Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


Radical Islam as a social movement

The class base of Islamism is similar to that of classical fascism and of the Hindu fundamentalism of the BJP, Shiv Sena and RSS in India. All these movements have recruited from the white collar middle class and students, as well as from the traditional commercial and professional petty bourgeoisie. This, together with the hostility of most Islamist movements to the left, women’s rights and secularism has led many socialist and liberals to designate the movements as fascist. But this is a mistake.

The petty bourgeois class base has not only been a characteristic of fascism, it has also been a feature of Jacobinism, of Third World nationalisms, of Maoist Stalinism, and Peronism. Petty bourgeois movements only become fascist when they arise at a specific point in the class struggle and play a particular role. This role is not just to mobilise the petty bourgeoisie, but to exploit the bitterness they feel at what an acute crisis of the system has done to them and so turn them into organised thugs prepared to work for capital to tear workers’ organisations apart.

That is why Mussolini’s and Hitler’s movements were fascist while, say, Peron’s movement in Argentina was not. Even though Peron borrowed some of the imagery of fascism, he took power in exceptional circumstances which allowed him to buy off workers’ organisations while using state intervention to divert the profits of the large agrarian capitalists into industrial expansion. During his first six years in office an specific set of circumstances allowed real wages to rise by about 60 percent. This was the complete opposite to what would have happened under a genuinely fascist regime. Yet the liberal intelligentsia and the Argentine Communist Party were still capable of referring to the regime as “Nazi Peronism”, in much the same way that much of the left internationally refers to Islamism today. [50]

The Islamist mass movements in countries like Algeria and Egypt likewise play a different role to that of fascism. They are not primarily directed against workers’ organisations and do not offer themselves to the main sectors of capital as a way of solving its problems at workers’ expense. They are often involved in direct, armed confrontation with the forces of the state in a way in which fascist parties rarely have been. And, far from being direct agents of imperialism, these movements have taken up anti-imperialist slogans and some anti-imperialist actions which have embarrassed very important national and international capitalist interests (e.g. in Algeria over the second Gulf War, in Egypt against “peace” with Israel, in Iran against the American presence in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah).

The American CIA was able to work with Pakistan intelligence and the pro-Western Middle East states to arm thousands of volunteers from right across the Middle East to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. But now these volunteers are returning home to discover they were fighting for the US when they thought they were fighting “for Islam”, and constituting a bitter hard core of opposition to most of the governments which encouraged them to go. Even in Saudi Arabia, where the ultra-puritan Wahhabist interpretation of the Islamic sharia (religious law) is imposed with all the might of the state, the opposition now claims the support of “thousands of Afghan fighters”, disgusted by the hypocrisy of a royal family that is increasingly integrated into the world capitalist ruling class. And the royal family is now retaliating, further antagonising some of the very people it encouraged so much in the past, cutting off funds to the Algerian FIS for supporting Iraq in the second Gulf War and deporting a Saudi millionaire who has been financing Islamists in Egypt.

Those on the left who see the Islamists simply as “fascists” fail to take into account the destabilising effect of the movements on capital’s interests right across the Middle East, and end up siding with states that are the strongest backers both of imperialism and of local capital. This has, for instance, happened to those sections of the left influenced by the remnants of Stalinism in Egypt. It happened to much of the Iranian left during the closing stages of the first Gulf War, when American imperialism sent in its fleet to fight on the same side as Iraq against Iran. And it is in danger of happening to the secular left in Algeria, faced with a near civil war between the Islamists and the state.

But if it is wrong to see the Islamist movements as “fascist”, it is just as wrong to simply see them as “anti-imperialist” or “anti-state”. They do not just fight against those classes and states that exploit and dominate the mass of people. They also fight against secularism, against women who refuse to abide by Islamic notions of “modesty”, against the left and, in important cases, against ethnic or religious minorities. The Algerian Islamists established their hold on the universities in the late 1970s and early 1980s by organising “punitive raids” against the left with the connivance of the police, and the first person killed by them was not a state official but a member of a Trotskyist organisation; another of their actions was to denounce Hard Rock Magazine, homosexuality, drugs and punk at the Islamic book fair in 1985; in the Algerian towns where they are strongest, they do organise attacks on women who dare to show a little of their skin; the first public demonstration of the FIS in 1989 was in response to “feminist” and “secularist” demonstrations against Islamist violence, of which women were the main victims. [51] Its hostility is directed not just against the state and foreign capital, but also against the more than 1 million Algerian citizens who, through no fault of their own, have been brought up with French as their first language, and the 10 percent of the population who are Berber rather than Arabic speakers.

Similarly, in Egypt, the armed Islamic groups do murder secularists and Islamists who disagree strongly with them; they do encourage communal hatred by Muslims, including pogroms, against the 10 percent of the population who happen to be Coptic Christians. In Iran the Khomeini wing of Islamism did execute some 100 people for “sexual offences” like homosexuality and adultery in 1979-81; they did sack women from the legal system and organise gangs of thugs, the Iranian Hezbollah, to attack unveiled women and to assault left wingers; and they did kill thousands in the repression of the left Islamist People’s Mujahedin. In Afghanistan the Islamist organisations which waged a long and bloody war against the Russian occupation of their country did turn their heavy weaponry on each other once the Russians had left, reducing whole areas of Kabul to rubble.

In fact, even when Islamists put the stress on “anti-imperialism”, they more often than not let imperialism off the hook. For imperialism today is not usually the direct rule of Western states over parts of the Third World, but rather a world system of independent capitalist classes (‘private” and state), integrated into a single world market. Some ruling classes have greater power than others and so are able to impose their own bargaining terms through their control over access to trade, the banking system or on occasions crude force. These ruling classes stand at the top of a pinnacle of exploitation, but those just below are the ruling classes of poorer countries, rooted in the individual national economies, also gaining from the system, increasingly linking themselves into the dominant multinational networks and buying into the economies of the advanced world, even if on occasion they lash out at those above them.

The suffering of the great mass of people cannot simply be blamed on the great imperialist powers and their agencies like the World Bank and the IMF. It is also a result of the enthusiastic participation in exploitation of the lesser capitalists and their states. It is these who actually implement the policies that impoverish people and wreck their lives. And it is these who use the police and the prisons to crush those who try to resist.

There is an important difference here with what happened under the classic imperialism of the colonial empires, where Western colonists manned the state and directed repression. The local exploiting classes would be pulled two ways, between resisting a state when it trampled on their interests, and collaborating with it as a bulwark against those they themselves exploited. But they were not necessarily in the front line of defending the whole system of exploitation against revolt. They are today. They are part of the system, even if they sometimes quarrel with it. They are no longer its inconsistent opponents. [52]

In this situation any ideology which restricts itself to targeting foreign imperialism as the enemy evades any serious confrontation with the system. It expresses people’s bitterness and frustration, but evades focusing it on real enemies. This is true of most versions of Islamism, just as it is true these days of most Third World nationalisms. They point to a real enemy, the world system, and on occasions they clash bitterly with the state. But they absolve from responsibility most of the local bourgeoisie – imperialism’s most important long term partner.

A recent study of Khomeinism in Iran by Abrahamian compares it with Peronism and similar forms of “populism”:

Khomeini adopted radical themes ... At times he sounded more radical than the Marxists. But while adopting radical themes he remained staunchly committed to the preservation of middle class property. This form of middle class radicalism made him akin to Latin American populists, especially the Peronists. [53]

And Abrahamian goes on to say:

By “populism” I mean a movement of the propertied middle class that mobilises the lower classes, especially the urban poor, with radical rhetoric directed against imperialism, foreign capitalism, and the political establishment ... Populist movements promise to drastically raise the standard of living and make the country fully independent of outside powers. Even more important in attacking the status quo with radical rhetoric, they intentionally stop short of threatening the petty bourgeoisie and the whole principle of private property. Populist movements thus, inevitably, emphasise the importance, not of economicsocial revolution, but of cultural, national and political reconstruction. [54]

Such movements tend to confuse matters by moving from any real struggle against imperialism to a purely ideological struggle against what they see as its cultural effects. “Cultural imperialism”, rather than material exploitation, is identified as the source of everything that is wrong. The fight is then not directed against forces really involved in impoverishing people, but rather against those who speak “foreign” languages, accept “alien” religions or reject allegedly “traditional” lifestyles. This is very convenient for certain sections of local capital who find it easy to practice the “indigenous culture”, at least in public. It is also of direct material interest to sections of the middle class who can advance their own careers by purging others from their jobs. But it limits the dangers such movements present to imperialism as a system.

Islamism, then, both mobilises popular bitterness and paralyses it; both builds up people’s feelings that something must be done and directs those feelings into blind alleys; both destabilises the state and limits the real struggle against the state.

The contradictory character of Islamism follows from the class base of its core cadres. The petty bourgeoisie as a class cannot follow a consistent, independent policy of its own. This has always been true of the traditional petty bourgeoisie – the small shopkeepers, traders and self employed professionals. They have always been caught between a conservative hankering for security that looks to the past and a hope that they individually will gain from radical change. It is just as true of the impoverished new middle class – or the even more impoverished would-be new middle class of unemployed ex-students – in the less economically advanced countries today. They can hanker after an allegedly golden past. They can see their futures as tied up with general social advance through revolutionary change. Or they can blame the frustration of their aspirations on other sections of the population who have got an “unfair” grip on middle class jobs: the religious and ethnic minorities, those with a different language, women working in an “untraditional” way.

Which direction they turn in does not just depend on immediate material factors. It also depends on the struggles that occur on a national and international scale. Thus in the 1950s and 1960s the struggles against colonialism and imperialism did inspire much of the aspirant middle class of the Third World, and there was a general feeling that state controlled economic development represented the way forward. The secular left, or at least its Stalinist or nationalist mainstream, was seen as embodying this vision, and it exercised a degree of hegemony in the universities. At that stage even those who began with a religious orientation were attracted by what was seen as the left – by the example of the Vietnamese War against America or by the so called cultural revolution in China – and began to reject traditional religious thinking over, for instance, the women’s question. This happened with the Catholic liberation theologists in Latin America and the People’s Mojahedin in Iran. And even in Afghanistan the Islamist students

demonstrated against Zionism during the six-day war, against American policies in Vietnam and the privileges of the establishment. They were violently opposed to important figures on the traditionalist side, to the King and especially his cousin Daoud ... They protested against foreign influences in Afghanistan, both from the Soviet Union and the West, and against the speculators during the famine of 1972, by demanding there should be curbs on personal wealth. [55]

In the late 1970s and 1980s the mood changed. On the one hand there was the beginning of a global wave of disillusionment with the so called “socialist” model presented by the Eastern European states as a result of the killing fields of Cambodia, the mini-war between Vietnam and China, and the move of China towards the American camp. This disillusionment grew in intensity in the later 1980s as a result of the changes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR.

It was even more intense in certain Middle Eastern countries than elsewhere in the world because the illusions had not merely been a question of foreign policy. The local regimes had claimed to be implementing nationalist versions of “socialism”, based to a greater or lesser extent on the East European model. Even those on the left who were critical of their governments tended to accept and identify with these claims. Thus in Algeria the left in the universities volunteered in the early 1970s to go to the countryside to assist in the “land reform”, even though the regime had already repressed the left student organisation and was maintaining police control over the universities. And in Egypt the Communists continued to proclaim Nasser as a socialist, even after he had thrown them into prison. So disillusionment with the regime became also, for many people, disillusionment with the left.

On the other hand, there was the emergence of certain Islamic states as a political force – the seizure of power by Gadaffi in Libya, the Saudi-led oil embargo against the West at the time of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and then, most dramatically, the revolutionary establishment of the Iranian Islamic Republic in 1979.

Islamism began to dominate among the very layers of students and young people who had once looked to the left: in Algeria, for instance, “Khomeini began to be regarded by layers of young people as Mao and Guevara once had been”. [56] Support for the Islamist movements went from strength to strength as they seemed to offer immanent and radical change. The leaders of the Islamist movements were triumphant.

Yet the contradictions in Islamism did not go away, and expressed themselves forcefully in the decade that followed. Far from being an unstoppable force, Islamism has, in fact, been subject to its own internal pressures which, repeatedly, have made its followers turn on one another. Just as the history of Stalinism in the Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s was one of failure, betrayals, splits and repression, so has the history of Islamism been in the 1980s and 1990s.




50. For an account of this period see, for example, A. Dabat and L. Lorenzano, Conflicto Malvinense y Crisis Nacional (Mexico, 1982), pp.46-8.

51. M. Al-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., p.34.

52. Phil Marshall’s otherwise useful article, Islamic Fundamentalism – Oppression and Revolution, in International Socialism 40, falls down precisely because it fails to distinguish between the anti-imperialism of bourgeois movements faced with colonialism and that of petty bourgeois movements facing independent capitalist states integrated into the world system. All his stress is on the role these movements can play as they “express the struggle against imperialism”. This is to forget that the local state and the local bourgeoisie are usually the immediate agent of exploitation and oppression in the Third World today-something which some strands of radical Islamism do at least half recognise (as when Qutb describes states like Egypt as “non-Islamic”).

It also fails to see that the petty bourgeoisie limitations of Islamist movements mean that their leaders, like those of movements like Peronism before them, often use rhetoric about “imperialism” to justify an eventual deal with the local state and ruling class while deflecting bitterness into attacks on those minorities they identify as local agents of “cultural imperialism”. Marshall is therefore mistaken to argue that revolutionary Marxists can follow the same approach to Islamism as that developed by the early, pre-Stalinist Comintern in relation to the rising anti-colonial movements of the early 1920s. We must certainly learn from the early Comintern that you can he on the same side as a certain movement (or even state) in so far as it fights imperialism, while at the same time you strive to overthrow its leadership and disagree with its politics, its strategy and its tactics. But that is not at all the same as saying that the bourgeois and petty bourgeois Islamism of the 1990s is the same as the bourgeois and petty bourgeois anti-colonialism of the 1920s.

Otherwise we can fall into the same mistake the left in countries like Argentina did during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they supported the nationalism of their own bourgeoisie on the grounds that they lived in “semi-colonial states”.

As A. Dabat and L. Lorenzano have quite rightly noted, “The Argentine nationalist and Marxist left confused ... the association (of their own rulers) with the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie and their diplomatic servility in the face of the US army and state with political dependency (‘semi-colonialism’, ‘colonialism’), which led to its most radical and determined forces to decide to call for an amid struggle for ‘the second independence’. In reality, they were faced with something quite different. The behaviour of any government of a relatively weak capitalist country (however independent its state structure is) is necessary ‘conciliatory’, ‘capitulationist’ when it comes to meeting its own interests ... in getting concessions from imperialist governments or firms ... or consolidating alliances ... with these states. These types of action are in essence the same for all bourgeois governments, however nationalist they consider themselves. This does not affect the structure of the state and its relationship with the process of self-expansion and reproduction of capital on the national scale (the character of the state as a direct expression of the national dominant classes and not as an expression of the imperialist states and bourgeoisies of other countries).” Conflicto Malvinense y Crisis Nacional, op. cit., p.70.

53. E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism, op. cit., p.3.

54. Ibid., p.17.

55. O. Roy, op. cit., p.71.

56. M. Al-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., pp.26-27.


Last updated on 17.6.2002