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by Zoltan Zigedy

In January of 2012, I reviewed Eric Walberg’s book, Post-Modern Imperialism (Clarity Press, 2011). I enthusiastically concluded that:

Walberg has offered a welcome taxonomy of imperialism from its nineteenthcentury genesis until today; he has given a plausible explanation of imperialism’s contours since the exit of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism from the world stage; and he has convincingly described Israel’s unique role in the continuing reshaping of imperialism’s grasp for world domination.

Further, Walberg gave a needed response to misguided leftists who were quick to label Islamic resistance to US and Israeli predation as “Islamo-fascist.” Much of the US and European left took a smug, chauvinistic posture–a posture that coincided with the interests of imperialism– toward fighters in the Muslim world daring to defy Western intervention and interference. They ignorantly announced that religious “fundamentalism” fatally tainted their resistance. Walberg struck a powerful blow against these immature conclusions.

Now Walberg has undertaken a more ambitious project in his new book, From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization (Clarity Press, 2013). His argument can be summarized– without too much violence to its nuances– as:

1. The last great secular social justice project– socialism– has failed with the demise of the Soviet Union.

2. Islam and its attendant political-social-economic doctrines are viable alternative routes to social justice.

3. Islam is the only alternative that can deliver social justice. Therefore, Islam is the universal way to social justice.

Of course Walberg goes to great lengths to shore this argument with a detailed, fascinating history of Islam and its currents that, alone, is worth the price of admission. He explores the relative shortcomings of other religions, a brief that is factually accurate, but, like the account of Islam, tellingly selective.

Hints of this thesis were embedded in the earlier book, Post-Modern Imperialism. I noted in my review: 

In the same vein, it is an exaggeration to portray Islam (or any other religion) as inherently anti-imperialist: in his words, “The unyielding anti-imperialist nature of Islam, its rejection of the fundamental principles of capitalism concerning money, its refusal to be sidelined from economic and hence political life…”

Unfortunately, Islam has the same tortured relationship with imperialism as have all the major religions. Precisely because they possess no robust doctrinal opposition to imperialism in general, all major religions have stood on both sides of the barricades.

The Islamist movement, Hamas, for example, stands as an important component of today’s anti-imperialist front.

But it was not always this way. US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, speaking in Jerusalem on December 20, 2001, affirmed that the rise of Hamas coincided with “the promotion of the Islamic movement as a counter to the Palestinian nationalist movement… with the tacit support of Israel” as reported by Dean Andromidas in Global Outlook (Summer 2002). Andromidas quoted Kurtzer: “Israel perceived it as better to have people turn towards religion than toward a nationalistic cause [like the PLO].” PLO leader Yasser Arafat is quoted from the Italian press:

But Hamas is a creature of Israel which gave Hamas money, and more than 700 institutions, among them schools, universities and mosques. Even Rabin ended up admitting it, when I charged him with it, in the presence of Mubarek.

And

Hamas was constituted with the support of Israel. The aim was to create an organization antagonistic to the PLO. They received financing and training from Israel. They have continued to benefit from permits and authorizations.

In the same issue of Global Outlook, author Hassane Zerrouky (Hamas is a Creature of Mossad) outlines how “Hamas was allowed to reinforce its presence in the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Arafat’s Fatah movement for National Liberation as well as the Palestinian Left were subjected to the most brutal repression and intimidation.” (reprinted in Global Outlook from L’Humanité).

Thus, while honest revolutionaries must recognize Hamas’s role in defending Palestinians from imperialism today, honesty equally demands acknowledgment of its sordid role in collaborating with Israel in the destruction of secular nationalism and the Palestinian left. It’s difficult to find an “unyielding anti-imperialist nature” in this treachery.

Egyptian Communists acknowledge this vulnerability to imperialist manipulation in the August 3 statement of their Central Committee:

One of the objectives of the projects of imperialism in the Middle East is the establishment of states on religious grounds, which serves mainly Zionist plan to declare Israel a Jewish state for all Jews in the world, as well as the important results of  pushing these religious countries to inevitably get caught up in sectarian conflict. And it necessarily creates strategic divisions and fragmentations of the Arab countries and brings the conflict between Sunni – Shiite, Muslim – Christian, Muslim – Jewish to replace the Arab-Israeli national liberation conflict, to replace the social class struggle among the peoples of the Arab countries, and to replace the struggle against authoritarian regimes  allied with the imperialist global and international monopolies.

Most Arab socialists and Communists have sought unity with organized Islamic anti-imperialist organizations, sometimes successfully, as with Hizbullah and Lebanese Communists. But on other occasions that trust has been brutally betrayed, as with the slaughter of the Tudeh (Communists) in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For Marxists, the major religions are a sometime ally in the struggle against imperialism.

Insofar as they welcome cooperation and reject collaboration with the class enemy, Islam and the other major religions will find consistent friends in Marxist-Leninists. Thus, we welcome and support the current shift in the leadership of the Catholic Church toward the cause of the poor and against the ravages of capitalism, just as we regretted the alienation of past Popes from the fate of the Catholic masses.

Contrary to Walberg’s premise number two— the centerpiece of the above argument– Islam and the other major religions fall far short of offering an adequate ethics of social justice for today’s world. The Quran, like the doctrines of the Catholic Church, forbids usury, the collecting of interest on debt. Absent usury, Walberg believes that a comprehensive practice of charity will provide Islam with a complete program of social justice for today and tomorrow.

Aside from the fact that religious practitioners and their leaders conveniently find ways to sidestep or obscure the prohibition of the collecting of interest, “usury” fails to even remotely capture the prevalence and depth of modern-day labor exploitation. The Catholic Church’s condemnation of “excess” profits fails for the same reasons. To suggest that charity alone can solve the incredible poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality of, say, a country like Mali seems patently improbable. And the solution of charity seems dangerously close to the answer advocated by the apologists for unfettered capitalism.

Likewise, the Hebrew concept of “Jubilee,” as an admirable moral prescription of debt removal and property restoration and an answer to the inequities of antiquity, will not put a moral dent in contemporary capitalism. That said, the vital principles of economic justice found in the Torah, the Gospels, and the Quran suggest a posture toward the ravages of capitalism. A casual reader of the texts held sacred by the respective religions will find much encouragement for a condemnation of the process of capitalist accumulation. Should believers read those texts with earnestness, they would undoubtedly become Communists as well as believers!

My own– perhaps eccentric– view is that the major religions cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy unless they embrace socialism, the contemporary embodiment of the moral codes of their founders. Unfortunately, most religious leaders in our time choose to accommodate capitalism.

Walberg is not insensitive to the alternative vision of Marx and Communism. He devotes a full chapter to “Postsecularism: Marx and Muhammad,” going to great lengths to show that Islam answers the questions posed by Marxism while avoiding its “shortcomings.” 

Destructive to his argument, he misunderstands the Marxist theory of value as follows:

Kapital‘s weakness– the labor theory of value– is a materialist reductio ad absurdum, denying the ‘value’ of ‘unproductive’ labor (the elements brought to bear by the capitalist related to securing markets, research, innovations, factor management)…

This is fatally confused. Marx recognizes a value contribution in ALL necessary labor culminating in the production of a commodity, including the research, innovation, essential organizational management, etc. Further, he sees a necessary value deduction in the labor essential for a commodity’s circulation. What he does not recognize is any value created or socially necessary from the mere fact of ownership. And this contradiction between ownership and labor is precisely the element missing in all of the social doctrines of traditional religions including Islam.

Walberg’s confusion about Marx’s value theory leads him away from the resolution of the contradiction between value created by labor and the ownership of that value by the capitalist, a contradiction only resolved by class struggle.

This error dooms his well-meant, but naive  synthesis of Islam and Marxism:

The ijtihad-jihad process is in a sense just a more comprehensive version of Marxist praxis [by] emphasizing:

social unity rather than class struggle

the family and spiritual life rather than material production

evolution rather than revolution

While the sentiment is noble, it is irreconcilable with Marxism. Capitalism’s rapaciousness– acknowledged by Walberg– cannot be eliminated by a retreat to mere spirituality, an unconditional appeal to unity or a common destiny, or the virtue of patience. These are simple facts that religions cannot escape.

I would propose a counter synthesis:

class struggle as the path to social unity

the family and spiritual life AND material production

revolution leading to the realization of these values

which could readily open the road to a Marxist-Islamic understanding and cooperation.

Walberg’s book is timely, coming in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring.” One feels a veritable joy in his writings bursting from the optimism generated by the risings in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately, that optimism proved short-lived. 

The Islamic governments established in Tunisia and Egypt generated great social rifts culminating in overthrow in one and growing tensions in the other. Open opposition in Libya and Syria drew the intervention of outside forces that swiftly transformed the struggle into imperialist regime change, destabilization of the regions, and enormous human and infrastructure destruction. Grievances were quickly appropriated by US and NATO meddlers who seized an opportunity to shape the outcomes.

In a little over a year, the rise of Islamic civilization that Walberg foresaw was dashed on the rocks of divisiveness and foreign intervention, just as it has in other times and places.

For the Marxist left, the Arab Spring provoked reservations and guarded sympathy, even apart from nefarious outside interference. On one hand, the rising against entrenched, reactionary authority was a welcome expression of popular will. On the other hand, the risings appeared to be more rebellions than revolutions. That is, the goals of the insurgents were neither united nor well-formed.

As events unfolded, these fears were borne out. Rather than challenge the structures of privilege and exploitation, sides were drawn around different attitudes toward tradition and “modernity,” secularism and spiritualism. While real and not fanciful, these differences do not touch the deeper relations of oppression. As with modern-day Western liberals who are occupied with lifestyle decisions and personal choices, the battles contested in the Arab Spring guaranteed that the poverty and exploitation of the masses would remain untouched.

One hopes are for the revival of a vibrant Marxist-Leninist movement in these countries to nurture these developments from rebellion to revolution.

Zoltan Zigedy

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