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Marxists and Religion - yesterday and today
1. Classical Marxism’s theoretical (‘philosophical’) attitude
towards religion combines three complementary elements, the germ of which can be
already found in the young Marx’s Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Law
First a critique of religion, as a factor of alienation. The human being
attributes to the divinity responsibility for a fate which owes nothing to the
latter (‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’); he/she compels
him/herself to respect obligations and prohibitions which often hamper his/her
full development; he/she submits voluntarily to religious authorities whose
legitimacy is founded either on the fantasy of their privileged relationship to
the divinity, or on their specialisation in the body of religious knowledge.
Then a critique of religious social and political doctrines. Religions are
ideological survivals of epochs long gone: religion is a ‘false consciousness of
the world’ - even more so as the world changes. Born in pre-capitalist
societies, religions have been able to undergo - like the Protestant Reformation
in the history of Christianity - renewals, which necessarily remain partial and
limited so long as a religion venerates ‘holy scriptures’. But also an
‘understanding’ (in the Weberian sense) of the psychological role which
religious belief can play for the wretched of the earth.
"Religious misery is, at one and the same time, the expression of real misery
and a protest against real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
It is the opium of the people."
From these three considerations emerges in the view of classical Marxism, one
sole conclusion set forth by the young Marx:
"The overcoming (Aufhebung) of religion as the illusory happiness of the people
is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their
illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that
requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the
criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."
2. Nevertheless, Classical Marxism did not pose the suppression of religion
as a necessary precondition of social emancipation (the remarks of the young
Marx could be read thus: in order to overcome illusions, it is necessary first
to put an end to the ‘condition that requires illusions’). In any case - as with
the State, one might say - the point is not abolishing religion, but creating
the conditions for its extinction. It is not a question of prohibiting ‘the
opium of the people’, and still less of repressing its addicts. It is only about
putting an end to the privileged relationships that those who trade in it
maintain with the powers that be, in order to reduce its grip on minds.
Three levels of attitude should be considered here: Classical Marxism, i.e. the
Marxism of the Founders, did not require the inscription of atheism in the
programme of social movements. On the contrary, in his critique of the Blanquist
émigrés from the Commune (1874), Engels mocked their pretensions to abolish
religion by decree. His clear-sightedness has been completely confirmed by the
experiences of the 20th Century, as when he asserted that "persecutions are the
best means of promoting disliked convictions" and that "the only service, which
may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of
faith to be enforced."
Republican secularism, i.e. the separation of Church and state, is on the other
hand a necessary and irreducible objective, which was already part of the
programme of radical bourgeois democracy. But here also, it is important not to
confuse separation with prohibition, even as far as education is concerned. In
his critical commentaries on the Erfurt Programme of German Social Democracy
(1891), Engels proposed the following formulation:
"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." Then he added in brackets this comment, "They cannot be
prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and from
teaching their own nonsense in them!"
The workers’ party should at the same time fight ideologically the influence of
religion. In the 1873 text, Engels celebrated the fact that the majority of
German socialist worker militants had been won to atheism, and suggested the
distribution of eighteenth century French materialist literature in order to
convince the greatest number.
In his critique of the Gotha programme of the German workers’ party (1875), Marx
explained that private freedom in matters of belief and religious practice
should be defined only in terms of rejection of state interference. He stated
the principle in this way: "Everyone should be able to attend his religious as
well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in." He added
"But the workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed
its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but
the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, whereas
it [the party] strives much more to free the consciences from the witchery of
3. Classical Marxism only envisaged religion from the viewpoint of
relationships of European societies to their own traditional religions. It took
into consideration neither the persecution of religious minorities, nor above
all, the persecution of the religions of oppressed peoples by oppressive states
belonging to another religion. In our epoch, marked by the survival of colonial
heritage and by its transposition into the imperial metropolises themselves - in
the form of an ‘internal colonialism’ whose original feature is that the
colonised themselves are expatriates, i.e. ‘immigrants’ - this aspect acquires a
In a context dominated by racism, a natural corollary of the colonial heritage,
persecutions of the religions of the oppressed, the ex-colonised, should not be
rejected only because they are the ‘best means of promoting disliked
convictions’. They should be rejected also and above all, because they are a
dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, as intolerable as political, legal,
and economic persecutions and discriminations.
To be sure, the religious practices of colonised peoples can appear as very
retrograde in the eyes of the metropolitan populations, whose material and
scientific superiority was in line with the very fact of colonisation.
Nevertheless, it is not by imposing their way of life on the colonised
populations, against their will, that the cause of the latter’s emancipation
will be served. The road to the hell of racist oppression is paved with good
‘civilising’ intentions, and we know how much the workers’ movement itself was
contaminated by charitable pretensions and philanthropic illusions in the
Engels however had indeed warned against this colonial syndrome. In a letter to
Kautsky, dated 12 September 1882, he formulated an emancipatory policy of the
proletariat in power, wholly marked with the caution necessary so as not to
transform a presumed liberation into a disguised oppression:
"The countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated,
India, Algiers, the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, must be taken
over for the time being by the proletariat and led as rapidly as possible
towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India
will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution, and as the proletariat
emancipating itself cannot conduct any colonial wars, this would have to be
given full scope; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of
course, but that sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same
might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algiers and Egypt, and would certainly
be the best thing for us.
"We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North
America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the
semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic
needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political
phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise
arrive at socialist organisation, we to-day can only advance rather idle
hypotheses, I think. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can
force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its
own victory by so doing."
An elementary truth but still so often ignored: any ‘blessings’ imposed by force
equal oppression, and could not be perceived otherwise by those who are
subjected to them.
4. The question of the Islamic scarf (hijab) condenses all the problems posed
above. It allows us to outline the Marxist attitude in all its aspects.
In most countries where Islam is the religion of the majority, religion is still
the dominant form of ideology. Retrograde, more or less literal, interpretations
of Islam serve to maintain whole populations in submission and cultural
backwardness. Women especially and intensively undergo a secular oppression,
draped in religious legitimisation.
In such a context, the ideological struggle against the use of religion as a
means of submission is key in the fight for emancipation. The separation of
religion and the state should be a demand prioritised by the movement for social
progress. Democrats and progressives must fight for the freedom of every man and
woman in matters of unbelief, of belief and of religious practice. At the same
time, the fight for women’s liberation remains the very criterion of any
emancipatory identity, the touchstone of any progressive claim.
One of the most elementary aspects of women’s freedom is their individual
freedom to dress as they like. When the Islamic scarf and, a fortiori, more
enveloping versions of this type of garment, are imposed on women, they are one
of the numerous forms of everyday sexual oppression - a form all the more
visible as it serves to make women invisible. The struggle against the
requirement to wear the scarf or other veils is inseparable from the struggle
against other aspects of female servitude.
However, the emancipatory struggle would be gravely compromised if it sought to
‘free’ women by force, by resorting to coercion, not with regard to their
oppressors but with regard to women themselves. Tearing off religious garb by
force - even if it is judged that wearing it denotes voluntary servitude - is an
oppressive action and not an action of real emancipation. It is moreover an
action doomed to failure, as Engels predicted: the fate of Islam in the
ex-Soviet Union as well as the evolution of Turkey eloquently illustrate the
inanity of any attempt to eradicate religion or religious practices by coercion.
‘Everyone should be able to attend his/her religious as well as his/her bodily
needs’ - women wearing the hijab or men wearing beards - ‘without the police
sticking their noses’.
Defending this elementary individual freedom is the indispensable condition of
an effective fight against religious diktats. The prohibition of the hijab
paradoxically legitimises the act of imposing it in the eyes of those who
consider it an article of faith. Only the principles of freedom of conscience
and of strictly individual religious practice, whether in relation to clothing
or anything else, and the respect for these principles by secular governments,
allow legitimate and successful opposition to religious coercion. The Koran
itself proclaims ‘No coercion in religion’!
Moreover and at the risk of challenging freedom of education, the prohibition of
the Islamic scarf or other religious signs in state schools in the name of
secularism is an eminently self-defeating position, since it results in
promoting religious schools.
5. In France, Islam has been for a very long time the majority religion of
the ‘indigenous’ people in the colonies and it has been for decades the religion
of the great majority of immigrants, the ‘colonised’ of the interior. In such a
case, every form of persecution of the Islamic religion - numerically the second
religion of France, though it is very inferior to the others in status - should
Compared with religions present on French soil for centuries, Islam is
underprivileged. It is victim to glaring discrimination, for example concerning
its places of worship or the domineering supervision that the French state,
saturated with colonial mentality, imposes on it. Islam is a religion vilified
daily in the French media, in a manner that is fortunately no longer possible
against the previous prime target of racism, Judaism, after the Nazi genocide
and the Vichy complicity. A great amount of confusion laced with ignorance and
racism filtered through the media, maintains an image of an Islamic religion
intrinsically unfit for modernity, as well as the amalgam of Islam and
terrorism, facilitated by the inappropriate use of the term ‘Islamism’ as a
synonym for Islamic fundamentalism.
Of course, the official and dominant discourse is not overtly hostile; it even
makes itself out to be benevolent, its eyes fixed on the considerable interests
of big French capital - oil, arms, construction etc., in the Islamic lands.
However, colonial condescension toward Muslim men and women and their religion
is just as insufferable for them as open racist hostility. The colonial spirit
is not confined to the right in France; it has long been rooted in the French
left, constantly torn in its history between a colonialism blended with an
essentially racist condescension expressed as paternalism, and a tradition of
Even at the beginning of the split of the French workers’ movement between
social democrats and communists, a right wing emerged among the communists of
the metropolis themselves (without mentioning the French communists in Algeria),
particularly distinguishing itself by its position on the colonial question. The
communist right betrayed its anti-colonialist duty when the insurrection of the
Moroccan Rif, under the leadership of the tribal and religious chief Abd el-Krim,
confronted French troops in 1925.
The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz about this to the Executive Committee of the
Communist International retains certain relevance:
"The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the
insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same
degree of civilisation as the French armies, and that semi-barbarian tribes
cannot be fraternised with. It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim
has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight
the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French
imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not
to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the
rapacity of French imperialism."
6. The duty of Marxists in France is to fight unfailingly racist and
religious oppression conducted by the imperial bourgeoisie and its state, before
fighting religious prejudice in the midst of the immigrant populations.
When the French state concerns itself with regulating the way in which young
Muslim women dress themselves and exclude from school those who persist in
wearing the Islamic scarf; when the latter are taken as targets of a media and
political campaign whose scale is out of proportion with the extent of the
phenomenon concerned and thus reveals its oppressive character, perceived as
Islamophobic or racist, whatever the intentions expressed; when the same state
favours the well-known expansion of religious communal education through
increasing subsidies to private education, thus aggravating the divisions
between the exploited layers of the French population - the duty of Marxists, in
the light of everything explained above, is to be resolutely opposed.
This has not been the case for a good part of those who call themselves Marxists
in France. On the question of the Islamic scarf, the position of the Ligue de
l’Enseignement (the League for Education), whose secularist commitment is above
all suspicion, is much closer to genuine Marxism than that of numerous bodies
that claim it as their source of inspiration. Thus, one can read the following
in the declaration adopted by the Ligue, at its June 2003 general meeting at
"The Ligue de l’Enseignement, whose whole history is marked by constant activity
in support of secularism, considers that to legislate on the wearing of
religious symbols is inopportune. Any law would be useless or impossible.
"The risk is obvious. Whatever precautions are taken, there is no doubt that the
effect obtained will be a prohibition, which will in fact stigmatise Muslims....
"For those who would wish to make the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a
political fight, exclusion from state schools will not prevent them from
studying elsewhere, in institutions in which they will have every opportunity to
find themselves justified and strengthened in their attitude....
"Integration of all citizens, independent of their origins and convictions,
passes through the recognition of a cultural diversity, which should express
itself in the framework of the equality of treatment that the Republic should
guarantee to everyone. On these grounds Muslims as with other believers, should
benefit from freedom of religion in the respect for the rules that a pluralist
and deeply secular society imposes. The struggle for the emancipation of young
women in particular goes primarily through their schooling and respect for their
freedom of conscience and their autonomy: let us not make them hostages to an
otherwise necessary ideological debate. In order to struggle against an enclosed
identity, secularist pedagogy, the struggle against discrimination, the fight
for social justice and equality are more effective than prohibition."
In its report of 4 November 2003, submitted to the Commission on the application
of the principle of secularism in the Republic, the Ligue de L’Enseignement
deals admirably with Islam and its representations in France, of which only some
excerpts are quoted here:
"The resistance and discrimination encountered by the ‘Muslim populations’ in
French society are not essentially due, as is too often said, to the lack of
integration of these populations but to majority representations and attitudes
which stem in large part from an old historic heritage.
"The first is the refusal to recognise the contribution of Arab-Muslim
civilisation to world culture and to our own western culture....
"To this concealment and rejection is added the colonial heritage ... bearer of
a deep and long-lasting tradition of violence, inequality and racism, which the
difficulties of de-colonisation, and then the rifts of the Algerian war
amplified and reinforced. The ethnic, social, cultural, and religious oppression
of the indigenous Muslim populations of the French colonies was a constant
practice, to the point that it is echoed in limitations to its legal status. It
is thus that Islam was considered as an element of the personal statute and not
as a religion coming under the 1905 Law of Separation (of Church and State -
"For the whole duration of colonisation, the principle of secularism never
applied to the indigenous populations and to their religion because of the
opposition of the colonial lobby, and in spite of the requests of the ulema
(Muslim scholars - trans) who had understood that the secular regime would give
them freedom of religion. Why should we be surprised then that for a very long
time secularism for Muslims was synonymous with a colonial mind-police! How
should we expect that it would not leave deep traces, as much on the previously
colonised as on the colonizing country? If many Muslims today still consider
that Islam should regulate public and private civil behaviour, and tend
sometimes to adopt such a profile, without demanding the status of law for this,
it is because France and the secular Republic have ordered them to do it for
"If many French people, sometimes even amongst the best educated who occupy
prominent positions, allow themselves to make pejorative appraisals of Islam,
whose ignorance vies with their stupidity, it is because they subscribe, most
often unconsciously while denying it, to this tradition of colonial contempt."
A third aspect gets in the way of the consideration of Islam on a footing of
equality: it is that Islam as a transplanted religion is also a religion of the
poor. Unlike the Judeo-Christian religions whose followers in France are spread
across the whole social chessboard, and in particular unlike Catholicism,
historically integrated into the dominant class, Muslims, whether French
citizens or immigrants living in France, are situated for the moment in their
great majority at the bottom of the social ladder.
There the colonial tradition still continues, since the cultural oppression of
the indigenous populations was added to economic exploitation, and since the
latter has for a long time weighed very heavily on the first immigrant
generations, while today their heirs are the first victims of unemployment and
urban neglect. The social contempt and injustice that strike these social
categories affect every aspect of their existence, including the religious
dimension. No one is offended by the scarves on the heads of cleaners or
catering staff in offices: they only become the object of scandal when worn with
pride by girls engaged in studies or women with managerial status.
The lack of understanding shown by the main organisations of the
extra-parliamentary Marxist left in France of the identity and cultural problems
of the populations concerned, is revealed by the composition of their electoral
slates in the European elections: both in 1999 and 2004 citizens originating
from populations previously colonized - from the Maghreb or from sub-Saharan
Africa in particular - have been outstanding by their absence at the tops of the
LCR-LO slates, by contrast with the French Communist Party slates, a party so
many times stigmatized for its failures in the antiracist struggle by these two
organizations. In so doing they are at the same time depriving themselves of an
electoral potential amongst the most oppressed layers in France, a potential
which the results obtained in 2004 by an improvised slate such as Euro-Palestine
demonstrated in a spectacular fashion.
7. In mentioning "those who would wish to make of the wearing of a religious
symbol a tool for a political fight", the Ligue de l’Enseignement was alluding,
of course, to Islamic fundamentalism. The expansion of this political phenomenon
in the West amongst people originating from Muslim immigration, after its strong
expansion for the last thirty years in Islamic countries, has been in France the
preferred argument of those whishing to prohibit the Islamic scarf.
The argument is a real one: like the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other
fundamentalisms aiming to imposed a puritan interpretation of religion as a code
of life, if not as a mode of government, Islamic fundamentalism is a real danger
to social progress and emancipatory struggles. By taking care to establish a
clear distinction between religion as such and its fundamentalist
interpretation, the most reactionary of all, it is necessary to fight Islamic
fundamentalism ideologically and politically, as much in the Islamic countries
as in the midst of the Muslim minorities in the West or elsewhere.
That cannot however constitute an argument in favour of a public prohibition of
the Islamic scarf: the Ligue de l’Enseignement has explained this in a
convincing fashion. More generally, Islamophobia is the best objective ally of
Islamic fundamentalism: their growth goes together. The more the left gives the
impression of joining the dominant Islamophobia, the more they will alienate the
Muslim populations, and the more they will facilitate the task of the Islamic
fundamentalists, who will appear as the only people able to express the protests
of the populations concerned against "real misery".
Islamic fundamentalism is, however, heterogeneous and different tactics should
be adopted according to concrete situations. When this type of social programme
is administered by an oppressive power and by its allies in order to legitimate
the existing oppression, as in the case of numerous despotisms with an Islamic
face; or when it becomes a political weapon of reaction struggling against a
progressive power, as was the case in the Arab world, in the 1950-1970 period,
when Islamic fundamentalism was the spearhead of the reactionary opposition to
Egyptian Nasserism and its emulators - the only appropriate stance is that of an
implacable hostility to the fundamentalists.
It is different when Islamic fundamentalism plays the role of a
politico-ideological channel for a cause that is objectively progressive, a
deforming channel, certainly, but filling the void left by the failure or
absence of movements of the left. This is the case in situations where Islamic
fundamentalists are fighting a foreign occupation (Afghanistan, Lebanon,
Palestine, Iraq, etc.) or an ethnic or racial oppression as in those situations
where they incarnate a popular hatred of a politically reactionary and
repressive regime. It is also the case of Islamic fundamentalism in the West,
where its rise is generally the expression of a rebellion against the fate
reserved for immigrant populations.
Indeed as with religion in general, Islamic fundamentalism can be "at one and
the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery",
with the difference that in this case the protest is active: it is not "the
opium" of the people, but rather "the heroin" of one part of the people, derived
from ‘the opium’ and substituting its ecstatic effect for the narcotic effect of
In all these types of situation, it is necessary to adopt tactics appropriate to
the circumstances of the struggle against the oppressor, the common enemy. While
never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic
fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic
fundamentalists in common battles - from simple street demonstrations to armed
resistance, depending on the case.
8. Islamic fundamentalists can be objective and contingent allies in a fight
waged by Marxists. However it is an unnatural alliance, forced by circumstances.
The rules that apply to much more natural alliances such as those practised in
the struggle against Tsarism in Russia, are here to be respected a fortiori, and
even more strictly.
These rules were clearly defined by the Russian Marxists at the beginning of the
20th Century. In his preface of January 1905 to Trotsky’s pamphlet Before the
Ninth of January, Parvus summarised them thus:
"To simplify, in the case of a common struggle with casual allies, the following
points can be applied:
1) Do not merge organisations. March separately but strike together.
2) Do not abandon our own political demands.
3) Do not conceal divergences of interest.
4) Pay attention to our ally as we would pay attention to an enemy.
5) Concern ourselves more with using the situation created by the struggle than
with keeping an ally."
"Parvus is profoundly right" wrote Lenin in an article in April 1905, published
in the newspaper Vperiod, underlining the definite understanding, however (very
appropriately brought to mind), that the organisations are not to be merged,
that we march separately but strike together, that we do not conceal the
diversity of interests, that we watch our ally as we would our enemy, etc.
The Bolshevik leader would enumerate many times these conditions over the years.
Trotsky tirelessly defended the same principles. In The Third International
After Lenin (1928), in his polemic about alliances with the Chinese Kuomintang,
he wrote the following lines particularly apt for the subject under discussion
"As was said long ago, purely practical agreements, such as do not bind us in
the least and do not oblige us to anything politically, can be concluded with
the devil himself, if that is advantageous at a given moment. But it would be
absurd in such a case to demand that the devil should generally become converted
to Christianity, and that he use his horns.... for pious deeds. In presenting
such conditions, we act in reality as the devil’s advocates, and beg him to let
us become his godfathers."
A number of Trotskyists do exactly the opposite of what Trotsky advocated, in
their relationship with Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Not in France,
where Trotskyists, in their majority, rather bend the stick the other way, as
has already been explained, but on the other side of the Channel, in Britain.
The British far-left has the merit of having displayed a greater openness to the
Muslim populations than the French far-left. It has organised impressive
mobilisations with the massive participation of people originating from Muslim
immigration against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the government of
its country participated. In the anti-war movement, it even went as far as
allying itself with a Muslim organisation of fundamentalist inspiration, the
Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the British arm of the main ‘moderate’
Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood
(represented in the parliaments of some countries).
There is nothing reprehensible in principle in such an alliance for well-defined
objectives so long as the rules laid out above are strictly respected. The
problem begins however with treating this particular organisation, which is far
from representative of the great mass of Muslims in Britain, as a privileged
ally. More generally, British Trotskyists have tended, during their alliance
with the MAB in the anti-war movement, to do the opposite of what was stated
above, i.e. 1) mixing banners and placards, in the literal as well as figurative
sense; 2) minimising the importance of the elements of their political identity
likely to embarrass their fundamentalist allies of the day; and finally 3)
treating these temporary allies as if they were strategic allies, in renaming
‘anti-imperialists’ those whose vision of the world corresponds much more to the
clash of civilisations than to the class struggle.
9. This tendency was made worse by the passage from an alliance in the
context of an anti-war mobilisation to an alliance in the electoral field. The
MAB as such did not, to be sure, join the electoral coalition Respect, led by
the British Trotskyists, its fundamentalist principles preventing it from
subscribing to a left programme. However, the alliance between the MAB and
Respect translated for example into the candidacy on the Respect slate of a very
prominent leader of the MAB, the ex-president and spokesperson of the
In doing this the alliance passed de facto to a qualitatively superior level,
unacceptable from a Marxist point of view: While it can be legitimate indeed to
enter into ‘purely practical agreements’ that ‘do not oblige us to anything
politically’ other than the action for common objectives - as it happens, to
express opposition to the war conducted by the British government together with
the United States and to denounce the fate inflicted on the Palestinian people -
with groups and/or individuals who adhere otherwise to a fundamentally
reactionary conception of society, it is utterly unacceptable for Marxists to
conclude an electoral alliance - a type of alliance which presupposes a common
conception of political and social change - with these sorts of partners.
In the nature of things, participating in the same electoral slate as a
religious fundamentalist is to give the mistaken impression that he has been
converted to social progressiveness and to the cause of workers’ emancipation
both male...and female! The very logic of this type of alliance pushes those who
are engaged in it, in the face of the inevitable criticism of their political
competitors, to defend their allies of the day and to minimise, even to hide,
the deep differences that divide them. They become their advocates, even their
godfathers and godmothers within the progressive social movement.
Lindsey German, a central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party and of
the Respect Coalition, signed an article in The Guardian described as
"wonderful" on the MAB website. Under the title "A badge of honour", the author
energetically defended the alliance with the MAB, explaining that it is an
honour for her and her comrades to see the victims of Islamophobia turning
towards them, with a surprising justification for the alliance. Let us summarise
the argument: the Muslim fundamentalists are not the only people to be
anti-women and homophobic, Christian fundamentalists are equally so. Moreover,
women speak more and more for the MAB in anti-war meetings (as they do in
meetings organised by the mullahs in Iran, it could be added). The fascists of
the BNP (British National Party) are much worse than the MAB.
Of course, continued Lindsey German, some Muslims - and non-Muslims - hold views
on some social issues that are more conservative than those of the socialist and
liberal left. But that should not be a barrier to collaboration over common
concerns. Would a campaign for gay rights, for example, insist that all those
who took part share the same view of the war in Iraq?
This last argument is perfectly admissible if it only concerns the anti-war
campaign. But if used to justify an electoral alliance, with a much more global
programme than a campaign for lesbian and gay rights, it becomes altogether
10. Electoralism is a very short-sighted policy. In order to achieve an
electoral breakthrough, the British Trotskyists are playing, in this case, a
game that risks undermining the construction of a radical left in their country.
What decided them, is firstly and above all an electoral calculation: attempting
to capture the votes of the considerable masses of people of immigrant origin
who reject the wars conducted by London and Washington (let us note in passing
that the alliance with the MAB, was made around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars,
and not around the Kosovo war - and for a good reason!). The objective in
itself, is legitimate, when it is translated - as has been the case - into the
concern to recruit amongst men and women workers and young people of immigrant
origin, through a particular attention paid to the specific oppression that they
experience, and through the promotion to this end of left men and women
militants belonging to these communities, notably by placing them in a good
position on electoral slates - everything in short which the French far left has
But in choosing to ally electorally - even though in a limited way - with an
Islamic fundamentalist organisation like the MAB, the British far left is
serving as a stepping stone for the former organisation’s own expansion in the
communities of immigrant origin, whereas it should be considered as a rival to
be ideologically fought and restricted from an organisational point of view.
Sooner or later this unnatural alliance will hit a stumbling block and will fly
to pieces. Trotskyists will then have to confront those whom they have helped to
grow for the mess of pottage of an electoral result, and it is far from sure
that the results owe much to their fundamentalist partners anyhow.
All we need to do is look at the arguments used by the fundamentalists in
calling for a vote for Respect (and for others, such as the Mayor of London, the
left Labourite Ken Livingstone, much more opportunist than the Trotskyists in
his relations with the Islamic association). Let us read the fatwa of Sheikh
Haitham Al-Haddad, dated 5 June 2004 and published on the MAB website.
The venerable sheikh explains that it is obligatory for those Muslims living
under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to
make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in
all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for
them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good.
The sheikh then underlines the difference between a vote for one of a number of
systems, and voting to select the best individual amongst a number of candidates
within an already-established system imposed upon them and which they are unable
to change within the immediate future.
"There is no doubt", he continues, "that the first type is an act of Kufr
[impious], as Allah says, ’Legislation is for none but Allah’, while voting for
a candidate or party who rules according to man-made law does not necessitate
approval or acceptance for his method." Therefore "we should participate in
voting, believing that we are doing so in an attempt to minimise the evil, while
at the same time maintaining that the best system is the Shariah, which is the
law of Allah.
"Voting being lawful, the question is then posed for whom to vote.
"The answer to such a question requires a deep and meticulous understanding of
the political arena. Consequently, I believe that individuals should avoid
involving themselves in this process and rather should entrust this
responsibility to the prominent Muslim organisations.... It is upon the
remainder of the Muslims therefore to accept and follow the decisions of these
In conclusion, the venerable Sheikh calls on the Muslims of Great Britain, to
follow the electoral instructions of the MAB and ends with this prayer: "We ask
Allah to guide us to the right path and to grant victory for law of our Lord,
Allah in the UK and in other parts of the world."
This fatwa needs no comment. The deep incompatibility between the intentions of
the Sheikh consulted by the MAB and the task that Marxists set for themselves or
should set for themselves, in their activity in relation to the Muslim
populations, is blatant. Marxists should not seek to harvest votes at any price,
as opportunist politicians who stop at nothing to get elected do. Support like
that of Sheikh Al-Haddad is a poisoned gift. It should be harshly criticised:
the battle for ideological influence within populations originating from
immigration is much more fundamental than an electoral result, however
The radical left, on one or another side of the Channel, should return to an
attitude consistent with Marxism, which it proclaims. Otherwise, the hold of the
fundamentalists over the Muslim populations risks reaching a level which will be
extremely difficult to overcome. The gulf between these populations and the rest
of the men and women workers in Europe will find itself widened, while the task
of bridging it is one of the essential conditions for replacing the clash of
barbarisms with a common fight of the workers and the oppressed against