In many countries, religion and disputes about, or expressed in terms of, religion have long been central to political life — in Christian Spain, Portugal, Ireland, or the USA; in Muslim Iran or Algeria; in Lebanon; in Israel-Palestine. Today, since Islamist terrorists attacked New York on 11 September 2001, religion, or concerns and interests expressed in religion, are at the centre of international politics to a degree without parallel for hundreds of years.
We have not, as in Francis Fukuyama’s thesis after the fall of the USSR, reached “the end of history”. We seem to be reprising long-passed stages of our history.
To find a time when religion has had such a place as now in international politics, we have to go back to the wars between Catholic and Protestant Europe which ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, or the wars of Islam on Christian Europe which ebbed at about the same time, with the failure of the Turkish Muslims’ siege of Vienna in 1683.
The “war on terror”, in practice very much a war on the civil liberties of ordinary citizens, is shaped around a US war against terrorists whose whole world outlook and motive for action is shaped by Islam and by their Islamic view of an afterlife in which a special place in a peculiarly fleshly paradise, with the harems of virgins with which Allah rewards those who kill innocent people as well as themselves, is the pre-ordained heavenly payment for Muslim suicide bombers
It is tempting — and much of the pseudo-left has succumbed to the temptation — to see the “war on terror” as a “put up job”, an artificially concocted replacement for the old Cold War with Stalinist Russia, a product of the hard-core neo-con belief in the need for a “noble lie” to create an external enemy which can be used to bind atomised capitalist society together. Tempting, but stupid.
Even if US leaders seized on the attack on New York on 11 September 2001 to forward an agenda that existed long before then — the war on Iraq, for example — they did not for that purpose invent the upsurge of militant political Islam, or, rather, the emergence of political Islam as a force in international politics, operating lethally outside the Islamic countries to strike at the impious, infidel world of advanced capitalism.
Certainly “the West” encouraged and fostered political Islam. Israel encouraged the rise of the political Islamists who in the last seven years have bombed Israeli cities, with the intention of dividing the Palestinians and hindering the emergence of rational two-states politics among them.
The USA helped finance and arm the Islamist forces behind 9/11 when some of them fought the Russian invaders of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Stalinist Russia encouraged and cheered on (as did the left and pseudo-left in countries like Britain) the rise of political Islam to power in Iran in 1979.
In fact, it is testimony to the survival of old pro-Stalinist outlooks in much of the kitsch-left that, in Afghanistan, it blames the stimulation of political Islam not primarily on the Russian invaders who tried to annex Afghanistan as an old-style colony, but on Russian Stalinism’s enemies, who for their own reasons, helped Afghans fighting a just war (though a tragically complicated one, in which primitive rural Afghanistan pitted itself also against relatively advanced urban Afghanistan).
But neither the USA nor Russia created political Islam, or played an irreplaceable role in its rise. It has other, indigenous, roots.
In the Arab countries, especially, political Islam has expanded to fill the space created by the collapse of Arab nationalism. In part Arab nationalism collapsed because it had achieved all it could achieve — the independence of Arab states such as Egypt and Iraq, which were semi-dependencies of Britain until the 1950s.
It collapsed also because it failed to achieve its central political goals, the destruction of Israel and Pan-Arab unity. In the “unity of the Arab nation”, to which Nasserists, Ba’thists, and Gadaffi-ites all aspired, Islamic mysticism merged with seemingly rational objectives. That aspiration gave Arab nationalism at its peak more a religious than a secular cast of mind.
The existing state divisions in the Arab world were artificially demarcated by British and French imperialists after World War One, but, as in many other ex-colonial state units, they have proved durable. The existence of local elites, and the absence of an interknit common economy in the Arab world, proved to be decisive in frustrating the quest for Arab unity. Even when inter-state unity was achieved (between Egypt and Syria in 1958-61) it was largely fictitious, and did not last long, even as pretence.
In contrast to Arab nationalism, political Islam expresses the quasi-mystical aspiration to Arab — and more than Arab — Islamic unity in properly religious and religious-political terms. The aspiration to “restore the Caliphate” (essentially, the pre-World War One Turkish Islamic empire, of which the eastern Arab countries, except Egypt, were part) was sire and is now heir to that part of Arab nationalism.
But, most of all, Arab nationalism failed — being bourgeois and petty-bourgeois, could not but fail — to satisfy the mass aspiration for a total transformation of the hard lives of the mass of Arab workers and peasants, on whose exploitation and degradation the Arab ruling classes and state/military bureaucracies subsist. For that, the abolition of capitalism and the feudal remnants, and the conquest of state power by the workers at the head of the poor farmers — a workers’ government — was necessary. The “anti-imperialist” and anti-colonial rhetoric of Arab nationalism worked against that, by tying the proletarians and peasants to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders.
As the independence of the Arab countries became a substantial reality — in Egypt, after the failure the British/ French/ Israeli invasion of Suez of 1956 to topple the Nasser regime; in Iraq, with the republican revolution of 1958; etc. — Arab nationalism became empty demagogy in the service of goals that were reactionary (destroying Israel) or unachievable (“Arab unity”).
It was empty demagogy that appealed to the inchoate mass yearning for a radical transformation of everyday life, but whose enthusiasts could neither formulate it in terms of the rational measures it required, in the first place the overthrow of the Arab ruling classes and state-military bureaucracies, nor satisfy it.
Because it brings some (mystical, religious) satisfaction now, political Islam, whose fundamental solution to the social degradation of the masses of the Arab and Islamic peoples is not an earthly, but a heavenly one in an imaginary life after death, is a far more effective rendition of the aspiring millenarian underbelly of the old Arab nationalism. In any case, it has taken it over and builds on it.
Political Islam too expresses the disappointments and frustrations of the mass of the people in the Islamic countries with their own deprivation and poverty — on the fringe of the prosperous capitalist world, which modern communications technology allows them to see and “experience” vicariously, like the biblical Lazarus, the starved beggar squatting by the door of the feasting rich man’s home — in the form of a righteous other-world serving rejection of the West and the corrupt modern world, in favour of a delsory afterlife.
Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.
Neither covert Western encouragement, nor neo-con manipulation, is the fundamental root of the luxuriantly thriving Islamic fundamentalism.
The existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force well beyond the traditionally Muslim world: the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe.
And it is not only Islam, though Islamic fundamentalism is spectacularly militant. There is also militant primitive Christianity, most importantly in the USA. The savage joke is that the USA, the main international bulwark against political Islam, is itself riddled with its own ignorant fundamentalism. Christians in the half-demented grip of an eyes-put-out dogmatic faith in the Bible as the literal word of God, and an impervious belief that their own religious feelings, aspirations, and wishes are truths superior to reason and modern science, are an assertive and increasingly active political force in the USA. A “Fundamentalist” Christianity, as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world, is a growing force in what is, technologically, the most advanced society on Earth! The President of the USA is one of them.
Theirs is a post-Darwin Christianity — a religion utterly defeated in its old forms by modern science. Pre-Darwin religion incorporated much of secular knowledge and pseudo-knowledge about the solar system, the Earth, and its peoples. Modern religion, even the most sophisticated, can’t do that.
And it is not only America. When a journalist asked Prime Minister Tony Blair if he and President George W Bush prayed together, it was a serious question. The British Prime Minister was a crypto-Catholic who went to Mass regularly (and, no longer `Prime Minister, has now openly joined the Catholic Church). One of New Labour's Cabinet Ministers, Ruth Kelly, is an adherent of the quasi-secret Catholic cult Opus Dei, which originated in clerical-fascist Franco Spain.
The New Labour government promotes “faith schools”, schools organised on a religious sectarian basis!
In Britain now the militancy of one bigoted religion feeds off and takes encouragement from the militancy of another. When Sikhs in Birmingham rioted against a play (by a woman of Sikh background) which they did not like, and succeeded in closing it down, other religions rallied to justify them. Tomorrow they will take each other by the throats, but today the different religious bigots take each other by the hand against the forces of secularism and reason!
The wonderfully named Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor now boldly pronounces on political questions. The British state is now armed with a law which eliminates much of the distinction between racist and ethnic incitement against people and the expression of hostility to their religious ideas. This, ominously, was done by a crypto-Catholic prime minister in order to placate British Islam; scurrying to placate Islamic bigotry, it is part of a wide assault on traditional bourgeois-democratic liberties, primarily motivated by the war on Islamist terrorism.
We are in the throes of being thrown back decades, to the not so distant time when people in Britain could be prosecuted for “disrespectfully” or “obscenely” depicting Jesus Christ.
In the USA there is a new offensive against Darwinism by Christian fundamentalists, which will not end with the Maryland state Supreme Court decision against them.
In America, the roots of religious revival and growth are somewhat different than that of militant political Islam. It is the spiritual emptiness of prosperous capitalism that draws people to primitive religion or keeps them mired in it — though, of course, by no means all American citizens share in that prosperity; vast numbers of people there, too, are beggars shut out from the rich people’s feastings.
“Man does not live by bread alone”, truly says Christ in the the New Testament of the Bible, adding “but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. People need to believe in, because we yearn for, something higher than the “civilised animal” state to which commercial, capitalist, society assigns us — even when, or especially when, as with so many, capitalism frustrates even the realisation of the consumerist ideal.
People yearn for a security which is impossible to people subject to the tsunami waves endemic in a market-regulated society — economic recessions, the capitalistically rational decisions of international corporations to relocate whole industries from one end of a country to another, or from one country to another, in pursuit of cheaper labour, and the looming threat of the continued degradation and ruin of our whole ecological system.
In American populist-evangelical religion there has always been a dimension of protest against capitalism, commercialism and money power — and, as with so many political Islamists now, against much that makes up the modern world.
Simultaneously, we also see decline in the influence of organised, theologically sophisticated, hierarchical Christian churches — the Catholic Church is discredited by sex scandals even in its strongest European bastion, in Ireland — and the growth of mass belief or half-belief in primitive “superstitions” — tarot cards, horoscopes, “witchcraft”, practices outside or on the fringes of the theology and ritual of the established Christian churches. These spiritual and intellectual effluvia are the raw materials, and perhaps the precursor, of more organised and aggressive religion.
In both East and West the growth and increasing centrality of religion is in very large measure a consequence of the decline and failure of socialism as a mass force which organises working people to free themselves from exploitation, economic uncertainty, helpless dread of the future, superstition, and mere animal-like existence within or on the envious fringes of commercial capitalist society. Socialism proposes practical and rational action to achieve the aspirations that religion perverts into mysticism, unreason, and often into self-spiting and self-hatred.
Socialism offers a rational definition of ends and an equally rational system of means — the organisation of the working class and the poor on a programme of consistent democracy, economic democracy included. It proposes rational activity, as distinct from passive supplication or prayerful hope, to each individual — namely, to organise and educate themselves, and the workers around them, to achieve a defined social programme.
The defeat of socialism — and, often, the slaughter or long imprisonment of the socialists — by Stalinism, fascism, and then bourgeois democracy in the 20th century is the precondition for the social and spiritual malaise we have surveyed.
Unlike Arab nationalism, whose defeat and debunking by history was rooted in its own ineradicable limitations, socialism was defeated by brute force and by the venality and treachery of its leaders, and by the entrenched social and political power of incumbent bourgeois ruling classes.
But, it will be argued, the defeat of socialism was also a product of weaknesses intrinsic to the working class —it was the result of the difficulties that the working class, the basic wage-slave class in capitalist society, the exploited and culturally-deprived working class, has in erecting and sustaining its own political independence, and in consistently counterposing itself to the bourgeoisie? Yes, indeed. But the creation in the 19th and 20th centuries of independent revolutionary socialist working-class movements proved once and for all that it is possible to surmount those difficulties.
The victory of the working class in Russia in October 1917, the greatest event of the 20th century and one of the most important events in the whole of human history, proved that the working class, politically armed with Marxism and organised in and by a consistently democratic class-loyal and revolutionary party, is capable of becoming the ruling class. It is the great and lasting achievement of Lenin, Trotsky and their Bolshevik comrades, despite the tragic outcome of the October 1917 Revolution, to have proved that in life and action. To have definitively answered those who doubt that the working class is capable of becoming the ruling xlass, of remaking our society. Consistent socialists today thereby gained the right to see themselves as the pioneers of the revived mass revolutionary socialist working-class movement that will overthrow capitalism and replace it with a rational, humane, enculturing socialist society.
The workers’ subsequent defeat in the counter-revolution of the Stalinist autocracy was not inevitable. There will be other Octobers. Those that make them will learn from the positive, and also the negative, experience of the first.
Yet, the first result on the kitsch-Left of the present foetid regrowth of religion has been to expose the terrible lack of ideological and political self-confidence and the all-round weakness of mind and spirit that pervades that “left”
In Britain, the USA, and many other countries, the pseudo-left has collapsed prostrate at the feet of militant political Islam. They side with religious fascists — even with Al Qaeda — against the Iraqi labour movement!
The question of how socialists relate to religion, including to those religions which criticise aspects of capitalism, is again of great importance. Thus the two texts which make up the Workers’ Liberty supplement, 3/1 are very important.
The text of Nikolai Bukharin dates from 1919.
James Connolly once wrote a pamphlet — “Labour, Nationality and Religion” — replying to a Jesuit attack on socialism; but detailed records of debates on religion between Marxists and religious people are very rare. I know of only one such direct face-to-face confrontation, the debate between the Marxist Max Shachtman and the Catholic priest Charles Owen Rice before an audience of Catholic workers and socialists in Pittsburgh in December 1948.
Rice was an organiser of Catholic Action, which grouped Catholic trade-unionists on a religious-sectarian basis. Shachtman was chair of the Workers’ Party, the Trotskyist party which rejected the “orthodox Trotskyist” belief that Stalinist Russia was a (degenerated) workers’ state.
Most of the issues posed to Marxists now by political Islam are there in Shachtman’s confrontation with political Catholicism. The Catholic priest, too, is a critic of capitalism, as historically was the Catholic Church.
To the Catholic workers, Shachtman explains the attitude of Marxists to religion — unqualified support for religious freedom, combined with militant combat against religion as a social and ideological force.
We publish this pamphlet issue of WL to help the left in Britain, which is badly prepared to deal with the problems posed by militant religion. For a very long time it has been sufficient for us to ignore religion as something withered, shrivelled, and dying. A precondition for the future political health of the socialist movement is that we learn to confront and fight it, applying what is to be learned from Bukharin and from Shachtman and others in our relations to religion today.
A note about the text of the debate: it would be best to print both contributions uncut, but space will not allow that. Our concern is to present the Marxist case, and consequently Rice’s text has been abridged. In fact, so loose was the original speech that the abridgement has been possible with minimal loss of content. No point in defence or exposition of his own views, or against Marxism, has been cut.
The major change is in Rice’s style: he is here far more direct and blunt that in the uncut speech.
The reader should remember that capitalism in 1948 was not what it became in the 1950s and 60s. It was as Shachtman describes it here: large areas of Europe were ruined and wrecked, and would remain so for some years yet.
Workers Liberty, 2007