Is it good sense, or "Islamophobia", to warn against the danger of the great uprisings in the Arab world being confiscated by fascist-like Islamist movements?
Against the "Third Camp" socialists who said in the 1950s and 60s that revolutionary Stalinism, in China or in Indochina, was a reactionary and not a progressive alternative to the established order, other leftists jeered that they were enthusiasts for revolution in theory, but never in practice.
It was an easy jibe, but glib. What are the facts? In the modern capitalist world, do mass plebeian upheavals - based on working and poor people - always push towards socialist and democratic progress?
Or can they be confiscated to produce tyrannies worse than they replaced?
Witness Maoist China, with its tens of millions killed in the "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution"; Cambodia, with its "Year Zero"; Iran, since 1979.
Fascism, too, can confiscate great social upheavals. In Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933, the fascist coups, though conducted by leaders using social demagogy and with plebeian support, were made in direct opposition to strong organised labour movements. Few leftists thought of denying that they were counter-revolution.
In Poland, however, as Leon Trotsky wrote, when Joszef Pilsudski "was forced, in May 1926, to save bourgeois society by a coup d'etat directed against the traditional parties of the Polish bourgeoisie... the official leader of the Polish Communist Party, Warski took the coup d'etat of Pilsudski to be the road of the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship' and called upon the workers to support Pilsudski".
The socialist-turned-fascist Pilsudski was helped to power by a general strike, supported by workers disgusted by the conservative Witos government which he overthrew.
In their first revolutionary political declaration against capitalism, the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels were harsher against what they called "reactionary socialism" than against the bourgeoisie itself.
"Half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future..."
Then, they assumed that this "reactionary socialism" would surely fade as society "more and more split up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat".
The most economically-developed capitalist societies have gone somewhat that way, though even there the "middle class" has great weight. But as capital has spread helter-skelter across the world, planting modern factories amidst antique peasant societies, many countries have got more convoluted class structures.
The capitalist class proper is encased in a mélange of privileged groups clustered round the state machine and its patronage; the working class shades off into a huge social grouping, much bigger than the wage-working class proper, of paupers, semi-proletarians, people with occasional employment, petty traders, and so on; and in between is a vast urban mélange of better-off traders, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, clerics, officials, and so on.
In many countries, Egypt and most other Arab states among them, the working class has never gained the openings available under even limited bourgeois democracy, and (despite sometimes rich histories of struggle) has never established a stable political movement of its own. There, the working class is especially vulnerable to being overwhelmed by mass mobilisations led by middle-class groups and using nationalist or religious slogans.
In Marx's texts of the 1850s about European politics, he wrote of "Revolution" with apparently undiscriminating enthusiasm. In that epoch, for that area, he could assume that the social and political content of new revolutionary outbreaks was determined in advance: they would be middle-class democratic movements like those of 1848, with more or fewer chances of success, more or fewer openings for the working class to improve on them, etc.
That usage already became obsolete in 1887-9, when in France, a general, Georges Boulanger, whipped up a big political movement on the basis of chauvinism and condemnation of corruption in the parliamentary government.
The French socialist movement was also on the rise at the time. Some socialists, notably Karl Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, prefigured the Warskis, the Stalino-leftists, and the Islamo-leftists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Lafargue declared: "Boulanger has against him the rich and satisfied bourgeoisie and all its political chiefs bar a few rare exceptions, and draws his strength only from the plebeian masses, poverty-stricken and confusedly disillusioned by the republic. And with the people he has the elements not of a coup d'état, but of a revolution".
Karl Marx had died in 1883. His comrade Frederick Engels rebuked Lafargue. "I want our people to show that there is a real third issue besides this pretended dilemma [corrupt parliamentary regime or Boulanger]... and not to take the muddling philistine and basically chauvinistic Boulangist movement for a really popular one...".
Boulanger's movement was short-lived. It seemed a freak. But it was a forerunner of enormous political facts of the 20th century.
Against Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood today, it is again the job of socialists "to show that there is a real third issue".
Defining that "third issue" just as "support for the workers" is not adequate. Workers too, especially when lacking previous stable political organisation, can be swept along into Islamist, Stalinist, or even fascist movements. Democracy, workers' rights, politically-independent organisation of the working class, define the "third issue".
According to reports so far, the Muslim Brotherhood has played little role in the upheavals in Egypt, and the Ennahda Islamists have been marginal in Tunisia.
They may yet be a threat. They have established cadres and organisation; funds; prestigious associations (the successes of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.); and the ability to appeal to potent and centuries-old religious feeling.
In 1989 the great plebeian movements against the old order in Eastern Europe were not led by Thatcherites. Their political sentiments were closer to social democracy or a generous liberalism.
But because the workers were not able to establish independent political movements of sufficient strength, and the Thatcherites had cadres in place, they dominated the outcome.
Islamism, as it showed in Iran in 1978-9, can confiscate a mass plebeian movement, fuelled by democratic aspirations, to the benefit of fascist-like counter-revolution.
Neither overawed by the Islamist threat, nor complacent about it, socialists across the world should do all we can to assist the emergence and triumph of politically independent workers' movements in the Arab world.