Can clerical fascists turn social-democrat?

Submitted by Matthew on 9 February, 2011 - 1:48

There is no historical precedent for the transformation of a fascist movement into something akin to a mass social democratic organisation. Yet although the Socialist Workers’ Party would never state things as explicitly as that, this is effectively the claim it makes about the trajectory of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Given the revolutionary events in that country in recent weeks, the validity of such an assessment matters massively. While the Muslim Brotherhood has not led the protests, it was at the time of writing among the opposition groups in discussions with the regime. So significant is its social weight that it cannot reasonably be excluded from any transitional government. Were it to turn against the working class, the consequences would be unthinkable.

Its past is frankly ugly, of course. Among the first prominent Marxists to evaluate the group as “clerical-fascist” was Tony Cliff, writing in 1946. This is not something of which the SWP likes to be reminded. Let us not forget, either, that the Muslim Brotherhood was the milieu from which Sayyid Qutb emerged.

But it is perfectly coherent to maintain that while Cliff’s designation was correct at the time, no political formation is static, and that it today represents a very different animal.

Thus the autumn 2007 edition of International Socialism Journal carried an interview with an Egyptian socialist — presumably a co-thinker — which describes the Muslim Brotherhood as a “reformist mass movement”, with which joint struggles are possible “based on the Marxist tradition of the united front”. If that is true, the implication is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not an openly bourgeois force, and even functionally equivalent to a reformist workers’ party.

It would be presumptuous of me to second guess an Egyptian comrade on this matter, but it is legitimate to highlight the 180 degree change of line, and ask for details of how the new stance was reached.

Pivotal to SWP thinking on such issues was a 1994 article in ISJ by the late Chris Harman, titled The Prophet and the Proletariat. Indeed, a substantial section is devoted to the Muslim Brotherhood and its “reformist” Islamism.

The outcome of thorough research, most of the document offers a reasonable Marxist take on Islamism up to that point in time. Of course, Islamism has changed markedly since. It is no longer exclusively seen in Muslim countries, and one section of it has taken a turn towards terrorism.

Long out of print, Harman’s piece is available again in a volume of his selected writings, published last year by Bookmarks. If only because it provided the theoretical underpinnings for the Respect fiasco, it repays a rereading by anyone seeking to understand the dismal disorientation of the largest player on the British left over the last decade.

The key formulations come towards the end. Harman insists: “Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with state never’.”

Sorry, but even as rules of thumb go, there are huge gaps in such a guideline. With the Islamists sometimes? Maybe, but the obvious question is “which times, exactly?”

And with the state never? Well, certainly not with Mubarak’s state. The sooner it falls, the better. The Muslim Brotherhood has patently not acted as a fascist tendency in the current uprising. Fair elections in Egypt would perhaps result in it becoming the largest single party, just as the January 2006 vote for the Palestinian Legislative Assembly gave victory to Hamas.

Then we will see what kind of party it is. A share in state power has a way of turning previously radical outfits into pragmatists; check out Sinn Fein for an example closer to home. Maybe the Muslim Brotherhood will turn out to be de facto social democrats after all. Hey, I hear the Socialist International is looking for a new section in Egypt right now.

Yet there are Islamist groups active in many countries that wish to bring about totalitarian theocracies, and which would oppress and even murder socialists, feminists, trade unionists, lesbians, gays and democrats were they to succeed. Other than in the limited sense of, say, opposition to summary execution, in what way should socialists be “with”such people?

Finally, there is a chance that both the Cliff and Harman prognoses could be vindicated. Like any genuine mass organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not monolithic. There are within it a number of factions with varying orientations.

While most reports suggest that the moderate wing is currently dominant, that does not mean that reactionary components are not also present. As Gerry Adams might have put it, they haven’t gone away, you know.

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