Islam and modernism VIII – the confused attitude of the left

By Mohammad Reza Shalguni

The Marxist left must settle accounts with the traditions it has inherited. The normally conservative role played by religion, especially in the process of modernisation placed the left movement and religion in permanent conflict over modernism. This antagonism was more acute in peripheral capitalist countries, including those with a majority Muslim population, where modernism was often shaped by outside pressure and from above. In “Islamic countries” a further element was added, the issue of kufr (unblief).

Since it began life as a powerful political movement at the end of the nineteenth century, the left (Marxist) movement has been a vigorous defender of modernism. Even when opposing bourgeois modernism, the left never meant to oppose modernism per se nor ignore its progressive role. Indeed, whenever the left saw bourgeois modernity under assault by pre-modern forces, it openly came to its defense [1]1. Goran Therborn has called the Marxist movement “Her Modern Majesty’s Opposition”. Dialectics of Modernity, New Left review 215, often one-sidedly.

Religions on the other hand, especially the traditional and dominant, normally play a conservative role in social life in general, and in the process of modernisation specifically. It is therefore natural that the left movement and religion, even if they had no other conflict (which they did) at the very least, would be permanently in conflict over modernism.

This antagonism was more acute in peripheral capitalist countries, including those with a majority Muslim population, where modernism was often shaped by outside pressure and from above. A more active and aggressive modernism made up for the weakness of the social base for modernity there. That meant that ideas, programming and deliberate moves play a much more significant role in setting modernism rolling in such conditions[2]2. If is interesting to know that Perry Anderson says that “modernism” and post-modernism first appeared as a expression and idea for the first time in Latin America, and not in Europe and N America ie not the centre of the modern cultural system, but its periphery. The first in 1890 as a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain, and the second in the 1930’s to distinguish a conservative tendency within literary modernism, and in defence of an audacious wave of modernism which they named “ultra-modernism”. Perry Anderson: The Origins of Postmodernity, London, 1998..

In “Islamic countries” a further element is added. For the mass of Muslims there modern culture is not only an imported feature, but one imported from the “world of unbelief” (kofr). They have no co-religiosity with Europeans, unlike, say, the majority of Latin Americans. This creates numerous cultural problems and has placed major obstacles on the absorption of modern culture in these societies. Moreover, no other non-European non-Christian peoples have such a long history of conflict and rivalry with Christian Europe. This past weighs heavily on the historic memory of Muslims, the main guardian of which in the modern world is the religious establishment. [3]3. I have discussed the effects of not being a co-religionist in moghabeleh ba eslam garai’: yek azmune bozorg[confronting Islamism: a great challenge] Part 4, Rahe Kargar [Farsi] no 128 July 1995. It is important to reiterate that this non co-religiousity is a conjunctural factor and has nothing to do with the “essence” of Islam.


The sum of these elements have driven the left and religion in “Islamic countries”, into greater conflict than many other peripheral countries. The slippery path the left was pushed unto was never going to be easy to walk on. The left had to simultaneously face several foes: state despotism – which in these countries was usually a permanent, and on occasion paralysing feature. Then there was the bullying of imperialist powers, who also happened to be the exporters of modern culture. And finally there was religious obscurantism. Any softening in one or other front rapidly unbalanced the left.

Yet whenever it softened its stance against religious obscurantism – which in these countries is usually led by the wounded, and thereby politically activated, section of the ulama – it frequently faced a crisis of identity. It denied itself a role as a progressive movement. However, whenever the left failed to draw lines, and where necessary confront, the modernism imposed from above or from outside the country, it lost the prospect of discourse with the masses and faced political sterility.

Meanwhile the enemies of the left on all three fronts had on the whole a common interest and agenda against the “danger” of socialism and the spread of class struggle. They had no difficulty in entering an active tactical alliance.

Yet although religion has always been one of the main obstacles to the left digging deep roots among the masses in these countries, the left has been singularly unable to come to a coherent view on religion or to pursue a clear policy without contradictions towards it. It wavered continuously between materialist fundamentalism and political expediency. At one extreme pole, materialism and atheism are seen as vital elements for the struggle for socialism. The role and importance of materialism in any conscious class struggle is stressed such that it would appear that without the securing a materialistic ideology (weltanschaung) at the very least among the organised working class, not only socialism, but even the establishment of a worker’s state is unattainable.

The other pole is when or where, for whatever reason, the left slips into “pragmatism”, and relegates the struggle for socialism to a mere scenic decoration. Here “respect for the religious belief of the majority of the people” is the excuse for political expediency. The struggle against religious superstition and many of the common beliefs in society is thought to be untimely.

Yet these two extreme poles, despite their obvious differences, share a common core. Both believe that socialism cannot be established without the victory of the materialistic ideology among the working class and naturally see any form of religion as being incompatible with a socialist society.

The problem the left has in “Islamic countries”, highlighted above, does not arise from their particular view on Islam per-se, but is chiefly rooted in the ideological confusion of the left as a whole (Marxism inspired by Bolshevism) towards religion[4]4. My reference to “Marxism inspired by Bolshevism” is not confined to “Marxism-Leninism”, that is Marxism inspired by the Stalinist tradition. It incorporates some of the currents opposed to the Stalinist tradition also suffer from the confused-thinking created during the ORUJ of Bolshevism, and at least in theory, did not have a clear border with the various Stalinist currents.. As in so many other fields the left movement in these countries has unfortunately been unable to come to come to a coherent view on religion. Particularly over religion it has been merely content to regurgitate the general theorisations that had been shaped by Russian Marxism. Yet nowhere in the tradition of Russian Marxism or in Marxism in general is there any reference to the particular stress on the particularity of Islam or especially its incompatibility with modernism.

Marx and Engels

Of course Marx and Engels alluded in a limited and en passant way to Islam in their writings which incidentally show a Euro-centric preconception. But these allusions have little relation to the Marxist theoretical system, nor taken seriously in the tradition of Marxist thought. They are marginal utterances, and evidently, without the necessary investigation or information.

See for instance Engels’ letter to Marx (May 26 1853) which while summarising a book on the geography of Arabia, explains the appearance and spread of Islam by the periodic invasions of “Bedouin tribes”. Marx in reply brings up a number of points including “And as to religion, the question resolves itself into the general and therefore easily answered one: Why does the history of the East appear as a history of religions?” And answers this by refering to the accounts of the French physician and traveller, Francois Bernier (physician to Aurang-Zeib the Great Mogul ruler of India for nine years in the 17th Century). “Bernier rightly regards the fact that there is no private property in land as the basis of all phenomena in the East, he refers to Turkey, Persia and Hindustan. This is the real key, even to the Oriental heaven …”.[5]5. Marx and Engels: Selected Correspondence. Progress publications Moscow 1975 p 73-6. The emphases are in the origin. Later Engels at the end of his life repeated these points in the footnotes to an article on “the history of early Christianity”. This time, apparently under the influence of the views of Ibn Khaldun, with a more direct allusion introduces Islam as “a religion adapted to [the conditions] of Orientals” and – unlike Christianity in the Middle Ages in Europe – something more than an ideological “flag and mask” [6]6. See M&E on Religion. Progress publication 1981 p276. I have quoted Engel’s complete footnote in Part one of these series..

There can be little doubt that these and other statements by Marx and Engels are sufficiently vague and marginal to leave no important imprint on the Marxist movement. One and a half centuries later it is clear that ignoring these remarks was no accident. They were not only at odds with the historic materialism of Marx, but were based on random, and superficial, studies.

Let us take, for example, the statement that the “history of the East appear as a history of religions” and this because of the absence of private ownership of land. There are no strong foundations for this. Firstly, the history of the middle ages too “appear as a history of religions”, something that both Marx and Engels repeatedly emphasised. Marx reminds us that the developments in the middle ages in Europe is not “material interests” but it is Catholicism that has the determining effect[7]7. Marx does not see this as contradicting his views on historic materialism. He says “The mode of production determines the character of the social, political and intellectual life generally, all this is very true for our own time, in which material interests predominate, but not for the middle ages, in which Catholicism, nor for Athens and Rome, where politics, reigned supreme…This much however is clear, that the middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part. Marx, Capital vol 1. Lawrence and Wishart, London 1983 p85-6 (footnote 2)..

Secondly, in the tributary mode f production, in which European feudalism is only one form, ownership of land has essentially a political origin, obtained through allegiance to the ruler and in his service. This is true of feudal Europe as well as different “eastern” lands. The difference being that in feudal Europe a lasting aristocracy took shape which passed on the ownership of land down through generations, while in various “eastern” lands because political power was highly concentrated, the ruler had greater freedom to give and take away. Third, in the lands belonging to the Islamic Caliphate, which were the focus for the remarks by Marx and Engels, private ownership of land had existed in various forms, both in practice and in theory – by which I mean the sharia’ [8]8. See for instance Anne KS Lambton: Landlord and Peasant in Iran for the forms of land ownership in Iran from the Islamic conquest to the 20thCentury. Translated into Farsi by Manoochehr Amiri,Tehran, 1984..

Fourthly the control exercised by political power on forms of ownership and of land use in China, by far the largest and most important “eastern” power, if not more stringently than Islamic empires, was certainly not softer. Yet Chinese history did not normally appear as the “history of religions”. Indeed Confucianism which dominated the private life of the Chinese, their beliefs, their laws, their value systems, and even deeply effected other religions practised in China for two thousand years, was not a religion, but the philosophical-moral belief of the political bureaucracy ruling the country[9]9. See Max Weber. The religion of China, New York 1951. Even Taoism, which to an extent has the characteristics of a religion, and after Confucianism, had the greatest influence on Chinese culture was markedly under the latter’s influence and in fact acted as the focal link between Confucian traditions and the beliefs of ordinary people.

Third International

Another example of a singling out of Islam in the Marxist movement was the position taken by the Communist International. With the revolutionary prospects receding in Europe, the second congress of the International in July 1920, made a specific stress on the importance of the anti-imperialist anti-colonial peasant movements in the East. Two issues encouraged this support. The civil war in Russia was coming to a successful end and the Bolsheviks needed to come to a permanent understanding with the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus, formerly under Tsarists rule. Secondly Britain, the most powerful imperialist power in the world, continued to exert pressure on the young workers’ state and did everything in its power to overthrow it.

Not long afterwards the “Congress of Eastern Peoples” was inaugurated in Baku. It was here that special attention was given to Islam. Some Bolshevik delegates openly criticised the thesis of the second congress of the International, which had attacked Pan-Islamism. Zinoviev, opening the Congress on behalf of the Executive Committee of the International, passionately invited Muslims to rise against British imperialism. Congress organisers took great pains in encouraging Muslims to ally themselves with the International by showing respect for their beliefs.[10]10. E H Carr. The Bolshevik revolution, vol 3 Penguin Books p261-7

After the congress a series of institutions devoted to propaganda and education were set up to strengthen the campaign links between the anti-imperialist struggle in the east, and to train the cadres which rose out of these struggles. In these institutions, which became part of the Soviet state machinery, a special form of attention to Islam took shape which lent heavily on expediency[11]11. Karl Radek had represented the Executive of the International in the Baku congress. He wanted to emphasise to Muslims that “…The eastern policy of Soviet Government is thus no diplomatic manoeuver, no pushing forward of the peoples of the east into the firing-line in order, by betraying them, to win advantages for the Soviet republic…We are bound to you by a common destiny: either we unite with the peoples of the east and hasten the victory of the western European proletariat, or we shall perish and you will be slaves.” (quoted from E.H.Carr, ibid, vol. 3, p.264). But it was precisely this need to confront a common enemy that pushes the Bolsheviks to have a pragmatic approach tp religious beliefs of Muslims. It went so far as to get Trotsky, who during 1921-2 headed the “Society of the Godless” maintained that “Those who believe in another world are not capable of concentrating all their passion on the transformation of this one.” The only exception was the “raw revolutionary recruits from the East” where the immediate renunciation of Islam as a condition of party membership would be impracticable. L.Trotsky: “The Tasks of Communist Education”, in Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science, ed. G. Novack, New York, 1973, p.112-118. and would change colour with the ups and downs of Soviet foreign policy.

It was this expediency which created the conditions for the growth of a form of “national communism” among communist activists in the Middle East and the Caucasus. They looked at Islam with a peculiar optimism, and saw revolutionary potential in it. Religion was thought to transform huge sections of the people under colonial oppression into a lever for the struggle against the imperialist and Christian capitalist powers of the West.

The most famous exposition of this thesis was made by the Bashkir Bolshevik, Mir Said Sultan-Galyev, Stalin’s deputy in the Nationalities Commissariat. He wrote a famous pamphlet for party propagandists “Anti-religious propaganda methods among Muslims”, where he attempted to present a particular interpretation of Islamic religious customs so as to make it easier for Muslims to assimilate communist teachings. For example he gave the pilgrimage to Mecca (hadj) a contemporary interpretation: it allow Muslims from far and wide to gather and exchange views on the anti-imperialist and the anti-exploitation struggle. Jehad (holy war) was a war against the imperialists. The words of the daily prayer “guide us to the straight path”[Qur’an 1:1] is the path to liberation and equality, which is communism.

Galyev saw the main contradiction of the modern era as not between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat but between the peoples of colonies and semi-colonies and the advanced capitalist countries. His views were also a veiled protest at Russian domination over the Muslim peoples, which continued in different forms after the revolution. It was this latter character that prepared the way for his suppression. Soltan-Galyev was expelled from the party under pressure by Stalin in 1923, and later was accused of co-operating with the foreign spy services and was probably liquidated during Stalin’s reign[12]12. For Sultan Galyev see Maxine Rodinson. Marxism and the Muslim world, 1979.Schram S et Carriere H. D’Encausse: Le Marxisme et l’Asie, p239-50..

The Bolshevik attitude to Islam came entirely from conjunctural political considerations, rather than a clear principled policy towards Islam. This stance illustrated one of the most important contradictions of the socialist strategy of Bolshevism – a contradiction which was never resolved. It was later swept under the carpet by expediency and “politicking” of the state, and served as a antecedent and model for the “realism” or even unprincipled behaviour of some communist parties in “Islamic countries”.

The heavy Russian legacy

We said above how the left in “Islamic countries” was faced with greater difficulties and complexities with regards to religion. But the main source of its problems lay outside this and must be sought in the dominance of the Russian Marxist tradition over most of the left and radical currents after the October revolution.

To Russian Marxism must be given the credit for its important role in spreading Marxism among the working and downtrodden people of the world, especially in pre-capitalist societies. Its greatest weakness was to present an authoritarian interpretation of socialism which had a considerable role in taking the world socialist movement along false paths.

Despite current beliefs, the authoritarian character of Russian Marxism did not originate with Stalin’s dictatorship, nor even Lenin’s views on organisation.[13] 13. The similarity between Galyev’s writing and the Tudeh Party literature during the Iranian revolution of 1979 is remarkable. Nureddin Kianouri, tried to forge a strategic alliance between “scientific socialism and Imam Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution”. Of course the differences must also be noted: despite his confused views, Galyev was an illuminatory revolutionary who fought for the awakening of the people of Asia, while the Tudeh Party was defending a bloodthirsty mediaeval religious despotism which was pushing the country into mediaeval dark ages. It was born in the revolutionary tradition of Russian Narodnism, though it took on a new quality after October and in particular in the Stalin era. From the very beginning “people” for Russian Marxism only had meaning in the hierarchy they were to occupy in the leadership of the revolution. The peasants, a clear majority of the population, were a conservative lazy force that could not be turned into a progressive force without the leadership of the proletariat[14]14. Again, despite current belief, the expression “leadership of the proletariat” was not a Bolshevik invention. The old Menshevik, and comrade of Plekhanov, Paul Axelrod was the first person to talk of “proletarian hegemony in the democratic revolution”. See Neil Harding: Lenin’s political thoughts, 1983, Hong Kong. The meaning of this term remained vague and equivocal, even for the Mensheviks.. In turn the role of the industrial proletariat in breaking the Tzarist autocracy could only be decisive if it came under the leadership of social democratic intellectuals. And these intellectuals in turn had to be disciplined under the leadership of a Marxist party. In addition, from the beginning theirs was an authoritarian understanding of socialism and their conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was completely at odds with that of Marx[15]15. Plekhanov used the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat” first in a party programme document. He understood it in practice as the revolutionary dictatorship of the Russian Social Democratic Party. When Engels heard of this interpretation from a Russian social democratic immigrant, he attacked it savagely. See Hal Draper: Karl Marx’s theory of Revolution vol 3, p 323-4..

This authoritarian attitude of Russian Marxism becomes more obvious when it confronts religion, which because of the close links between the Orthodox church and Tzarism, was hated by all progressive Russian intellectuals. They, along with Nihilists, Anarchists, and Narodniks saw an inseparable link between atheism and revolutionary activity[16]16. In 1906, in a debate with Bogdanov, Plekhanov refused to call him comrade because he was propagating the philosophical vies of E Mach rather than materialism. This despite the fact that Bogdanov was a member of the Social Democratic Party and one of the leaders of the Bolshevik faction. Plekhanov: Selected philosophical works vol 3, Moscow 1976, p189..

After the October revolution, and once it had undergone the qualitative mutation as result of being elevated to the position of official state ideology, this tradition of Russian Marxism was passed on as one of the vital elements of revolutionary Marxism to the world communist movement. Democracy and political freedoms became bourgeois values which would lose their meaning in a workers state. Under the cover of revolutionary radicalism, this was the biggest intellectual break which took place in the revolutionary Marxist tradition. I need to expand on a particular aspect of this break which has bearing on our argument.

Socialism and democracy

From the view point of pre-October Marxism, socialism was unimaginable without democracy and political freedoms. In the Communist manifesto Marx and Engels had insisted that the first step in the workers’ revolution, that is the transformation of the working class to the ruling class, is possible through “victory in the battle for democracy”. It was obvious to them that in the absence of basic freedoms, workers can neither gain class consciousness and resolve, nor able to organise political power towards removing the conditions for the existence of capital and class exploitation[17] 17. For example in the conference of the International in London in September 1881, Engels defending the need for political struggle as the most important possibility for the working class achieving a negation of class exploitation, says “we want the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving this? The only means is political domination of the proletariat”. He then goes on to stress that this is achievable through “the political freedoms, the right of assembly and association, and the freedom of the press – these are our weapons” Marx and Engels Selected Works in 3 volumes – English translation volume 2, Progress Publications 1973, p245..

For that reason they considered bourgeois democracy inadequate, and considered the struggle to deepen and extend democracy as one of the vital elements of the socialist struggle [18]18. For example Marx’s emphasis on participatory democracy in the experience of the Paris Commune (Civil War in France) or his criticism of the constitution of the Second French Republic (Class War in France, and his article on the French Constitution in 1851) show their understanding on this subject. These provided the theoretical basis for the demand for “unrestricted political freedoms”.. Without the right of choice by individuals in society in various social domains, the struggle of the working class cannot move towards the big horizons of socialism. For them the blossoming of every individual in society is one of the fundamental elements of any socialist society[19]19. It is no accident that in the Communist Manifesto the aim of the proletarian struggle is the abolition of classes and class antagonism and the establishment of a society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. Or when Marx says “the real basis of a higher form of society” is one where “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. Capital, vol 1, p555..

But the October revolution and the official dissolution of the universal right to vote[20]20. After annulling the Constituent Assembly the Bolsheviks officially tried to present the elimination of the universal franchise as a general necessity of all workers’ states. So much so that they, for example, entered it into the second party programme (ratified at the 8thCongress, March 1919). Bukharin and Preobrazhensky openly rejected the universal vote on the grounds that a united will between exploited and exploiting classes was as meaningless as between wolf and sheep (ABC of Communism, Penguin London 1969 p216-7). Trotsky and Radek in refuting Kautsky tried to portray the Paris Commune as a “insurrection against the results of universal suffrage in France” (see Hal Draper, Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin. Monthly Review Press1987 p139). Lenin, particularly after Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms, tried to present the removal of universal suffrage as the consequence of the special situation of Russia (see Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin CW vol 28 p255-5). and the practical and totally effective suppression of political freedoms, broke with this tradition. Of course once Stalinist domination was complete, with political freedoms systematically suppressed, there was obviously now no longer any reason to oppose the universal right to vote officially and theoretically. In the 1935 new constitution of the Soviet Union, when neither the voice of the “people” nor even the proletariat could be heard, the right to vote – directly and secretly – became official[21]21. See L Schapiro. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p410. Eveb today some of those on the left have been unable to come further than the events of the abolition of the Constituent Assembly and with amazing naivety elevate their opposition to universal franchise to one of their fundamental principles..

Other “communist” party-states understood from this experience that even the most radical of democracies is harmless without fundamental freedoms. They too stopped opposing universal franchise and found it more profitable to emphasis the class nature of democracy and the benefits of “proletarian democracy” and the varieties of “popular democracies”. And so in the new revolutionary traditions Bolshevism created, the suppression of those freedoms that non-proletarian classes can use to their advantage or to wreak confusion in proletarian lines, became vital tools of socialist revolutionarism.

It is unsurprising that in such a tradition, one which was intolerant even of a Marxism different from the official version – indeed viewed this as the epitome of betrayal of the proletariat – there could be no place for religious freedom. Opposition to religious freedoms was easy to justify. Anyone coming to its defence was readily labelled a champion of obscurantism, one opposed to science, enlightenment and modernity. Marx’s famous sentence “religion is the opium of the people” became the flag for hostility to religious freedom. Conveniently forgotten was that Marx and Engels strongly opposed any suppression of religious freedom.

Undoubtedly Marx and Engels were strongly opposed to religion and believed in the crucial fight against superstition and obscurantism. But they also saw political freedoms as a most vital weapon for the proletarian struggle. Were any conditions to be placed on these freedoms, it would be the workers more than anyone, and before anyone, who would be deprived of this weapon. This was their logic for defending the freedom of religion. They cautioned against any optimism towards the state[22]22. I believe that a pessimism towards the state s one of the stable elements of Marx’s thinking. He shows this from Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, through Civil War in FrancetoCritique of the Gotha Programme. In the latter he objects to the demand for elementary education by the state. It is one thing for the state to provide the costs for free education. It is another for it to be presented as the “people’s educator”. Sarcastically he adds it is the state that has need of very stern education by the people (M&E SW vol 3, p28). Undoubtedly M & E considered the workers’ state as the lever for historic endeavour of the proletariat, and could therefore not look upon it with same eyes as the bourgeois state. All the same, they spoke cautiously even of the workers’ state. For example Engels, on the Paris Commune cautions that even a totally democratic government is “at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible.” (Engel’s introduction to the Civil War in France, 1881. M&E SW vol 2, p189). and knew well that any limitations and exceptions to political freedoms inevitably ends in an arbitrating power autonomous from the people, and above them, which can then indulge its own interests. They believed that any suppression of the right of religion to be dangerous and opposed any moves towards this. Let me give a few examples:

In “The Jewish Question”( 1843) Marx defends the right of German Jews to religious freedom and equal citizen rights. He was opposing the left-Hegelian Bruno Bauer who from a left-seeming position insisted that Jews cannot gain freedom without abandoning their religion. For Marx religious freedom was classed as a “political freedoms” and therefore a “civil right”. The difference is between droit de l’homme and droit de citoyen, and freedom of conscience is “the right to believe in any religion that you want” as a human right[23]23. On the Jewish Question. M&E CW vol 3 p162. “The right of freedom of humans” he wrote “is not based on the alliance of man with man, but on the separation of man and man”, stressing the point that the freedom of others is not in their right to agree with, but precisely on their right to disagree with us.

Pursuing the same debate a year later with the Bauer brothers, he warned that in the state “real socialism” has in mind Christians and Jews would be seen as undesirable and traitors. Presumably Mr Bauer would send them to the gallows, just as hoarders were sent to the guillotine during the “terror” in the French revolution. This is a warning to all revolutionary forces who ignore religious freedom in the name of enlightenment.

In the same article Marx points to the fate of Herbert’s party who was defeated predominantly because by attacking religious freedom he attacked human rights[24]24. The Holy Family. M&E CW vol 4 pp95 and 114. Jacques Rene Herbert was one of the most important figures of the French revolution and led the left wing of the Jacobins. In Autumn 1793 he led the anti-Christian movement, which closed churches and stopped Catholic services. This provoked a backlash, mainly from peasants, against the revolution. The Convention in December of that year banned any “violence or threat against freedom of worship”.

Engels writing in 1878 savagely attacking the views of German socialist thinker Eugen Duehring who believed that religion should be banned in a socialist society. Engels lampooned his “Prussian socialism” and more Bismarck than Bismarck who had only persecuted Catholics while Duehring planned to ban them all. This could only breathe new life on religion prolonging its existence, Engels remarked[25]25. Anti-Duehring. Progress publications 1978 p384..

A further interesting example is in the Critique to the Gotha Programme, written in response to the draft programme of the German Workers’ Party in 1875. Marx emphasised that the workers party cannot merely confine itself to defending the “freedom of conscience”, but has to stress that “the bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all the possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion. But one chooses not to transgress the “bourgeois” level.” If one desired at this time of Kulturkampf to remind liberalism of its own catchwords, it surely would have been done only in the following forms: Everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in”[26]26. Critique of the Gotha Programme M&E CW vol 3 p29. Kulturkampf was Bismark’s campaign against the Catholic church in Germany in the 1880’s, and to bring the catholic priesthood under state control, under the guise of creating a secular culture. The aim was to reduce their influence in the south and south-western regions of Germany.. It is clear that while encouraging an ideological battle against religion Marx frankly rejects any police-like anti-religion repression.

Engels in the critique to the Erfurt Programme adopts a similar vein in 1891 when he writes: “Complete separation of the Church from the state:All religious communities without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are to be deprived of any support from public funds and of all influence on public schools (they cannot be prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and from teaching their own nonsense in them.)”[27]Critique of the Erfurt Programme. M&E CW vol 3 p 437.of creating private schools.. Religious freedom is not just for ceremonies but also of promotion for one’s religion – even to the extent of creating private schools.

The views of Marx and Engels on religious freedom are therefore clear and unambiguous, on par with other individual freedoms. They opposed its suppression under whatever guise. This was an unmistakable tradition among Marxists before October. Even Russian Marxists subscribed to this before they rose to power, at least in their official documents.

But on gaining power, the defence of religion became meaningless when political freedoms were being suppressed in the name of revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. I will give some examples of their position before and after the revolution.

Russian Marxism

I have chosen the first example from the programme of the Social Democratic Group for the Emancipation of Labour written. This was probably the first programmatic document of Russian Marxists, written in 1883 by the “founding father of Russian Marxism” Plekhanov. Here the demand for religious freedom is formulated as: “Unlimited freedom of conscience, speech, the press, assembly and association.”

In another article it asks for “Complete equality of all citizens irrespective of religion and racial origin”. The footnote on this article states: “This point is logically covered by paragraph 4, which requires, inter alia, complete freedom of conscience; but we consider it necessary to set it in relief in view of the fact that there are in our country whole strata of the population,e.g.the Jews, who do not enjoy even the wretched ‘rights’ made available to other ‘citizens’”[28]28. Marxism in Russia; Key Documents 1879-1906, Edited by Neil Harding Cambridge 1983 p 57..

The writers of the programme apparently felt this to be enough, since they did not propose a separation of religion and state. The close bonds between the Orthodox church and the Tzarist autocracy would have made a mention of this point important. Significantly, this point also failed to appear in the draft second programme of The Russian Social Democrats authored by Plekhanov in 1885, or another draft that Lenin himself wrote in 1895 [29]29. Marxism in Russia; Key Documents 1879-1906, Edited by Neil Harding Cambridge 1983pp81-84 and 153-6..

The second example is the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Both Lenin and Plekhanov had an important role in drafting it. The influence of the Erfurt programme of the German Social Democratic party was visible. It was ratified in the Second Congress of the party (in fact its inaugural congress) in August 1903. In the section dealing with democratic demands it speaks of “Unrestricted freedom of conscience, speech, press, and assembly; freedom to strike and to form trade unions”. and “The elimination of class privileges and the complete equality of all citizens regardless of sex, religion, race, or nationality”. and “Separation of church and state, and of school and church”[30]30. Resolutions and Decisions of the CPSU, University of Toronto Press, 1974, p42-3 [articles 5, 7 and 13].

Example 3: in December 1905, in the heat of the first Russian revolution, Lenin wrote and article entitled “socialism and religion”. In this he openly defends the freedom of religion “religion must be declared a private affair… everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, ie be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule”. And regarding religious organisation he writes “these should become associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state”. At the same time Lenin insists that for the “socialist proletarian party” religion is not a private affair, because this party struggles precisely against all forms of religious deception of the workers. Despite this, Lenin writes “ we do not, and should not, set forth our atheism in our Programme” and goes on to say that religious people can join the Party[31]31. Lenin CW vol 10 p 83-7.

Example 4: in the Second Party Programme ratified in the eighth congress in 1919, there is no longer a clear message on religious freedom. A separate article states “With reference to religion, the RKP does not content itself with the already decreed separation of church from state, and separation of schools from church i.e., measures which bourgeois democracy includes in its programmes but which it has never implemented because of the numerous ties binding capital with religious propaganda. The RKP is guided by the conviction that only the realisation of conscious and systematic social and economic activity of the masses will lead to the complete disappearance of religious prejudices. The aim of the party is the complete destruction of the ties between the exploiting classes and the organisation of religious propaganda, at the same time helping the toiling masses actually to liberate their minds from religious prejudices and organising on a wide scale scientific-educational and anti-religious propaganda.  It is however, necessary carefully to avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of believers, which leads only to the hardening of religious fanaticism.”[32]32. Resolutions Resolutions and Decisions of the CPSU, University of Toronto Press, 1974 vol 2 p54-73 [article 13]..

We see here that the communist party has not only set aside religious freedom, but places religious suppression on its agenda. The Programme indeed does not even openly declare religion a private affair. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, in their book written that same year to explain the Programme write “Religion has become the private affair of every citizen. The Soviet Power rejects all thoughts of using the church in any way whatever as a means for strengthening the proletarian State”. [p. 302]. “Religion and communism are incompatible, both theoretically and practically.”  And  in page 299 “ in God …hinder [a communist ] from fighting for the cause of the proletarian revolution.”[33]33. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky: The ABC of Communism, Penguin press 1969 p299-310

It is interesting that even a few months before the Bolshevik party took power, in documents that were being prepared for changing the party programme Lenin still spoke of “unlimited freedom of conscience, speech, press, association; strike, organisation”. He kept the article on the “separation of church and state and church and schools” and only added “absolute non-religiousness of schools”[34]34. Lenin CW v24, p 472-3.

Example 5: In June 1923, following a discussion brought by the Swedish CP, the Comintern Executive declares “communists demand that religion shall remain a private matter in relation to the bourgeois state; in no circumstances, however, can communists declare that religion is a private matter in relation to the communist party also…..Communists are in favour of all workers, whatever their religious opinions, joining the trade unions which have a class character.”[35]35. Communist International Documents, Ed Jane Degras, London 197, vol 2, p37-9 In this resolution firstly, freedom of religion or of “conscience” is no longer explicitly defended. Second, religious persons cannot join the party and at most are tolerated in trade unions affiliated to communist parties. Third, religion is only a private matter in relation to bourgeois states and not proletarian states.

Example 6: The Programme of the Communist International ratified at the Sixth Congress in 1928 declares “The fight against religion, …occupies a special place among the tasks of the cultural transformation of the broad masses….The proletarian government must deprive the church, as an agency of the former ruling classes, of all State support, …and ruthlessly suppress the counter-revolutionary activities of ecclesiastical organisations.  The proletarian government permits freedom of belief, but at the same time uses all the means at its disposal to promote anti-religious propaganda, abolishes the privileged status of the former established church, and refashions the entire educational system on the basis of the philosophy of scientific materialism.”[36]36. Communist International Documents, Ed Jane Degras, London 197, vol 2, p37-9p 504-5

Here we see that first, the dominant view in the Soviet Union is “exported” to other communist parties. Second, religious freedom is limited to freedom of religious belief and not expression. Third, anti-religious activities is organised by the proletarian state, and not merely the proletarian party. Fourth, anti-religious propaganda cannot be countered by religious propaganda.

It is thus that the qualitative revision of the Marxist policy on religion is completed. And this is what appears at the theoretical level. We know from experience what inferno is set up in real life once the ground beneath the freedoms are dug up.

Here it is enough to be reminded that the first historic defeat of Bolshevism was in confronting religion – a defeat never admitted at the time though, now decades later, it is impossible to deny. According to a study by the “Communist Academy”, after a decade of fighting religion the number of organised religious groups among peasants doubled in 1928 compared to 1922-3[37]37. L Schapiro The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p 343 . Religious activity among peasants reached such levels that it was reflected in the resolution of the Plenum of the Central Committee in March 1930. While criticising the violent collectivisation of farms, the compulsory closure of churches was also apparently exempted. It was stated that these acts strengthened religious superstitions[38]38. Resolutions and Decisions of the CPSU, University of Toronto Press, 1974 vol 3. P49.

Now the Marxist left must clear its account with this tradition it has inherited. Without a break with the authoritarian tradition of Russian Marxism, without a return to the deeply revolutionary and democratic traditions of Marx and Engels, the left will be unable to resurrect itself and arrive at a real dialogue with the people. This is even more true in “Islamic countries” where the left has been the greatest victim of a broad religious onslaught in the last two decades.

In the absence of such a break Marxists cannot become the vanguard of the destiny-making struggle of the people for gaining freedom, equality, enlightenment, and modernity. We must understand, and before it is too late, that regardless of what our views are on religion, without decisively defending fundamental freedoms – including freedom of religion, we cannot fight against religious obscurantism effectively. This must be our prime principle in our policy towards religion.

This of course is still a long way from having a clear socialist policy on religion. But it is a vital start.


Islam and Modernism by Mohammad Reza Shalguni – overview

Part I Discusses how Islam is no more incompatible with modernisation or even modern culture than other religions.
Part II continues with a critique of Ibn-Khaldun’s influential historic views:
Islamic civilisation is not principally that of desert tribes.
The steppe or the desert was not the birthplace of many radical Islamic revolts.
Many nomadic uprisings were non-Islamic, and many in fact came to the aid of monarchies in wealthy urban lands.
The historical materialist perspective on Ibn-Khaldun’s and related views on history
Part III Examines Islamic teachings and compares them to other religions to demonstrate they are no more, or less, rigid and immutable.
Part IV Uses the relation of Islam to women to argue that the mechanisms through which modernisation was introduced to Islamic lands caused the current crisis rather than the innate resistance of Islam as a religion.
Part V Reviews racist-imperialist, anti-democratic and radical ways of confronting the question of modernisation in Muslim lands.
Part VI Argues that despite some views Islam is open to modernity.
Part VII Is a discussion of Ernest Gellner and his thinly disguised historic idealism
Part VIII Is dedicated to a critique if the positions of the left

References   [ + ]

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