The politics of purity

Mike Macnair reviews David I Kertzer's 'Unholy war: the Vatican's role in the rise of modern anti-semitism'; Dan Healey's 'Homosexual desire in revolutionary Russia' and John L Esposito's and Azzam Tamimi's 'Islam and secularism in the Middle East'

Why a single review for these three books? What do the Roman catholic church and the anti-semitic movement of the late 19th and early 20th century (Kertzer), late tsarist and Soviet regulation of homosexual behaviour (Healey) and late 20th and early 21st century political islamism (Esposito and Tamimi) have in common? And why should Weekly Worker readers be interested in them?

The short answer to the first question is this. All three books are concerned with variant forms of the politics of purity, which expresses in an ideological form the gender-class interests of the male petty proprietors (peasants, artisans, small businessmen, small intellectual property owners) both in exploiting the labour of their wives and children and in ensuring protection from competition, and the interests of clerical and state bureaucratic castes.

The answer to the second question is, then, that purity politics is alive and well in today’s political life. The Esposito-Tamimi book is a collection of essays largely defending political islamism in the Middle East - hardly a dead story. But the issue is not just one of the politics of islamic countries. Muslim sexual purity rules, in the form of dress-codes for women as they affect schools, have become controversial in France, Germany and Britain. Christian sexual purity rules, in the form of the question of gay marriage, are expected to play an important role in the coming US presidential election; anti-gay extremists in the House of Lords succeeded in sabotaging the government’s Civil Partnerships Bill, and in France gay marriage has produced a confrontation between the Chirac government and some local mayors. The abortion question - another outgrowth of christian purity politics - has been a running sore in US politics for 30 years, and the anti-abortionists are trying to revive the issue in this country. Prostitution, pornography, sex education, teenage pregnancy, ‘abstinence’ and Aids, ‘faith schools’, drink, drugs ... the list of live political issues taken up by purity campaigners is too long for a full catalogue. But understanding the histories of variants of purity politics can help us grasp their modern dynamics.

Catholic anti-semitism

Kertzer’s book is a critique of the fake history of anti-semitism propagated by the Vatican in recent years. According to this Vatican story, modern political anti-semitism must be sharply distinguished from the ‘christian anti-judaism’ of the middle ages and early modern period. ‘Anti-judaism’ is an error of which “christians have also been guilty”; anti-semitism is “contrary to the constant teachings of the church” (quoted by Kertzer, p4).

The Vatican story’s immediate role is to downplay the role of catholic politics in preparing the way for the holocaust. It is also part of a larger ideological offensive of counter-enlightenment catholic and ‘postmodernist’ thought, beginning in the 1980s, which has claimed successively that the ideas of the enlightenment led to the holocaust and the Soviet Gulag and - since the 1990s - that the ideas of protestantism prepared the holocaust. We will see echoes of these ideas in the islamist writings against secularism collected by Esposito and Tamimi.

Against this fake history Kertzer demonstrates in detail, from the Vatican’s own records and other historical sources, the role of the papacy in supporting and promoting anti-semitism. The papal state maintained an elaborate apparatus of control over Jews, down to its reduction in 1870 to the micro-enclave of Vatican City. This apparatus included confinement to the ghetto, restrictions on Jewish businesses, requirements to wear distinctive clothing, and the abduction of Jewish children to be baptised and brought up as christians. It was backed by the papal inquisition. The immediate reaction of the then pope to the overthrow of the papal state was ... to blame the emancipation of the Jews in the kingdom of Italy. Thereafter, newspapers and organisations sponsored by the papacy played a leading role in promoting anti-semitic myths and ideas: especially the ‘blood libel’, the myth that the Jews sacrificed christian children, and the image of Jews as vampires.

A particularly clear example of anti-semitic argument is provided by an 1893 article by Jesuit Saverio Rondina (Kertzer, p145): the Jewish nation “does not work, but traffics in the property and work of others; it does not produce, but lives and grows fat with the products of the arts and industry of the nations that give it refuge. It is the giant octopus that with its oversized tentacles envelops everything ... It represents the kingdom of capital ... the aristocracy of gold.” The Jew, and especially the emancipated Jew, thus becomes a rhetorical figure at once representing big capital and rendering it alien - and so diverting attention from the real dynamics of the market economy which produce big capital. The nation-state is to be purified from the ‘Jewish cancer’.

It is plain enough from Kertzer’s account why the papacy and the catholic church promoted anti-semitism. The rise of more or less secular capitalist states in the 19th century removed or reduced the power and privilege of the clerisy as an exploiting caste (caste, not class, because the clergy did not, except in exceptional cases, inherit their social position). The actor which overthrew the clerical power was the capitalist state. The clerisy’s aspiration to the restoration of the old order could thus be expressed in the trope, Jew equals capital.

What Kertzer’s account does not give us is any explanation of why the anti-semitic rhetoric expressing the reactionary aspirations of the clerisy acquired mass support. One essential element of an answer was identified by Frederick Engels in The peasant question in France and Germany (1894): “We have no more use for the peasant as a Party member, if he expects us to perpetuate his property in his smallholding, than for the small handicraftsman who would fain be perpetuated as a master. These people belong to the anti-semites. Let them go to the anti-semites and obtain from the latter the promise to salvage their small enterprises” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/peasant-question/ch02.htm). Engels’ point is that the anti-semites’ assertion that the Jew equals capital can express not only the reactionary interests of the clerisy, but also the reactionary interests of small proprietors who imagine that by overthrowing capital an old and ‘natural’ order would return in which their small businesses would be protected from competition from large-scale production.

There was, however, also another element: charity. The protestant reformation and the secularism of the French revolution both directly attacked clerical property. The developing semi-secular states of the 19th century, in contrast, left church assets and funds largely untouched. The resources of these funds enabled the catholic church in the later 19th century to develop well-funded schools, charitable and welfare organisations and, in some countries, catholic trade unions and political parties. Meanwhile, laisser-faire liberalism in the mid- and later 19th century opposed state welfare provision for the poor. Catholic institutions and catholic politics could thus reach well beyond the clerisy and their petty-proprietor cadre to compete with the workers’ movement for mass support among the working poor and unemployed.

In the 1870s the new German imperial state launched the Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) against the influence of the catholic church, especially in education and, through the catholic Centre Party, in politics. Lassallean socialists gave critical support to the ‘secular’ state’s struggle against the church. Marx and Engels were much more cagey, insisting that the workers’ movement must oppose both church-controlled and state-controlled education. Healey’s history of Stalinism and sexuality indicates that they were right: ‘secular’ states can turn out to be as violent purity campaigners as churches.

Stalinist sex police

Homosexual desire in revolutionary Russia is the first full-length treatment in English of the regulation of ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour in the Soviet Union. Its ambition in fact extends further: the first part of the book (chapters one and two) sets the stage for what follows by studying forms of homosexual behaviour in “modernising Russia”: ie, the late tsarist period. Part two (chapters three to seven) studies tsarist law enforcement and the initial movement for reform of the law before the revolution, and the period between 1917 and the recriminalisation of consensual male homosexual relations in 1933-34, and part three (chapters eight to nine) the regulation of homosexuality between recriminalisation and decriminalisation by Yeltsin in 1993.

Part one displays for us Russian variants on the transition in homosexual relations identified for 14th to 15th century Venice by Guido Ruggiero’s The boundaries of Eros (1985) and for 16th to 18th century England by Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in renaissance England (1982), and since then in variant forms for several other countries in a large body of books and articles.

In pre-capitalist societies the immediate reproduction of labour-power (eating, housing, etc) is conducted through the family and to a lesser extent through corporate religious forms (monasteries, etc). As a result, homosexual behaviour certainly exists, but there is no economic space for a homosexual subculture and therefore for the identification of individuals as “homosexuals” (gay men/lesbians). The transition to capitalist urbanisation, through employment opportunities, lodging houses and market food provision, creates economic space for the emergence of sexual subcultures, and, ideologically, deepened individualism. The conflict between emergent subcultures (like ‘molly houses’ in early 18th century England) and purity campaigners (like the Societies for the Reformation of Manners in the same period) produces labelling and self-labelling of subculture participants as members of a distinct social group: ‘mollies’ and other labels in the 18th century, ‘homosexuals’ from the later 19th.

In late 19th and early 20th century Russia, pre-capitalist forms (centred for men on bath-house culture) were interpenetrated with an early development of capitalist forms of subculture. Like early subcultures in the west, spaces for ‘cruising’ (looking for casual sex), and forms of prostitution, were prominent elements of the subculture. Tsarist law prohibited ‘sodomy’ from 1835, but until 1905 policing and prosecution was episodic. However, the defeat of the 1905 revolution was followed by more vigorous ‘morality’ campaigning by lower-level state officials, and convictions doubled, though they fell overwhelmingly on the lower classes and on non-Russians. The result was increased self-identification as homosexual and the beginning of campaigns for reform.

The Bolshevik government in 1922 issued a penal code which did not include the prohibition of consensual same-sex relations, though it (quite properly) retained prohibitions on sexual coercion and sex acts with people who had “not attained sexual maturity”. Healey’s discussion of the textual history of the draft penal codes shows that this was not accidental: the strategic decision went back to the first draft code, produced in 1918 by a Commissariat of Justice still headed by the Left Socialist Revolutionaries before they broke with the government.

However, the language of the 1922 code referred to “the satisfaction of sexual lust in perverted forms” with sexually immature persons (Healey, p123). Thus, like the English decriminalisation of 1967, the 1922 code used continuing and proper prohibitions of the abuse of power to assert also legal rhetorical condemnation of ‘deviant’ forms of sexual behaviour.

Healey’s account shows two elements of the background to this. The first is that the Bolsheviks shared with the German socialists a tension between ‘libertarian’ perspectives on sex and ‘rationalising’ scientistic and state-building ones. In fact, these tensions map very roughly onto Marxism (anti-statist, hence libertarian) and Lassalleanism (pro-statist, pro-family). On this front Lenin’s writings from 1915 to 1921 show him to be clearly a ‘rationaliser’ (Lassallean), not a ‘libertarian’ (Marxist).

The second element is the trial in October 1919 of Bishop Palladii of Zvenigorod for “corruption of a boy and unnatural vice (pederasty)” (pp118-119). The context of this trial was the Bolsheviks’ struggle with the Russian Orthodox Church: Palladii was an associate of Patriarch Tikhon, active in the defence of the assets of the New Jerusalem Monastery against nationalisation. The trial was clearly intended, Healey argues, to smear Tikhon through his associates. There is also a marked resemblance backwards to the governments of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, which used homosexual smears (and passing statutes against buggery in 1533, 1547 and 1563) as part of their attacks on monasteries and catholics. (“Enter Sodomy, dressed as a monk” is a stage direction from a government-sponsored play of the 1560s.) If it can be linked backwards, it also links forwards to Bolshevik uses of ‘sex crimes’ against the church in the 1920s (pp154-58), and against traditional forms of male prostitution in Transcaucasia and Central Asia in the same period, which Great-Russian chauvinism linked to islam (pp97-98, 158-59). In other words, in competing with traditional religious elites for the allegiance of the peasants and other petty proprietors, the Bolsheviks from 1919 on made increasing use of the language of sexual purity to smear their opponents.

Obviously, the ideology used to back this use could not be traditional-religious. Instead it was first scientistic and then directly political. Healey gives us a fascinating account of the competing ‘scientific’ empire-builders working within the Soviet state, penal and medical establishments through the 1920s: at first there was an attempt to medicalise homosexuality; then the influence of the struggle against ‘backward’ ‘pederasty’ - ie, against the church and non-Russian cultural practices - increasingly painted ‘the homosexual’ as politically disloyal.

The shift accelerated with the Russian and German communists’ use of Ernst Rohm’s homosexuality to smear the Nazis. By 1933 Yagoda of the GPU secret police complained that in Moscow and Leningrad homosexuals had been “establishing networks of salons, centres, dens, groups and other organised formations of pederasts, with the eventual transformation of these organisations into outright espionage cells”. He proposed a draft law prohibiting consensual ‘sodomy’, which was eventually adopted in a revised form in 1934 (pp185-86). The old non-party socialist writer, Maxim Gorky, wrote an article defending the decision. Gorky, Healey comments, “deployed the myth of elemental Russia’s purity to set up a familiar contrast with an over-civilised west”. The homosexual thus becomes, like the Jew, a rhetorical figure of alien impurity. Gorky concludes, bizarrely: “Destroy the homosexuals - fascism will disappear” (pp189-90).

This Stalinist pattern in which ideas of sexual purity are associated with national regeneration had predecessors, as we have already seen, in the England of the 16th and 17th to 18th centuries. As Healey points out in his conclusion, it has been followed not only by other Stalinist regimes but also by numerous state-building nationalists in the neo-colonial third world, as in the sodomy trials of Canaan Banana in Zimbabwe and Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia. It can be added that the McCarthy era in the United States saw the same combination of ideologies of the homosexual as a medical problem and as disloyal to the nation: this time, instead of being fascist infiltrators, they were communists ...

Islamist anti-secularism

Islam and secularism in the Middle East is a collection of essays which claims, according to its blurb, to “contribute to the debate” in which “western-inspired secularism ... is increasingly cited by islamist intellectuals as the source of the region’s social dislocation and political instability”. There are 11 essays in total. Three, the least interesting, are by non-muslim academics: John L Esposito, John Keane and Peter L Berger offer descriptive essays which represent mainstream academic sociologists and political scientists trying in an impressionistic way to approach the (alleged) “failure of secularism”. The remainder are by muslim academics, journalists and political activists from Britain, Egypt, Pakistan. Tunisia, Palestine and Turkey.

It should be emphasised that these essays are not attempts to derive political models or lines directly from the Koran and the sharia. For that one needs to look elsewhere. Rather, they are islamist critiques of secularism addressed to ‘western’ or ‘westernised’ audiences. They draw significantly on postmodernist critiques of liberalism and on Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), and in some ways markedly resemble catholic and other religious-conservative uses of postmodernism to criticise liberalism. To discuss the individual essays in detail would be tedious; but there are some recurring themes which are worth examining.

Falsifying history

The first is that, like catholics who argue that the enlightenment led to the holocaust, the islamists habitually falsify history. At one level this is present in the recurring claim of the essays that the separation of church and state is actually a christian idea. In the first place this ignores the fact that both Confucian and pre-colonial Indian thought give tasks to the state which are radically separate from religion. In the second place it falsifies the nature of the medieval doctrine of the ‘two swords’ (canon law and royal law). This doctrine in no way involved medieval christian thinkers giving up the claim that religion and canon law was, like sharia in islam, the only source of legitimacy. On the contrary, like the doctrines of both sunni and shia thought of the period about the believer’s duties under unjust rule, it was a means by which the christian clerisy accommodated itself to the actual political relation of forces. Muslims had to put up with a ‘corrupted’ caliphate and various forms of sultanate and emirate: christians had to put up with semi-secular and usually unjust kingship.

Conversely, the essays repeatedly claim that the muslim ulama is not a clerical caste, because its claim to authority is grounded merely on learning. But this is equally true of the protestant clergy - and, at the end of the day, of the catholic clergy. The difference is merely in the mechanisms by which one comes to be identified as an alim or as a priest. Outside shi’ism, the ulama do not have a direct claim to tax, unlike tithe in medieval christendom. But they subsist on waqf (trusts) and other charitable donations which are provided because the religion claims that there is a duty of charitable giving. These are directly parallel to the charitable foundations of medieval christendom. They are as much an exploiting caste as priests.

Colonialism and secularism

At a level closer to practical politics, the islamists claim that secularism was imposed on the Middle East by the colonial powers. It is, however, pretty clear in the first place that British colonialism actually promoted pseudo-traditional ‘islamic’ forms of government: it was Britain that gave the world the Hashemite kingdoms in Iraq and Jordan, the Saudi kingdom and its peripheral emirates, and the regime of Reza Shah in Iran; it was Britain that funded armed resistance to the modernising policies of King Amanullah in Afghanistan; it was Britain that fostered the peculiar confederation of Sultanates in Malaya and promoted religious-ethnic communalism in that country between muslims, hindus, animists, Chinese, etc, as a means of defeating the Malayan Communist Party and carrying out a ‘cold decolonisation’.

Secondly and on the other hand, the attraction of later nationalists to secularist politics emerged from the Turkish revolution led by Mustapha Kemal Atatürk. But Atatürk merely carried further into a full-blown secularism policies already developed by the Young Turks and, before them, the later Ottoman empire. Where did these policies come from? The answer is that after the European military revolution of the 17th century the Ottomans suffered a series of military defeats at European hands. The more far-sighted members of the regime drew an accurate balance sheet of these defeats. This had two elements. First, the traditional self-identification of Ottoman armed forces as mujahedin fostered levels of individual indiscipline which made their armed forces ineffective against the more coherent and disciplined European armies and navies. Second, the creation of military forces capable of defeating the Europeans was blocked by the repeated opposition of the ulama both to technical education and to legal changes, which would allow the development of national arms manufacture and transportation and logistical development.

Atatürk’s response was to crush the political pretensions of the ulama and of military jihadism under the banner of secularism. In the result he created what is still in many respects the most powerful state in the muslim world, capable of inflicting direct military defeat on the Anglo-French imperialists and their Greek allies in the Turkish war of independence (1919-22) and an unambiguous defeat on its fellow Nato member, Greece, in 1974 - incidentally leading to the overthrow of the US’s favoured military regime in that country. This is not to prettify Atatürk or the Turkish state regime. It is to recognise that secularism appeared after the 1920s as an option which would strengthen the ability to resist the colonisers.

Crime, family, sex

A third element of historical falsification is critical to the islamists’ broader appeal. This is the claim that secularism leads to ‘social breakdown’, to the breakdown of the family and morality, and consequently to crime and disorder. This is a familiar conservative christian counter-enlightenment argument which has been around in England since the late 17th century and was most recently repeated in Tony Blair’s July 19 attack on “the 60s consensus”. Supporters of nostalgia for past Edens of social order and freedom from crime never bother to offer real evidence that the situation has actually got worse. In fact, the historical evidence suggests that both ‘crime’ and human sexual behaviour and the use of intoxicants are singularly resistant to moralising state control, and that there is no evidence of an exceptional modern deterioration. Blair, indeed, launches his new ‘five-year plan for crime control’ by rejecting the ‘liberal consensus’ under conditions where recorded crime has been declining over the last 10 years.

The islamists are exceptionally vulnerable on this front, since the ‘rightly-guided Caliphs’ of the 1st century of islam, to whom islamists look back as exemplars of the true religious social order, presided over a campaign of Arab conquest of neighbouring peoples involving organised armed robbery and rape on a very large scale, sanctified as ‘jihad’. If ‘islamic civilisation’ is to be taken in a broader sense as including the experience of pre-colonial muslim countries, the historical evidence indicates that, like pre-modern European states and their laws, neither state or ulama had effective capacity to enforce the prescriptions of sharia; and crime, ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour, drug use, etc were as commonplace in the cities as in those of medieval christendom.

The complaint about ‘social breakdown’ which is common to islamists and other counter-enlightenment conservatives has an underlying element. It is the ‘breakdown of the family’ that is said to be to blame for what is wrong with society. We thus confront ... another purity politics. Islamism, like catholic anti-semitism which it in many ways resembles, appeals to the restoration of an imagined old order. It is similarly produced in the interests of a clerical caste, the ulama, which has been deprived of power by modern capitalist states. It is similarly socially based in part on the exasperated petty (male) proprietors threatened by competition and by the emancipation, by capitalist urbanisation, of women and youth; and in part on the ability of the ulama to deploy charitable resources to provide for the poor social services which states have failed to provide.

Secular-statist tyranny

And yet there is another side of the coin, brought out in all the essays in Islam and secularism in the Middle East. This is the practically tyrannical character of the capitalist (Turkey) and neo-colonial capitalist (other Middle Eastern) secularist states. These states - as in the case of Stalinism documented by Healey - have been as prone as the islamists themselves to forms of purity politics. The islamists explain this character by the secularism of these states; in most of these essays with an overlay either of ‘the states are tyrannical because secularism is foreign to muslims’ or ‘the states are tyrannical because enlightenment ideas lead to tyranny’. But how are they to explain the tyrannical character of the Iranian Islamic Republic, which has the shia ulama at its core, or of the Saudi monarchy, which has always been based on an edgy alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi ulama?

The underlying reality is that secularist statist nationalism was not a direct inheritor of enlightenment secular republicanism. What it endeavoured to do was to respond to the global domination of capital. In the Middle East, this global domination was in the period before the fall of British world hegemony expressed in the form of British, French, Spanish and Italian colonial rule. The nationalists, like the Stalinists and influenced by them, sought a form of ‘national purity’ politics as an alternative to global capital in the form of colonialism. The result was a variety of forms of dictatorial regimes.

During the first period of the US world hegemony (late 1940s to early 1970s) this approach could, like Stalinism, deliver real improvements to the conditions of life of broad masses. Economic development brought with it a growth of the proletariat. As a result, in spite of the tyrannical character of the regimes, opposition was weak and islamists remained marginal.

A complex shift in US strategy around the mid-1970s weakened the economic position of the nationalist (and Stalinist) regimes, undermining their political legitimacy. In the case of the colonial nationalist regimes, it produced mass unemployment and deproletarianisation. It also, in the Middle East, delivered large amounts of oil money to the Saudis and the Gulf emirates. The Saudis and Gulf states in turn recycled substantial parts of it in ‘charity’ which supported a growth of islamist organisation in muslim countries - just as the catholic ‘charitable’ funds had supported catholic-political and anti-semite organisation in late 19th century Europe. From the middle 1970s US imperialism did not support secularist regimes. It supported, indirectly, islamist opposition movements to them. In Afghanistan from the 1978 revolution this policy became transparent.

This history indicates that political islamism is, in fact, not an alternative to the domination of imperialist capital. It is merely another face of that domination. However, it also indicates that statist nationalism is also no alternative to the domination of imperialist capital. It remains tyrannical; and its limited ‘gains’ have been all too easily undone by shifts in imperialist strategy. The extreme case, of course, is the fall of the Soviet Union. After this statist nationalist projects should be seen for the stupidity they are.

Purity and tyranny

Purity politics is reactionary-utopian. It sets out to make the capitalist omelette back into eggs, or to restore the virginity of the nation ravished by enlightenment ideas. It this context, clericalist versions and statist versions of purity politics mirror one another with different formal ideologies. Set fully free, as in Cambodia under Pol Pot or Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, purity politics produces human catastrophe. At best, as in Iran and as in the Stalinist and nationalist regimes, it produces tyranny. These are inherent consequences of the underlying nature of the interests of the clerisy and state bureaucrats as castes and of the petty proprietors as a class.

It is tempting to suppose that capitalist class rule is preferable to these consequences. This is the line of approach which has been taken by ‘left’ supporters of the USA’s ‘war on terror’. It has a certain Marxist basis in the arguments of Marx and Engels in the 1840s for the workers’ movement to act as the left wing of the democratic revolution led by the bourgeoisie.

The trouble is that the capitalist class is more frightened of the working class than it is of the reactionary-utopians. This was dramatised on the largest possible scale in Europe in 1933-45. It is visible in the role of reactionary-utopian religious politics in today’s USA and in the US’s indirect support for islamists in the Middle East from the 1970s. It should be made absolutely obvious by the role of the imperialists in Afghanistan and Iraq: far from promoting political democracy, these interventions have promoted communalism, reactionary-utopian politics and warlordism. Supporting the capitalists thus does not represent an alternative to reactionary-utopian purity politics, but only another route to more of the same.

At the end of the day the only real basis for liberty and democracy, as opposed to purity-politics tyranny, is the class movement - and ultimately the class rule over both state and petty proprietors - of the working class. The policy of Marx and Engels in the Kulturkampf - no support for the clerisy, but also no support for the state’s fake secular campaign - should provide a guiding thread. The problem is not to choose between clericalist Tweedledum and statist (or imperialist) Tweedledee. It is to build the independent movement of the working class and formulate policy based on the interests of the working class as a class: ie, the interests of class unity, including women and young workers, the employees of small businesses, and so on.

It is only in this context that the question of drawing (some) petty proprietors into an alliance with the working class can be posed without abandoning the objectives of the working class. As Engels commented in The peasant question, “Of course a workers’ party has to fight, in the first place on behalf of the wage-workers - that is, for the male and female servantry and the day labourers. It is unquestionably forbidden [for socialists] to make any promises to the peasants which include the continuance of the wage slavery of the workers.”

It must be equally impermissible to promise to the small proprietors their right to exploit their wives and children or support for the purity rules which are the ideological expression of this right.