Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Chris Harman: the SWP Must Always Support Muslims

(... is for mugs.)

*) Chris Harman, ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’, 1999, updated in 2002, from the website Reds,


 [This introduction is largely a repetition of the one used in the first part one of my essay on Chris Harman.]

The following essay is part three of a response to - and critique of- Chris Harman’s influential essay, ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’ (1999/updated in 2002).

Harman's own essay can be seen as both a defence - and the beginnings - of the contemporary situation of strong Marxist-Islamist collaboration, both intellectually speaking and in terms of political activism.

Harman’s basic point is that Islam, or at least Islamism, is more revolutionary or radical than Christianity and the other monotheistic religions. He is not, of course, completely sympathetic to Islam or Islamism. That doesn’t matter. Because of the Marxist analysis of religion, which Harman fully endorses, Islam, and all religions, are seen as merely the epiphenomena (or ‘superstructure’) of the much more important socio-economic material conditions. Thus it is those basic socio-economic conditions which must be changed; through revolution. So it makes little sense to (contemporary) Marxists to criticise Islam when it is seen as merely the causal outcome of given material socio-economic conditions. More specifically in the case of Islam or Islamism, such conditions as class, class conflict and, more importantly, Western, US, or European imperialism.

Chris Harman himself was the prime intellectual of the Socialist Workers Party after the death of its founder, Tony Cliff. He was also a member of the SWP’s Central Committee. He died in November last year (2009), in Cairo.


Harman makes two fundamental points about the Islamists:

i) Marxists must not ‘write them off as fascists, with whom we have nothing in common’.
ii) Marxists must not ‘see them as “progressive” who must not be criticised’.

It can be said that the Old Left, on the whole, did ‘write [Islamists] off as fascists’. Some Leftists still do. Today, however, many Marxists, especially Harman’s very own Socialist Workers Party, do indeed ‘see them as “progressives”’. Harman wisely sees the obvious problem with these two diametrically opposed positions on Islamism and Islamists.

On the one hand, if Marxists do ‘write [Islamists and Muslims]off as fascists’, then clearly they cannot also ‘be tapped for progressive purposes’. That is, they cannot be used by Marxists or by the SWP. In addition, if utterly dismissed then there will be no opportunity for Marxists ‘to argue strongly with them, to challenge them’ and thus to ‘seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms of struggle’. Thus they cannot be made into Marxists or members of the SWP.

On the other hand, if Marxists or SWP-ers see them as ‘progressives’, then Marxists rule themselves out of a job. If Islamists are indeed genuine progressives, then Marxists have nothing really to teach them. In other words, the Islamists (may) have no further to go in their progressiveness, as it were. Again, Marxists would deny themselves the opportunity of making the Islamists into members of the SWP if they think that the Islamists are already true progressives.

It seems, then, that Marxists are in some kind of a bind. If they see Islamists as simple fascists, then there will be no collaborations with them or any kind of support for them. If they are fascists, they must be fought against instead. Thus SWP-ers deny themselves potential revolution-fodder which they could otherwise ‘tap into’.

But if they are progressives, then the SWP has nothing more to teach them. What justification would a Marxist have for converting an Islamist to Marxism if that Islamist is already a progressive - or already seen as a progressive - by Marxists? What is the solution? Harman says:

‘With the Islamists sometimes. With the state never.’

This may also lead to another SWP diktat, once used about the IRA. Thus:

‘Complete but critical support.’

One can immediately say that if the support for Islamists (or the IRA) is ‘complete’, then what’s the point of it also being ‘critical’? What is the point of criticism if at the end of the day one’s support of Islamism is complete? In other words, no matter what the Islamists do, no matter how much the SWP criticises them, the SWP will still support them because that support must be ‘complete’. In concrete terms, this means that an SWP-er may well criticise a Islamist for his sexism, his adventurism, his anti-Semitism, etc., but at the end of the day he will still support the Islamist because, after all, he is still ‘fighting the state’. And anyone – anyone – who fights the state is a friend of the Marxist or the SWP! In Harman’s own words, even if the Islamist’s own ‘oppressions’ of ‘minorities, women and gays’ are fully criticised, the SWP-er will still support him ‘against the state’. Again, the criticism will prove to be pretty pointless if in the end the support is complete or total.

However, Harman himself actually says ‘with the Islamists sometimes’, not every time. Despite that, I think that the SWP today is with the Islamists at all times. Not only that, there is precious little, or no, criticism of Islamists or even Muslims from the SWP. This goes against what Harman says in this essay at least. Harman only died a few months ago, so either he changed his mind on this or he didn’t have his way on this issue with the SWP as a whole. Alternatively, perhaps he stuck by his position, but he wasn’t followed by the rest of the SWP (or, I should say, by the Central Committee). For example, what would he think of non-Muslim SWP female members wearing the hijab when jointly involved with Muslim men in political activity? What would he have thought about the separate seating arrangements for men and women at some SWP and anti-war events? My guess would be that he would supported these things. Or, at the least, he would not have kicked up a stink about them. After all, it is a Trotskyist we are talking about here. And we all know that they do anything, or say anything, which furthers the revolution or helps to radicalise minorities. Thus if wearing hijab or allowing separate seating arrangements helps radicalise, or helps contribute to the Revolution, then so be it. These things must be supported, even if they leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

Thus we must conclude that the SWP today (Harman wrote this essay some years back) is fairly happy that Islamists ‘scapegoat… ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays’, as long as they are otherwise ‘against the State’.

On the other hand, if the Islamists are seen as ‘progressives’, as Harman warns, contemporary SWP-ers, whether they know it or not, are supporting groups or individuals ‘at the expense of the left’ (both at home and ‘in much of the Middle East’). More than that, it seems that the contemporary unequivocal support of Muslims and Islamists from the SWP looks very much like Harman’s case of the ‘abandonment [of] the goal of independent socialist politics, based on workers in struggle’. In addition, SWP-ers today are forgoing the opportunity of making Islamists ‘question their allegiance to its ideas and organisations’ (4). Either all that, or I have Harman’s position wrong in a big way.


Harman’s position on supporting Islamists, as well as the SWP’s similar stance today, is very simple. It is this:

If one does not support Islamists, or Muslims generally, one must be supporting the state instead.

That is because the state is against Muslims and Islamists. Full stop. This is something that Harman simply takes for granted in this essay. Why not this? –

A position against both Muslims/Islamists and the state.

Harman is specific about his support for Muslims and Islamists and the reasons why Leftists (and others) may be against them. He gives the example of ‘secular values’. Leftists may be in favour of secular values. Muslims and Islamists, almost by definition, are not. Thus it may follow, or does follow, that such Leftists must therefore be against Muslims and Islamists because they are against secular values. Harman says that Leftists must not take this position against Islamists and Muslims because if they do, they are siding with the State. And one must always be ‘against the state’ if one is a Marxist revolutionary: ‘With the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.’

Harman’s defence of Islamism and the Islamists is even deeper than that. Harman does not want the Islamists to be against the Leftists, just as he doesn’t want Leftists to be against the Islamists. Thus if Leftists attack Islamists, or even simply champion secular values, then that will

‘merely make it easier for the Islamists to portray the left as part of an “infidel”, “secularist” conspiracy of the “oppressors” against the most impoverished sections of society.’
Thus the very defence of secular values is taken by Harman to be some kind of attack on Muslims – ‘the most impoverished section of society’. Or does he mean that Leftists must not speak about secular values in front of potential Islamist or Muslim comrades or collaborators? However, you either support secular values or you do not, regardless of how others (in this case, Islamists) interpret or see your position. Surely one cannot deny one’s belief in secular values simply because it will alienate one’s potential Muslim comrades or collaborators. Again, is this just a case of Trotskyists keeping quiet when Muslims are around? Or was Harman himself against secular values? Perhaps secular values are also ‘bourgeois inventions’. If you do not support secular values, mustn’t you support religious or theocratic values instead? Surely Harman did not. Unless Harman believes that this is not a simple choice between binary opposites – secular values versus theocratic/religious values. It may well be the case that if secular values are seen as bourgeois or capitalistic by Harman, then there may well be other options. What about Marxist values? Or even a valueless system or ideology? After all, Marx himself said that moral philosophy, or morality/ethics itself, is a bourgeois/capitalist ‘invention’. He certainly believed such things to be class-based and class-determined. How could a Marxist not think that?

Harman himself gives examples of Leftists supporting the state against Muslims or Islamists. The Left in Algerian and Egypt ‘praised regimes that were… [seen by them] as “progressive”’. Presumably, although it is not made clear by Harman, this praise was in response to the Algerian and Egyptian regimes attempts to secularise the state. However, the Left should never have done such a thing. They should be against ‘the state at all times’, even when it is secularising itself. According to Harman, this secularising behaviour of Egypt and Algeria did ‘nothing for the mass of people’. Not only that, it ‘enabled the Islamists to grow’. So be careful about who or what you support. This is a position of complete rejection of the state. Even if the state is offering the working people higher wages and shorter hours, Marxists like Harman must still be against the state. If the State does anything against Islamism or Muslim militancy they should never be supported. Such is the absolutist position of the SWP and Harman. This helps explain some of the nasty causes, groups and individuals they have supported over the years - from the introduction of halal meat, the support Muslim bigots, the support of (Muslim) single-sex schools, etc. You must never support the state even if it is against ritual slaughter. Contrawise, one must always support minorities or oppressed groups, no matter what they believe or what they do.

One wonders, then, about the nature of this far-leftist support of Islamists and Muslims generally. Specifically when one notes that Harman says that socialists must ‘combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism’. What form would this independence actually take (especially bearing in mind the care and attention Leftists must show when dealing with Islamists and Muslims)? For example, surely if Marxists stressed and even argued for atheism, and other positions at odds with Islam, this would be bound to alienate Muslims from Leftists. This is something that Harman himself seems to argue. Again, what kind of independence is Harman talking about? Is it a silent independence? An independence which does not speak its name – at least not in front of Islamists or Muslims generally?

Perhaps Marxists should catch the Islamists when they are off guard rather than pontificate about Marxism in front of them. Harman seems to hint at this ambivalent and difficult independence. For example, despite Marxists keeping quiet about their beliefs in front of Islamists and Muslims, it is still the case that they should show a

‘willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms of struggle alongside them’.

This must be a case of the SWP-ers keeping an eye out for Islamists or Muslims having doubts about Islam and then jumping in for the kill. But Marxists should only do so when a genuine opportunity to draw individual Islamists into the fold shows itself. All this is very ambivalent and almost cynical on Harman’s part. Indeed it sounds like classic Trotskyism – the doing and saying of anything to further the cause of Trotskyism or Revolution. In this case it means collaborating with Islamists but at the same time being observant of the ‘opportunities to draw individual Islamists’ towards the truth path of Trotskyism or Marxism. This is also pure realpolitik.


Despite all that, Harman also says that he is not in favour of making Islamists ‘allies’ of the far left. This is not because they are reactionary, or just plain mistaken, but because they are the far left’s competition. Pure and simple. They are competing with the revolutionary socialists to ‘influence the working classes’. As a revolutionary socialist, this competition cannot be accepted. Thus Harman concludes that the ‘Islamists are not our allies’. If the revolutionary socialists were to make the Islamists their ‘allies’, then they would effectively give up some or all of their political power – or potential political power. It seems, then, that this has little or nothing to do with the fact that Islamists are reactionary, fundamentalist or even radical. They are the revolutionary socialists’ competitors. And that’s that.

Although, of course, this lack of full support for the Islamists has to be given an ideological veneer which will cover the simple fact of rejecting the competition qua competition. Thus Islamists are ‘utopians’ who sometimes indulge in ‘adventurist’ political actions. Marxists, or revolutionary socialists, are not utopians or adventurists; though it is hard to tell why from Harman's 'The Prophet and the Proleteriat'.

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