I. These are the rules
A storm should leave in its wake stillness and clarity.
Marxism to me works as a method of thinking and application; a body of ideas and a school of experience; a theory to apply to any given reality with an analytical rigour and honesty; and, a process of testing, modifying and evolving ideas and practice in the interests of our class. There are also certain Marxist principles, as Leon Trotsky articulates:
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules.”
So, a seven-year-old article by Workers’ Liberty comrade Sean Matgamna has recently caused great indignation among sections of the British Left, with accusations of racism and Islamophobia. For anyone familiar with this Left, it is hardly news that Workers’ Liberty are (supposedly) imperialists, Zionists, racists and Islamophobes, such are the longstanding accusations. But it would be unfair to label all of the article’s critics as mischief-makers; many, for sure, have genuine unease with the piece. And it is to these critics that I address my defence with the hope to convince them otherwise.
Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today is a classic polemical piece by Matgamna. It is an essay that takes effort to read and digest; it provokes emotion and stimulates the mind; and, it pulls no punches.
II. The political context
a. Politics and Religious Revivalism
While Matgamna presents some nuanced analysis based on differential conditions and forces of existence, he draws no essential distinction between East and West in relation to the increasing appeal and influence of religion in politics. His assertion is that we have reached a somewhat unprecedented epoch in which religion – or interests expressed in the name of religion – has become central to political life worldwide.
It seems to me that there is a valid case to make based on empirical observation and evidence that since the early 1990s, there has been a fertile growth of religious fundamentalisms. Take the examples of Hindu fundamentalism in India, the rising role of Jewish fundamentalism and Islamism in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or (most recently) the bizarre emergence of Buddhist fundamentalism in Burma and Sri Lanka.
Locally, Matgamna problematizes changes to British state law that have blurred the difference between racist and ethnic incitement and expression of hostility to religious ideas. He comments:
“We are in the throes of being thrown back decades, to the not so distant time when people in Britain could be prosecuted for ‘disrespectfully’ or ‘obscenely’ depicting Jesus Christ.”
The defeat of socialism by Stalinism, fascism and bourgeois democracy has preconditioned this contemporary “social and spiritual malaise”, Matgamna observes. That said, he continues, the victory of the working class in the 1917 Russian Revolution remains the beacon and proof that the working class – when “politically armed with Marxism and organised in and by a consistently democratic class-loyal revolutionary party” – can take political power. However, much of the British Left has lost its way, so rather than proudly pioneer a revival of independent, internationalist, consistency democratic socialism, which is capable of envisioning “a rational, humane, enculturing socialist society”, it has capitulated to religious revivalism, namely Islamism, through an inverted dual camp politics. For documentation of this, see my journal paper: ‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement.
b. On the End of History and the Clash of Civilisations
After the Cold War, two (of varying degrees) right-wing theses emerged in academic and public intellectual circles: Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ and Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’.
Frances Fukuyama proclaimed:
“The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of military-authoritarian Right, or communist-totalitarianism Left. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures across the globe. […] The attractive power of this world creates a very strong disposition for all human societies to participate in it, while success in this participation requires the adoption of the principles of economic liberalism.”
Samuel Huntington depicted a new global order of civilisations: Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, orthodox, Western, and possibly African. The West, he prophesised, will be faced with the growing hegemony of Islamic, East Asian and Chinese civilisations. The West, Huntington concluded, needs a strategy to strengthen its political and cultural values while also seeking alliances with other civilisations.
Matgamna alludes to the lack of traction Fukuyama’s thesis has with empirical reality. Moreover, any reading of Matgamna’s essay as echoing Huntington’s thesis is, frankly, a misreading of Matgamna’s political method and motivation, context, analysis and conclusion. One can argue that Huntington, for right-wing political ends, racially essentialises civilisations and promotes within this a naturalised hierarchical order. If Matgamna is guilty of any kind of essentialism too, then surely the only case that could be made would be on ‘class’? He is steered by a belief that workers across the world have a collective interest in opposition to both their bourgeoisies and the growth of religious fundamentalisms. Does this then make him an economic determinist and class reductionist? No. As Friedrich Engels states:
“if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, [she or] he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions […] history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.”
c. On Orientalism and Racism
Leftist Edward Said (1978), in his book Orientalism, describes how the scholars who studied what used to be called the Orient (mostly Asia) disregarded the views of those they actually studied. Instead, such scholars preferred to rely on their Western intellectual superiority – an attitude forged by European imperialism. In addition to the complicity of European governments and scholars in the colonial Empire-building of the Arab world, Said identifies Marx and Marxism as guilty of an orientalist distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. Could one make a case that Matgamna’s essay is orientalist? Actually, I think the question itself is wrong on the basis that Said’s thesis is flawed. The critique of ‘a Western’ framing of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, i.e. the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’, appears to me to replace one form of essentialism with another (or one dualism with another). The French Orientalist and independent Marxist scholar, Maxime Rodinson (himself praised by Said as a scholar who proved “perfectly capable of freeing [himself] from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines) states of Orientalism: “as usual, [Said’s] militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements”, which are made further problematic by the fact that Said is “inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists”. Rodinson cautions that Orientalism is “a polemic against orientalism written in a style that was a bit Stalinist”, that is, in its dual camp delineation of allies and adversaries.
Subsequent postcolonial theory tends to remain silent on past Islamic imperialism and present-day regional imperialisms outside of the US-Euro-Israeli triangle. Is it surprising then that during a plenary of an anti-war teach-in at Berkeley in 2006, the queer theorist Judith Butler stated: “Understanding Hamas, Hezbollah, as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important, that does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements […].”
Furthermore, ‘orientalism’, whether one rejects this thesis or not, is not a concept to be conflated with the concept of ‘racism’ – the latter (when sharply defined) has far more spatial and temporal sensitivity to analyse, explain and respond to any given reality. For Robert Miles (1989), racism is a process of signification:
“racism ‘works’ by attributing meanings to certain phenotypical and/or genetic characteristics of human beings in such a way as to create a system of categorisation, and by attributing additional (negatively evaluated) characteristics to the people sorted into those categories. This process of signification is therefore the basis for the creation of a hierarchy of groups, and for establishing criteria by which to include and exclude groups of people in the process of allocating resources and services.”
I contend that post-9/11 there has been a collapse of religion into a racial category vis-à-vis British Muslims, hence it makes sense to analyse an increase in ‘anti-Muslim racism’. For me, the term Islamophobia lacks serious explanatory power.
Any accusation that Matgamna’s essay is racist only works on the premise that either one cannot criticise or one should tame down one’s critique of Islam and/or Islamism because otherwise one is categorising all Muslim people negatively and from a racially elitist vantage point. This is the muddle that much of the British Left finds itself in, and it is their muddle not Matgamna’s. Is it with any wonder then that Matgamna declares:
“the first result on the kitsch-left of the present foetid regrowth of religion has been to expose the terrible lack of ideological and political self-confidence and the all-round weakness of mind and spirit that pervades that ‘left’.”
III. The political analysis and conclusion
The following are Matgamna’s central points that compose his overall line of argument in Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today. To pull sentences out of this narrative is to subsequently evade dealing with the narrative’s politics, i.e., identifying what products of capitalism to base ourselves on (namely the working class) in opposition with what other products of capitalism.
The ‘war on terror’ is not crudely a ‘put up job’ in which the external enemy has been invented (as the pseudo-Left claim). Whilst it is the case that key ‘Western’ imperialist and regional imperialist powers have fostered Islamism, for example, the Israeli state for the purpose of dividing Palestinians and jeopardising the prospect of a two nations settlement, and the US state in the financing and arming of Islamist forces during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Islamism has its own indigenous roots. The roots of Islamism lie in the space that was created from the collapse of Arab nationalism, in which a solution to the failings of Arab nationalism “is not an earthly, but a heavenly one”.
The ‘war on terror’ is “a war on civil liberties of ordinary citizens” and, Matgamna states, “is shaped around a US war against terrorists whose whole world outlook and motive to action is shaped by Islam and by their Islamic view of an afterlife in which a special place in a peculiarly fleshy paradise, with the harems of virgins with which Allah rewards those who kill innocent people as well as themselves, is the preordained heavenly payment for Muslim suicide bombers.”
In an era when ICT has dramatically compressed our sense of space and time, Islamism provides an expression to the disappointments and frustrations of a mass of people at the fringe of the prosperous, advanced capitalist world. Islamism’s response is a moral righteous (and essentialised) rejection of ‘the West’. It is in this context that Matgamna writes: “Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity [a historical reference to the 7th century that Islamism draws inspiration from] enviously eyeing a rich and decedent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.”
A general religious revivalism and rise of religious fundamentalisms worldwide appears to have coincided with the rapid spread of ICT and cheap air travel (the infrastructure of globalisation) and particular geographical shifts in global capital over the past twenty years or so. I don’t think one should play down the significance of this period in which satellite TV and the internet, and a rise in economic growth (and with that more plain inequality), sell the relative freedoms of life in the cities and beyond. This seems to be a major factor in bringing to a head the acute tensions of religious tradition, duty and honour. Visiting my extended family in the Punjab villages during the late 1990s and 2000s, anecdotal evidence talked of a new prevalent phenomenon of suicide among pre-marital young women (in a majority of cases, by drinking weedkiller). The wave of protests in India during late 2012 and early 2013, triggered by the 16th December Delhi gang-rape case, again demonstrated (amongst other things) a collision or confrontation between globalisation and patriarchal religious revivalism. See my piece and podcast, Historic moment for India? and Sexual violence: a global analysis.
In Europe itself, there is a political battle for Muslim minds, and therein Islamism is a growing force.
See, for example, research by the world’s foremost expert on Islamism, political scientist Professor Gilles Kepel, for empirical substantiation of points one to three.
The growth of militant “primitive Christianity”, especially in the USA, is noteworthy in its new offensive against Darwinism. Matgamna asserts: “The savage joke is that the USA, the main international bulwark against political Islam, is itself riddled with its own ignorant fundamentalism. Christians in the half-demented grip of an eyes-put-out dogmatic faith in the Bible as the literal word of God, and an impervious belief that their own religious feelings, aspirations, and wishes are truths superior to reason and modern science, are an assertive and increasingly active political force in the USA. A ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity, as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world, is a growing force in what is, technologically, the most advanced society on Earth!”
There has also been a simultaneous process in which, on the one hand, organised, theologically sophisticated and hierarchical Christian churches have declined in influence, and, on the other hand, mass/half beliefs in “primitive” superstitions (such as tarot cards, horoscopes and witchcraft) have increased in appeal.
In Britain there has been the emergence of faith schools and a rise in the militancy of various religions. For instance, Matgamna notes: “When Sikhs in Birmingham rioted against a play (by a woman of Sikh background) which they did not like, and succeeded in closing it down, other religions rallied to justify them.” Ironically, thereafter, they will be at conflict with one another.
I vividly remember the Sikh protesters of 2004 who succeeded in banning the play Behzti. Members of my family (of Sikh background) debated the issues frankly. We felt both heavily burdened by the media coverage of Sikh fundamentalists (who’ve been a growing repressive presence in our communities), and a sense of injustice that Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play wasn’t aired.
That her play depicted a rape in a Gurdwara was a brave, pioneering move to opening up a culture (to itself and others) to critical scrutiny. Whereas Dr Jasdev Singh Rai of the Sikh Human Rights Group argued, “free speech is a relic of colonialism”. Cultural relativism won the day, and a sad day it was.
The roots of the revival of Christian fundamentalism are not exactly the same as those reviving Islamism. For the former, Matgamna observes: “It is the spiritual emptiness of prosperous capitalism that draws people to primitive religion or keeps them mired in it – though, of course, by no means all American citizens share in that prosperity; vast numbers of people there, too, are beggars shut out from the rich people’s feastings.” But American populist-evangelical religion and Islamism have in common an aspect of “protest against capitalism, commercialism and money power”.
In sum, Matgamna makes clear: “Socialism proposes practical and rational action to achieve the aspirations that religion perverts into mysticism, unreason, and often into self-spiting and self-hatred.”
IV. And over to Karl Marx for the final word
From A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843):
“For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism. […] man [sic] is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man [sic] shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man [sic] as long as he does not revolve around himself. It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”