Maxime Rodinson on Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

The independent Marxist and Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson is praised by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) for his “extraordinary achievements” and his “methodological self-consciousness”. For Said, Rodinson was one of an exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines.

Rodinson wrote the following books: Mohammed (1974), Islam and Capitalism (1977), Marxism and the Muslim world (1979), Israel and the Arabs (1982), The Arabs (1985), Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1988), Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (2001), and Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (2001).

Maxime_Rodinson_(1970)

(Wikimedia Commons)

This is what Rodinson states, in the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), of Said’s Orientalism:

“Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.”

See also, my post: Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx

For more on Maxime Rodinson, see: Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’Maxime Rodinson: A Marxist historian of Islam, and Some thoughts on the death of ‘anti-Marxist’ Maxime Rodinson.

Racism 101: what is it?

DSCF0103“the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.

 

II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.

 

III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

While:

“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)

 

IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.

 

Recommended reading: Marxism, racism and the construction of ‘race’ as a social and political relation: an interview with Professor Robert Miles

Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx

800px-Palestinian_Cultural_Mural_Honoring_Dr._Edward_Said

(Wikimedia Commons)

“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)

I. Introduction

Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.

Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.

Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:

“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)

This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:

“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)

 

II. The Near East, the Arab world, and Islam

“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma.” (Said, 59)

There is nothing, in and of itself, problematic about the above statement; its intended meaning is understandable even outside its related paragraph, chapter, and book, and yet Said’s Orientalism has given birth to a climate on the Left for such statements to be all-too-swiftly labelled as ‘Islamophobic’ and racist (see In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty). The depiction of the Near East, the Arab world, and Islam by the contemporary Orientalist lens is regarded by Said as especially bad, for four reasons:

  1. the weight of history in respect to anti-Islamic and anti-Arab prejudice;
  2. the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or rather “the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews as well as upon both the liberal culture and the population at large”;
  3. a cultural vacuum that makes it impossible to discuss Islam or the Arabs in a way that identifies with either or is composed;
  4. “because the Middle East is now so identified with Great power politics, oil economics, and the simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs, the chances of anything like a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East are depressingly small.” (Said, 26-27)

The historical relationship of Orientalism to Islam is explained as follows:

“To the West, […] Islam was militant hostility to European Christianity. To overcome […] the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races, and cultures in order to posit them – beyond the modern Oriental’s ken – as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient.” (Said, 91-92)

In the contemporary hegemonic Western (specifically, American) popular culture of film and television, Said states:

“the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. […] Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.” (Said, 286-287)

The possibility of an independent vantage point and independent class politics is simply ruled out, since:

“[…] when Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say (in order not to risk a Disneyism) that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. […] History, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, and please take all your ideas about a left and a right wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland.” (Said, 107)

But what of independent working class agency and self-government in the Marxist tradition – what does Said have to say of this? This leads us back to the quote at the start of Orientalism and to the subsequent substance of Said’s rebuke of Marx and Marxism.

 

III. Said on Marx, and back to basics: what Marx actually said

Three sources of Marx are directly referenced in Orientalism as the basis for Said’s critique of Marxism as part-and-parcel of Orientalism: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The British Rule in India, and The Further Results of British Rule in India.

One sentence is plucked (twice) from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – which appears at both the start of Said’s book and in its Introduction chapter:

“The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job, for the West, and faute de mieux, for the poor Orient. “Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten warden,” as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” (Said, 21)

I will go on to show, through necessary lengthy extraction from Marx’s original text, just how much Said departs from, and subsequently exploits and distorts, the original meaning of this sentence.

Quoting briefly from Marx’s The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, Said goes on to problematize what he describes as the puzzlement of Marx’s paradoxical position vis-à-vis colonialism and the Orient. A puzzle, that is, until Said expounds that the Marxist discourse is inseparable from the Orientalist discourse:

“Karl Marx identified the notion of an Asiatic economic system in this 1853 analysis of British rule in India, and then put beside that immediately the human depredation introduced into this system by English colonial interference, rapacity, and outright cruelty. In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution. Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations. […] Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out […] The idea of regenerating a fundamentally lifeless Asia is a piece of pure Romantic Orientalism, of course, but coming from the same writer who could not easily forget the human suffering involved, the statement is puzzling. […] It is as if the individual mind (Marx’s, in this case) could find a precollective, preofficial individuality in Asia – find and give in to its pressures upon his emotions, feelings, senses – only to give it up when he confronted a more formidable censor in the very vocabulary he found himself forced to employ.” (Said, 153-155)

Rather than accept Said’s verdict that Marx incoherently and inconsistently abhors British imperial rule in India but ultimately welcomes it as a progressive force for necessary regeneration due to his heart being beaten by his head, which is inescapably arrested by the discourse of Orientalism, I will demonstrate that Marx’s analysis is guided by a dialectical materialist methodology and that his conclusions are not problematic.

 

i. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

index2-1“If ever an event has, well in advance of its coming, cast its shadow before, it was Bonaparte’s coup d’état.” (Marx, 309)

Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852 [1977]) is a brilliant polemic written in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution when Louis Napoleon seized power in France in December 1851, with reference back to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d-état of 1799. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is essentially an exploration of the relationship between class politics and the state. As Marx later reflected, this pamphlet reveals “how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part” (cited in McLellan, 1977, 300).

The first theme to arise from Marx’s discussion is a general one, that of the connection between the force of human agency and the force of human history:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” (Marx, 300)

“[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, 300)

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx, 300)

Marx issues a warning that revolutionary upheaval may dangerously and manipulatively dredge up the past, which the energy of a genuinely social revolution must resist. In this respect, he distinguishes between bourgeois revolutions and the critical praxis of proletarian revolutions:

“And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.” (Marx, 300)

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” (Marx, 302)

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men [sic] and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he [sic] may recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is Rhodes, jump here!] (Marx, 303)

The second of Marx’s themes is specific to the events proceeding the 1848 revolution, up to and including Louis Napoleon’s coup d-état of 1851, and the consequent banishment of the former gains of the revolution, such as “liberté, égalite, fraternité”:

“all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a magician. Universal suffrage seems to have survived only for a moment, in order that with its own hand it may make its last will and testament before the eyes of all the world and declare in the name of the people itself: All that exists deserves to perish.” (Marx, 304)

“It remains to be explained how a nation of thirty-six millions can be surprised and delivered unresisting into captivity by three swindlers…” (Marx, 304)

“On the threshold of the February Revolution, the social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost. The democratic republic announces its arrival. On 13 June 1849, it is dissipated together with its petty bourgeois, who have taken to their heels, but in its flight it blows its own trumpet with redoubled boastfulness. The parliamentary republic, together with the bourgeoisie, takes possession of the entire stage; it enjoys its existence to the full, but 2 December 1851 buries it to the accompaniment of the anguished cry of the royalists in coalition: ‘Long live the Republic!’” (Marx, 314)

“France, therefore, seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only to fall back beneath the despotism of an individual, and, what is more, beneath the authority of an individual without authority.” (Marx, 315)

The third theme is where Said’s quote by Marx – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – is located, and it concerns both the nature of Louis Napoleon’s state and the interrelated nature of its demographic base, the small-holding peasants:

“Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine has consolidated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the Society of 10 December suffices for its head, an adventurer blown in from abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has bought with liquor and sausages, and which he must continuously ply with sausage anew. Hence the downcast despair, the feeling of most dreadful humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her catch her breath. She feels dishonoured. And yet the state power is not suspended in mid air. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small-holding peasants.” (Marx, 317)

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by Frances’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. […] In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.” (Bold: my emphasis; Marx, 317-318)

“By its very nature, small-holding property forms a suitable basis for an all-powerful and innumerable bureaucracy.” (Marx, 320)

Marx’s analysis of the French peasantry goes on to divulge its full nuance:

“But, it may be objected, what about the peasant risings in half of France, the raids on the peasants by the army, the mass incarceration and transportation of peasants? […] let there be no misunderstanding. The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant that strikes out beyond the condition of his [sic] social existence, the small holding, but rather the peasant who wants to consolidate this holding, not the country folk who, linked up with the towns, want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in stupefied seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favoured by the ghost of the empire. It represents not the enlightenment, but the superstition of the peasant; not his [sic] judgement, but his prejudice; not his future, but his past; not his modern Cevennes, but his modern Vendée.” (Marx, 318)

Marx’s conclusion to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte makes especially clear his assessment of the state from the perspective of independent class politics; and what’s more, it underlines the inappropriateness of Said’s plunder to support his allegation of Marxism-as-Orientalism:

“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another. […] He would like to steal the whole of France in order to be able to make a present of her to France or, rather, in order to be able to buy France anew with French money, for as the chief of the Society of 10 December he must needs buy what ought to belong to him.” (Marx, 323)

“Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation and being at the same time, like a conjurer, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze fixed on himself, as Napoleon’s substitute, by springing constant surprises, that is to say, under the necessity of executing a coup d’état en miniature every day, Bonaparte throws the entire bourgeois economy into confusion, violates everything that seemed inviolable to the Revolution of 1848, makes some tolerant of revolution, others desirous of revolution, and produces actual anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping its halo from the entire state machine, profanes it, and makes it at once loathsome and ridiculous. The cult of the Holy Tunic of Treves he duplicates at Paris in the cult of the Napoleonic imperial mantle. But when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will crash from the top of the Vendôme Column.” (Marx, 324)

In sum, when Marx wrote the line – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – it directly refers to an analysis of the isolated nature of the social base of Louis Napoleon’s anti-democratic, bureaucratic state (the small-holding peasants); a state that Marx critiqued as a violation and a ruination of the relative gains of the 1848 French Revolution. When Marx’s quote is used by Said in Orientalism (twice), it reads as an unambivalent reference to an Orientalist dual camp position that: the poor and downtrodden working classes cannot represent themselves, thus ‘us’ Marxists must do this job for ‘them’.

 

ii. The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India

Prior to turning to Marx’s articles The British Rule in India (1853) and The Further Results of British Rule in India (1853 [1977]), it is first necessary to point out the inherent characteristics of Marx’s general methodology and critique of capitalism.

Dialectical materialism is a means to understanding societal change, for history is not linear but thrusts forward in a tense and fitful manner – reminiscent, for example, of Marx’s discussion of revolutions in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. As Friedrich Engels reminds us about dialectical philosophy in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886):

“nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away […]”

Communist-ManifestoWith this in mind, Marx and Engels, in the opening chapter of The Communist Manifesto (1848), describe the globalisation of capitalism as pregnant with contradictory possibilities and constraints, which give birth to:

  • creative destruction – “[al]ll that is solid melts into air”;
  • social evolution – “all that is holy is profaned”;
  • social intercourse – “[i]n place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction”;
  • working class agency – capitalism “produces, above all, […] its own grave-diggers”.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. […] The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man [sic] to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. […] All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves.”

Here Marx and Engels are assessing capitalism’s dialectical nature: the closures in its innate, mindless exploitation and inequality, and the openings in its destruction of past reactionary forms of existence and the creative potential of universal internationalism and interconnectedness between human beings. In Grundrisse, Marx (1857-1861 [1973]: 161–162) deems “ridiculous” any utopian yearning for an earlier, pre-capitalist moment, on the basis that “a merely local connection resting on blood ties, or on primeval, natural or master-servant relations” is not preferable to present-day social bonds; capital thrusts contradictory tidings that destroy and revolutionise “traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life”, and “tear down all barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs”. Above all, Marx and Engels conclude the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto by recognising the working class – a product of capitalism – as central to overthrowing capitalism:

“The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

karl-marx-on-indiaTurning now to The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, it is perfectly consistent that Marx should analyse the specific entry and operation of British capital in India (note, for example, his references to the cotton industry and the railway network) as also general to global capital:

“There cannot […] remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before. […] England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his [sic] old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindostan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“The devastating effects of English industry, when contemplated with regard to India, a country as vast as Europe, and containing 150 millions of acres, are palpable and confounding. But we must not forget that they are only the organic results of the whole system of production as it is now constituted. That production rests on the supreme rule of capital.” (Marx, 336, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

“The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. They intend now drawing a net of railroads over India. And they will do it. The results must be inappreciable.” (Marx, 333, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

It is the following two quotes (in bold only), from The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India respectively, that actually appear in Orientalism, from which Said (154) concludes that Marx is clearly “Romantic and even messianic” since “as human material the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemptive project”:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man [sic] to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow. England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind [sic] fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution. Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe: “Sollte these Qual uns quälen 
Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt,
 Hat nicht myriaden Seelen
 Timur’s Herrschaft aufgezehrt?” [“Should this torture then torment us
 Since it brings us greater pleasure?
 Were not through the rule of Timur
 Souls devoured without measure?”]
 [From Goethe’s “An Suleika”, Westöstlicher Diwan](Marx)

“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” (Marx, 332)

There are three aspects to these two aforementioned extracts which Said bypasses:

  1. the juxtaposition of an “Oriental despotism” to a dialectical, thus contradictory, social evolution through the globalisation of capital;
  2. past, constraining, reactionarism giving way – through creative destruction – to present and future possibilities of social intercourse and interconnectedness;
  3. no credit to be given to the extremely unpleasant and unintelligent English bourgeoisie who are nonetheless bound up with this revolutionary change.

This final quote, from The Further Results of British Rule in India, elucidates Marx’s conclusion that the kind of revolution needed, and which he advocates, is one in which either the British working class overthrow the British ruling class or the Indian peoples overthrow the British colonial empire of India:

“Modern industry, resulting from the railway-system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power. All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” (Marx, 335)

None of this corresponds with Said’s thesis of a Romantic and messianic Orientalism ultimately determining Marx’s thought.

 

IV. Conclusion

“No one can escape dealing with, if not the East / West divide, then the North / South one, the have / have not one, the imperialist / anti-imperialist one, the white / colored one. We cannot get around them all by pretending they do not exist; on the contrary, contemporary Orientalism teaches us a great deal about the intellectual dishonesty of dissembling on that score, the result of which is to intensify the divisions and make them both vicious and permanent.” (Said, 327)

With reference to Antonio Gramsci, Said makes a distinction between political coercion and non-coercion, and sees the might, resilience, and permanence of Orientalism as non-coercive hegemony. Fatefully, I conclude, in Said’s interpretation of Gramsci’s hegemony an ‘anti-dialectical inescapability’ takes hold:

“I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. […] he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.” (Said, 11)

Said later states:

“[…] every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with “other” cultures.” (Said, 204)

The absence of class politics is stark. Do we come up against the Orient solely on the basis of our nationality and colonial burden? Does that not intersect with our socio-economic position and class relation (and indeed with our gender, ethnicity, and sexuality), and with our own ‘independent’ politics? Said’s Orientalism chimes much with the contemporary popularity of privilege theory (see On privilege theory and intersectionality). Whilst Marxism recognizes human consciousness as contradictory and in constant flux, historically and dialectically shaped by conditions and forces of existence, privilege theory (like Orientalism) is predicated on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege (in this case, as a member of the Occident).

It is worth further exploring Said’s application of hegemony, in particular its echoes of Louis Althusser. Althusser is considered to progress the ideas of Marx on the basis that Marx conceives of a dream-like ideology called ‘false consciousness’, which hides and misleads workers from the exploitation of the economic base; yet such a term and concept is to be found nowhere in Marx’s writings. For Althusser (2006), in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, ‘ideology’ (contrary to false consciousness) represents an already existing “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109):

“all ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.” (Althusser, 111)

That said, ideology has a material as opposed to a spiritual existence that is manifest in an individual’s performance and interaction with others and society; it is a “material existence of ‘ideas’ or other ‘representations’” (Althusser: 112). All “ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” – a process that begins prior to birth (Althusser: 117). Althusser (118-119) claims that we are largely unaware of the ideological make-up of our reality, except when or if we come up against the state. Beyond the repressive state apparatus (the police and the army), the individual exists within realities structured by various ‘ideological state apparatuses’, i.e., non-coercive hegemony:

“what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Understanding the relationship between capitalism and hegemony through an Althusserian frame of reference (as I contend Said does) slides us into an anti-dialectical materialist trap, as McLellan (181) cautions:

“For all his playing down of Hegel’s influence on Marx, Althusser’s approach has a certain resemblance to Hegel […]: Althusser’s ‘structure’ functions as much as Hegel’s ‘idea’ – as an independent entity determining the very items from which it has arisen.”

Notably, the material for Althusser differs in meaning from the material for Marx. For the former, it refers to the ideas and representations that are bound up with practice, for “there is no practice except by and in an ideology” (Althusser, 115). For the latter, as Marx (1845-46 [1965]: 14-15) comments in The German Ideology, material reality is something that can be known (in other words, it is possible to see beyond ideology):

“we do not set out from what [humans] say, imagine, conceive, nor from [humans] as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at [humans] in the flesh. We set out from real, active [humans], and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. […] This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are [humans], not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.”

This Althusserian legacy goes someway to explaining the inescapability of Said’s hegemony-ideology-Orientalism (a departure from Gramsci) and Said’s methodology. So, on the Orientalist text, Said (21) makes plain that he is not concerned with “the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original”, but rather with “style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances”. And while he concedes the importance of finding present-day alternatives to studying the Orient – “from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective” – this is left, in his own words, “embarrassingly incomplete” (Said, 24). And yet this is hardly surprising since his inverted dual camp does not provide space for international-wide, independent working class agency. I end then with Said’s description of the present-day Orientalism of the US, in which those of the so-called Arab and Third World are merely ‘passive dupes’:

“My point is that the relationship is a one-sided one, with the United States a selective customer of a very few products (oil and cheap manpower, mainly), the Arabs highly diversified consumers of a vast range of United States products, material and ideological. This has had many consequences. There is a vast standardization of taste in the region, symbolized not only by transistors, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola but also by cultural images of the Orient supplied by American mass media and consumed unthinkingly by the mass television audience. […] Another result is that the Western market economy and its consumer orientation have produced (and are producing at an accelerating rate) a class of educated people whose intellectual formation is directed to satisfying market need. […] Its role has been prescribed and set for it as a “modernizing” one, which means that it gives legitimacy and authority to ideas about modernization, progress, and culture that it receives from the United States for the most part. Impressive evidence for this is found in the social sciences and, surprisingly enough, among radical intellectuals whose Marxism is taken wholesale from Marx’s own homogenizing view of the Third World […].” (Said, 324-325)

Ritual circumcision of male minors, and the political befuddlement of Eric Lee

I am grateful for Eric Lee’s response piece to my article here and in the socialist newspaper Solidarity. On his website there are a number of end comments that I recommend people read.

Here I expose what I consider to be Eric’s confused notion of politics, or rather, the lack of politics that Eric considers politics.

At the start of his rejoinder, Eric declares: “Camila Bassi’s “basic socialist demands” regarding male circumcision have no foundation in Marxist tradition”. So I am guessing that Eric missed the footnote in Marx’s Grundrisse that demands: “non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure”. Okay, seriously then, let’s do away with this sense of clunky Marxist doctrine, because, for me, Marxist tradition is about autonomous, self-governing critical thought and practice, hence I ask in my original article: as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?” At no point does Eric address this question.

Eric suggests that I soften the blow of my article by reference to Scandinavia; he sarcastically notes, “Scandinavians, after all, are modern, progressive people”. What’s he getting at here – as against Jews and Muslims? Eric incorrectly states that “Bassi writes that the correct socialist position would place the Left in opposition to [Jewish and Muslim] communities”. And, “[a]lmost as an afterthought, she adds opposition to racism, support for socialism, whatever”. This is not true. It is him not I that homogenizes ‘communities’ of people on the basis of their ‘race’ / ethnicity and religion (stripping people of their differential social, economic, political, and cultural positions, ideas and practices, and individual agency), and it is he not I that panders to the status of so-called ‘community leaders’. I don’t assume, as he does, that all people who might fall under the category of ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’ are opposed to a discussion on the question of informed consent for ritual circumcision. Moreover, before I arrive at my end set of demands, I both emphasise and reference the ascent of the populist Right in Europe, and a rising tide of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, including in Scandinavia, as critical context. Marxism is about analysing given material realities, the forces and relations involved, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this. The Scandinavian debate of 2013 and 2014 on the ritual circumcision of male minors is simply that, a given material reality to engage with.

As I was aware, Eric points out that a previous debate on banning ritual circumcision for male minors occurred in Germany. However, he fails to provide and assess the details. As noted in DW, in May 2012 a ruling from the Cologne district court – on a incident of ritual circumcision in which the child was subsequently hospitalized – deemed the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”. From this, as Reuters reports:

“Some doctors and children’s rights associations submitted a petition in September [2012] calling for a two-year moratorium and a round-table of medical, religious and legal experts to study circumcision fully. “In the clear opinion of experts, the amputation of the foreskin is a grave interference in the bodily integrity of a child,” Georg Ehrmann, chairman of the child protection group Deutsche Kinderhilfe [states].”

The outcome? In December 2012, Germany went on to approve a national law to legitimate parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children. What Eric chooses to accentuate about the German case are the Jewish and Muslim leaders across the European continent who condemned the ban.

When Eric challenges my position that non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision should only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure, on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, he retorts:

“Using the same reasoning, why not also support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter? After all, socialists like all right-thinking people oppose cruelty to animals, right? And while we’re busy banning these things, why not close down all faith schools, because after all, they’re not teaching children what we’d like them to be taught, and they’re forcing children to accept their parents’ religion? Shouldn’t that decision be reserved for adults who are “mature, informed and able to consent”?”

But what is his political reasoning? What is his political method? He surely doesn’t mean what he actually says, which is “using the same reasoning”, i.e., on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, why not ban the ritual slaughter of animals and faith schools? Eric fails to politically engage with some of the key forces involved in the discussion in Scandinavia. What about the statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland? What of the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology’s “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys”?

And, of course, one cannot crassly bundle together the ritual circumcision of male minors (and therein the crucial question of consent), with the ritual slaughter of animals, with faith schools, and (I’ll add to Eric’s list) with schoolgirls wearing Islamic headscarves. Why not? Because the Marxist tradition I am applying is about arriving at an independent class position based on a theoretical analysis of the specific empirical realities, and their forces and relations, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this, and each of these cases are different.

Eric asserts that moves to ban ritual circumcision amongst male minors is “closely linked to” moves to ban the ritual slaughter of animals – all of which are “rightly seen by Jews and Muslims as racist attacks on their communities”. Is it that simple? I certainly don’t deny that there might be some forces involved that are racist motivated, but there also appears to be forces involved that are not racist motivated. If Eric wants an empirical reality to build a case for his claim, I suggest he examines the Danish social and political scene, and asks: what are the nature, composition, and balance of forces? Eric concludes that “[s]ocialists have always defined religion as a private matter. Socialists defend the freedom of religion, and of course the right of people to have no religion”. What he misses is this: on the question of the ritual circumcision of male minors there is a distinct intersection of religious freedom for parents with the right of the child to bodily integrity, and to later sexual autonomy.

Eric Lee’s befuddlement can be explained by what he does, which is to respond to a debate on ritual circumcision among male minors by not responding to it at all and instead conflating it to a European climate of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, and thus cancelling out politics. He says, defend religious and ethnic minorities from racist attack, and fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe”, and ignores the question in hand: again, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?”  I stand by the basic socialist demands from my original article:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics

Scandinavia’s ritual circumcision debate: a socialist response

“the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political passivity. Critical understanding of the self takes place therefore through a struggle of political ‘hegemonies’ and opposing directions” (Antonio Gramsci)

Independent working class culture

It was on reading Frank Furedi’s article “Culture War: the narcissism of minor differences” (in Spiked Online) that I became aware of the recent debate in Scandinavia on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys. Moreover, it is the way in which Furedi frames this debate that alerted me to the need to think through a socialist response. Take his opening paragraph:

“On Sunday, a majority of Swiss voters said yes in a referendum on imposing quotas on the arrival of immigrants from EU countries. On the previous weekend, there were mass demonstrations in France, at which protesters chanted slogans in defence of the traditional family and denouncing the school system for planning to indoctrinate their children with ‘gender-equality’ sex education. On the same weekend, thousands demonstrated in Madrid against tough new anti-abortion laws drawn up by the Spanish government. In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, a cultural crusade against the circumcision of boys is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has become the focus for international protest over its discrimination against gay people.”

Here Furedi groups together, through a common denominator, reactionary waves of anti-immigration, anti-gay, and anti-abortion sentiment and action, with a public and political discussion on whether male minors should be ritually circumcised without their consent. So, what is his common denominator? A new concept apparently, ‘culture war’. He states: “Today, it is through the contestation of norms and values, and a clash over cultural authority, that conflicts of interest are most commonly expressed.” Culture war, Furedi argues, is the defining feature of our post-Cold War society, as political ideologies have been worn out and cultural issues take their place. Of course, anyone with a decent grasp of the works of Antonio Gramsci will know that struggles over culture are not new, and are intrinsically bound up with class (and political) interests. Nonetheless, Furedi concludes:

“The new cultural politics rarely recognises itself for what it is. It cannot openly acknowledge its ambition to monopolise moral authority. Although advocates of lifestyle and identity causes always claim to be tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic, in truth they cannot accept the moral legitimacy of their opponents. […] There are no progressive causes that can be advanced through the medium of culture. Those who flatter themselves as enlightened and inclusive are no less complicit than their opponents in creating a climate of intolerance.”

Ultimately, and ironically, Furedi (in his outright rejection of culture war) slides right into cultural relativism. What’s more, I ask: what about the politics of independent working class culture? In other words, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?

The Nordic debate

689px-Flags_of_Scandinavia

(Wikimedia Commons)

In a joint statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – released in Oslo on September 30th 2013, and signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, as well as eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, it is declared:

“Circumcision, performed without a medical indication, on a person who is incapable of giving consent, violates fundamental medical-ethical principles, not least because the procedure is irreversible, painful and may cause serious complications. There are no health-related reasons for circumcising young boys in the Nordic countries. Circumstances that may make circumcision advantageous for adult men are of little relevance to young boys in the Nordic countries, and on these matters the boys will have the opportunity to decide for themselves when they reach the age and maturity required to give consent. […] We see it as fundamental that parents’ rights in this context do not prevail over children’s right to bodily integrity. The best interests of the child must always be a primary consideration, even if this can reduce the rights of adults to perform religious or traditional practices. The Nordic Ombudsmen for Children in conjunction with pediatric experts therefore wish to work towards a situation where circumcision without medical indication may only be carried out if a boy, who has reached the age and maturity required in order to understand the necessary medical information, chooses to consent to the procedure. […]”

On the 10th October 2013 the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology released “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys” from Helsinki, which includes the following:

“The penile foreskin is a natural and integral part of the normal male genitalia. The foreskin has a number of important protective and sexual functions. […] recent scientific evidence leave little doubt that during sexual activity the foreskin is a functional and highly sensitive, erogenous structure, capable of providing pleasure to its owner and his potential partners. As clinical sexologists, we are concerned about the human rights aspect associated with the practice of non-therapeutic circumcision of young boys. To cut off the penile foreskin in a boy with normal, healthy genitalia deprives him of his right to grow up and make his own informed decision. Unless there are compelling medical reasons to operate before a boy reaches an age and a level of maturity at which he is capable of providing informed consent, the decision to alter the appearance, sensitivity and functionality of the penis should be left to its owner, thus upholding his fundamental rights to protection and bodily integrity. Every person’s right to bodily integrity goes hand in hand with his or her sexual autonomy.”

Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism

The response of some to the Scandinavian debate on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys has been to state that it is part of a wider wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism. That, implicitly, seems to be Furedi’s position, and in another article in his associated journal Spiked Online, Nancy McDermott explicitly states that the ‘culture war’ against circumcision is part of a new, cultural, anti-Semitism that is ironically expressed in the language of human rights.

Indeed, the pressure from particular political forces stressing this argument appears to have stalled any momentum in the direction of banning the practice amongst minors. The Copenhagen Post reported that in December 2013, a delegation of Israeli Knesset politicians attempted to overturn a human rights-based resolution, which was passed in October 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE):

“The PACE resolution 1952 recommends that member states start moving towards abolishing all kinds of physical assaults on children, including non-therapeutic circumcision of boys and girls. […] In the Israeli media, readers have repeatedly been told that the widely-held European stance against ritual circumcision is rooted partly in anti-Semitism, and partly in fear of an expanding Muslim population in Europe.”

Noted in Israel’s Arutz Sheva from February 2014: “Foreign Minister Børge Brende of Norway told the Center of European Rabbis and the Union of Jewish Associations in the European Union, Thursday, that his government has never considered and will never consider putting a ban on ritual circumcision (brit milah in Hebrew).” It is worth registering that in Norway, political party support for the position of the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and paediatric experts on ritual circumcision comes, in the main, from some in the Labor Party and not from the right-wing Progress Party.

My first response is to emphasise that, yes, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe is on the rise, and Scandinavia is no exception to this reactionary social and political trend. An article in The Economist from January 2014, assessing the rise of Europe’s right-wing, observes:

“The populist right is nowhere to be found in austerity-battered Spain and Portugal. But it thrives in well-off Norway, Finland and Austria. […] From 2001 to 2011 the Danish People’s Party under Pia Kjaersgaard swapped parliamentary support for a succession of centre-right minority coalitions for tighter legislation on immigration. […] To the consternation of liberal Scandinavians, Norway’s nationalist-right Progress Party, which secured 16% of the vote at recent parliamentary elections, has been welcomed into a minority coalition government. Its leader, Siv Jensen – a sort of Norwegian Marine Le Pen, who talks about the “rampant Islamification” of Norway – has become the finance minister.”

My second response is to untangle and reassemble the Scandinavian debate on the ritual circumcision of boys – in which not all of the forces can be crudely and crassly labelled and reduced to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism – and a climate of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe, in order to work out an independent socialist perspective.

Conclusion

On assessing the debate and the related evidence, some immediate and basic socialist demands can be concluded:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics

This leaves the question of: if the principle of the right of the child to bodily integrity is carried through into law, what would a socialist response be to the issue of ‘crime and punishment’? Evidence of the varying outcomes from the application of the law against female genital mutilation (FGM) suggests that the solution to achieving a phasing out of this practice lies in education. Whilst France does not have a specific law against FGM, since the late 1970s it has prosecuted parents and ‘cutters’ under existing legislation relating to grievous bodily harm and violence against children. There is a perception that this has led to a deluge of convictions, yet this is not the case; in the period of 34 years since, there have been 29 trials, and approximately 100 convictions. Crucially, it seems, alongside legal application has been an intense educational campaign in France, including the training of health and education professionals on this issue, and the systematic examination of girls during routine health checks as babies. As such, The Independent notes: “In the early 1980s, analysis of the examinations showed that if a mother had been “excisée” (mutilated), there was an 80 per cent chance that her daughter would also have been subjected to FGM. A survey in 2007 suggested this had been reduced to 11 per cent.”

In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty

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.

POINT ONE

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”.

POINT TWO

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.

POINT THREE

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.

POINT FOUR

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.

POINT FIVE

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.

Behzti_Cancelled_Birmingham_20041228

(Wikimedia Commons)

POINT SIX

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”.

POINT SEVEN

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.”