Friday, August 24, 2012

Islamophobia, the left and the Arab Spring

Islamophobia, the left and the Arab Spring

 Written for the Irish Anti-War Movement Newsletter

One of the strengths of the Irish Anti-War Movement (and, it should be said, of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain) is the clear stand it has taken against Islamophobia, as both a condition and a consequence of its alliance with anti- war elements in the muslim mobilising against the Iraq War and the ‘War on Terror’.

This is important because Islamophobia has become the main, or one of the main, forms of racism (along with Anti-Gipsy racism in Eastern Europe) in contemporary Europe.

Historically racism has passed through several phases each building on but also modifying the previous phase: 1) anti-black racism that arose out of and justified the slave trade in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; 2) the racism of imperialism (including anti- Irish racism, at its height in the late 19th and early 20th century; 3) anti – immigrant racism, especially in the second half of the 20th century. The first emphasised the sub-human and savage nature of black people so as to exclude them from the ‘rights of man’ being fought for by the European bourgeoisie at this time. The second shifted the emphasis to “childlike” and “immature” character   of non- European peoples  to justify their being taken under the wing of their colonial masters. The third focussed less on biological inferiority and more on cultural difference, making the economically required presence of immigrants in Europe into a “problem”.

            Numerous historic struggles, ranging from the slave revolts, the American civil war , the great Asian And African anti-colonial struggles, the civil rights and black power movement in the sixties, the anti-apartheid struggle and many others, combined with the horrific counter example of the Holocaust, to undermine and delegitimize these forms of racism. Islamophobia was developed to fill this gap and meet the needs of imperialism, especially US imperialism after the collapse of “communism”. Some analyses of Islamophobia see it as a rising, as an accompaniment to the “war on terror” but, while that undoubtedly intensified it, its origin came earlier, particularly in response to the Iranian revolution of 1979, and indeed prepared the ground for the “war on terror”.

            An obvious objection to this line of argument is that hostilities between “the West” and Islam, date back at to the crusades and that Islamophobia is not about race but religion.

            In fact it’s a standard ideological device to present current conflicts as “age-old” if not eternal. In the event of a serious dispute between Britain and France David Cameron and the Murdoch press would doubtless invoke the spirit of Henry V at Agincourt and probably Nelson and Wellington as well. This would not change the fact that the real nature of the dispute would be clash of current national, i.e. ruling class, interests over EU policy or such like. The nature of history is such that historical precedents are available for virtually any contemporary conflict (with America, the War of Independence; with Norway the Vikings; with China, the Mongol Hordes or the opium wars, and so on). As for Islamophobia being about religion the ideological character of racism is determined not by its target but by its social and political function – the Irish are not a “race” but a nation, Jews are neither a race nor a nation, nor for that matter are “blacks” or “negroes”. Indeed races in general do not exist other than as historical constructs. A “they” to whom all sorts of characteristics can be easily attributed – religious fanaticism, backwardness towards women, homophobia and above all a propensity to terrorism.

            In relation to the last matter, it is worth noting that since the emergence of the concept of “terrorism” in the 19th century, anti-state terrorism has been practised by, amongst many others, Russian Narodniks, French anarchists, the American Weathermen,
the Basque ETA, the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the British Angry Brigade, the South African ANC, Israeli Zionists and, of course, the Irish Republican Army. In every case the cause was political, not religious.

            In view of all this it was to be hoped that what became known as the Arab Spring – the series of revolutions and revolts that began with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in early 2011 would work to undermine Islamophobia by changing the frame of reference within which Arab and Muslim people were perceived. And to a considerable extent this has indeed proved to be the case; witness the way in which Tahrir Square became an international symbol of revolt from Barcelona and Madrid to Wisconsin and Wall Street. However it is also clear that as well as being shaken by the Arab Spring, Islamophobia has also proved strong enough not only to survive it but also significantly to shape its perception and reception.

            Even during the 18 days of mass struggle that brought down Mubarak it was quite common to hear in the media, and indeed on the left, that “nothing much would come of it” with the subtext “because these people are all Arabs and Muslims”, and/or that it was all destined to end in Islamic fundamentalism, with the subtext that maybe it was better to stick with a “secular” dictator, a sentiment which gained ground when the “secular” dictator in question (Gaddaffi, Assad) could lay claim to some minimal ant-imperialist credentials.
            There is indeed strong historical support for the view that revolutions are likely to fail – the 1848 revolutions failed, the Paris Commune failed, the Russian Revolution ended in Stalinism, the Italian revolution of the “two red years” ended with Mussolini, the German revolution of 1919 -1923 ultimately ushered in Hitler, Spain 1936 was crushed by Franco, May 68 ended in the victory of de Gaulle, Chile 1970-1973 in Pinochets coup, the Portugese revolution of 1974-75 produced no more than run-of-the-mill bourgeois democracy, and so on and so on.

            But what the very length of this list shows is that winning a revolution – actually overthrowing capitalism – is a very difficult business indeed and the fact that the road to revolutionary victory in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria etc. has proved a very rocky one is by no means primarily attributable to these being Muslim countries.

            Yet my experience has been that, often, in debating the prospects of the Egyptian revolution, people have said “remember what happened in Iran”. Why Iran? Why not Germany in 1923 (there are actually some close parallels), or May 68 or Portugal 74. The answer, of course, is that Iran is another very high-profile Muslim country. In reality the parallels between Egypt and Iran are not that close: president Mursi is very different from Ayatollah Khomeini, Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood is very different from Khomeini’s movement, Egypt is an Arabic country, Iran is not; Egypt is mainly Sunni, Iran mainly Shia; the working class is stronger in Egypt etc.
            Does one ever hear people on the left saying “I don’t think much will come of this Venezuelan revolution – they are all Catholic, and remember how the Irish revolution ended up with De Valera? “ or “What a scandal - socialists vote for pope-loving Chavez!”

[See ‘Chavez welcomes Pope to Cuba] And of course I am not saying that Chavez is ‘the same’ as the Muslim Brotherhood, merely that religion is made much more of an issue, when the religion concerned is Islam.

My main point is simply this: that in virtually every mass revolutionary struggle in history the majority of the people involved, especially at the start of the process, were religious in some way or other. Moreover this likely to be the case in the future everywhere except in the most secularised western European countries; revolutions have to be made with and by people as they are, not as we would like them to be. The idea of a ‘stages theory’ in which first everyone becomes a secular atheist and then they make the revolution is a nonsense; revolutions and history do not work like that. And the only reason for understanding this in relation to countries where most people are Christian eg Brazil or the UK (or Russia in 1917) and not countries where most people are Muslim is the idea that Islam is this peculiarly backward, reactionary, terrorist or fascist inclined  religion ie Islamophobia.

John Molyneux

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Europe's new radical left

Europe’s new radical left
 First published in Irish Socialist Worker

One of the most important political developments of recent months has been the rapid emergence of the radical left as a significant force in several European countries.

Leading the field, of course, has been Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, in Greece. Syriza’s rise has been meteoric. In the elections of October 2009 Syriza gained 4.6% of the vote and returned 13 MPs (which shortly fell to 9 due to a split). In the election of May 6 this year its vote rose to 16.8%, finishing second to the right wing New Democracy and winning 52 seats.

From the moment it appeared as a credible contender for power Syriza took a further leap forward in the polls, surging to 31,5% on 1 June, an astonishing 6 points ahead of New Democracy. They fell back a bit from this in the actual June elections, under the pressure of intense media scaremongering, and were narrowly defeated but still gained a massive 26.9% and 71 seats. This was the best result for the radical left anywhere in Europe for a generation or more.

Syriza’s success followed on the heels Jean –Luc Melenchon’s performance in the French presidential election in April. Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, polled 11.1% and came fourth (behind Hollande, Sarkozy, and the fascist Le Pen), which was less than hoped for, but by all accounts he ran an outstanding campaign. Melenchon denounced the bosses, the system and Le Pen in fiery language and mobilized huge rallies: 100,000 at the Bastille, 70,000 in Toulouse and 100,000 in Marseille.

But if Syriza and Front de Gauche are the headline news the picture is not confined to Greece and France. In the Netherlands an opinion poll early in the year showed the left wing Socialist Party (well to the left of Labour) as the most popular party in the country and potentially more than doubling its seats. While in Denmark at the end of June the Red Green Alliance reached new heights in opinion polls with 12-14%. at the same time as the Social Democrats reached a historic low of 16-17%.

And even in Britain, where the non-proportional electoral system makes it far more difficult for new parties to get a foothold, George Galloway of Respect, standing on a radical left anti-war, anti-austerity platform, won a stunning victory in the Bradford West
By-election, polling 55.9% and beating Labour by more than 10,000, with the Tories out of sight.

Moreover, in making these advances these new left forces are joining the United Left Left Alliance in Ireland, who made their breakthrough in early 2011, and the longer established, Die Linke or Left Party in Germany, though they have slipped back a little recently.

There is no mystery about the cause of this development. As a result of the global economic crisis and the austerity policies pursued by our rulers to make working people pay for the crisis there is a huge international wave of anger, resistance, and revolt and election results, at least partially, reflect this. There is also a political polarization taking place with the pro-austerity ‘centre’ losing ground: the predominant trend is leftwards but significant and menacing gains are also being made on racist and fascist right – Le Pen and the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Jobbik Party in Hungary and so on.

The Politics of the Radical Left

Each of the parties of the radical left has its own particular history but there tend to be some common features. They are mostly coalitions of pre-existing left groups and parties. The largest component in many of them are former Communist Parties but they are moderate, so-called ‘Euro communist’ CPs who long ago cut their ties to Russia. Thus the dominant element in Syriza is the former eurocommunist Synaspismos led by Alex Tsipras. Another element tends to be left splits from the old Social Democrats, such as Melenchon and the Left Party in France and Oscar Lafontaine in Germany.
The absence of a left split from the Labour Party (apart from Galloway as an individual) is the key reason there is no such radical left force in Britain.

However the main feature of all the new left parties or coalitions is that their politics are left reformist. Both words are important here. The ‘left’ marks them as significantly different from the right or ‘moderate’ reformists of the mainstream Labour and social democratic parties – PASOK in Greece, the French Socialist Party, British and Irish Labour etc.

Whereas these parties have given up any idea of seriously challenging capitalism and accepted neo- liberalism (the rule of the free market), aspiring – at most – to protect working people from some of the worst effects of the crisis, and in practice not even delivering this, the radical left presents itself as offering a real alternative to capitalism and its cuts.

Reformist signifies that they aim to achieve this alternative by step by step legislative reforms using the existing political system ie by winning a majority in parliament and taking control of the existing state apparatus (police, army, civil service etc).

It is important to understand that this left reformist stance corresponds to the mood of millions of working people across Europe. They are bitterly disillusioned with the existing system which is offering them only an endless diet of crisis, cutbacks and corruption. They yearn for policies that would genuinely put people before profit.

At the same time the majority of them do not yet feel strong enough, even in Greece, to take over the running of production and society themselves – which is what revolution as opposed to reform would involve.

Where we stand

Socialist Worker warmly welcomes the rise of the radical left because it is an expression of the deep radicalization that is taking place among the mass of ordinary people internationally – and we must remember this process is not at all confined to Europe.

However we are revolutionaries not reformists. This is not because we prefer revolution to reform – on the contrary we welcome and support every reform that benefits working people – but we because do not believe that capitalism can be transformed by means of reform.

This argument has two main elements to it. First, we do not believe the present crisis of the system, which is a very deep crisis, can be solved by reforms. Consequently any reforms won - increased wages, reversal of cuts, improvements in benefits, fairer taxes  - will continue to be threatened by a capitalist system that operates, and can only operate, on  the basis of the pursuit of profit. A parliamentary majority does not give control over the real centres of wealth and power in the banks and boardrooms of the corporations.

Second, the existing institutions of the state – including parliament – are centres of privilege tied by a thousand threads to the rich and powerful and by their nature do not serve the interests of working people. They have to be swept away and replaced by much more democratic institutions created and controlled from below. This is what a revolution means and why revolution is necessary.

At present only a minority, although a growing minority, accept this revolutionary argument even though they desperately want change. Therefore revolutionary socialists have to support the radical lefts against the old social democrats and the right and struggle alongside their supporters in campaigns and united fronts – in Ireland this means building People before Profit as part of the United Left Alliance – so as to put the reformist perspective to the test in practice.

At the same time we need to continue the patient work of building a revolutionary party and movement because that is what will be needed in the end.

John Molyneux

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Marxism and Political Islam

Talk on 'The Prophet and the Proletariat: Marxism and Political Islam' by John Molyneux and Sameh Naguib at Marxism 2011 in London.  In view of the many debates taking place about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt revisiting this meeting may be useful.

Click play to hear, or follow the link to play in youtube.