Marxism & Islam

13 posts / 0 new
Last post
Marxism & Islam
Printer-friendly version

The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Marxism & Islam. The discussion was initiated by soyonstout.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

On Kautsky's assessment of Christianity & great men in history

This is a good article and a good beginning to a discussion of understanding religion with a historical and materialist perspective.  Something I'd like to discuss though, is the importance of the personality of a religion's founders.  Having ust finished Kautsky's book, I didn't his thesis that Christianity can be entirely explained without knowing anything about the person of Jesus, was ridiculous at all.  Reviewing scholarly commentary on the Gospels (written by German Catholics mostly), one generally finds a consensus among all but the most conservative scholars that every story is an allusion to Moses, or Elijah (many of whose acts are borrowed from Moses legends as well, which themselves may have been polemical retellings of Babylonian myths or strongly influenced thereby) or a polemical response to Gnostic or Marcionite sects/heresies.  St. Paul's letters (written much earlier than the gospels) imply nothing more about this person than the fact that he was crucified (like thousands of people were at the time) and came back to life (something that many people also claimed at the time) and say nothing of his deeds and only attribute one of two sayings to him.  A huge part of the continuing appeal of the religion is the extremely contradictory nature of its tenets/texts/teachings/stories which allows anyone to "name drop" Jesus of Nazareth in reference to nearly any moral, ethical, theological, or philosophical principle.  This was something I concluded from studying religion long before I knew much about marxism, and honestly, having just finally read Kautsky's book, it is the most plausible explanation I've read about the spread of the religion. 

There is probably a difference with Muhammad, who is from a later date and thus perhaps more easily historicized--but I also think that history has been written far too much as the history of personalities.  I think Trotsky's quote about Lenin, while having a bit of truth to it, has to be put in the context of Trotsky's own substitutionist practice by the time of his writing the history of the revolution.  Paul Mattick, in "The Lenin Legend" (which goes perhaps too far in the other direction), quotes Lenin against Trotsky as saying, "“The assertion that history is made by great men is from a theoretical standpoint wholly unfounded.”

I don't say these things merely to contradict, but also to get at another question marxists can debate about the relatioship of religion to consciousness, and the extent to which the ideology of religion comes fundamentally from an underestimation of the powers of ordinary people and an overestimation of the powers of brilliant leaders, great men, and "condescending saviors" as the Internationale puts it.

Looking forward to more discussion and debate about this topic & very glad to see the article!



Indeed, the focus on the

Indeed, the focus on the individual founders of the great religions does seem to go against the grain of much of the Marxist (and Hegelian) canon on this topic (Feurbach, Strauss, etc.) Of course, it has often been said that the Christianity we know was actually founded centuries after the historical Jesus, such that in order to understand the religion that came down to us, we have to look at the social and historical context of that period rather than Jesus'. With Muhammad it may in fact be different in that he was in addition to being a religious leader, a political and military one as well, while it is said Christ shunned politics. Muhammad seems to have taken an active role in the formation of an Islamic polity (if we can't quite call it a mode of production).

Reading the parts of this presentation that talk about the various analysts who have seen Islam as a form of pre-modern communism, I was immediately struck by the identity many on the paranoid right today see between Islamic civilization and communism and socialism. We laugh when American Tea Party nitwits call Obama a Muslim and a communist in the same sentence, but this presentation has moved me to think a little more about that. What similarities do these right wing commentators see between Islam and what they understand as Marxism? What is the role of the market in Islamic societies, the relationship between the state and civil society, etc.?

Beyond this though, the presentation raises some very interesting questions about the structure of society and the emergence of class consciousness. I can only speculate, but I suspect that what motivates this interest in the Islamic question in particular is the massive immigration of people from the Islamic world to the captialist heartlands over the last several decades, which has in many peoples estimation--both left and right--changed the structure of society and with it the politics. I remember the American left-wing comedian Bill Maher lamenting the fact that most common name for newborn men in the UK is now Muhammad. To him this was evidence of a certian captiulation of Enlightment rationalism to a newly resurgent religious dogmatism that has potentially disasatarous implications for the entire project of modernity.

As Marxism is itself a product of Enlightment rationalism, these questions are our questions as well, even if we don't like the simplistic and often nasty political conclusions of the liberal secularists like Maher and his mentor Dawkins. Is there something different about Islamic society such that class consciousness is much more difficult to emgere there? Something about the relationship between religion and civil society? Is this an issue in other civilizations as well? What about workers who fall under the influence of Chrisitan fundamentalism (a particular problem in the U.S.)?

Do we just assume that these workers will abandon their illusions and act in their class interests with the deepening of the crisis? Do they have to abandon their illusions to act in their class interests? What is the role of decomposition in all this?


glad to see some intersting

glad to see some intersting debate and ideas coming out of the presentation.

When i say that i think Kautskys idea of looking at Christianity without looking at Jesus is rediculous I don't mean to say that kautskys book isn't worth reading, I enjoyed it alot and it is a good solid Marxist study i think, but I do think that Jesus is still central to the history and origins of Christianity. 

It was the social-historic contect of the time that produced Christinity but the form of it i don't think can be completely seperated from Jesus the man. At certain historic moments particular individuals spring up who more than anyone else seem to understand and represesnt the needs of the time and I do think Jesus, Mohammad and all other founders of religions and world views in general fit this mould. For example Marx emerged out of the class struggle and the historic context of the time but you cannot really understand  communism without some reference to Marx.

With religious leaders it is a bit different, firstly because myths tend to develop around them (these myths are also of great importance as well) but also because it is the 'personality' more than simply the ideas, of the religious leaders which attract followers. Jesus must have been an impressive individual for the myths to develop around him in the first place for instance.

-In terms of Jesus shunning politics i think this is a later view encouraged by Hellenistic influences especially the attempt to make Jesus' message palatable for Rome and Romans.  I would recomend reading a book called 'Revolution in Judaea and the Jewish Resistance' by  Hyam Maccoby. Any way  

In terms of the enlightenment and the resurgence of religion I think the resurgence of religion does have a bit to do with decomposition and decadence; however I also think that the enlightenment whiles a great lea forward in many ways shouldn't be made into an absolute 'good' or be seen as the last word on humanity and 'truth'. The enlightenment is after all a bourgeois phenomenon, albeit of the bourgeoisie in ascendence. Therefore I think it has a lot of basic limitations inherent in the fact of being a product of capitalism, the most alienated sytem and world view in history.


Just to follow up on a couple

Just to follow up on a couple of points: On Jesus shunning politics--I think what I meant by that was that he didn't get involved with the state (which seems to be in contrast to Muhammad), but it is probably correct that he was a political figure in the sense of opposing the system in place at the time.

On another point: The presentation raised the issue of  "Eurocentrism." Typically, those who engage in the critique of Eurocentrism are not very favorable to Marxism, seeing it as another example of an imperialist mentality, ex post facto justifying European expansion, etc. So, is Marxism Eurocentric? Does it matter?

Finally, does it help to view the Enlightenment as "bourgeois?" If we do, does this mean that it is also Eurocentric? Isn't Marxism a product of the Enlightment as well?

Marxism and the Enlightenment

Marxism is the product of the Enlightenment and has taken a lot of nurishment from its critical spirit. It was the expression of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. However, it is an error to talk about the Enlightenment as if it were a homogenous whole: rather is was the expression of the dynamic and contradictory nature of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Thus from its beginnings in the 17th century there was a struggle between then revolutionary/radical whing which sort to take its critique of society and philosophy etc to its logical conclusions and the moderate whing. This struggle is analyized by Jonathan Israel in his excellent book: Radical Enlightenment: philosophy and the making of modernity: 1650-1750. The radical whing was spread across Europe and as far as America. The Enlightenment was not something "good" but a necessary precursor to the bourgeois revolution and thus the proletarain revolution. It helped humanity to begin the process of consciouslly freeing itself from the  tyrany of class rule. For that reason Marxists need to defend it against the sustained attack it has been undergoing from post-modernism etc. That defense necessitates a radical critique of the Enlightenment, which is something that Left Communism has not been able to carry out yet. However, Plekhanov's rich writings about the rise of materialism, idealism and the emegence of the bourgeoisie offer a fruitful vein for beginng such a task..

On Eurocentrism, this is a false question. Capitalism arose in Europe, feed by the streams of developments etc in other parts of the world: the Middle East and North African countries, China, India etc but it emerged in Europe. As did the dynamic development of philosophy under the impusion of development of class societies. Again these did not arise in isolation, and there has certainly been a conscious or unconscious bias in history which played down these links, and also downplayed the dynamic nature of other civilisations: India and China saw the emergence of materialist streams of philosophy but these were unable to take on the dynamic role they did in Greece.

August Thalheimer's Introduction to Dialectical Materialism: The Marxist World-View is extremely enlightening on the emergence and decline of such philosophic struggles in these two countries. It is one of the few attempts at understanding the philosophical developments in China and India from a Marxist, and well worth reading.

The proletariat of the non-European countries have no problems with taking up revolutionary marxism in their highest revolutionary moments, because Marxism whilst arising in Western Europe speaks to proletarians everywhere because it is the expression of their highest class consciousness and not something alien or European.


Thanks Ernie. To try to bring

Thanks Ernie. To try to bring the discussion of the Enlightenment back to the question of Marxism and Islam, I think the argument some put forward is that because Islamic civilization never experienced an Enlightenment, it does not have the same separation of civil society and the state from religion and as a result does not experience economic life the same way--such that the categories of Marxism: class, profit, value, progress, etc. don't work the same way there. A conclusion from this is that Islamic workers simply do not have the necessarry culutral perspective from which to develop a class consciousness, such as has happened in the history of the West.

I don't agree with this of course, but it is interesting that the question has been put forward, "How do we relate to Muslim workers?", as if this was some kind of special case. Why shoudld it be any different from how we relate to Christian workers or any other worker under the influence of a particular ideology?

As I type this, I am remembering an IR article from the early oughts that argued that there was no such thing as "Islamic civilization"--its all the same captialist civilization now.

I agree that we should not

I agree that we should not speak of Islamic civilisation: we do not speak about the Christian civilisation in the  West. What defined the civilisation of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain was the mode of production. The domination of the state by the religious structures and the level of fundamentalism was not homogenous it  had different levels of importance at various times. Was the domination religius throught that much different to the weight of Christianity in the Middle Ages?

In relation to the impact of the weight of the religious superstructure on workers in countries where Islamm is the  main religion this is an interesting question, but the workers in theses areas suffering the same capitalist exploitation as workers in less religious countries. This places them in a contradiction with the dominant cultural perspective, That said the weight of prevailing culture cannot be underestimated: not only in Pakistan etc but  also India where there is a crushing weight of tradition on the working class, something consciously manipulated by  the  ruling class. But one of the great strengthens of the proletariat is its ability to overcome theses weights in the struggle and daily life where the conditions of capitalism place all workers in the same poverty and exploitation.

I agre with JR concerns about the conception of how to appeal to Islamic workers, we do not talk about appealing to Christain, pagan or Hindu workers, we appeal to workers as workers. This is a dangerous idea because it reinforces the divisions in the working class. This danger was seen in the Russian Revolution when in 1920 the International, under the weight of degeneration and opportunism, held a special congress for the Peoplies of the East, whcih involved all sorts of opportunist appeals to the specific religious groups etc.


appealing to workers

I agree that we don't appeal to Muslim workers, or any other particular 'identity', but to workers as such. However, the problem being posed, which the text isn't able to develop, is that we will certainly encounter many proletarians who are influenced by religious ideas even when they are capable of acting and thinking in class terms. The problem is how we approach them and convince them that religion can't answer the dilemmas facing humanity. During the day of discussion reference was made to the article we published in the International Review some time ago, particularly to the way Lenin approached the subject. Lenin, who can't be suspected of any sympathies for religion, was nevertheless against the crude approach of dismissing religious beliefs as so much rubbish or arguing against them on the basis that they derive simply from an error of thought. This is contrary to the marxist view which sees religion as a product of man's estrangement and at the same time as 'the table of contents of man's theoretical struggles', as Marx put it - ie that historically, prior to capitalism, a large part of the development of man's understanding has been framed in mythical and religious forms.

I agree that we should not

I agree that we should not speak of Islamic civilisation: we do not speak about the Christian civilisation in the West. What defined the civilisation of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain was the mode of production. The domination of the state by the religious structures and the level of fundamentalism was not homogenous it had different levels of importance at various times. Was the domination religius throught that much different to the weight of Christianity in the Middle Ages?


I've recently become keen to look back at this question and as soon as i have more free time I will devote time to it but this question is particularly intersting.


In terms of feudalism and christianity: there clearly is a relationship although I'm not sure what it is exactly but it is clearly not a relationship based on the original  vision of Jesus and his first followers. They were revolutionaries against the Roman system whereas Feudalism was to an extent an outgrowth of the Roman system being mixed with the 'system of Barbarism' (Barbarism in the sense outlined by morgan and Engels) /Saxon/Norman society.

However what the relationship was between the society/religion established by Muhammed and the later Islamic empire is if anything more intersting/complicated. This is partly because of the fact that Muhammed to an extent succeeded where Jesus failed in establishing his 'kingdom' (the Islamic opposition to Kingship taken over from the Bedouin tribes is intersting here). This again is connecetd to the difference in the vision of what was being set up by Jesus and Muhammed. Jesus as i said was more of a rwevolutionary in that 'his kingdom' was of a completely different age/world (to be established as part of the Messianic age/End times which would herald a completely new earth and a  new heaven) to the any 'kingdom' which Muhammad established which had more modest aspirations to begin with.

the 'islamic empire' was clearly inspired and given form/impitus by Muhammad's actions and teachings but to what extent it was based on the mode of productioin/state established by him is another question which I would like to look into.


any way just felt like bringing this discussion back from the dead a bit and seeing what people think.

Surely, the Kingdom that

Surely, the Kingdom that Jesus talked about "my kingdom is not of this world" was the Kingdom of Heaven.  All the good things that people could imagine as being possible on this earth, were not realizable here but were assumed to be available after death.  Of course, all the good things that people imagine as being possible on this earth now - enough to eat; a reduction in tedium and endless repetitive work; a joy in life and learning; an end to war and suffering and so on - are in fact possible now, from a material point of view, and we no longer have to be dead to attain them.  Loving your neighbour as yourself, and a moral  Christian or Moslem or Hindu or whatever attitude to life and living in harmony with others - in short Marxism which is amazingly moral in its proletarian morality- is available now but we'll have to struggle to get it.  But then humanity has always had to struggle.  


What are the Beatitudes,  but a statement very much in advance of their time, of many of the tenets of Marxism?  My favorite is "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth" and I take that to be a reference  to the proletariat and the successful outcome to its revolution  which will do away with the requirement  to be dead in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Sadly, many of the young men and women who get swallowed up by terrorist acts, especially Suicide Bombers, who must be among the most  unhappiest of  people on earth, have given up on the improvement of life on this planet and naively fall for the lure of a more exquisite life to come when dead.  This lying deception, as I see it, is one of the more sickening sides to religion  and hasn't anything to do with the sort of morality that Mohammed, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha or Socrates and others have advocated as necessary for the fulfillment of life on earth. 


Fred: I think the 'Kingdom'

Fred: I think the 'Kingdom' which Jesus spoke about was actually an 'earthly' world at first. It became more 'spiritualised' and ephemeral i.e.'Heaven' as we think of it today largely through Helenistic influence. To understand this you need to undrestand what the 'Messiah' means in the Jewish tradition, especially at the time of Jesus. The messiah in Judaism is a 'political' figure- a leader who would establish the 'Kingdom of God' on earth. This kingdom would be a perfect kingdom in which all the nations would come to recognise Yahweh as the true God and Jersualam as the centre of the world and would live in righteousness and peace.

It might also be a kingdom in which the righteous ones of the past would be brought back to life-but it would be a bodily resurection on this earth (albeit a transfigured nd perfected earth). 

Apart from that I agree with the main point of your post- that religion has only ben able to offer a 'vision' of the perfected human society but that we (the proletariat) can bring it (if not a perfect world then one  vastly superior to the current world) in actuality. This is afterall the conerstone of Marx's view of religion that it is a prefiguration of the world that can be made in reality. 

Also I thought I should say that in saying that Muhammed had 'more modest' aims i don't mean that he didn't have a picture ofa a future 'perfect' world but just that it wasn't his immediate aim to bring it about, hence the Islamic belief that Jesus and the Mahdi ( a figure similar to the Jewish version of the Messiah) will bring about the 'End time' prphecies and not Muhammad.


So many threads and I just read this one which I find very interesting: maybe it can come back from the dead twice jaycee :@}

All the contributions are refreshingly positive and elucidate subjects/questions in an equally refreshing and non-presumptive way. The longer I live the more it never ceases to strike me, in all manner of contexts, how much effort goes into disputing Wombat's Theory of this or that , or rejecting Bloggism because a) b) c) etc. I then read Wombat's Theory and find that Wombat didn't propose anything of the sort. I then read the best source material that remains of the original J.Blogg and can't find anything proposed that the a)b)c) refutations could apply to.

'The spiritual aroma of a spiritless world' - religion - just one of the carefully chosen metaphors Marx wrote.

As you say jaycee 'a pre-figuration' I might add 'distant echo' of a real humanity.

Also re: 'the Messiah' good point about the expected 'Return of the King' (Aragorn son of Arathorn?): It is the one detail retold thousands of times and visble on thousands of images: Pilate had I.N.R,I inscribed above his cross: J.N king of the Jews, which it occurs to me might have been a subtle Roman parting shot: he was complicit with the Sanhedrin in eliminating the radical leader but - disguising it as ironic - also maybe saying 'so much for your Messianic beliefs'.

I ask myself : 300 years of secret meetings behind bolted doors of the early christians:at any time the Roman 'Special Branch' could bust them and nail them to the floor: were they 'founding' a religion?

It was Emperor Constantine's wife who 'signed up' and he followed. Then the whole thing changes: he makes it the State Religion over a vast territory: underground 'renegade' groups - especially women, slaves ,servants - could 'come out' as it were and openly declare that they were all equal (only in the sight of the Lord obviously)

'The sigh of the oppressed creature'

Someone posted 'when it comes to Islam it gets a bit more complicated' ....and then some 

I'll leave it there : see if it picks up