The SWP, the Mainstream Left and Islamism

Submitted by AWL on 28 June, 2002 - 11:05 Author: Sean Matgamna

The Prophet and the demoralised opportunists: Solidarity 3/9, 25 June 2002

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But, man 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 realisation 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 shall continue to bear the 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 as long as he does not revolve around himself.

Karl Marx


"The problem isn't the Muslim fundamentalists but the other fundamentalists, the Islamophobes and racists - people like you."

The "other fundamentalists"? Anti-religious Marxists. People like me. This comment arresting came not from some Muslim or meltingly ecumenical Christian, or Guardian editorial writer, but from a self-proclaimed Marxist. It is typical of the self-defensive abuse SWPers throw out nowadays when confronted by Marxists who display active hostility to Islam. To be anti-Islamic is to be "racist". Since 11 September 2001, the SWP has taken on the job of socialist outrider for Islam in Britain.

An SWP organiser (white, English, female, her head covered Muslim-fashion), on a picket of the Israeli embassy, hassling secular socialist women to put scarves over their heads "to show respect" on a demonstration that is "mostly Muslim". SWPers accepting and actively helping to enforce male-female segregation at meetings and demonstrations. The notorious Socialist Worker article of 6 October 2001 expressing tongue-in-cheek sympathy for the Taliban by explaining that they forced women into seclusion only "as a means of protecting them", because they "feared that their soldiers would behave as some previous mujahedeen groups had on taking a city".

Many such stories about the SWP circulate on the secular left right now. Some of the stories one hears about SWPers made light-headed by the eruption of conflict between political Islam and the great powers may be apocryphal.

The story of the SWP organiser insisting that atheist women should "show respect" and solidarity by covering their heads as Muslim women are forced to do wherever Islamists make the rules is to my certain knowledge true. SWPers have accepted and even half-heartedly collaborated in the segregation of women demanded by religious Muslims at anti-war meetings. Until pressed, they refused to intervene to support the right of a secular woman of Asian Muslim background to be what she was when she became a target for Muslim bigots at an anti-war meeting in Birmingham. At the same meeting they supported the exclusion of a stroppy ex-Muslim woman whose existence was an offence in the eyes of anti-war Muslims.

These incidents indicate how far people calling themselves Marxist have travelled from the ABC Marxist - and even from vertebrate liberal - attitude on questions like this.

There are striking parallels between the conventional Left's attitude to Islam now and the way the Communist Party used to relate to Irish Catholic immigrants in Britain. I had some experience of that.

For a while, over forty years ago, I was involved in the work of the Communist Party among Irish people of devout Catholic background in Britain, people from the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, where clerics ruled within the glove-puppet institutions of a bourgeois democracy.

Hundreds of thousands of us came to Britain from small towns, backward rural areas, from communities of small commodity-producers that were very different from conditions we encountered in Britain. We spoke English and were racially indistinguishable from the natives, but we brought with us the idea of history as the struggle of the oppressed against oppression and exploitation, derived from what we had learned from teachers, priests, parents and songs, and from reading about Ireland's centuries-long struggle against England.

Such ideas had very broad implications. It needed only a small shift - no more than a refocusing of those ideas on the society we were now in, and which at first we saw with the eyes of strangers not inclined to be approving - for us to see British society for the class-exploitative system it is, to see our place in it, and to reach the socialist political conclusions that followed from that.

Vast numbers of Irish migrants became part of the labour movement. Quite a few of us became socialists of varying hues, a small number revolutionary socialists. Catholicism was the reason why large numbers of Irish immigrants, whose mindset I have sketched above, did not become communists.

The CPGB ran an Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association. Instead of advocating socialism and secularism and working to organise as communists those being shaken loose from the dogmatic certainties we had learned in a society ruled by Catholic "fundamentalists", the Connolly Association disguised themselves as simple Irish nationalists. They purveyed ideas not seriously different from those of the ruling party in Dublin, Fianna Fail, except for occasional words in favour of Russian foreign policy.

The real history of 20th century Ireland, and the part played by the Catholic Church and the Catholic "Orange Order", the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in creating the conditions that led to Partition, were suppressed by these supposed Marxists. Instead, they told a tale in which only the Orange bigots and the British were villains. The concerns and outlook of narrow Catholic nationalism were given a pseudo-anti-imperialist twist. All that mattered was to be "against British imperialism".

The CPGB thus, for its own manipulative ends, related to the broad mass of Irish Catholic immigrants - who, in the pubs of places like South Manchester, bought the Connolly Association paper Irish Democrat, in large numbers - by accommodating to the Catholic nationalist bigotries we had learned from priests and teachers at home and battening on them.

We had, those of us who took it seriously, a cultural and religious arrogance that would have startled those who did not see us as we saw ourselves - something that, I guess, is also true of many Muslims now. The CPGB did not challenge it. (If this suggests something purely personal to me, I suggest that the reader takes a look at James P Cannon's review of the novel Moon Gaffney in Notebook of an Agitator.)

For the CPGB this approach made a gruesome sense entirely absent from the SWP's antics with Islam, because Moscow approved of Dublin's "non-aligned" foreign policy, which refused NATO military bases in Ireland. Russian foreign policy, and the wish to exploit Irish nationalism against the UK - that was the CPGB leader's first and main concern.

In this way the Connolly Association and the CPGB cut across the line of development of secularising Irish immigrants: large numbers became lapsed Catholics, but without clearing the debris of religion from their heads. It expelled from its ranks those who wanted to make the Connolly Association socialist and secularist. Instead of helping us move on from middle-class nationalism and the Catholic-chauvinist middle-class interpretation of Irish history, it worked to lock us back into those ideas by telling us in "Marxist" terms that they were the best "anti-imperialism". What mattered, fundamentally, to the CP leaders was who we were against - Russia's antagonist, Britain.

The questions involved here in the dispute between the SWP and ourselves on Islam are to-be-or-not-to-be for Marxists. Is it possible for Marxists to defend Muslim people from discrimination, racism and scapegoating and at the same time proclaim our own radical hostility to religion, to Islam, and to certain social practices associated with Islam, the treatment of women for example?

Does opposition to the US and British governments demand of us that we defend Islamic fundamentalist movements like the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Does solidarity with Islamic people in Britain and elsewhere against abuse, physical attack and social discrimination, demand of us that we defend Islam? That we must pretend that its specific beliefs and practices are not vicious and idiotic? In short, do we mute and suppress our own identity?

This is nothing less than the question: can people committed to war against priests as against landlords, money lords, and warlords, exist and function politically in the present situation? Can Marxism and Marxists exist?

Marxists are secularists or they are not Marxists. Why? Because we are humanists - humankind, not some imaginary God, is the centre of our concerns and endeavours.

Because a viable socialist outlook can only be built on the truth about humanity's real place in the universe.

Because, to one degree or another, religions direct us to live this, our only life, as preparation for an imaginary afterlife, and teach that this life is less important.

Because religions tend, though there are sometimes exceptions, to breed fatalism and a sense of helplessness before social oppression, seeing it as decreed by God and not human beings.

Because Islam, like Christianity, believes that a benign God controls our lives, that he can and does intervene in human affairs, and that our prayers and solicitations can move him to such intervention.

Because religion offers false consolation for things which we want to rouse up the working class to fight and overcome.

We are against religion because we are for reason and science. Unlike demoralised liberals and the sub-liberal "politically correct" "Marxists", we believe that it matters whether what people believe is
true or false.

We continue the tradition of militant rationalism - what an Anglican priest, a socialist, whom I talked to recently, denounced as "19th century rationalism" - and secularism which the bourgeoisie have abandoned. The Islamicising "Marxists" in practice abandon it too.

Wars of religion convulsed Europe for 150 years in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the middle of the 17th century Protestants and Catholics had fought each other to a stalemate. Then a reaction set in, and an age of scepticism and comparative indifference. The Christian tide receded.

Something like that has happened in the second half of the 20th century to the once-powerful secularist drive. Even though some of its leading people were anti-socialists, that current was connected to the drive to remake the world by the exercise of reason in the service of love and human solidarity. Its retreat is part of a reflux of the socialist tide, of the drive to remake the world.

If secular-minded people today are tolerant of and indifferent to religion and superstition, that is an aspect of the collapse of a positive world outlook different from the prevailing bourgeois one, the collapse of the aspiration to transform our world and build a better one. Those who wanted to enlighten, educate and convince people that a better world was possible felt the need to challenge false ideas. They had a drive to wipe out religion and clear up its debris (such idiocies as astrology).

The present tide of indifference might be called "post-utopian". It is part of the dominant anti-utopianism of our time, with its belief that this is as good as it will ever get. Marxists cannot go along with it without ceasing to be Marxists. We have not given up on the aspiration to build a rational world free from superstition as well as from exploitation.

We remain hostile to all religions, irreconcilably opposed to all privileges for religious bodies, against the religious involvement in state education, and against all state subsidies for religious education, and for the strict separation of church and state.

Here Marxists simply continue the tradition of the serious bourgeois radicals who 220 years ago wrote the separation of church and state into the constitution of the American Republic.

With the liberal ideal of freedom of religion to which of course we subscribe, Marxists insist on coupling the demand for freedom for atheists and for atheistic propaganda - as the Communist International did, for example.

Not for centuries in most of the West has the demand for freedom of atheistic propaganda had such urgency as it has now wherever Islam is strong, Muslim Britain included.

The freedom not to be a Muslim; the freedom for a Muslim to abjure Islam (for Muslim fundamentalists that is punishable with death); the freedom for people of Muslim background to make atheistic propaganda in their own communities; the freedom to brand all the basic tenets of Islam about Allah and his Messenger as dirty lies; the right to explain that to young people of Muslim education - all that is of fundamental importance in Islamic countries and in Islamic communities in non-Islamic countries. It is a matter of life and - sometimes literally - death for secularists, socialists and Marxists within those countries and communities.

What can you say of a political culture in which an SWP full-time organiser can think it nothing wrong to try to enforce the Islamic fundamentalist rule of covering their heads on non-Muslim women on a political demonstration? Those who create and maintain that culture have simply lost the plot.

Now, everyone who pays attention knows that within their ritual chanting about "revolution", the operational politics of the SWP - their points of agitation and immediate concerns in the Socialist Alliance, for example - are generally pretty tame and, in fact, not socialist but reformist. "Socialism", like "revolution" and "the revolutionary party", is no more than a patented brand name. As someone said, the SWP are in politics often only a self-excited crowd of "Guardian readers with placards".

In their tolerance towards Islamic intolerance, their softness towards those who exercise a hard coercion against "their own" in Muslim countries and societies (and try to do it at demonstrations and meetings in Britain), the very revolutionary SWP simply mirror and parallel the attitudes of a large part of the post-Stalinist, post-utopian, organically demoralised, "liberal intelligentsia". They become demoralised Guardian readers with headscarves, so to speak.

This posture is a betrayal of the best people in the immigrant Islamic communities. It is a taking of sides with the great unenlightened mass of people of Islamic background in Britain and their priests and spiritual policemen against those of that background who have more or less broken with it or are more or less hostile to it.

"Racism" is a word that is too casually and lazy-mindedly thrown around these days. Nonetheless, it needs to be said that there is racism in this business, or at least gross chauvinist stereotyping, and not on the part of those who side with the secular "Muslims" and against Islam.

"Asian Muslims" are... Muslims; and, moreover, backward, bigoted, unteachable Muslims, who can only be approached on their own terms and by way of cynical would-be manipulative patronisation. That is the implication of the SWP approach. And it is not remotely true.

Large numbers of people from Islamic backgrounds have in serious part emancipated themselves from Islam, ranging from outright atheists through to "secularised" Muslims. That is one of the most encouraging things to be seen on the anti-war and pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Many ostensible Muslims take and carry placards calling for two states in Israel-Palestine. Even if they won't, you can talk about the political issues - even to seriously religious Muslims - in a way in which you cannot talk to most of the bigotedly anti-Israel and "anti-imperialist" left.

Of course, the SWP leaders are not personally soft on Islam. They have their private beliefs, which are probably the same as ours. Their motive is pure catchpenny opportunism; but its prerequisite is ideological demoralisation and political disorientation.

They bring to the Islamic communities the same cross-class popular-front approach that has allowed them to have Tories on Anti Nazi League platforms.

Now, of course socialists will stand side by side with the priests and Islamic bigots to defend their neighbourhoods against racist attack. We have done that (in my direct experience, in East London). It is very different from standing side by side with those reactionaries against the more emancipated segments of their own communities.

It is a "socialist", "Marxist" variant of the oft-repeated "treason of the intellectuals" - a betrayal of reason, an abandonment of the secular programme of revolutionary socialism and of our entire tradition.

It is also stupid, unless they have given up on socialism. The socialist future, not of "the Muslim community" which the SWP in Popular Front mode tries to relate to now, but of the workers and youth of that community, will be wrought and secured by those secular "Muslims" who are now a despised and often persecuted minority in "the Muslim community".

It is they who will act initially as the link with the broader labour movement and as the bearers of anti-Islamic enlightenment to the Muslim community. The fundamental job of non-Muslim socialists is to encourage and help those secular "Muslims".

The SWP's attitude to Islam is possible only because they themselves have a quasi-religious outlook which they mistakenly think is Marxist and "dialectical".

They live in a hazy mental world where everything is essentially in flux; where "Revolution" is imminent; where things are therefore never just what they are; where everything solid dissolves into air. Political Islam is only a transient form of something else, the unfolding "Revolution". Islamic reaction does not matter because the socialist world revolution will soon clear everything up. It is not "really" reactionary because "objectively" it is part of something progressive, namely "revolutionary" opposition to "US and British imperialism". It is not a threat to anyone because it cannot last long. "After Hitler, our turn", was how the complaisant Communist Party of Germany expressed a similar outlook over 70 years ago. "After the Islamists, our turn"?

History is a revolutionary roller-coaster. Realities dissolve into a pseudo-dialectical flurry.

All sorts of accommodations are licensed, because the thing accommodated to is not fully real. Thus their "revolutionary" socialist politics dissolve into a pseudo-historical mysticism which is very much like a religious belief in a godlike spirit of History which will "take care" of everything for us.

But in fact Islam is real - an immensely oppressive reality for many people in Muslim societies and communities, and especially for those of them who disagree to one degree or another. It is worth recalling that most of the left supported, for its "anti-imperialism", the comprehensively reactionary Islamic regime installed in Iran by the priest-led revolution - it was a revolution, and a profound one - of 1979. The priests are still in power 23 years later.

In Never on a Sunday, a once-famous movie made by an American refugee from McCarthyism, Jules Dassin, the heroine is Ilia, an earthy, primitive, whimsical, ignorant, wonderful creature, who makes a living fucking sailors in the Athens port of Piraeus. She loves the ancient Greek tragedies. The hero of the film sits with her in the amphitheatre as Medea, the wronged wife, slaughters her own children for revenge against their father, Jason. Ilia laughs her head off at the tragic events unfolding before her.

Why is she laughing, he asks? She knows it isn't real. It isn't really happening, she tells him. The children aren't really dead. When the play is over they will "all go to the seaside".

Such a way of looking at contemporary history, with an uncomprehending numb indifference rooted in the belief that horrors are not real horrors, is to rational socialism what the religious belief that nothing matters because everything will be made right in the afterlife is to a this-world, humanity-centred philosophy of life. It was at the heart of much 20th century socialist experience, for example of the attitude which people who should have known better took to Stalinism, and not only to Stalinism.

For Marxist socialists in Britain who have to combine defence of Muslim people from racists and scapegoaters with implacable hostility to Islam, the old Catholic tag offers guidance: love the sinner, hate the sin!

Defend Muslim people against racism and bigotry, fight Islam! (As we fight Christianity and other religions.) Understand that political Islam is the enemy of everything that socialists stand for! Don't try to relate to the "Muslim community", but to the Muslim working class and to the "Muslim" secularists. Work to split the "Muslim community"; help organise the ex-Muslims, the insurgent women and the socialists within the "Muslim community"!

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