Against theocratic reaction

I am quite satisfied with the case I have made against co-sponsorship of demonstrations with the Muslim Association of Britain in previous articles, as well as the supplementary letter in last week's paper (Weekly Worker January 16). However, Mark Fischer's rejection of my tactic was clearly expressed in that issue of the paper, where he says that "we regard co-sponsorship of events with organisations such as the MAB to be a tactical question - certainly not to be ruled impermissible in principle "¦ if the MAB is capable of mobilising a section of the population that we currently cannot, then what do we lose by smoothing our way to make mass propaganda and agitation which we could otherwise not carry out? As long as communists make no political concessions to fundamentalism, as long as they actually utilise the action to make propaganda for secularism, democracy and the working class programme amongst these layers, what is the problem?" ('Focus, everyone. Focus'). I will briefly respond to both Mark's point and also Ian's, as expressed in his recent article ('Marxist analysis or crying wolf' Weekly Worker January 9), by first looking at the united front tactic and then examining the relationship between Marxist organisations and political/religious groupings. There seems to me, as I have stated previously, to be an underestimation of the dangers of political islam not only in the left generally but also within our own ranks. Ian's remarks on the surrogate national-liberationism of Hezbollah reminds me of the old arguments about the historical 'locum' of Deutscher, Mandel and others in which the working class is replaced by another progressive political force such as a national-liberationist movement or a neo-Stalinist bureaucracy. I have significant differences on the national liberation question with the party majority (although this is not the place to enter into debate on this issue) and Ian's islamist locum here smacks of the worst aspects of orthodox Trotskyism. One of the problems is that the original Bolshevik attitude towards islam, particularly at the time of the congress of the peoples of the east, stemmed almost entirely from conjunctural political considerations of expediency rather than any principled, clear-sighted, historical materialist analysis. Wavering between a vulgar materialist onslaught against religion to support for islamic radicalism as politically expedient, Marxists have rarely got to grips with the reality of islamism. This has led to an inability of Marxists to demarcate themselves effectively from islamism without retreating into sectarian aloofness and islamophobia. It leads Ian to effectively support jihadists such as Hezbollah who cannot, under any circumstances, be supported by Marxists and secularists because their programme is not anti-imperialist and progressive but profoundly reactionary, as our comrades in these countries know all too well. The fact that the anti-war movement in Pakistan has refused to work with the islamists because of their programme and the fact that they had their origins in the US imperialist project to undermine the PDPA in Afghanistan means that we too should take seriously the role of the islamists in our own state. Basic principles of solidarity between ourselves, the Labour Party Pakistan and the Pakistan Peoples Party have to be observed here - anything less would be a betrayal of these progressive forces. The Worker-communist Party of Iran, in their struggle against the war, have called for a united front against the islamists and absolutely reject any coalition with such forces because of their origin and also because it sanctifies a reactionary vision of political islam not accepted by the majority of muslims and secularists in Iran, Iraq or indeed anywhere. The Worker-communist Party of Iraq, itself against any coalition with groups such as the MAB, is horrified at our recent co-sponsorship with it, arguing that such groups are absolutely committed to maintaining the rule of capital and dictatorship in Iraq. Ian Donovan's locum 'anti-imperialist' political islam is entirely without positives - undemocratic, reactionary, demagogic and murderous. Under some circumstances an alliance with these groups is possible, argue Ian and Mark. The application of elementary united front tactics can stretch to coalitions with the islamists, argues Ian. He notes the difference between a "communist tactic of the united front, addressing non-communist organisations that mobilise a section of the masses, and the treacherous strategy of the popular front, which involves workers' organisations adopting the de facto programme of a wing of the bourgeoisie, thereby liquidating the independent programme of the working class for the sake of an illusory advance" (Weekly Worker January 9). Therefore we can construct episodic blocs with a reactionary leadership if the masses are organised into those groupings, but must ensure that no part of the programme is opportunistically discarded or the right to criticise surrendered. Ian mentions the Iranian communist intervention, where the episodic bloc degenerated into all-out murder of the left because of their inability to understand the formations they were dealing with and because they fell into the trap of the popular front. He states that "communists have to find a way to steer between two parallel dangers with regard to these kinds of questions - islamophobic sectarianism, as epitomised by Martyn, and the kind of genuine popular front with the mullahs practised by much of the Iranian left in 1978-79." Ian correctly argues that communists must be the most consistent fighters against the kinds of oppressions which drive sections of the oppressed into supporting the islamists without helping the clergy into power. But he argues incorrectly that the refusal of concrete support for some islamist groupings in their struggles against national oppression would be suicidal sectarianism because they are the surrogate for truly progressive forces such as independent working class organisations. The islamists are forces born of working class defeat, imperialism and thwarted national liberationism - they are the petty Bonapartes that Marx wrote about in the 18th Brumaire, where he specifically warned against the kind of substitutions and locums (later worshipped by orthodox Trotskyists) as traditions of the dead generations weighing like the nightmare on the brains of the living, constantly throwing up old forms and motifs in order to inflict defeats on the working class (K Marx Collected Works Vol11, London 1979, pp103-104). The problem with Ian's and Mark's analysis is that their idea of the united front is flawed. The key to the understanding of the united front is the strategic conception that lies behind the attempt to construct alliances - particularly with reformist parties in which the masses are organised. The tactical application of the united front is subordinated to this strategic conception of the relationship of the balance of forces struggling for the heart and soul of the masses. This policy of constructing united fronts and fighting agreements with reformists is based upon, as Trotsky makes clear, the "incompatibility of the organs of the proletarian democracy and the fascist bands" (L Trotsky, 'The German catastrophe' in Basic writings London 1964, p264). In this sense of the united front the clerico-fascists are not suitable candidates - they are much closer to the "fascist bands" than they are to reformists, let alone the "proletarian democracy". Further, the co-sponsorship of demonstrations with the MAB contradict even the most orthodox Trotskyist's conception of the united front (see The struggle against fascism in Germany London 1971, pp106-108). Firstly, Trotsky makes very clear that even in united front work there must be no common platforms with social democratic reformists, let alone our contemporary clerico-fascists. The Stop the War Coalition has already had speakers and jointly arranged meetings with a range of islamist groupings. Secondly, there must be no common publications, argues Trotsky, of Marxist and reformist. Already the MAB newspaper Inspire is carrying articles by leftists such as John Pilger, while Marxist newspapers are carrying articles and interviews with islamists, in which their reactionary programme is being expressed - a programme totally hostile to the long-term strategic orientation of the working class. The more debate, the better, but the fact that Mark Fischer in last week's Weekly Worker did not challenge Jemal in any effective way displays our current softness to these groups for reasons of political expediency and the abdication of what I understood to be our rejection of common work with theocratic fascists (January 16). Thirdly, the famous slogan of marching separately and striking together has already been breached - the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Revolutionary Democratic Group put forward the idea of a separate contingent, but again for opportunistic reasons this was rejected. Fourthly, Trotsky's rejection of binding one's own hands and the suppression of criticism has itself already been rejected by the biggest group in the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Workers Party. The critical forces, like ourselves (to a rather limited extent, it seems), are absolutely marginal. Finally, Trotsky's conception of the united front was that, in essence, it was a front of working class organisations of one sort or another and specifically a tactical bloc between reformists and revolutionaries. Fundamentally, as Trotsky clearly argues, "the problem of the united front - despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organisations basing themselves on the working class - grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism" (L Trotsky The first five years of the Communist International Vol 2, London 1953, p91). Let us be clear about this - political islam and groups such as the MAB have no conception of any kind of struggle against capitalism. In finance, personnel and politics they are an emanation of some of the worst ruling class regimes of the globe, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Of course, they also articulate the politics of oppositionist movements to a variety of regimes, but they are certainly not anti-capitalist and do not have any commitment, reformist or otherwise, to any part of our programme. They are murdering our comrades who are trying to implement our programme in the most barbaric way. As Trotsky pointed out, the danger of united front work is twofold. On the one hand we have abstract sectarianism and sloganeering unrelated to the concerns of the working class. On the other we have the frantic search for allies at the cost of sacrificing the programme of independent working class politics (L Trotsky The struggle against fascism in Germany London 1975, pp157-158). He reiterates the old idea of fighting against Kornilov without supporting Kerensky. The fact that we are surrendering our responsibility to our comrades in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, accepting as valid the islamists' credentials of supposed anti-imperialism and lining up side by side with people we were calling clerico-fascists a few months back are signs that our programme is being opportunistically bent in order to 'enlighten fresh strata', as Trotsky would have it. It all goes hand in hand with a softness on the SWP, a rapprochement between our respective leaderships at some cost, and a reaffirmation of the bankrupt ortho-Trot line on national-liberationism, substitutionism and the locum. In the absence of a genuine working class alternative in the muslim world we turn to the islamists to take the project forwards. Ian Donovan also does not understand the nature of political religious movements and how Marxists should relate to them. As Lenin correctly noted, "A union in that genuinely revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class to set up a heaven on earth is more important to us than a unity in proletarian opinion about the imaginary paradise in the sky" (Lenin on religion London 1939, p14). Those who are waging what Lenin calls a "genuinely revolutionary economic and political struggle" should not be divided by sectarian calls to abandon their beliefs; nor should we engage in any "adventurist political war against religion" (ibid p17). I am sure all of us would agree that struggle must not be limited or reduced to "abstract-ideological preaching" of the atheist variety but must be a struggle to eliminate the social roots of religion by dealing with the question of oppression. Lenin also notes that the freeing of oneself from religion must happen in a "united, disciplined, planned and conscious manner", learning to fight "against the rule of the capitalist in all its forms" (ibid p20). This is an enduring political struggle against the conditions from which religious thought emerges and is not anti-religion in any vulgar materialist sense. Now Lenin never undertook any kind of systematic analysis of islam in his period and certainly there is a qualitative difference between the kinds of islamic radicalism in Lenin's period and in ours. He did, however, insist that there is a clear difference between the religious ideas, bred of oppression, held by working class people and what he perceived as militant political clericalism. Lenin's ideas on militant clericalism stem from the duma debates of 1905-07 and clearly demarcate between religion as faith and religion as political power. Militant clericalists, and by extension the political islamist supporters of ruling class despotism in the Middle East, are not just people of faith, but, as Lenin says, "advocates of serfdom in surplices" (ibid p28). This advocacy of serfdom is a shift from spiritual and ideological to temporal and political power. It is the organisation of the reactionary clergy into an independent force - a force of the reactionary classes of the ancien régime that we are insistent on overthrowing. Lenin militantly resists these kinds of political religious forces and so should we - pogromists and islamists alike. This political islamism is a world-historical necromancy, a dialectic of radical newness and profound reversion - a shift from the weapon of criticism to that of earthly, political powers - and significantly different in essence from the emanations of the wretched of the earth that Marx philosophically documented (K Marx, 'Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of right' in K Marx Early writings London 1975, p247). Even if sections of the proletariat are politically organised in this movement, the way to enlighten this stratum is not through the sanctification of its politics through the construction of united fronts, but in the clearest possible, political terms - demarcating ourselves from it and its programme. Trotsky in his most clear-sighted moments recognised the betrayal that such united fronts constitute. With chilling and timely accuracy Trotsky, in 1924, recounted the struggle of British imperialism to undermine the progressive left-nationalist government in Kabul, by "attempting to restore to power the darkest and most reactionary elements imbued with the worst prejudices of pan-islamism, the Caliphate and so forth" ('Perspectives and tasks in the east' in L Trotsky Where is Britain going? Vol 3, London 1974, p173). Ironically, the islamic radicalism of the present period is itself born of the same imperialism, the same project to undermine the left-nationalist government in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Islamism is a party of counterrevolutionary despair produced by Zionism and imperialism, and in the same way that the islamists put their own politics into the mouth of the prophet Muhammad, so they adopt the trappings of an (albeit reactionary) anti-imperialism. We are capitulating to their barbaric programme in the very act of uniting with them in a struggle against the war in Iraq and in the fight for an independent Palestinian state because we are explicitly recognising them as fitting partners in a coalition of progressive forces rather than the gravediggers of social liberation. Martyn Hudson