Pete Gregson’s letter (October 19) is indicative of a depressing tendency towards tailism in the left, which sees any movement opposed to what we oppose as necessarily progressive. This is particularly dangerous when talking about Hamas, as well as Islamic fundamentalism in general.
This was seen in Iran, where the left allied itself with the reactionary agenda of the ayatollahs, before being promptly destroyed by them when they took power. In the UK we had our own Socialist Workers Party opportunistically voting down its own declared positions in Respect in order to curry favour with the Muslim Association of Britain in the context of the Iraq war. Now the same organisation is opportunistically telling us we should celebrate the Hamas attack.
However, for Marxists, who believe in the principal of the political independence of the working class, it is necessary to criticise all ideologies that are opposed to workers self-emancipation, and call them what they are - reactionary, or heaven forbid, even deeply reactionary (as in ‘opposed to political and social progress’), as Moshé Machover did in his article, ‘Oppression breeds resistance’ (October 12), and Eddie Ford in his last week (‘What you need to know about Hamas’, October 19).
Pete says that if he was not an atheist he would like to be a Muslim, because he says the time he spent living among Muslims showed him that Islam is a “fundamentally peaceful” religion that is “humanistic” and “deeply reflective”. Well, clearly followers of Islam are a highly varied group, and have very different relationships to their religion, depending on different histories, cultures, understandings, social and familial relationships, and a hundred other factors. As we know, more often than not, people we meet in life are reasonable and kind.
But Islam (meaning ‘submission to the will of God’) in its core is a very particular set of doctrines, which many on the left, and in society generally, make a point of not looking at. Its founder, Muhammad, claimed that an angel called Gabriel met him in a cave, and recited word for word a book called the Quran. This book is claimed to be unchanging and unalterable and everything it contains absolutely true, regardless of any time, place or context. This first point is in fact what makes Islam the most inflexible of the major religions. The Bible, for example, can be taken literally by some, but can also be seen as a collection of stories, prophecies and so on, and therefore can be open to many different readings.
Inevitably, despite claims about its absolute authenticity and correctness, the Quran does contain contradictions, errors and omissions. Early in his career as a ‘prophet’, Muhammad was in competition with a lot of both monotheistic and polytheistic traditions. At first, he chose to affirm the authenticity of the monotheistic traditions (Judaism and Christianity), against the polytheistic ones he was surrounded by in Mecca, saying that what was given to them was true. As the followers of those monotheistic religions rejected him, however, he became hostile to them, saying that believers who die in the act of fighting them will be served by virgins and young boys in paradise. Supposedly, the virgins’ skin shall be “so beautiful, pure and transparent that the marrow of the bones of their legs will be seen through the bones and the flesh” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4:54:476). But in the end, he said, even the trees and the rocks would cry out, “there is a Jew behind me, so come and kill him” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2926).
Some of Muhammad’s claims supported or amended the prevailing attitudes of the time - one being his acceptance of the institution of slavery, albeit in a regulated form. Muhammad purchased, sold and owned slaves. Islam provides for the freeing of slaves, and forbade Muslims from enslaving other Muslims, but at the same time the Islamic world was the centre of the global slave trade throughout most of its history. That is, until the early capitalists in Europe took on the barbaric practice.
In other ways, what Muhammad taught went against the grain of the culture - women had some status in pre-Islamic Arabia. He had to actually go out and instruct that the “majority of dwellers in hellfire are you (women)”, and that women are “deficient in intelligence”, because their testimony in court is only worth half of a man’s, and “deficient in religion”, because of their menstrual cycle interrupting prayers (Sahih al-Bukhari 304).
There is one hadith where Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, bravely stands up to him on behalf of a woman who is being abused by her husband. She said the woman’s skin is “greener than her dress”, but Muhammad ruled that women cannot divorce their husbands where there is domestic violence, but only if their husbands are impotent. “No-one suffers more than the believing women,” Aisha is supposed to have said (Sahih al-Bukhari 5825). Conversely men only have to say “I divorce you” three times (Surah al-Baqarah v: 229-230).
Early on, Muhammad seemed to have a relaxed attitude to people from other faiths, saying: “to him his religion, to me my religion” (Quran 109:6), and “there is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). Yet later he said, “if anyone discards his religion, kill him.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3017); and, “if any turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper” (Quran 4:89). In reality it was whatever was expedient for himself at the time. But these latter prescriptions are enforced in many Islamic countries, where apostasy is a crime.
Contrary to Pete Gregson’s claim, Islam is not uniquely tolerant. Blasphemy is often punishable with a death sentence. In Pakistan, for instance, even an accusation is enough to get you killed, and often before it even reaches court, because of the popularity of mob ‘justice’. But here at home we now have de facto blasphemy laws as well. There was the case in Wakefield only recently, where a boy dropped and scuffed a Quran at his school, and he was suspended for ‘desecrating a holy book’, as well as subsequently being sent death threats. His mother was sent to the local mosque to make a grovelling apology. Nowadays the police record such a matter as a ‘non-crime hate incident’ on people’s permanent records, rendering them unemployable without so much as a trial or admission of guilt.
Jews and Christians and other minorities might have existed in the Muslim world for 1,400 years, as Pete says, but most of the time it was not as equals, with equal rights. Discrimination, special taxes and rules designed to humiliate minorities were commonplace, and still are in some places. This is not to say that there have not been many Islamic scholars over the centuries who have tried to employ ijtihad (the struggle for interpretation) to reform the understandings of the texts in different ways. Unfortunately, they have historically usually been on the back foot. As the Salafists, Wahhabis and ayatollahs keep pointing out, the texts say what they say, and it is extremely backward and uncompromising for the most part - and not just in a “small ‘c’ conservative” way, as Pete asserts. It seems at least from my own appraisal of the source material, that the ‘prophet’ could at least be described as self-serving, opportunistic, misogynistic, and false. And we probably do have a duty to say so on behalf of those that are too afraid to, and those under the thrall of his sanctimonious and corrupt representatives.
Is it politically useful for socialists to brush all of this under the carpet, in light of current events? I would say not, and especially so in light of our comrades in the Islamic world, who have faced persecution and death for opposing the ‘divinely’ sanctioned authorities in their countries. Does it justify Israeli persecution of Palestinians? Absolutely not. We have to expose how Israeli and US elites have promoted religious fundamentalism of all stripes for their own twisted aims. Islam is not unique in having deformities - don’t they all? Hindu nationalism is expedient for Narendra Modi in India, Buddhist nationalism for the military regime in Myanmar. Christian and Jewish fundamentalism has been used to promote Zionism, and Islamic fundamentalism for driving out socialism.
I would suggest Pete remove the rose-tinted glasses. It is necessary to call everything by its name, including what is deeply reactionary.
I would like to comment very briefly on two articles and a letter in the October 12 edition of the Weekly Worker.
I found the subheading to Moshé Machover’s article, ‘Oppression breeds resistance’ - which reads “A revolt of the hopeless by the hopeless for the hopeless”, disgraceful and appalling. Some might call it racist as well. Yes, of course, some sections of the Palestinian people may be feeling “hopeless”, but it is also clear many more are proud, dignified and defiant and fully prepared to engage in a wide range of forms of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
I found Machover’s article to be typically and insufferably arrogant and patronising. Also, as Dan Lazare well set out (Letters, October 12), Machover’s expression of unconditional support for Hamas towards the end is profoundly unMarxist and unsophisticated. Perhaps if the Weekly Worker commissioned an article from a Palestinian communist, rather than Machover as its pet “expert” on all things Palestinian, Israeli and Arab, a more rounded and balanced analysis might be forthcoming.
On the call by Nick Wrack and Will McMahon for unity in a mass socialist/communist party, I agree with the great majority of the words and sentiments (‘Get in touch with us’, October 12). However, while I have no doubt both are highly intelligent and principled socialists, I have to ask, what standing or status do either of them have within the real labour movement? If little or none, then this by definition will not go very far. I suspect their “rejection of Stalinism” is merely a cover code for a rejection of mainstream communism and an advocacy of Trotskyism. A communist party without communists? I hope I am wrong.
Lawrence Parker is far more correct in his letter in the same issue that any serious effort to achieve greater socialist/communist unity cannot start with prior exclusions of some of the more significant socialist/communist formations already in existence. You have to meet the class at least halfway - without, of course, sacrificing, underplaying or hiding your principles. Where its most advanced elements have organised themselves within more significant parties and groups, you have to treat them, as well as those parties and groups, with respect and on the basis of equality.
If Wrack’s and McMahon’s call is in reality for Trotskyist unity, then I fear they are pursuing a chimera. ‘Trotskyist unity’ is a complete oxymoron, if ever there was one. The 557 varieties of Trotskyism are all able to quote from their god from a very large selection (Trotsky was nothing if not flowery and verbose) to support their individual lines and separate existences, primarily because their god was so chaotic, eclectic and contradictory. He was literally the factionalist and splitter in chief. If Wrack and McMahon hide their Trotskyism from new recruits to whatever they manage to create, then the latter are going to be exceedingly disappointed when they find out this is just another sectarian endeavour.
But, if one takes the statement at face value, and approaches it on the basis of what unites rather than what divides us, then surely a genuine socialist/communist party - rooted and grounded within the real labour movement, aiming to be a mass party of millions ultimately, through the correct operation of democratic centralism - could easily accommodate differences of view regarding Trotsky, Stalin, the nature of the USSR, etc. By appearing to exclude mainstream communism, by labelling it ‘Stalinism’, Wrack and McMahon are off to a poor and rather pointless start.
Are people in their “new layers” and “new generations” really that bothered about historical and doctrinal differences over individuals and events which are often over 100 years old? I suspect not, except insofar as these might affect current revolutionary strategy and tactics. I think they are probably more minded to want the socialist and communist left to get our collective acts together and to provide a genuinely credible alternative - not only to this or a successor government, but to this economic and social system.
Moshé Machover has put the cat among the pigeons with his October 12 article, ‘Oppression breeds resistance’. Daniel Lazare is so outraged that he gives no support whatsoever to Hamas: “Suppressing the truth about Hamas in any respect is nothing short of a betrayal”, he asserts (Letters, October 19). Whereas Pete Gregson is outraged that he has any opposition at all to the politics or actions of the same group, finishing his own letter with: “It would be great if the Weekly Worker could show more empathy to Hamas and less snootiness in condemning them - presumably for not being Marxists” (Marxism is not a charge we can lay against Pete - his letter makes this clear).
I have some differences too with the conclusion of Moshé’s article, but he gets the essentials correct in supporting Hamas’s offensive against Israeli Zionism, albeit from their reactionary political perspectives. The title of his piece and his citing of past outrages by oppressed peoples - the native American massacres of white settlers, the excesses of the Mau Mau in Kenya and the NLF in Algeria - puts things in their proper context. Moshé gives us Matzpen’s solution: The overthrow of the Zionist colonial regime “would require the participation of the Israeli working class, and this in turn can only occur as part of a socialist transformation of the Arab east, leading to a regional socialist union or federation, including Israel”. A two-state solution, with Israel still in existence (but not as a Jewish state?) with a Palestinian state next door? Not a single, multi-national workers’ state of Palestine as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East?
Daniel’s letter is self-contradictory. For him Hamas is reactionary through and through, without contradictions. Remember Bert Cochran in the US Socialist Workers Party, who in 1953 described Stalinism as counterrevolutionary “through and through”? Joseph Hansen correctly described the opposition as Stalinophobic, neglecting the obligations of Marxists to defend the degenerate workers’ state and capitalist overturns despite the overall counterrevolutionary nature of Stalinism.
Daniel is also wrong about Lenin’s “struggle against pan-Islamism” being “a top priority”, which means we should not “include Hamas in the bourgeois-democratic category at all, no matter how broadly defined”, because it is not democratic. But here is what Lenin had to say in his ‘Draft theses on national and colonial questions’ at the Second Congress of Comintern (June 1920): “… second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries; third, the need to combat pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.” So he is combatting pan-Islamism, not making it “a top priority”.
And what are we to make of the complaint that Hamas is not narrowly nationalist enough? “Rather it describes itself in its 1988 charter as a “universal organisation” dedicated to Muslim hegemony throughout the world”. The mass demonstrations throughout the Arab world for Gaza indicates that their internationalism - distorted and Islamist though it is - gets a mass response on the street and creates big problems for pro-imperialist Arab regimes in the region.
It is difficult to take Pete’s letter seriously. So what if “Arabic life is conservative - but with a small ‘c’?” He says: “They do not approve of public displays of affection between men and women; they frown upon displays of the flesh - this is common to most religious movements. But does Hamas ‘oppose political or social progress or reform’? By its very existence it aims for political progress; it works along lines that we in the west can barely fathom - so poor is our understanding of Islam.”
So that’s it then. Rather than see their uprising as reactionary, like Daniel, he sees it as entirely progressive, without contradiction - oppressed women will just have to shut up and accept it for the greater glory of Allah. We certainly will not have these sluts running about in their mini-skirts and bikinis.
Back in 2016 Socialist Fight stated its position on the Israel/Palestine question, “Although Hamas is potentially no less reactionary and more so on social issues than the [Palestinian Authority], nevertheless it is fighting Israel now. It expresses the anger of the oppressed, in a very distorted way it is true, so it deserves unconditional but critical support against Israel right now.”
On the governmental slogans, we say that the only progressive outcome of the conflict in the region is “a multi-ethnic workers’ state in occupied Palestine/Israel; we are totally opposed to a two-state solution. We are for the destruction of the settler-colonial state of Israel and for a multi-ethnic workers’ state of Palestine in a Socialist Federation of the Middle East.”
I don’t agree with Jack Conrad in his latest talk that Hamas is a “terrorist organisation”. Hamas is an organisation of freedom fighters which uses terrorist tactics at times.
It’s not uncommon for resistance movements against colonialism to use such methods (we may agree or disagree with these methods). The al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, can be comparable to the mujahideen of the FLN, which won independence for Algeria in 1962 in its war with France after 132 years of occupation.
It plays into the hands of the Zionists and reinforces them, at least ideologically, by agreeing with them that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, when it’s not true. It also helps the Zionists when the left has a tepid or no response to the past Hamas statement about the destruction of Israel. The authentic left should say emphatically and in no uncertain terms: ‘We agree with Hamas if they want the destruction of Israel in its present Zionist form’ - in other words, the destruction of the Zionist system.
The Palestinian prime minister said recently that what’s needed is a “united front” (what took you guys so long?). Belief in a united front was like a religious faith for Leon Trotsky and Clara Zetkin. Next I want to hear about a broad revolutionary socialist movement in Palestine and the entire region. Regardless of practicality, it’s important to keep the ideas of socialism alive; without an idea and a dream, nothing happens.
Ever so ’umble
On the question of “humility” raised in Jack Conrad’s article (‘Getting in touch’, October 19), I was not tasking this to the CPGB alone. What I actually wrote in my letter (October 12) and certainly meant was that we would be better served by humility, reflection etc - in other words, all those who are in some way concerned with advancing communist unity facing head-on the fact that we have made essentially no advance in this area and to think very seriously about how to break this “logjam”, as Mike Macnair describes it (Letters, October 5).
The purpose of drawing the line of fire specifically towards the CPGB though is done here on the basis of the very same arguments as those outlined in Jack’s article. I believe criticising the CPGB on these points is important precisely because what the CPGB does impacts on us all and remains important for those of us invested more widely in the project of communist unity. I don’t think we should take the approach of not addressing it or not addressing what it does (either positively or negatively) - and these are the points I would argue for within Talking About Socialism also.
If, as Jack writes, the CPGB “towers over” others on the left on the question of communist unity - then, yes, logically the CPGB does hold a special responsibility amongst us to clearly advance and justify its approach to communist unity in this period and to be open to criticism around this, based on the premise that criticism is the means by which we can refine and develop our approaches, and ward off stagnation. There are many who have an interest in the partyist project and in advancing unity on the basis of Marxist politics in this period - demonstrating leadership over this is not a medal that, once acquired, is pinned to the chest forever: it must be consistently shown in practice.
This is why it is important to ask these critical questions in terms of what vision the CPGB has for advancing and cohering these various forces in some way, and what vision it has for pushing meaningfully forward with the project of communist unity in this period. Perhaps there is no clear vision for advancing and cohering these forces, and perhaps, as Mike suggests, it isn’t immediately clear how to push forward - well, that kind of clarity would be massively valuable in itself, because it indicates that a very open process, involving the free exchange of perspectives, analysis, information-sharing, criticism, etc, might be fundamental to map a way forward.
Is this free exchange what is happening though? Is this what is being encouraged through practice? Defensive responses, such as those displayed in Jack’s article, encourage the opposite of free exchange - they encourage in practice the closing down of discussion, criticism, questioning, etc. This is why questions of political culture, which are often considered unimportant side issues, are actually significant here. The real issue is not personal (mine or anyone else’s feelings), but political - it is about what this speaks to and encourages in the wider audience. It encourages a political atmosphere in which the majority of those who are interested in critique and discussion will see that and think, ‘OK, maybe I won’t say anything; maybe I won’t raise anything; maybe I won’t present a criticism or a suggestion.’ This isn’t healthy for a movement that is supposed to thrive on the open exchange and expression of perspectives - and in pedagogical terms this culture and approach to exchange would clearly be recognised as encouraging disengagement or submission in those who are around it.
Culture is a political question and it is a significant one too - this is the setting in which criticism is exchanged or not exchanged; in which questions or concerns are raised or not raised; in which information is shared or not shared. It relates therefore in quite clear ways to the development of an organisation: to its ability to maintain dynamism, to be responsive to developing contexts, to guard against inertia. This question of political culture surely constitutes a significant part of the explanation, for example, as to why (despite dealing with thought and care around the question of democratic centralism) there is often very little in the way of publicly recognisable and clear exchange of differences and criticism in the Weekly Worker around core questions of the approach and trajectory of the CPGB from within the group itself.
I suggested the need for humility and self-reflection in assessing our position in this period not as an attack - but because I believe there is something potentially substantial to be gained, I believe we can genuinely make some advance in this period, but that this requires a wide and self-critical level of open and comradely discussion. This discussion and criticism is something that is very clearly needed, since, as raised above, it is not immediately clear how to push forward in this period.
Jack may not want to engage in this - but what about others in the CPGB? I think an open exchange of thoughts in the letters page here would send a very encouraging message in many ways, and I would certainly be very interested to hear CPGB comrades’ thoughts more widely on these questions of strategy and approach in this period.