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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Chris Harman: 'The Prophet and the Proletariat'

*) Chris Harman, ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’, 1999, updated in 2002, from the website Reds,


i) Introduction
ii) Religion and Historical Forces
iii) Islamic Revolutionaries against Islamic Fundamentalists
iv) Islamist Revolutionaries: Iran, 1979
v) Revolutionary Islamic Revivalism


The following essay is a response to - and critique of - Chris Harman’s influential essay (in Trotskyist circles), ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’ (1999/updated in 2002).

Harman's own essay can be seen as both a defence - and the beginnings - of the contemporary situation of strong Marxist-Islamist collaboration, both intellectually speaking and in terms of political activism.

Harman’s basic point is that Islam, or at least Islamism, is more revolutionary or radical than Christianity and the other monotheistic religions. He's not, of course, completely sympathetic to Islam or Islamism. That doesn’t matter. Because of the Marxist analysis of religion, which Harman fully endorses, Islam and all religions are seen as merely the epiphenomena (or ‘superstructure’) of the much more important socio-economic material conditions. Thus it's those basic socio-economic conditions which must be changed; through revolution. So it makes little sense to (contemporary) Marxists to criticise Islam when it's seen as merely the causal outcome of given material socio-economic conditions. More specifically in the case of Islam or Islamism, such conditions as class, class conflict and, more importantly, Western, US, or European imperialism.

Chris Harman himself was the prime intellectual of the Socialist Workers Party after the death of its founder, Tony Cliff. He was also a member of the SWP’s Central Committee. He died in November last year (2009), in Cairo.

Historical Forces and Religion

Harman says that "[r]eligious people see [religion] as a historical force in its own right". Harman and Marxists generally don't see religion as ‘" historical force". At least not an historical force "in its own right". "Material conditions" are the real "historical forces". I shall get to that later.

Not even "bourgeois anti-clerics and free thinkers" escape Harman’s general condescension towards all who aren't (true) Marxists (1). They too see religion as a "historical force in its own right". The only difference being is that they're against religion. They're against religion; though for the wrong reasons. They don't truly understand religion, as Harman and other Marxists do. Basically, the main crime of the bourgeois anti-clerics and free thinkers is that they aren't Marxists. They don't have Harman’s take on things. Thus they simply must be mistaken, as every non-Marxist is also mistaken about, well, almost everything.

What Harman is saying is that the bourgeois anti-clerics and free thinkers were fighting religion, but for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. However, traditionally, Marxists too (from Marx to Lenin and after) fought against religion and religious institutions. The something changed in Marxists circles. It basically changed with the increase in size of the Muslim populations of Europe and with the corresponding rise in Islamism in Europe and throughout the world. No longer was it hip to be anti-religious or anti-clerical (as Harman puts it). Instead the Marxists began to embrace the Otherness that is Islam. Not altruistically, as it were; but because Marxist analysis says that it was okay to do so. Indeed Muslims could now be seen as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’, even if only in their own not-quite-right way. (Marxists don't haven't really applied this embracing of religion to any other religion. Certainly not to ‘white’ Christianity or even, say, ‘yellow’ Zen Buddhism.)

The idea is this. Because Islam is only the blind result and consequence of material conditions (which include classes, class conflict, imperialism, exploitation, colonialism, etc.), then it doesn't make much sense for Marxists to be too critical of religion, the religious or even of religious institutions. What Marxists must do is criticise/change the material conditions themselves (or the political forces which speak for, uphold or reflect them). This basically means that religions, religious people and religious institutions had no choice but to appear or exist as they are because these very same material conditions brought them into existence. Thus criticising Islam, or Muslims or Islamic institutions, is getting cause and effect the wrong way around. That is, holding the effect responsible for the cause, rather than the cause responsible for the effect.

Islamist Revolutionaries vs. Islamic Fundamentalists

What Harman really wants to get across is that Islam, not just Islamism, can indeed be revolutionary (of a kind). Islam isn't always what he calls ‘reactionary’. It's this that has had an appeal to Marxists like Harman and many others, at least since the 1970s and certainly more recently (since the early 1990s or even since 9/11).

However, he does pick out the Islamists from the general pack of Muslims. Not all Muslims are revolutionary. Harman still thinks that "Islamic fundamentalism" is better than "Christian fundamentalism". Is that because Harman was brought up in a Christian society and because Christians are often white; whereas he wasn’t brought up in an Islamic society and Muslims are often brown? No. The reason is deeper than that and, of course, political.... Actually it’s not deep at all. This distinction between Islamic and Christian fundamentalism is made in Harman’s essay primarily because the latter "is the bastion of the right wing of the Republican Party in the US". Yes, the whole of Christianity, and indeed Christian revolutionary history, is summed up by a reference to the American Republican Party.

The Muslims, or the Islamists, on the other hand, "appeal to radical currents produced as society is transformed by capitalism". Islamists are radical. That’s always been in good thing to be in Marxist circles.

Let’s not mess about here. Who, exactly, is Harman referring to here? These ‘radicals’:

        i) "Figures like Khomeini…"
        ii) "... the heads of the rival Mujahedin groups in Afghanistan."
        iii) ".... the leaders of the Algerian FIS..."

What a bunch of murderous bastards Harman has chosen! They're all, individually and collectively, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Yet that doesn’t matter to Harman. They're excused of mass murder because they are ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’. You're allowed to kill en masse if you do so for radical or revolutionary reasons or if it's a response to the "transformations [of] capitalism". If you kill for other reasons, in war, for trade, or for other ‘right wing’ reasons, you are a ‘cold killer’ or a ‘capitalist criminal’. Such is the calculus of death according to Marxists like Harman.

Although Harman makes his main distinction between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism, Islam doesn't quite have it all its own way. Harman does make a distinction between "traditionalist Islam" and "Islamism". And the equation is:

                          traditionalist Islam bad/Islamism good

In the Marxist manner, Harman sums up this distinction in typically socio-economic and political terms. Thus:

Traditionalist Islam: "... is an ideology which seeks to perpetuate a social order which is being undermined by the development of capitalism…"
Islamism: "... is an ideology which… seeks to transform society, not to conserve it in the old way."
Yes, it sounds like he is describing Marxism when he describes Islamism. That’s why Harman and other Marxists are friendly towards Islamism and Islamists. It doesn't matter if Islamists "transform society" is an Islamic-kinda-way; as long as they transform society. That’s enough. That’s what the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the Chinese Maoists, the Russian Bolsheviks, did. That’s why Chomsky and many other Trotskyists and communists have praised these genocidal regimes. They may have got things wrong. They may not have been Trotskyist enough. But at least they transformed society. At least they transformed or destroyed capitalism. That’s what really matters. Not the death-count at the end of the revolution. Not the mass of suffering involved in the vast enterprise of revolution or transforming society. Only the transformation of society. Only the transformation of capitalism into something else – anything else!

In addition to all this, Islamism is not ‘fundamentalist’ either. Why is that? Harman quotes Abrahamian, who writes that

"The label 'fundamentalism' implies religious inflexibility, intellectual purity, political traditionalism, even social conservatism and the centrality of scriptural-doctrinal principles. 'Fundamentalism' implies rejection of the modern world."
No. That's a Marxist distinction between fundamentalism and other forms of Islam. Most people, of both left and right, see fundamentalism as a relationship to the Koran, the hadiths, etc. and the life of the prophet. It's a kind of literalism towards the Koran and other canonical Islamic texts. What Harman, or Abrahamian, offers us is a specifically Marxist take on the distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism. Thus he sees it exclusively in terms of things like "social conservatism" and the "rejection of the modern world". But Islamists are also victims of "religious inflexibility [and] intellectual purity". In fact this goes alongside its sometimes ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ intent. Islamists also accept the "centrality of scriptural-doctrinal principles". It’s just that they see these things differently to ‘traditional’ Muslims. Islamists are as fundamentalist as any Muslim; even if they square their fundamentalism with radicalism and revolutionary intent.

Harman is actually saying that Qutb, Maududi, Hamas, Hezbollah and even Osama bin Laden are religiously flexible, intellectually impure and the rejecters of "scriptural-doctrinal principles" - which are the inversions/contradictories of the terms Harman used for the fundamentalists. All these people are still fundamentalists. They're all Islamic literalists. And there's nothing more fundamentalist than Islamic or Koranic literalism.

This is the kind of mistake Islamophiles and even young British Muslims make. That is, when Islamists criticise oppressive Arab or Islamic states, they're not doing so because they aren't revolutionary or radical enough, or because they are not democratic enough. They're criticising them because they're not Islamic enough. They're not literalist enough. They don't have enough sharia law in their countries. Freedom, democracy and a lack of oppression are all besides the point to the Islamists. In fact they're earthly or secular ideals and doctrines. It seems that Harman and other Leftists are making the same mistake. They think that European Islamists are radical and revolutionary in their kind of way. They're not. The Arab states, Saudi Arabia, etc. aren't Islamic enough. Forget democracy and freedom. Thus Marxists see the Islamists as fellow fighters against Arab dictatorships and that they're also "anti-capitalists". However, despite that huge qualification and amendment of Islamist radicality or revolutionary intent, Marxists like Harman would still support the Islamists because, as I said earlier, they want to transform society – transform capitalism and the "international capitalist system". That's enough for the Left, regardless of the consequences; as well as of the Islamic/religious reality and principles which really drive the Islamists.

Islamists Revolutionaries: Iran, 1979

Harman then offers more defences of - or apologies for - Islamism. Specifically in the case of the ‘Iranian revolution’ of 1979.

Harman saw that revolution as a challenge to "imperialism’s political domination" . Except that that is not quite right. Islam never challenges imperialism simpliciter. It challenges infidel imperialism and sometimes, say, Sunni or Shia imperialism (depending on which religious club is supported). Thus Harman seems to forget that Islam had its own imperialist empire for nearly one-and-a-half thousand years (which spread from Arabia, to Africa, to India and the Far East). Was it a capitalist empire? Sort of. But we shouldn’t really care that much. It was an imperialist empire regardless of its attitude to a capitalism which first emerged in Europe in the 16th/17th centuries. None of this really matters to Harman and other Leftists because as long as Islam/Islamism is a threat to Western or American imperialism, that’s all that matters. Thus the communist imperialisms of the 20th century, for example, of the Chinese and the Russians, were not heavily criticised - or criticised at all - by most Marxists. That was the right sort of imperialism. They were non-capitalist imperialisms and imperialisms of ‘liberation’.

Harman gives some rather pathetic examples of Iran’s anti-imperialist actions or gestures. He writes that "the Iranian Islamists did close down the biggest US 'listening' station in Asia and seize control of the US embassy". Yes, they also jailed and killed loads of Leftists and union leaders. That doesn’t matter to Harman because they weren’t Western or American Leftists and union leaders. They couldn't have been genuine Leftists.

(That's why the British Far Left was so hypercritical and obnoxious in its lack of support for the Leftists and union leaders in Iraq who acted and spoke out against Saddam Hussein. Galloway even suggested that they were Uncle Toms. And, of course, the Palestinians, as well as Arafat, supported Saddam in the war and before the war. Indeed many Palestinians and European/US leftists tried to encourage Saddam Hussein to ‘liberate’ Palestine. That is, to go to war with Israel. All this shows us again and again that far leftists will support any nasty regime and any dictator if such regimes and leaders are against ‘Western/American imperialism’. Their standards of right and wrong really are that simple.)

Harman’s support for Iran’s theocratic regime (as well as Edward Said’s – see my ‘Edward Said on Islam as Politics’) shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows even a little about the mindset of Trotskyists. It shouldn't come as a surprise either that Harman also supports Hezbollah and Hamas. And for the very same reasons. That is, no matter how violent and fascistic these Islamist groups are, none of that matters because they're "fighting imperialism" – in this case, ‘American-backed Israeli imperialism’. Harman says that

"Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in the West bank and Gaza have played a key role in the armed struggle against Israel". (4)
They've also "played a key role in the armed struggle against" Israeli civilians. That is, against women and children on buses, in schools, out shopping, etc. (This is because Hamas and Hezbollah don't recognise the civilian status of any Israeli (or Jew), partly because they could become part of the Israeli military but mainly because ‘a Jew is a Jew’.)

So now we have another example of Harman and other Trotskyists supporting anything – this time they support the pure anti-Semitism of Hamas and Hezbollah. But, don’t forget, Harman and the Marxists see Islamic anti-Semitism as a mere epiphenomenon of the material conditions (of class conflict, the economic order, the imperialism, etc.) underneath. Thus it doesn't matter to Harman that Hamas is anti-Semitic, reactionary, sexist, etc. because all these traits are the epiphenomena of the more important socio-economic conditions underneath or below. However, Harman does mind the anti-Semitic, reactionary, sexist, etc traits of, say, American evangelists because, as he says in this essay, they're an arm of the American Republican Party. (What about the Methodists? The Quakers? The Anglicans, etc? Well, for a start, they are all white and all European in nature and heritage. Thus they must be "tools of the capitalist stat"’.)

Harman even has the audacity to praise the Algerian FIS, which was responsible for over a hundred thousand deaths! That doesn’t matter to Harman either. Why? Because "the Algerian FIS did organise huge demonstrations against the US was against Iraq".
Harman displays two despicable positions here. 1) The support for the murderous Islamic FIS. 2) Support for the FIS demonstrations which were themselves in support of Saddam Hussein and against the US. Is there any group that Harman wouldn't have supported - no mater how vile - if that group had "fought against American imperialism"?

Harman’s Marxist logic is simple, though he and other Marxists think that it is sophisticated.

For example, Harman weighs together two different issues:

       i) The "fight against the unveiling of women" (in this case, Algeria).
       ii) The "fight against the Western oil companies" (again, in Algeria).

Now, Harman wouldn't ordinarily have supported the forced veiling of women in Algeria or anywhere else. However! Many of the people who fought against the unveiling of women in Algerian also fought against the Western oil companies in their country. Oil companies are part of the important socio-economic reality. The veiling of women is an unimportant epiphenomenon of such things as the socio-economic reality which, in this case, includes Western oil companies. According to Harman, it's more important to support the Islamists (who're fighting against these Western oil companies) than it is to support the women who don't want to be forced to wear the veil. Thus Harman doesn't support the Algerian women’s fight against the hijab because it will work against the more important fight against Western oil companies or Western imperialism generally.

Harman even has the cheek to fully quote a spokesman for the Islamist FIS and the reasons why they didn't oppress women:

"It is not violence to demand that woman stays at home, in an atmosphere of chastity, reserve and humility and that she only goes out in cases of necessity defined by the legislator."
Again, Harman wouldn't personally have liked the idea of women being forced to "stay at home in an atmosphere of chastity, reserve and humility". However, the individual, Ali Belhadj, and the Islamist group, the FIS, which supports such oppression and discrimination, were also leading the "fight against Western oil companies". Thus we must forget about the plight of women in Algeria and other Muslim countries and fully support the Islamists in their fight against "Western imperialism". Why? Because the oppression of women (that is, forcing them to stay at home, wear the veil, etc.) is but a mere epiphenomenon (or example of ‘superstructure’) above the more important socio-economic and political conditions (such as, in this case, the Western oil companies and the general reality of Western imperialism). By the same token, then, Harman and other Trots would also support cliterodectomy, the stoning of adulterers and women, amputation for stealing and even throwing acid into the faces of Muslims women who don't wear the veil. Indeed many Trots have supported or rationalised such things. Why? Because, again, all these abominations are but mere epiphenomena above the more important socio-economic and political realities (i.e., the Marxist ‘substructure’).

Harman goes on to say more about this Ali Belhadj of the Algerian Islamist group, the FIS, and his political actions. Remember this is the man who believes that Muslim women should be forced to stay at home, wear the veil, etc. All that doesn’t matter because Ali Belhadj also believes in things which sound suspiciously Marxist or even SWPish as well. Thus Harman talks about Ali Belhadj in this way:

"Thus in Algerian in the late 1980s, Belhadj, made himself the voice of all those with nothing to lose… Every Friday Belhadj made war against the entire world, Jews and Christians, Zionists, communists and secularists, liberals and agnostics, governments of the East and the West, Arab or Muslim heads of state, Westernised party leaders and intellectuals…"
Harman broadly agrees with a lot of that. He thinks that Belhadj has chosen most of his enemies wisely. However, he's also made the mistake of not being a Marxist like Harman. That means he didn’t, or couldn’t, see the full reality of what it is he's talking about. He didn’t see the ‘substructure’. All he saw was the epiphenomena or the ‘superstructure’. Harman concludes:

            "Yet beneath this confusion of ideas [of Belhadj’s] there were real class interests at work."

Thus Belhadj could only see the trees (epiphenomena), not the whole wood (‘substructure’). In other words, seeing the trees was half way there. Belhadj had gone some of the way towards being a true Marxist like Harman. Thus Belhadj’s actions and beliefs were also half way to being truly Marxist. And that’s why Harman and other Trots support nasty Islamist reactionaries like this and their nasty political actions.

Revolutionary Islamic Revivalism

Harman also makes a distinction between Islamic ‘traditionalists’ and Islamic ‘revivalists’; just as he made a distinction between ‘Islamists’ and the ‘traditionalists’. In this case, it's not the Islamists who are revolutionary, it's the ‘Islamic revivalists’. Or at least they are partially revolutionary (i.e., ‘partial’ because not Marxist).

‘Islamic revivalism’ certainly sounds traditionalist. However, it's not committed to any tradition: it's committed to a specific tradition that has long since died. That is what distinguishes it from basic Islamic traditionalism, which likes to sustain and bring back traditions which have only just disappeared or which may disappear if things aren't changed. That specific period which the Islamic revivalists want to resurrect is a "return to the practices of the prophet’s time". More specifically, the time and "spirit of Islam as expressed by the first four Caliphs (or, for Shiites, by Ali)".

Apart from this specific and relatively short-lived tradition within Islam, all the other traditions (both in the immediate past and all the way back to the period immediately after the first four Caliphs) are bogus. They weren't "truly Islamic". They weren't faithful to Mohammed, the Koran and the four Caliphs. The revivalists believed that that all these other traditions had "corrupted the original Islamic values" because they had dirtied their hands with the "worldly pursuits of the great medieval empires". It wasn't empire-building in itself, or imperialism in itself, which was corrupt; but the wrong kind of imperialism and empire-building. That's the case because Islamic imperialism and empire-building began with the prophet himself and was well under way immediately after his death.

I mentioned earlier that Marxists believed that there can be good empires and good imperialisms (or at least better ones than the US, British and other Western empires). Harman is hinting at this position again in his account of Islamic history. Harman pinpoints when the Islamic empire, or when Islamic imperialism, went wrong. It went wrong after the

           "material conquest and cultural transformation of Asia and North Africa by capitalist Europe".

Yes, everything was more or less fine and dandy until capitalism and the West got its hands on Islamic states and empires. The Islamic revivalists too, according to Harman, attempted to subvert all these examples of Western-imperialism-against-Islamic-imperialism and go back to the halcyon days before Western and capitalist influence. The revivalists also wanted to go back further than that. As I said, they wanted to go back to the period of the first four Caliphs. So, unlike Harman, the revivalists couldn’t have blamed Western imperialism and capitalism for everything because the death of the last (the 4th) Caliph pre-dates the rise of capitalism in Europe. Indeed, according to Harman’s Khomeini quote, the latter believed that Islam became corrupted immediately after the death of Mohammed, which was roughly 750 years before the rise of European capitalism and certainly long before European imperialism and colonialism.



1) What does Harman mean by ‘bourgeois’, as in "bourgeois anti-clerics and free thinkers"? This means that although most leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, including Harman himself (even if he had "a working class background") are thoroughly middle class and are all professionals of some kind (mainly lecturers, professors, teachers, etc.), they're still not bourgeois. They can't be bourgeois because they're Marxists. However, middle-class people who aren’t Marxists are bourgeois. Harman and other Marxists class some people who are unemployed, or quite poor (compared to most Marxists) as ‘bourgeois’. However, SWP leaders and its supporters who are often quite well-off (whether they're lecturers, professors, etc.) aren't bourgeois because they're Marxists. Very neat and very tidy.

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