Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The SWP's Chris Harman on the History of Islam

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


i) Introduction
ii) Religion Generally
iii) Now Islam


[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 two 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.

Religion Generally

 Harman offers his own little bit of history - or his ‘Marxist analysis’ of the history of Islam and the Catholic Church. Firstly he deals with the Catholic Church and then with Islam.

He makes his basic Marxist historical point by stressing the fact that that the Catholic Church ‘adapted itself’ to various socio-economic and political realities and changes. This is the basic evidence that the Catholic Church responds to History (with a capital ‘H’), rather than shapes it. Even more bluntly, the Catholic Church (or Catholicism) was an effect, not actually a cause. It was the effect of various socio-economic material conditions. It didn’t bring these socio-economic conditions about. Thus the arrow only points in one direction. Thus:

i) socio-economic material conditions/realties → the Catholic Church (its dogmas, institutions, people, etc.)

To stress, it is not a case of this:

ii) the Catholic Church → socio-economic material conditions/realities


Firstly, Harman said that the Catholic Church ‘adapted itself to feudal society’, even though it had ‘originated in the late ancient world’. Then it adapted itself to the ‘capitalist society which [had] replaced feudalism’. Each time the Catholic Church adapted itself and had to ‘change much of the content of its own teaching in the process’.

The other way of putting the material-conditions-caused-the-Catholic-Church causal sequence, is to state it as a simple temporal sequence:

i) Firstly, there were given socio-economic material conditions/realities (feudalism or capitalism).
ii) Then there was the Catholic Church.

This is a materialist and a deterministic Marxist thesis.

i) Just as Marxists strongly deny genetic determinism because it over-stresses the impact of genes (or only stresses genes) when it comes to the formation of character and other aspects of human psychology,
ii) so Marxists strongly stress (or only stress) the material conditions/realities when it comes to formation of both society and human psychology/mind.

Marxists are against genetic determinism but in favour of socio-economic determinism. In both cases, human agency is effectively denied. Except, in the Marxist case, the socio-economic material realities, which would otherwise determine psychology and society, are diverted or trumped by Marxist persons because they are effectively the only ones who are fully aware of that very same socio-economic determinism. This knowledge, or cognisance, of the material conditions/realities, effectively subverts what would otherwise be a complete determinism.

It is of course the case that non-Marxists, and Catholics, will not deny that there are socio-economic forces in history which shape society and psychology. How could they? No one would deny such things. The thing is, though, that Marxists see the causal arrow as working only in one direction. Thus:

i) socio-economic material conditions → society, psychology/mind, ideology, etc.


The arrow, to the Marxist, never works in the other direction. Thus:

ii) society, psychology/mind, ideology → socio-economic material conditions

But that’s not quite right, as I have already said. The arrow in i) is always the case except in the particular examples of Marxist persons. They break free from this causally determinist arrow through their simple cognisance - or knowledge - of that same arrow’s very existence. Being thus aware of the causal arrow from socio-economic material conditions to mind, effectively gives Marxist persons the means to escape from that causal arrow.

There is a simple schematic alternative to the Marxist causal arrow, and also to the inversion of that arrow (from right to left, as it were). Why can’t we have this? –

ideology, psychology, mind, etc. ↔ socio-economic material conditions

That is, mind can affect the socio-economic conditions as well as being an effect of those very same material conditions. That is how most people, I think, would see these things. But that would complexify things too much for Marxist. It would deny him the political and ideological tool of stating that all ideology, religion, philosophy – all mentality and mind - is simply the effect of socio-economic conditions. That is, of class, class position, etc. Without this absolutism Marxists would have nothing. It is the essence of Marxism. Even to accept a two-headed arrow would complexify things too much because it would free non-Marxists from being the passive victims of socio-economic conditions or, more basically, of their class.

The other thing that would be denied to the Marxist (if they accepted the double-headed arrow, or the inverted arrow) is that there would no longer be such a thing as ‘false consciousness’. They would no longer have an explanation for why people believe and uphold things which actually go against their true interests. Thus capitalism, and everything that emanates from it, would be rejected and revolted against if only the working class, Muslims, etc. knew their true exploited nature. Instead, those who are most oppressed by capitalism are sometimes – or most times – the ones who support it (sometimes more than those who aren’t that oppressed by it). This is ‘false consciousness’. That means that the working class become the supporters of capitalism (e.g., by becoming New Labourites or Conservatives) instead of Marxist revolutionaries. They do this because the socio-economic material conditions/realities, the class realities, causally determine what it is they believe – without their knowing it. They could only know that this is indeed the case by adopting a Marxist analysis of their political and economic position, as well as the corresponding Marxist ideologies which go with it.

Now Islam


Bearing all that in mind, Harman then goes on to say more or less the same things he has said about the Catholic Church about Islam. In fact it is exactly the same analysis, with different name-fillers. This time it is Islam, not the Catholic Church, which has

‘been able to survive in such different societies because it has been able to adopt to differing class interests.’

Instead of Catholic feudalism, we are now told that Islam

‘obtained the finance to build its mosques and employ its preachers in turn from the traders of Arabia, the bureaucrats, landowners and merchants of the great empires, and the industrialists of modern capitalism.’

It can immediately be seen that the one thing that the Catholic Church and Islam share, on Harman’s historical account, is capitalism. Capitalism is the ‘last stage’ in both historical accounts. Indeed this must be the case if Harman’s overall Marxist analysis, and indeed his Marxist solutions, are to make any sense. It is capitalism that is to be 'fought against' in both cases. But there is one difference between the potted history of the Catholic Church and the potted history of Islam. The account of Islam finishes off with a burst of Marxist positivity that is not even hinted at in the account of the Catholic Church. Thus even though we have had ‘modern capitalism’ in Islam, it has also been the case that Islam has

‘at the same time gained the allegiance of the mass of people by putting across a message offering consolation to the poor and oppressed.’

Does that mean that Harman believed that the Catholic Church didn’t ‘gain the allegiance of the mass of people by putting across a message offering consolation to the poor and oppressed’? It seems so. That would be a very difficult position to defend, historically. Perhaps the history of the Catholic Church really was two thousand years of un-adulterated oppression. Full stop. That would partly explain the double standards and the support Marxists show for Islam and Muslims which they show for no other religion.

However, Harman’s account of Islam cannot of course be completely positive. After all, Islam is not Marxism and Muslims are not Marxists. Not even Islamists are Marxists. Obviously. So on the one hand, Islam

i) ‘promised a degree of protection to the oppressed’.

but on the other hand, it

ii) ‘provided the exploiting classes with protection against any revolutionary overthrow’.

Thus Islam was OK – but only up to a point. That point was that it stopped at the ‘revolutionary overthrow’ of the ‘exploiting classes’. (If only these Muslims had read Marx or Chris Harman, perhaps then they would have gone all the way. All the way to that glorious ‘revolutionary overthrow’ of the ‘exploiting classes’.)

Indeed the ‘exploiting class’ pre-empted their own overthrow, as Marxists usually put it, by cynically damping down the revolutionary zeal of poor Muslims. For example, Harman says Islam

‘stresses that the rich have to pay a 2.5 percent Islamic tax (the zakat) for the relief of the poor’.

(Actually, as far as I know, this 2.5% tax applied to all adult Muslims in work, not just the rich. Thus the rich would pay proportionally less tax than those less well off. This, in itself, should make Marxists like Harman a little suspicious.)

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