Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 14, 2007

Can Marxism offer anything to Arabs and Muslims?

Filed under: Islam,socialism — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

Political Alternatives:

                Osama Bin Laden                                                        Amilcar Cabral

An article by Sukant Chandan titled “Secularism and Islam in the Arab World” appeared originally on the Conflicts Forum website and has been posted to MRZine as well.

The only conclusion that one can draw after reading it is that Marxism has little future in the Arab and Muslim world. This is a rather odd outlook for socialists, but not that surprising given the growing pressure on our movement to adapt to a seemingly far more powerful force. With the end of the Cold War, most of the ferocity of the imperialist ruling class is directed against political Islam. That being the case, perhaps it makes sense to hitch our wagon to a movement that has the power to keep our enemies awake at night. I am far from convinced that this a useful approach for socialists, however.

Chandan begins with a reference to Saladin:

Salahuddin al-Ayoub, more popularly known as Saladin, who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the twelfth century is probably the Islamic leader most widely known outside of the region. Saladin’s legacy remains a profound source of inspiration for Arabs, especially so for radical Islamists who not only see the parallels with today’s military invasions and occupations, but directly employ this history in their political agitation in their fight against what they consider as the modern-day Crusaders.

Perhaps it is only of interest to pedants, but when Saladin overthrew the Shiite rulers of Egypt and instituted Sunni rule, that act lived in infamy for Shiites throughout history. The August 3rd 2006 International Herald Tribune reports:

Extremist Sunnis like Al Qaeda have tried to portray their struggle as parallel with Hezbollah’s. But underneath the flood of support some Sunnis worry that their supremacy is threatened for the first time since a Shiite dynasty ruled a large swath of the region between the 10th and 12th centuries, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saladin, the commander who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, overthrew the dynasty. Hence Shiites revile him and avoid comparing [Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah to him.

In other words, the idiotic divide that allows US imperialism to play one Moslem sect against another in Iraq has been around for over 7 centuries. I am not one to offend religious sensibilities, but it seems far more important to throw out the imperialists and allow Iraqi working people to enjoy the wealth that nature has provided them than kill each other over the question of who should have succeeded Mohammad. The political philosophy that would allow working people to unite with each other against their class enemy still seems worth pursuing even if political Islam looks like a winner in the war of contending ideologies.

In characterizing non-Islamic political theory as an “outside” influence, Chandan reminds me of some Black nationalists in the 1960s who dismissed Marxism as a “white” and “European” ideology. I am dismayed to see this recycled in defense of political Islam:

While one can trace back the influences on modern Islamism from the region’s own history, making it an integral part of the political identity of the people and their struggles, in contrast it was the cultural and political influences from outside of the region in Europe that influenced modern secular Arab Nationalism. The founding father of modern secular Arab Nationalism was Syrian Sati al-Husri, who was inspired by French republicanism and nineteenth century German nationalism. Arab Nationalism became the ascendant political force in the post Second World War period.

Of course, this is a rather narrow understanding of Islam. It neglects the importance that Islam placed on Western texts in a period when Europe was in the “dark ages”. Under Moorish control, southern Spain was noted for the respect it paid to classical Greek philosophy. The books of Aristotle were studied by Islamic (and Jewish scholars), including Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) and Muslim Judge Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198); who both lived in Cordoba, Spain. Cordoba had 70 libraries, one of them with over 40,000 volumes; the two largest libraries in non-Arab Europe each had only 2,000 volumes. Thomas Aquinas used the writings and comments of Aristotle (“the philosopher”), Albert, Maimonides (“the Rabbi”) and Ibn Rushd (“the commentator”) and many others. Cross-fertilization between Islamic and non-Islamic thinkers was rife in this period and is a more useful example for us today than resentment of “outside” influences put in an improbably positive light by Sukant Chandan.

Continuing with his historical survey and hurdling forward to the mid 1950s, Chandan portrays the FLN in Algeria as “an Islamist nationalist movement as much as one inspired by the ideas of Fanon, Mao, and Che Guevara, although the Islamist current was purged shortly after independence.” I am not so sure that this particular purging of Islamists is of much interest to those of us who are trying to figure out how to change the world. The real purge that matters involved Ben Bella, who was an obstacle to a section of the FLN that sought to consolidate capitalist property relations under a radical façade. As this current took Algeria further and further away from its revolutionary roots, an Islamic revolt developed that was never able to provide an alternative to the new bourgeoisie. For those who are so enthralled with political Islam, a review of recent Algerian history would be in order.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which had initially been aligned with Ben Bella, won the elections in 1990 whereupon the army instituted a dictatorship. The FIS responded with a terrorist campaign that reflected the anger of the masses but that was ineffective politically. In January 28th 1994, Robert Fisk reported on the type of struggle that FIS was conducting:

How else, secular Algerians might ask, can an Islamic revolution and civil war be averted after 30 years of largely socialist and equally corrupt government? Yet the families of security force personnel – and in some cases the officers themselves – have already been forced to retreat into government compounds each night for their own protection. And despite wholesale battles with the ‘Islamists’, the Algerian army and paramilitary police have been unable to reduce the number of victims cut down so savagely each day.

The word ”cut” is all too accurate. Many of those assassinated by the ”Islamists” are dispatched with knives, left on rubbish heaps or roadsides with their heads almost severed from their bodies. Five nights ago, a 24-year-old unemployed man in the village of Kasr el-Boukhari was decapitated and his head left on the steps of a disused cinema. ”An example,” his murderers said in a leaflet pasted on village walls, ”to all those who violate the morality of Islam.” On the eve of this week’s conference, a policeman was stabbed to death in front of a group of children in Anaba. On the night the conference ended, ”Islamists” assassinated six civilians in Djidjel province, one of them Ferhat Chibout, a professor of history, who was shot in front of his parents, his wife and two children.

As usual, the outside world has cared more about foreign than domestic victims of the war, a fact shrewdly grasped by the Muslim activists. Their promise to kill all citizens of ”Crusader states” culminated two weeks ago in the 26th murder of a Westerner in Algeria, a French consular official whose death led at once to the temporary suspension of all visas to France. Monique Afri’s murder was followed by the killing of Raymond Louzoum, 62, a Tunisian-born Jew who had been living in Algiers for 30 years. An optician who had married a Muslim woman and was seeking Algerian citizenship, he played French officers in a series of films about the Algerian independence war. Two bullets were fired into Louzoum’s head in Didouche Mourad street in central Algiers.

Needless to say, such tactics were less than effective in rallying the entire population against the corrupt FLN elites and the army that protected its class interests. It would have been far better if the FIS had a more adroit and more class-based approach to politics, but that was not likely to be found in Islamic religious texts. Of course, between the army and the FIS, progressives would support the Islamists. Trotsky never had any problem making such choices in Brazil or Ethiopia, but that does not oblige us to prettify Vargas or Haile Selassie. Moreover, the bigger task facing us is the construction of Marxist parties everywhere that can apply a scalpel to the class struggle rather than the crude ax blows of terrorism, just as was the case in Russia in the early 1900s. Some things never change.

Chandan also hails al Qaeda in terms that display a certain indifference to what Marxists call strategy and tactics:

In an ironic twist of history it was the Western and Chinese-supported Afghan mujahideen who fought against the Soviet army and pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan that gave further impetus to the development of modern militant Islamism which was soon to become a powerful force against neo-colonialism in the region. The Afghan jihad allowed militants to overcome the rivalry among militants that existed along national and ethnic lines. Overcoming these divisions and forging Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamist unity were some of the main strategies of Bin Laden and Zawahiri in the construction of their organization that was to become the violent “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews” or commonly known as Al-Qaeda, meaning “The Base,” formed in 1998. Initially for Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and others, Afghanistan was the base for international jihad, today it is mainly Iraq.

If Bin Laden and Zawahiri are supposed to be about overcoming “rivalry” and “divisions” in the Arab and Islamist world, they are certainly not doing a very good job of it in Iraq. The “jihadist” groups in Iraq that appear to be most strongly influenced by al Qaeda have antagonized Iraqi Sunni villagers to such an extent that they have opted to join forces with the US military. By imposing Wahhabi values on a resentful population, they follow the FIS and the Taliban’s examples of religious transformation from above. For a movement to genuinely challenge imperialism, it has to learn to draw in all sectors in a united struggle as the National Liberation Front in Vietnam did. That, of course, is one of the major differences between Iraq and Vietnam, the very absence of something like the NLF with its “secular” ideology imported from Europe. One would only hope that the people of the Middle East would be open to such imports, which are far more useful than Coca Cola or Mercedes Benz.

To some extent, the allure of political Islam for Chandan has much more to do with muscle than brainpower:

Today one sees the shift from secular nationalism to Islamism nearing the final stages of completion. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writing for The Guardian on June 12th from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon vividly described this transition, contrasting the “ailing, ill-equipped and ill-fed fighters of the old secular factions” and “muscular, bearded and well-equipped jihadis” funded through the network of Islamist organizations that spans the Middle East, and describing the migration of Palestinian radicals, both young and middle-aged, from the former Marxist camp to the Islamist.

One hardly knows how to react to this. I am reminded Reagan-era election campaign propaganda, when the wood-chopping ex-actor was always portrayed as being more muscular and more virile than the likes of Walter Mondale.

Chandan has little to say about Marxist groups in the article and is content to draw distinctions between a collapsing left nationalist/secularist current versus vibrant, bearded and muscular Islamists. When Marxists do enter the picture, they appear to be driven more by market opportunities than principles:

As one Marxist in his 50s told Abdul-Ahad, “I have never lost my political compass. Wherever the Americans and the Israelis are, I am on the other side. So if Hizbullah and the Iranians and the Islamists are against the Americans now, so I am an Islamist.” Highlighting the continuities between armed secular groups of bygone times and armed Islamist groups of today, a PFLP leader explains to Abdul-Ahad that “most of those jihadis were once fighters with us and other Palestinian factions . . . if you come to me and give me $100,000, I will split from the PFLP and form the PFLP: Believers’ Army. It’s so easy.”

I guess if you can switch affiliations for such a small price, then one wonders how deeply rooted the Marxist convictions of the PFLP were. As is the case with most Palestinian guerrilla groups, the emphasis has been on bold actions such as skyjackings. Emerging in the 1980s as the Mideast equivalent of groups operating in Argentina, the sole criterion to measure success was the amount of press coverage garnered by a political/military operation. When this strategy failed to produce the desired result–the overthrow of the Zionist state–some groups moved in an opportunist direction–symbolized by the Oslo Accords.

Unfortunately, the Arab resistance oscillates between “exemplary” actions and back door negotiations with the imperialists. Even Hamas, despite the reverential attitude of Chandan’s article, is not above cutting deals according to Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah: “Hamas tried to enter mainstream politics through the front door – explicitly modelling its policies on those of the IRA in the context of the Irish peace process.” Of course, even if Hamas was interested in following the example of Sinn Fein, the Israelis would remain unresponsive. While I am not in the business of making recommendations to revolutionaries in other countries, I would not be above urging them to become grounded in Marxism. Many of these questions (terrorism, alliances with bourgeois nationalists, etc.) have been subjected to deep analysis in our movement and much can be learned from the likes of Amilcar Cabral, et al.–certainly much more so than reading religious tracts I am sure.

I have tried to explain the rise of political Islam as a function of the collapse of the USSR, which created a political vacuum. Even if the PLO, to take one example, was an ineffective political force, it did at least have the clout of the USSR behind it. With the disappearance of the USSR, world politics has reverted to the 19th century when the British Empire faced down colonial revolts on a regular basis. From the Sepoy to the Taipei Rebellion, the inspiration was a mixture of nationalism and religion–just as is the case today. After the triumph of the Russian Revolution, nationalism became combined with Marxism even if it was a Marxism that was burdened by the Stalinist impulse to subordinate the working class to the national bourgeoisie.

In effect, the clock has been turned back to the 1800s. While one should never take the side of the Empire against those struggling to become free, it would be most unfortunate if we decided to jettison the need for Marxist theory. In an address titled “The Weapon of Theory” given to the first Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966, Amilcar Cabral noted:

The ideological deficiency, not to say the total lack of ideology, within the national liberation movements — which is basically due to ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform — constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all. We believe, however, that a sufficient number of different experiences have already been accumulated to enable us to define a general line of thought and action with the aim of eliminating this deficiency. A full discussion of this subject could be useful, and would enable this conference to make a valuable contribution towards strengthening the present and future actions of the national liberation movements. This would be a concrete way of helping these movements, and in our opinion no less important than political support or financial assistance for arms and suchlike.

This seems to be a basis for moving forward today, no matter how daunting the task. For without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.


  1. A tight post as always. My largest frustration with the political culture of the left today is that it has so early jetissoned dialectical materialism, hence we’re subject to exhortations that we support an “international” that started going to the dogs long before the collapse of stalinism, or re-warmed kautskyan crap to be brief. As you say, we find ourselves pushed back to the nineteenth century, and all too often led by people who’ve not bothered to come to grips with the most important lessons socialism learned in the 20th century.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — October 14, 2007 @ 7:11 pm

  2. This post is an example of why I have subscribed to your RSS feed and read your many posts over the years in various forums/groups. Very interesting and thought-provoking. My opinion is that we need to encourage the workers of the Middle East to fight for the working class and for socialism. Here is the link to the Worker-communist Party of Iran:

    Comment by Doug — October 14, 2007 @ 7:33 pm

  3. Went to a lecture this past week on the left and islam by Aijaz Ahmad who gave a talk on his from the next Socialist Registar. He gave some important insight into how the US intel helped to create islamism as an antidote to communist and radical nationalism in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

    Why would they do such a thing you might ask, to prevent a form of Bolivarian revolution from occuring. The countries of this reagin were, and are, ripe for a true populist movement that would use the natural resources to springboard an egalitarian alternative to the current strong dictator models. Thereby overcoming the need to enforce primitive accumulation ala soviet industrial development. The outbreak of just one of these would threaten to spread as an example. Lets see if we can help start one.

    Comment by Brad — October 15, 2007 @ 2:22 am

  4. Good article. This is somewhat off-topic, but this link is about the conflict between modern science and islamic states, written by a Pakistani physics professor:


    Makes me wonder if Marxism can become the foundation for a new secularism in the Islamic world, since liberalism is so discredited.

    Comment by Bob H — October 15, 2007 @ 3:31 pm

  5. I believe that Algerian Trotskyists got 25% in the last Algerian general elections, last I heard. There’s probably more concrete info on the Fourth International’s site.

    A small but significant counter-tendency. Also Egypt has budding revolutionary left organizations.

    Comment by Alex Briscoe — October 16, 2007 @ 1:20 am

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