'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Prophet and the Proletariat 

Last week, Chris Harman died. Harman was a Marxist-Leninist of the Trotskyist kind, with sufficient integrity and intellectual fortitude to buck established orthodoxy, and a member of the Socialist Worker's Party known for its active intervention in British politics and social life. He died while in Egypt, providing praiseworthy support to the burgeoning labor movement there in opposition to President Hosni Muburak. In this obituary, Michael Rosen recalls how he was inspired by a new Marxism in the 1960s, a Marxism that repudiated Stalinism.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm very familiar with him and his work, as are, not surprisingly, many of the people over at Lenin's Tomb. The rememberances of Harman and his political influence are quite moving, an influence attained because of the rigor of his analysis and his personal commitment to socialism. I recommend that you click on the link that I have provided, and read them. Some of you may have read his recently reissued book, A People's History of the World, which is readily available in this country, unlike his numerous articles and pamphlets, although some can be found on the Internet, here and here and here.

For those of us in the US, unfamiliar with his work, as am I, there is one article of particular interest, published in 1994: The Prophet and the Proletariat. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion (and, it is well worth reading the article in its entirety for the richness of the political, social and historical analysis that precedes it):

It has been a mistake on the part of socialists to see Islamist movements either as automatically reactionary and 'fascist' or as automatically 'antiimperialist' and 'progressive'. Radical Islamism, with its project of reconstituting society on the model established by Mohammed in 7th century Arabia, is, in fact, a 'utopia' emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class. As with any 'petty bourgeois utopia', its supporters are, in practice, faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation. It is this which leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without 'oppressors' to using them to impose 'Islamic' forms of behaviour on individuals.

Socialists cannot regard petty bourgeois utopians as our prime enemies. They are not responsible for the system of international capitalism, the subjection of thousands of millions of people to the blind drive to accumulate, the pillaging of whole continents by the banks, or the machinations that have produced a succession of horrific wars since the proclamation of the 'new world order'. They were not responsible for the horrors of the first Gulf War, which began with an attempt by Saddam Hussein to do a favour for the US and the Gulf sheikdoms, and ended with direct US intervention on Iraq's side. They were not to blame for the carnage in Lebanon, where the Falangist onslaught, the Syrian intervention against the left and the Israeli invasion created the conditions which bred militant Shiism. They were not to blame for the second Gulf War, with the 'precision bombing' of Baghdad hospitals and the slaughter of 80,000 people as they fled from Kuwait to Basra. Poverty, misery, persecution, suppression of human rights, would exist in countries like Egypt and Algeria even if the Islamists disappeared tomorrow.

For these reasons socialists cannot support the state against the Islamists. Those who do so, on the grounds that the Islamists threaten secular values, merely make it easier for the Islamists to portray the left as part of an 'infidel', 'secularist' conspiracy of the 'oppressors' against the most impoverished sections of society. They repeat the mistakes made by the left in Algeria and Egypt when they praised regimes that were doing nothing for the mass of people as 'progressive'--mistakes that enabled the Islamists to grow. And they forget that any support the state gives to secularist values is only contingent: when it suits it, it will do a deal with the more conservative of the Islamists to impose bits of the shariah--especially the bits which inflict harsh punishment on people--in return for ditching the radicals with their belief in challenging oppression. This is what happened in Pakistan under Zia and the Sudan under Nimeiry, and it is apparently what the Clinton adminstration has been advising the Algerian generals to do.

But socialists cannot give support to the Islamists either. That would be to call for the swapping of one form of oppression for another, to react to the violence of the state by abandoning the defence of ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays, to collude in scapegoating that makes it possible for capitalist exploitation to continue unchecked providing it takes 'Islamic' forms. It would be to abandon the goal of independent socialist politics, based on workers in struggle organising all the oppressed and exploited behind them, for a tail-ending of a petty bourgeois utopianism which cannot even succeed in its own terms.

The Islamists are not our allies. They are representatives of a class which seeks to influence the working class, and which, in so far as it succeeds, pulls workers either in the direction of futile and disastrous adventurism or in the direction of a reactionary capitulation to the existing system--or often to the first followed by the second.

But this does not mean we can simply take an abstentionist, dismissive attitude to the Islamists. They grow on the soil of very large social groups that suffer under existing society, and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes, providing a lead came from a rising level of workers' struggle. And even short of such a rise in the struggle, many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists--provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms of struggle alongside them.

Radical Islamism is full of contradictions. The petty bourgeoisie is always pulled in two directions--towards radical rebellion against existing society and towards compromise with it. And so Islamism is always caught between rebelling in order to bring about a complete resurrection of the Islamic community, and compromising in order to impose Islamic 'reforms'. These contradictions inevitably express themselves in the most bitter, often violent, conflicts within and between Islamist groups.

Seven years before 9/11, Harman provided a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the emergence of political Islam, and the manner in which it generated internal and external conflicts, among people, among classes, among nations, even among its own adherents. His article was groundbreaking because of his refusal to evaluate radical Islam as if it emerged independently of pre-existing social conditions, as many have done in the US and Europe, Samuel Huntington foremost among them.

Unlike Huntington, Harman came to the same conclusion that Retort did 11 years later, namely that radical Islam is a contemporary phenomenon, explainable by reference to current social, economic and political conditions. Writing with the benefit of hindsight after 9/11, Retort recognized that the modernity, if not postmodernity, of radical Islam was such that it was partially characterized by the innovative use of modern communications technology by its adherants. Far from an expression of those trapped within an antiquated culture incapable of adapting to neoliberal capitalism, they have displayed a facility for exploiting its emergent features as a means of assymetrical oppositon.

Harman's final comments provided a pathway that prevented much of the left from falling into the abyss of torture and perpetual warfare that many within the US, some liberals and leftists included, did after 9/11:

On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combatting racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, 'with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.'

But even then we continue to disagree with the Islamists on basic issues. We are for the right to criticise religion as well as the right to practise it. We are for the right not to wear the veil as well as the right of young women in racist countries like France to wear it if they so wish. We are against discrimination against Arab speakers by big business in countries like Algeria--but we are also against discrimination against the Berber speakers and those sections of workers and the lower middle class who have grown up speaking French. Above all, we are against any action which sets one section of the exploited and oppressed against another section on the grounds of religion or ethnic origin. And that means that as well as defending Islamists against the state we will also be involved in defending women, gays, Berbers or Copts against some Islamists.

When we do find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists, part of our job is to argue strongly with them, to challenge them--and not just on their organisations' attitude to women and minorities, but also on the fundamental question of whether what is needed is charity from the rich or an overthrow of existing class relations.

The left has made two mistakes in relation to the Islamists in the past. The first has been to write them off as fascists, with whom we have nothing in common. The second has been to see them as 'progressives' who must not be criticised. These mistakes have jointly played a part in helping the Islamists to grow at the expense of the left in much of the Middle East. The need is for a different approach that sees Islamism as the product of a deep social crisis which it can do nothing to resolve, and which fights to win some of the young people who support it to a very different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective.

No doubt, this is a daunting endeavor. But the fact that it is difficult, and may take many years to achieve, if at all, does not invalidate it. Even an anarchist influenced person such as myself, someone who does not find the residual vanguardism of Harman and the SWP a plausible means for bringing about a radical transformation of society, can agree with his summation of his position: with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never. Indeed, this is fairly good general characterization of how anyone opposed to the hierarchies that inflict so much oppression upon so many should conduct themselves in relation to any people that have profound points of opposition to the state.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?