The Marxist View of Religion in General and Islam in Particular
By Yossi Schwartz (Member of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency [RCIT] and Central-Israel Branch of Balad), December 2016, http://the-isleague.com/
The attitude of revolutionary socialists towards religion is crucial in the struggle to recruit religious workers to the socialist revolution. Unlike liberal atheists and secularists who see all religions as a manifestation of the stupidity of the ignorant masses, we as Marxists look at the social and class core of any religious group. Thus, we are able to determine that within any religious groups we will find different subdivisions that reflect different and even contradictory class interests. Moreover, we are able to determine how the same class interests manifest themselves across many, seemingly much different, religions.
To give but a few examples: Early Christians were persecuted in Rome, but later on when Christianity became the state-religion, it became a tool of oppression; the Huguenots were a persecuted minority in Europe in the 17th century. However, when they settled in South Africa they became part of the oppressive white colonialists; The white churches in South Africa supported Apartheid and black Africans of the same denomination had to worship in Churches for blacks only, Black churches of different denominations opposed the racist regime; Jews who were persecuted in the Russian Empire and in Germany, when they settled in Palestine, became the oppressors of the native Arabs; While the Russian Orthodox Church’s establishment vehemently supported the Czar, it was a Russian Orthodox priest named Gapon who led the mass protest in 1905 that began the revolution.
Religion promises the oppressed that after the wretched life they live on earth awaits a better life in heaven. To the upper classes it promises to preserve the social order which secures their rights and privileges as part of a divine plan. As Marxists we support the rebellions of the workers and other oppressed whether they are secular or religious while we oppose the ruling classes secular or religious. Our political fight is not against the idea of religion, but against all forms of privilege and oppression.
We live in a period characterized by the deepest economic crisis of the capitalist system. To survive, the ruling classes of the imperialist states not only super exploit the working class in the semi colonies but inflame the hate against Muslims and other minorities in the imperialist states. Today many American Jews are fearful because of the open racism expressed by Trump’s supporters. (1)
Many people try to explain the victory of the right-wing-populist Donald Trump. Islamophobia is definitely one of the reasons. (2) A sizeable segment of those who voted for him casted their votes for him because of his speeches against Muslims. An NBC poll conducted in December 2015, found that 25% of Americans supported Trump's Muslim ban. A March 2016 poll indicated greater support, with 51% favoring Trump's Ban "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on". (3)
Clinton’s political message helped this malice. On 19 October in the third presidential debate, Clinton said that the US needs “to work with American Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks.” This was not the first time she used such language in her campaign singling out the Muslim community as one which is aware but silent regarding the whereabouts of Islamist terrorists. In her first and second debates, she said: “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines.” (4)
American Muslims don’t possess any special knowledge of terrorist attacks. They are simply trying to live their lives in the US. To point out to them as a group with special knowledge about terrorism is to blame them for ISIS activity.
Today the Americans are seeking extreme measures to fight against an extreme economic crisis. Without a radical and revolutionary pole, many of them would drift away to the extreme right.
The American middle class left, like the Communist Party of the USA, the ISO, Socialist Alternative (CWI), claiming to be socialists but tailing Bernie Sanders, who ran on the ticket of the Democratic imperialist party, shamefully contributed to the victory of Trump. Sanders, on November 14th blamed Clinton for not being able to reach the white workers. He is right, of course, but he ignores his part in supporting Clinton. (5)
Today the racists in Europe and the US connect Islam with ISIS. ISIS is a reactionary Islamist organization, yet it is able to attract and recruit followers because it is perceived as an organization that fights western imperialist oppression. Furthermore, it is impossible to understand ISIS in separation from the devastating impact of the imperialist war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and the civil war in Syria, where Assad backed by Russian imperialism massacres the civilian population as part of the imperialist counter revolutionary offensive.
The imperialists’ propaganda characterized ISIS as a fascist movement. For example, the Wall Street Journal applauded Hilary Ben, the British Labor party shadow foreign secretary, who during a speech in December 2015 called British imperialism to join the war against fascist ISIS. Labeling ISIS as fascist, according to the WSJ, contrasts with Democrats in the U.S. tying themselves into politically correct knots to avoid naming the enemy.
“President Obama still refuses to include “Islam” in the same breath as “terrorism.” In response to a question during last month’s Democratic presidential debate, the candidates all refused to say the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam.” Mrs. Clinton demurred by calling the term ‘not particularly helpful.’” (6)
ISIS and the Label of Fascism
The term used by the imperialist propaganda is “Islamofascism,” aimed at slandering all Muslims and Islam. Under this term they include Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. This term justifies further institutionalized surveillance and targeting of Muslim Europeans and Americans. While there are fascistic elements in the ideology and the practice of ISIS, it is not a fascist organization as it is not a mass plebeian movement fighting to destroy the working class movement in the service of imperialist capital. Furthermore, even if it was a fascist organization, imperialism is the main enemy of the international working class and humanity.
Trotsky wrote on this question: "In Brazil there now reigns a semi-fascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!" (7)
The New York Times this March wrote that, in total, more than 1,200 people outside of Iraq and Syria have been killed in attacks inspired or coordinated by the Islamic State. (8) In March 2015 the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) released a landmark study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the “War on Terror” since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million.
The 97-page report by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group is the first to tally up the total number of civilian casualties from US-led interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan […] According to the figures explored here, total deaths from Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 1990s – from direct killings and the longer-term impact of war-imposed deprivation – likely constitute around 4 million (2 million in Iraq from 1991-2003, plus 2 million from the “war on terror”), and could be as high as 6-8 million people when accounting for higher avoidable death estimates in Afghanistan. (9)
Islamophobia in France
In France the “Burkini ban” was defeated at the French courts, but the Islamophobia pushed by the government and the social-imperialist President Francois Hollande is feeding the propaganda of the far right. There is a real danger that the next government will be led by the National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen.
The reactionary attacks of ISIS in Nice and Rouen were a gift for the most reactionary segment of the capitalist class exploiting the wave of middle-class and white working class xenophobia.
Muslims in France have been harassed, intimidated, spied on and brutalized by the state. Over 3,500 raids have been conducted; just six of them have led to any terrorism investigation. Mosques have been violently ransacked by the police. No effort has been spared to humiliate and degrade worshippers, for instance, through the deliberate use of police dogs. Around twenty mosques were simply closed.
Furthermore, it is not only the right wing and the social democrats that push Islamophobia, but the Communist Party and the centrist left seem to have contracted this sickness. Leading members of the Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR, Section of the centrist “Fourth International” in the tradition of Ernest Mandel) initiated the idea of the anti-headscarf law of 2004.
They called for the expulsion of two headscarf-wearing young women Alma and Lila Lévy from the school in which both party members taught. The Lévy sisters’ expulsion was supported by the Communist mayor of Aubervilliers, the Parisian suburb in which they lived – the very mayor who, around the same time, called the police to remove African migrants from their squat residence.
The well-known Left Party figure and Left Front presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has sustained a strongly republican and nationalist position, going so far as to call, in 2011, for the banning of street prayers. Frustration with the ambient racism of the liberal feminist left specifically led in 2003 to the founding of a new group, the movement – and later the Party – of the Indigènes de la République, the ‘Republic’s Indigenous People’ (PIR). The PIR sets out to “struggle against all the forms of imperial, colonial and Zionist domination which ground white supremacy” in France and internationally. It describes its main goal as:
“Bringing about, within a single antiracist and decolonizing dynamic, the convergence of all spaces of resistance created by immigrants and their children, people who live in working-class areas, and the populations originally from the dominions and territories. Our aim is to construct an autonomous indigenous political force with the ability to influence the development of French society and public policy.” (10)
During the surprising outbreak of sustained national protest in the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement, the Nuit Debout did not succeeded in appealing to the immigrant-origin populations from whom PIR draw their base. The PIR commented:
"Nuit Debout had urged the “areas”, the “suburbs”, and “racialized” people to join the social movement. Nuit Debout wanted to organise marches to the suburbs, so that, finally, the dream of the union of workers, the oppressed, and the under-oppressed would be made real. We replied: the general convergence cannot be decreed; it will happen when you come to join our struggles." (11)
Lenin on Religion
Unlike these middle class left, Lenin had a very different attitude towards religion and Muslims. In "Socialism and Religion" Lenin wrote that the weakness and the misery of the exploited classes inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death.
"Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labor of others are taught by religion to practice charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven"[ ...]." a slave who has become conscious of his slavery and has risen to struggle for his emancipation has already half ceased to be a slave. The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth."
He continued in the same article and wrote about the attitude of Marxism towards religion:
"Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state."
He wrote in the same article about the attitude towards priests:
"However abject, however ignorant Russian Orthodox clergymen may have been, even they have now been awakened by the thunder of the downfall of the old, medieval order in Russia. Even they are joining in the demand for freedom, are protesting against bureaucratic practices and officialism, against the spying for the police imposed on the “servants of God”. We socialists must lend this movement our support, carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusion, making them stick to their words about freedom, demanding that they should resolutely break all ties between religion and the police."
Against those who want to include atheism in the revolutionary program he stated:
"That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world-outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various “Christians.” (12)
The Bolsheviks and Islam
The Bolsheviks reached out to the Islamic Communities. Muslims under the Czars were systematically oppressed, excluded, and discriminated against. Most Muslims lived in Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains far away from the centers of the revolutions – Petrograd and Moscow. However, to win the socialist revolution it was necessary to get the support of the Muslims.
On April 26, 1917, the Central Bureau of Russian Muslims published an appeal to the Muslim women of Russia in the newspaper, Turke-stanskii golos (The Voice of Turkestan). (13) Muslim women were urged to join other Russian women in newfound political action, by organizing, forming committees, and voting. Muslim women were called upon to join the revolutionary cause without deserting their religion.
In the First All-Russian Congress of Muslims held in May 1917, with one thousand delegates including 200 women, Muslim women voted in favor of many socialist policies, such as eight-hour working days, redistribution of property, and equal rights for women. This congress also supported the idea of cultural and religious autonomy within a new Russian republic. Many Muslims believed that Islamic values had much in common with the socialism advocated by the Bolsheviks. Several slogans connecting the two were raised. One such slogan reads, “Long live soviet power, and long live the sharia [Islamic law]”. (14) On November 24, 1917, the new Soviet government, led by the Bolsheviks, reached out to Muslims in a declaration entitled “To all the Muslim workers of Russia and the East”. This declaration assured Muslims that, “your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution”. (15)
After the revolution Lenin in a speech to the first Women's Congress said: “We must be extremely careful in fighting religious prejudices; some people cause a lot of harm in this struggle by offending religious feelings.” (16)
Dave Crouch in an article The Bolsheviks and Islam quoted Trotsky: "Muslim were allowed to join the Bolshevik party without any prejudice against their religion. Some Muslims drew revolutionary conclusions and joined the Communist parties themselves.” Trotsky noted in 1923 that in some of the southern republics as many as 15% of party members were believers in Islam. He called them the ‘raw revolutionary recruits who come knocking on our door’. In parts of Central Asia, Muslims made up as much as 70% of the Communist Party membership. They brought with them vestiges of their religious customs and beliefs: in the mid-1920s even wives of high-ranking Communist Party members in Central Asia wore veils. (17)
The Case of Mir-Said Sultan Galiyev
While it is correct to let Muslims to join the revolutionary working class party, it is essential not to water down dialectical and historical materialism and internationalism as a concession to religious members of the party, while at the same time be very careful not to insult their sensitivities. This problem manifested itself in the case of Sultan-Galiyev. Mir-Said Sultan Galiyev was a Volga Tatar who studied education in the college of Kazan and returned to his village where he worked as a teacher and librarian. In November 1917 he joined the Bolshevik Party. The Central Commissariat for the Muslim Affairs was created in 1918 and he was the chairman. He was also the chairman of the Central Muslim Military Collegiums that was formed in April 1918 to fight the counter revolution as well as a leading member of the Commissariat of the Nationalities under Stalin.
He and his followers were considered by 1920 the right wing of the Tatar Communist party. In his views the Muslim peoples are proletarian people and their national movement was the movement of socialist revolution. (18) In his opinion "The martial premises of a social transformation of humanity can be created only through the establishment of the dictatorship of the colonies and semi-colonies over the metropolis.” (19)
He also demanded to have a separate party for Muslims and that non Muslims should join the Russian Bolshevik party. (20) In June 1918 in the first conference of Muslim Communists held in Kazan a party of Muslim Communists only was formed. It was independent of the Bolshevik party. In March 1918 during the eighth congress of the Bolshevik party, a unified and centralized party for the all Soviet state was formed.
In November 1919 a Bashkir Soviet Socialist Autonomous region was created but Sultan-Galiyev demanded a separate Tatar–Bashkir state – a demand that the Bolsheviks turned down to form a Tatar Autonomous Soviet Republic. Sultan wanted to expand it to include the Bashkirs and other Muslims but his demand was rejected as expression of chauvinism seeking to dominate less developed people.
He was sent to Crimea to report of the conditions there and he recommended the creation of a Soviet Republic, a suggestion that was accepted and in 1921 a Crimean Autonomous Soviet Republic was created.
While his ideas expressed a nationalist petit bourgeois deviation, there is a good chance that he reacted to Russian great chauvinism pushed by Stalin who was in charge of nationalities that caused the first major conflict between Lenin and Stalin as in the case of Georgia in 1922. Stalin pushed for the amalgamation of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into Transcaucasian SFSR, a move that was staunchly opposed by the Georgian leaders who urged for their republic a full-member status within the Soviet Union.
In 1923 Sultan was expelled from the party and was arrested by Stalin for "nationalist deviation". This was the first time a leading member of the party was arrested. This was clearly wrong that Trotsky consented to this only to later regret it implicitly. (21) The politics of Sultan resembled the politics of Mao who saw the peasants as the leading class of the socialist revolution and was in the right wing of the Chinese Communist Party.
Similarly, later on C.L.R James, the West Indian Trotskyist, rejected the concept of the vanguard party of the working class and focused on the nationalist movement of the colonies and semi colonies. Prior to Mao and C.L.R James the same nationalist deviation was expressed by the Jewish Bund.
It is true that the oppressed masses in the colonies and semi colonies or in the imperialist countries many times are more revolutionary than the white working class in the imperialist countries. We just saw that sectors of the American white workers supported Trump. However, the key for the victory of the oppressed nations and minorities in the imperialist countries is to win the support of the masses of the whole working class in these countries instead of orientating to the bourgeois and the petite bourgeois leaderships that stand at the head of the nationalist movement. The latter will betray, sooner or later, the struggle because of their fear of losing control over the workers and the poor peasants. The answer is true working class internationalism, not left nationalism.
(1) See on this e.g. Yossi Schwartz: Israel Loves Donald Trump who Loves Israel but Dislikes Jews, RCIT, 20.11.2016, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/trump-jews-and-israel/
(2) On the analysis of the RCIT see our pamphlet by Michael Pröbsting: The Meaning, Consequences and Lessons of Trump‘s Victory. On the Lessons of the US Presidential Election Outcome and the Perspectives for the Domestic and International Class Struggle, 24.November 2016, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 58, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/meaning-of-trump/; Michael Pröbsting: US Presidential Election: The Victory of Donald Trump is a Historical Turning Point, 09.11.2016, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/north-america/trump-victory/
(4) Braking News Presidential candidates towards us 'really demoralising', say US Muslims, http://www.breakingnews.ie/world/presidential-candidates-towards-us-really-demoralising-say-us-muslims-762132.html
(6) Gordon Crovitz: A Liberal Truth-Telling on Terror, The Wall Street Journal, Dec.6/2015 http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-liberals-truth-telling-on-terror-1449445745
(7) Leon Trotsky: Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation. An Interview with Mateo Fossa (1938); in: Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, p. 34
(8) Karen Yourish, Derek Watkins, Tom GiratikAnon and Jasmine C. Lee: How Many People Have Been Killed in ISIS Attacks Around the World, New York Times, July 16, 2016 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/03/25/world/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html?_r=0
(9) Nafeez Ahmed: Unworthy victims: Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990, 8 April 2015, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/unworthy-victims-western-wars-have-killed-four-million-muslims-1990-39149394. On the RCIT’s analysis of the imperialist wars and the position of Marxists see e.g. Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South. Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital Consequences for the Marxist Theory of Imperialism, 2013, (in particular chapter 12 and 13) http://www.great-robbery-of-the-south.net/
(11) Nick Riemer: Islamophobia, secularism and the French left, 19 August 2016, http://www.solidarity.net.au/islamophobia/islamophobia-secularism-and-the-french-left
(12) V. I. Lenin: Socialism and Religion (1905), in: LCW Vol. 10, pp. 83-87, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/dec/03.htm
(13) Central Bureau of Russian Muslims: Appeal to Russia’s Muslim Women, in: Michael C. Hickey, ed. Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution (Greenwood Press, Santa Barbara, CA, 2011), pp. 169-170
(14) Dave Crouch: The Bolsheviks and Islam, in: International Socialism 110 (April 2006)
(15) Council of People’s Commissars: Appeal to the Moslems of Russia and the East. December 7, 1917 Original Source: Izvestiia, No. 232, 7 December 1917, pp. 1-2, http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1921-2/the-muslim-east/the-muslim-east-texts/appeal-to-the-moslems-of-russia-and-the-east/
(16) First All-Russia Congress of Working Women, November 19, 1918 https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/nov/19.htm
(17) Leon Trotsky: Tasks of the Communist Education (1923), in: Leon Trotsky: Problems of Everyday Life, Pathfinder Press, New York 1994, pp. 117-118). See also Dave Crouch: The Bolsheviks and Islam
(18) Mir-said Sultan-Galiyev: Speech of 1918, in: Azade-Ayse Rorlich: 'The Volga, Tatars: 'A Profile in National Resilience"; Stanford (USA); p. 143). In Marxist Internet Archive
(19) Mir Said Sultan-Galiev, in: Richard Pipes: 'The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism: 1917-1923'; Harvard University Press, Cambridge (USA) 1954, pp. 261-262
(20) Azade-Ayse Rorlich: The Volga, Tatars: 'A Profile in National Resilience; Stanford (USA) in: Marxist Internet Archive
(21) Leon Trotsky: Stalin, New York; 1941; p. 417