critique of Marxism-Leninism based on Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” and my own subsequent reading of Lenin. Basically my ideas on this were an elaboration on Fidel Castro’s observation that “The international communist movement, to our way of thinking, is not a church.” In my political activity and in my writings, I have tried to follow through on Castro’s words. Despite the fact that Marxism has suffered schisms for most of the past 150 years, it at least offers the possibility that it can unite disparate ethnic and religious forces in struggle just as was the case in Russia in 1917. While it is obviously counter-productive for our movement to conduct open ideological warfare against religion, it might be high time that we remind ourselves of our purpose on earth. That is to unite working people across religious, ethnic and national lines against the most powerful ruling class in history that has always understood the need to defend its own class interests across the same exact lines. If we lose sight of the primary class divide, then all else is lost.


  1. Dave Crouch’s article is hardly a call for Socialists to support Sharia law, simply a short historical note demonstrating that we have to engage with living movements not just stand aloof proclaiming purity. A more detailed look at political Islam is provided by Harman


    The muslim population in the UK accounts for 2.7% of the population according to the last census. Sharia law is not exactly an issue for the left or anybody else outside of racist headline writers. What is an issue is whether the socialist left stands in defence of religious minorities who are being scapegoated or joins in with that scapegoating in the name of secularism. The war on terror and legal loopholes have made this minority the target both of a Labour government following though with the political logic of the ‘war on terror’ and also by the far right who can use ‘muslim’ instead of ‘Asian’ and get around anti racist legislation.

    Comment by Dave — January 15, 2007 @ 11:47 pm

  2. Dave, you know and I know that when you make a point that the Bolsheviks supported sharia law, this is not just academic. I think that the SWP has actually been exemplary when it comes to defending the rights of Muslims. My complaint has more to do with seeing things in a one-sided way. Crouch’s article is an example of that. We have to look at history more dialectically.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2007 @ 12:05 am

  3. Its really wierd this accusation that the SWP is trying to ‘reconcile’ Political Islam and Marxism. As an SWP member I have no experiance of this (despite having written some stuff for the SWP on it, well bits and bobs, and engaged in, well, mediumly highlevel discussions on the subject). I don’t think Louis Proyect is deliberately misrepresenting things. I’m just interested in why the question is always put like that (genuinely puzzled).

    What is true is that the SWP has a different assesment of Political Islam then much of the rest of the left, a difference which actually began to emerge in the mid-1980’s, and does’nt rule out in all circumstances political collaberation (it really is no stronger then this, aside from the fact that Islamophobia is resolutely opposed). I would post all the theoretical literature but whats fascinating is an absolute refusal by many to accept that there is a debate to be had, but its not about merging Marxism with Political Islam (its worth noting here that its probably untrue that some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Hezbollah are in Europe. I’d imagine that some of the most enthusiastic supporters are in Lebanon).

    Alex Callinicos’s recent interview by Iranian Socialists who were predictably and understandably hostile on this question actually puts foward what we ACTUALLY say. Its very strange that the subject of what is actually said (and even what is actually done, as opposed to what some people SAY is being done) is avoided like the plague.

    Anyway I think the interview states quite clearly the position. I suspect its some of the other political disagreements implied that cause the most problem in reality (in other words what seem to many overly harsh criticisms of previous forms of secular politics which provided the backdrop for the emergence of political Islam).

    Again I’m not imputing bad motives to anyone, just, I suppose, emphasising that to someone inside this argument, the whole thing looks like a huge missing of the point (not just Louis but most people who are concerned about a position which we do not in fact hold. Disagreements are more productive if they are in fact disagreements).



    Comment by johng — January 16, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  4. Part of the problem is that you can find conflicting statements from the British SWP on these questions. (For example, Chris Harman’s “Islam, religion and ideology” is far more critical-minded.) Crouch’s article would lead one to believe that the Bolshevik policy in the early 1920s is a guide to the present-day. As I tried to point out, the Bolsheviks initially started out viewing mullah rule as another manifestation of bourgeois nationalism. They only retreated from this position when military reversals dictated compromise. This once again leads me to remind the comrades that it is not that great an idea to develop a policy based on Lenin’s writings or deeds since they were often a product of exigency rather than Marxist doctrine. Even at the very time that the Bolsheviks were permitting sharia law, Lenin was also writing the following in “On the Significance of Militant Materialism”:

    “It would be the biggest and most grievous mistake a Marxist could make to think that the millions of the people (especially the peasants and artisans), who have been condemned by all modern society to darkness, ignorance and superstitions — can extricate themselves from this darkness only along the straight line of a purely Marxist education. These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them front the most varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth.”

    At any rate, I would save your energy for my next post in this series which deals with the theory of state capitalism.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2007 @ 6:47 pm

  5. I am enjoying your series on the future of socialism, Louis, including your discussion on religion. However, your reference to the Ontario “sharia” dispute last year is misleading. The Muslim proposal to bring their private family dispute arbitration system under the province’s laws was wrongly criticized as a proposal to introduce sharia law in the province. In fact, what was really being proposed was something quite different. That is why I characterized the “anti-sharia” campaign as “racist” and anti-Muslim.

    See Ontario’s ‘Sharia Law’ Controversy:
    How Muslims Were Hung Out to Dry

    In fact, almost a year after passage of the legislation that some misleadingly said was going to ban Muslim arbitration, the Ontario government has yet to proclaim it in force. Meanwhile, Muslims are legally entitled to practice their family dispute arbitration under the province’s Arbitration Act — although this seems to have escaped the notice of the anti-sharia critics!

    Comment by Richard Fidler — January 16, 2007 @ 9:24 pm

  6. In many ways I agree that some differences about this are really related to other differences, more connected to the consequences of a State Cap analyses, then that analyses itself (I would see it in terms of what such an analyses allowed us to see, whilst of course others would see our vision on these questions as distorted by the position). I look foward to your comprehensive demolition of the core of my entire theoretical and ideological existence.

    Comment by johng — January 17, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  7. …but on this subject, I sometimes do think that for some on the left (although not, I think, Louis) misrepresentations of the kind I outlined stem from making far too many concessions to the kind of nonsense recently outlined by neo-conservative Dinesh D’Souza in analyses of the anti-war movement in Europe and North America and Britain in particular (seen as the global centre of wobbly decadent multi-culturalists making concessions to the rangy barbarian hordes).

    It also provides a rather conveniant cover for those wanting to avoid more substantive disagreements (although not of course Louis who leaves no argument unturned). Whats interesting about this overall framework is its self-regarding quality. The one area where Louis seems to make concessions to this view is that little aside about Hezbollah (it should be said that he’s generally fairly blameless about this sort of thing).

    The occassion for such remarks about naive Europeans is rooted in Spenglerian ‘Decline of the West’ motifs and not in social and political relations both regional and global which have produced these forms of politics. Its enough to say they’re ‘horrid’ and then proceed, gasping in indignation, at the supposed incredulity of those who have’nt grasped this basic fact.

    Its not a great surprise that those who accept such an analyses (which overall Louis does not) have not, how to put it, been particularly effective or convincing in their arguments against the war (with one “left” group I’m familiar with apparently being rather unsure about whether or not they support the occupation, a merely ‘tactical’ question apparently).

    In such an atmosphere, where people who don’t even really know what Sharia is aside from some kind of generalised nastiness, I think its worth pointing out that Communists have had a range of positions on these questions as and when confronted with them. If Dave bent the stick a little, I would suggest it wasn’t out of some desire to blur the distinction between Socialism and Islam, but rather to point out that in matters to do with religion, there are a variety of positions possible depending on the social and political situation (something which is no shock in itself to any but the most deranged sections of the ‘decent left’, Lenin himself associating attacks on Marxists as ‘opportunists’ on these questions with ‘liberals’ and ‘anarchists’) and that, more importantly, Islam should in no sense be regarded as some sort of special exception in this regard (belief that it is, is one of the hallmarks of neo-con Islamophobia).


    Comment by johng — January 17, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  8. […] an intertwined subject, whilst flicking around a Google Blog Search, I came across this post by Louis Proyect, which I felt to be more than worthy of inclusion. It’s a discussion of socialist attitudes […]

    Pingback by 13th Carnival of Socialism « Shiraz Socialist — March 10, 2007 @ 11:04 am

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