AWL comrades attended a meeting at the SWP’s “Marxism 2009” event (2-6 July) on “Islamism and the new Arab left”, in fact mostly about Egypt. Listening to Anne Alexander’s talk, you learned a lot.
But the overall picture she presented was hopelessly mangled by the SWP’s confused theorisation of political Islam. The political conclusions it suggested are the same as those which three decades ago led to catastrophe for the left and the working class in Iran.
Alexander quite explicitly built on the arguments made by Chris Harman in his pamphlet The Prophet and the Proletariat. According to this view, Islamism, as a cross-class, petty bourgeois led movement, is “contradictory”, simultaneously expressing a progressive or partially progressive critique of the brutality and dislocation of capitalist modernisation in the region (she described it as aiming to make modern civilisation “in some respects more human”) and unable to genuinely confront imperialism and capitalism because it can never mobilise the masses to “go the whole way”. It is comparable to other progressive petty bourgeois movements, national liberation movements for instance. While remaining critical and independent of all Islamists, we should distinguish between reformist and more revolutionary strands.
But what is progressive about the Islamist critique of capitalist modernity? Don’t the Islamists aim to establish a society and state which, while still capitalist, are in almost all respects — democracy, freedom of speech and thought, the emancipation of women, sexual liberation, the ability of workers to organise — more reactionary than what they replace?
Indeed the more radical Islamists, who will go further to confront the existing state, mobilising a mass movement to smash it, are in fact worse than the “moderate” ones — since their “radicalism” servesreactionary goals, and their mass movement also smashes the working-class movement and the left. The Iranian counter-revolution of 1979 is a clear case in point.
We cannot relate to Islamist movements as we do to movements whose basic goals are progressive (e.g. movements of oppressed nations or social groups), let alone to working-class movements under reformist leadership. We must relate to them as a consistently reactionary force which poses a huge threat to the working class and oppressed.
Anne Alexander’s rested heavily on two supplementary points, both essentially ‘straw men’.
Firstly, she was at great pains to insist that Islamism is not fascist. Alexander claimed that, while Islamists were in many cases hostile to working-class struggle, Islamism’s “primary goal is not to smash the working class”. This is an odd distinction, given that Islamism in power and on the ascent to power does destroy the organisations of the labour movement with a fascist-type thoroughness. Moreover, like fascism, it mobilises a mass movement of the poor and dispossessed (the unemployed, the impoverished petty bourgeoisie, even some workers) to do so. It is, in its more radical variants at least, fascistic — which is why in 1946 SWP founder Tony Cliff rightly described Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the main subject of Alexander’s talk, as “clerical fascist”.
But, argued Alexander, we need to win over Islamism’s base of social support; we have to understand that it gains strength because of the “contradictions” and brutality of capitalist development. These arguments, however, apply equally to fascism.
Secondly, she made great play of the failings of the Stalinist left in the Middle East, which abandoned independent working-class politics to the extent of merging itself into Arab nationalism; in Egypt, for instance, having effectively justified the Nasser regime’s execution of striking workers on grounds of “anti-imperialism”, the Stalinists dissolved themselves into the Nasserite party. They were also willing to support the regime’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, a tradition continued by the Stalinist and Arab nationalist left for decades.
Clearly this was criminally wrong; we need to refound Marxism on the basis of working-class independence from all bourgeois factions and regimes, no matter how “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” they claim to be. But this yardstick, whose measure condemns those “leftists” who collapsed into Arab nationalism, equally condemns those who abandon the necessary socialist hostility to the reactionary opposition the Islamists represent. Harman’s formulation “with the state never, with the Islamists sometimes” is not the opposite of the Stalinists’ capitulation to Arab nationalism, but its mirror image.
It is possible to retain independence from regimes such as Mubarak’s, oppose the repressive measures which at present are directed in large part against the Islamists and remain sharply hostile to political Islam. In the 1930s, after all, the Trotskyists opposed support for bourgeois repression against the fascists, without anyway imagining that this required a letting up of revolutionary hostility to them.
The SWP clearly believes that it would be progressive if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. They are not uncritical; thus Alexander spoke about how the Brotherhood has supported the landlords in tussles over land reform. At the same time, she pointed out, they have supported some strikes against the regime. But again this misses the point. All kinds of reactionary forces are capable of endorsing movements of the exploited aimed against their most immediate enemies. Thus the Iranian Islamists supported the workers’ uprising against the Shah.
Once the latter had come to power, however, they shattered the workers’ movement and imposed an even more anti-working class regime. This is true everywhere Islamists have come to or near power. For the Muslim Brothers to replace Mubarak would be a total disaster for the working class. In the context of a rising tide of working-class struggle in Egypt, clarity on this question could not be more important.
The spectre of Iran hovered over the meeting; since we were very determinedly not called to speak, we did not think it would be verbalised. An unaffiliated Tunisian comrade was called, however, and made the necessary point — whatever they say now, the Islamists make use of democratic slogans as a way of reaching the point where they can crush democracy. The left internationally needs to learn this lesson.
• For Tony Cliff on the Muslim Brotherhood see here.