I was reading a reply by the millitant communist André Ferrat to a ‘study’ which appeared in trotskyist review “La lutte de classe” in 1935 (that’s 75 years ago!). The ‘study’ in question was entitled “Les problèmes révolutionnaires de l’Algérie” and although I have not read it, it would appear from the response it provoked from Mr. Ferrat that it was an attempt to discredit the Algerian symptoms of the looming national revolution by resorting to a ‘pedantic’ analysis whose only concern was to produce a confused and self-contraditory ‘theoretical magma’. Reading this article, I was amused to find the same old and eternal arguments and the same old eternal replies to them. These arguments are still used today by the likes of Israel and the USA (and even some representatives of the ‘oppressed people’) and presented as ‘studies’ and ‘analyses’ of the palestinian and Islamic terrorism respectively. What also amused me in this article, is that the commies did not seem to all have the same interpretation of what Marx or Lenin had said or written. Reminded me of the recent financial crash and how the economists of the various schools started having a go at each other, each claiming that they detain the right interpretation of capitalist or socialist theories of the distribution of wealth. Nearly a century has passed since the publication of this exchange of ideas, everything seems to have changed so much, and yet, in the end, nothing has really changed.
I include here some excerpts from the article which have reminded me of post-modern arguments we have all heard from politicians in the context of the various violent conflicts which are taking place in the world today. Take excerpt A for example:
This is no other than the argument Israel uses to discredit the right of Palestinians to land. The argument goes as follows: “There never existed such a thing as a [insert here any name of the people you want to oppress] people! It was simply an unhomogeneous group of various ethnicities and tribes. Therefore, the land does not belong to them and we can legitimately take it (the implicit message is that ‘we can make better use of it’)“. Of course, this argument is only possible when you use a convenient concept like ‘nationalism’. The answer to this is of course that if we apply the ethnic homogeneity argument to establish which ‘nation’ is the rightful owner of which land, the majority of modern states (and even old empires) will be illegitimate. Now for excerpt B which I must admit baffled me:
He talks here about the threat of islamisation of the communist party if arab members who happen to still believe in God are admitted. Ferrat seems to be saying that it is ludicrous to reason like this and that the emphasis of communist theory is on who should posess the means of production (i.e. the proletariat according to Marx) and not on the religious affiliation. He even cites a correspondance between Marx and Engels whereby Marx considers the ‘religious question’ to be secondary to the right to be a member of the communist party determined solely on the basis of class affiliation. Ferrat also cites the position of Lenin with respect to the ‘religious question’ and in this case, Lenin adds an interesting clause which says: there is in principle no problem for a priest to join the communist party and remaining a priest as long as he complies with the party’s discipline (?). Historically, communists have been known for their hatred of religion. Whether Marx intended it to be that way or not is beside the question because what matters is how communism has been interpreted and applied in practice. My own reading of the above statement by Marx is that he had a secular conception of the politics of the party, but secularism might well hide an intense dislike of religion.
But I digress. Going back to modern arguments, this excerpt reminds me of the argument which says: “there is a growing threat of the islamisation of the West and we need to counteract it (the implicit message is that it is a matter of life or death because Islam is inherently incompatible with the ‘West’)”). I am not going to comment on this argument because it is quite a complex one, suffice to say that it has been used recently in the EU discussions about whether Turkey should or should not be accepted as a member of the EU (in my view it has only managed to expose how vague the EU as a political concept really is). I will add here that secularism seems to be brandished at every opportunity to argue for the neutrality of the ‘religious threat’ when in practice it is often used to justify attacks on religion and Islam in particular. Now to excerpt C:
This is the assimilation argument. The implicit message is that assimilation is a pre-requisite for social and political stability and a strong ‘national’ identity. This is used in practice to discredit some forms of dissent or even ‘passive difference’. Ferrat being a communist is against assimilation because he feels that it is always some ‘elite’ which will have enough influence to induce ‘assimilation’. It is true in a sense, because in modern age France for example, assimilation is still used as an argument to promote discrimination against the immigrant population. I am not against some forms of discrimination, but it seems to me that assimilation should not be a political objective that is clamored unashamedly by the State. Assimilation is a natural process which takes place when people see and experience alternative cultures which prove to be more useful and beneficial in reality. An amusing historical aside: it was no other than communist Mao who propelled China in a nation-wide ‘assimilation’ program through his ‘Cultural Revolution‘ (yes, commies cannot resist doing things with style!).
Excerpt D is the ‘white man’s burden‘ argument. It is still with us today as you might have guessed. Indeed, the Western civilisation has upon its shoulders the noble duty of civilising the rest of the world and pulling them up the civilisation ladder (dragging them up even if need be!). This is a favorite one for justification of ‘regime changes’ (Iraq ‘democratisation’ by the US forces for example). The curious thing about this argument is that the oppressed people have ended up believing it. Indeed, it might not have been apparent in the past, but today I think the arabo-muslim population largely suffers from a deeply-rooted inferiority complex towards Western ‘civilisation’. This is expressed by loud and sometimes physically violent rejection of everything ‘western’ whilst at the same time embracing it (rather too enthusiastically for the comfort of my hypocrisydar) providing it is packaged in an ‘islamic’ wrapping paper. Finally, excerpt E where Lenin explains to us the dynamics of a revolution:
I don’t know what he means, but it reminded me of the Iranian Islamic revolution against the Shah. Revolutions are executed by the masses (especially those with strong ties to the land like farmers for example) because they have the number advantage (i.e. they make perfect canon-fodder), even if they (revolutions) are in effect planned and prepared by the intellectual elite for the advancement of their own perception of what should be the good of the rest of us mortals.
To summarise, I think that there are two major concepts which have emerged in the modern world and which have contributed to destabilise the foundation of the old world: ‘nationalism’ and ‘class struggle’ (the middle class is a new kid on the block). Both are very unclear and confusing, but this is where their potency lies as political weapons. However, behind these concepts, we still find the old imperialist arguments. It is astonishing to realise how much we as formerly colonised people are still imbibed by communist ideology (it must have been traumatising to see the USSR collapse, a trauma on a par with witnessing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire or the naksa). Which makes me think that the more things change, the more they stay the same! So why make such a fuss out of changing the way things are, when we can focus our efforts in making the best out of how things are? Revolution or evolution? My ancestors have opted for a revolution to kick out the ‘oppressor’, but here I am today wondering what good revolutions are when nearly a century later, things are more or less the same? Have we wasted too much effort trying to change the wrong things to the point where now, we have no energy left to try and change the right things? So many questions and hardly any answers or even any attempts to search for answers.
We as an arabo-muslim people desperately need to engage in some new political thinking in the context of our history. Enough imports (‘nationalism’ is an import which may have served its purpose in stimulating independance movements but it remains an alien concept islamically)! We need to assess our history and situate ourselves with respect to others without falling into the trap of ‘assimilation’, without giving into the complex of ‘the colonial mentality‘ and without mistaking rejection of change and progress for pride of a narrowly and superficially-defined cultural heritage.