Issue 68 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1995 Copyright International Socialism

The children of Stalinism


Chris Harman's article on Islam, 'The Prophet and the Proletariat', (International Socialism 64) has a strength but also several weaknesses. It spells out the contradictory character of what the writer calls 'Islamism', making particularly effective use of recent developments in Algeria to illustrate the point.1 It makes clear that at base Islamism is a petty bourgeois current whose leaders invariably direct its energies away from the expression of mass interests. But it also leaves some key questions unanswered, notably that of how such a vacillating current can draw support in many countries of the Middle East.

How is Islamism able to move outside its usual narrow class limits and, under certain circumstances, build a mass following? Given that the contradictions inherent in the movement are glaring, what allows the Islamists to perform the trick--as, for example, Khomeini did in Iran, as the FIS has done in Algeria, and as Hamas is currently doing in Palestine? This brief response argues that the failure of secular political currents has been a key factor in the making of 'radical' Islam.

For Chris Harman the roots of Islamism are best understood by examining the pattern of economic and social change in the Middle East. The overwhelming emphasis in his article is on uneven development and its impact on urban life, especially the great increase in numbers of urban poor and the impoverishment of some sections of the petty bourgeoisie. It is indeed amongst these frustrated and alienated layers that Islamist currents have had their main influence. But this observation tells us only half the story. As Raymond Hinnebusch has argued of the Islamist movement in Egypt in the 1970s:

Among such factors are the character of secular nationalism and of Stalinist communism, key components of the ideological context in which Islamism has developed. In fact, it is the record of radical nationalism and of the left across the Middle East which has been the most important political factor in putting modern Islamism on the map.

The mass movements

For 20 years following the Second World War mass movements swept the Middle East. These were not undifferentiated struggles against colonialism but in several cases were insurrectionary movements in which the working class played a key role. In the three main centres of struggle--Egypt, Iran and Iraq--mass mobilisation had its impact in every area of society. Working class organisation positively affected even sections of the petty bourgeoisie, the urban poor and the peasantry which had been under largely conservative influence. A rising level of workers' struggle meant that religious and ethnic communalisms were weakened and that women played a much more prominent role in political life.3

The mass movements affected even nationalist regimes which seized power with the aim of weakening such struggles. In Egypt, for example, the Nasser regime was under immense pressure from below--the key reason why it opted for a national development policy which in 1956 produced conflict with the West over Suez. The Suez events in turn generalised support for Nasserism across the region: during the conflict there were mass demonstrations of solidarity, including strikes in the Gulf oilfields. In this radicalised atmosphere the anti-colonial movement in Iraq moved into a situation of revolutionary potential and pro-Western regimes in Lebanon and Jordan came close to collapse. In the late 1950s CIA chief Allen Dulles, seeing the movement sweep towards the Gulf oilfields, described the region as 'the most dangerous place in the world'.4

Such developments marginalised Islamism, which had been particularly strong in Egypt, where during the 1930s the Muslim Brotherhood had dominated anti-colonial struggles. Rising levels of working class activity exposed contradictions inherent in the Brotherhood and for the most active workers and students the left became an important pole of attraction. Despite their factionalism and limited Stalinist perspectives, the Communists seemed to hold out a possibility of real political advance which Islamism could not offer.

The experience was repeated across the region. A rising level of struggle had the effect, in particular, of diminishing the importance of communalism--one of the principles on which the European powers had divided the region up into nation states earlier. In Egypt, for example, many of the leaders of the communist organisations of the 1940s and 1950s were Jews; in Iraq activists whose families were of Sunni or Shi'a affiliation or were Kurds or Christians led mass struggles in which their ethnic background was of much less importance than it would have been to earlier generations. Similarly in Iran minority groups supplied many leading members of the workers' movement.

There were negative developments of course. Despite the strength of these movements, in no case was the proletariat able to make a revolutionary breakthrough. In Egypt, Iran and Iraq Communists were projected into leadership of the mass movement but in each case the Stalinist orthodoxy of accommodation to nationalism dictated that revolutionary opportunities should be passed up. In Iraq, for example, the Communist Party (ICP) derailed one of the most powerful mass movements in the Third World. In the late 1950s Iraqi Communists were in an immensely strong position: Hanna Batatu writes that among workers and the poor 'a thrill of hope greeted their rise to great influence'.5 But the ICP directed its members into the nationalist camp, disorienting the movement and setting the scene for a series of murderous attacks by the Ba'th Party which decimated the ICP and the workers' leadership.

By the mid-1960s the nationalist regime in Iraq was simply one of a series of new Arab state capitalisms which had succeeded in pacifying the workers' movement. Across the region, the left had been reduced to a shadow of the force which seemed to threaten imperialism only years earlier. Stalinism had fetishised the state as a means of bringing change and was now being crushed by the same capitalisms it had helped bring into existence. Joel Beinin's epitaph for the Egyptian Communists could serve for the left across the region. 'Caught up by the embrace of the national movement,' he comments, 'they [were] destroyed by it'.6

In 1967, when Israel and its Western allies defeated the Arab armies almost overnight, the nationalist project fell into crisis. The whole notion of building independent states which would be capable of contesting imperialism seemed to have collapsed. Michael Gilsenan comments that in the case of Egypt:

Frustrated expectations were soon reflected in a wave of workers' and students' struggles against the Nasser regime. The prevailing mood was one in which former left wing activists and a new generation of militant youth looked for radical solutions--the 'moment of trauma' was also a moment of opportunity. But the Communist Party had dissolved into the regime and there was no alternative secular pole of opposition. In these circumstances even the discredited Islamist movement was able to make a comeback. Such events set a pattern to be repeated across the region.

Chris Harman's comment that during this period Stalinism was responsible for 'failure and betrayals' only hints at the massive reverse suffered by the workers' movement at the hands of the left.8 In fact, by the late 1960s communist strategy had evacuated the Middle East of any coherent secular alternative to nationalism--and had done so at a time when the region was about to move into a period of increased instability. This left an increasingly disillusioned population without a point of reference for change and opened a political space which religious activism soon started to occupy.


The left had already set out a practice that positively encouraged the growth of alternative political currents: it had prepared the ground for Islamism. A key issue was that of Palestine. One striking omission from Chris Harman's article is any reference to the importance of Palestine within Middle East politics. In fact, it has been a key mobilising issue for Islamism and one which has shown the left in an even worse light than the nationalists.

Even before the establishment of Israel, the left had failed to identify the Zionist movement as one inextricably linked to Western interests. In 1947, when Moscow declared in favour of a Jewish state, the bulk of the left in the region was hopelessly confused and when war broke out in 1948 it was the Muslim Brotherhood which provided concrete support for Palestinian guerrilla resistance. Even those communists who identified with the Palestinians eventually accepted Moscow's pro-Zionist stance: as Beinin notes, for Arab communists, 'Soviet support for the creation of Israel superseded their historic objections to Zionism'.9

It was only in the mid-1950s, when Moscow reoriented towards the Arab states, that Communist Parties began to talk of a connection between Israel and Western imperialism. Even this abrupt change was double edged: it was part of the swing into uncritical support for nationalist regimes that allowed Arab Communist leaders to declare, bizarrely, that nationalist dictators such as Nasser represented 'the [Communist] party in power'.10

In the early 1960s Nasser announced that he had 'no plan' for Palestine; the left did not dissent, nor did it oppose establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), set up in 1964 with the aim of containing the increasingly subversive Palestinian national movement. The question of Israel now became one of the key issues on which a weak and still marginal Islamist movement began to make headway. The leading Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, for example, attacked the regime and the left for betrayal of the Palestinian cause, portraying the Communists as 'the secret ally of Zionism'.11 There were particularly bitter criticisms of the Arab Communist Parties for maintaining closer links with the Israeli left, itself organically linked to the Zionist state, than they did with the Palestinian masses.12

In the wake of Arab defeat in 1967, the Islamists discovered that they had a huge new audience. They maintained that secular nationalists and the left were weak and corrupt; only by reasserting Islamic values could Arab society liberate Palestine. Walid Abdelnasser observes how these arguments 'religionised' the whole question of conflict with Israel and the West:


In failing to tackle the question of Palestine, the left had sold the pass on the key expression of the national question in the region. It went on to capitulate on every other related issue, notably on that of communalism.

Despite the disastrous outcome of earlier popular front strategies, during the 1960s Moscow directed Communist parties in Syria and (for a second time) in Iraq to join nationalist regimes, and attempted similar manoeuvres in Sudan and Lebanon. The left in these countries now argued for embrace of the same sectarianisms which had once been contested as a matter of principle. In Syria and Iraq, for example, communists entered Ba'thist regimes based respectively on the minority Alawi and Arab Sunni communities. The left endorsed sectarianisms rooted in differences of language, 'ethnicity' and religion--the very divisions implemented by colonialism and which had been successfully weakened by the mass movements of the 1940s and 1950s.

This had grotesque results. In Syria the CPS declared the Ba'th Party to be one of the 'basic revolutionary forces' in the Arab world, one which it said had adopted 'scientific socialism'.14 It then entered an increasingly sectarian regime, surrendering all political independence. In Iraq the ICP also aligned with the Ba'th, now presented by Communist leaders as a 'revolutionary' force, and soon found itself party to a savage war against the Kurds and repression of the Shiites. The Communists thereby strengthened communal divisions and suspicions, creating a political climate in which ideologies such as Islamism could prosper. By the 1970s both Syria and Iraq had seen rapid growth of Islamist movements which had hitherto been insignificant in national politics.

As partners in the nationalist regimes, communists were also complicit in systematic attacks on the Palestinian movement. They were implicated in the Arab betrayal of the PLO during Black September 1970 and the onslaught in Lebanon in 1975. They were also party to the cynical use of guerrilla organisations within the Palestinian national movement to serve the regimes' own ends. This helped to isolate Palestinians from wider struggles within the region and to guarantee the series of defeats which ended with expulsion from Lebanon in 1982, marking the demise of the PLO as a mass armed resistance movement.

Communism and Islamism

By the early 1970s hitherto marginalised Islamist currents had started to make headway in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Algeria. To the extent that the language of nationalism was seen to have failed, the language of Islam became a means of expressing opposition to the state, to Israel and to the West. The Islamist organisations were dominated by petty bourgeois concerns and were vacillating, inconsistent and often divisive. Many were compromised by their own relationships to the regimes; all were in some sense communalist in that they called for unity of Muslims vis-a-vis other religious groups or even other Islamic sects. Most of the Islamic oppositions, however, had become the sole focus for national political activity and their growth provoked a further crisis for the left, which showed itself incapable of comprehending the religious revival.

The international Communist movement had long since abandoned the approach to political Islam which had been adopted by revolutionary Marxists during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Then Lenin had been the key figure in identifying the need to understand the contradictory character of nationalist movements in the 'colonial' world, including those under religious influence such as the Islamic movements of Central Asia. In 1920 the Comintern's Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, drafted by Lenin, set out a series of principles for communist relations with national movements. They argued specifically against compromise with the Islamists and for 'the need to combat pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the position of the khans, landowners and mullahs, etc'.15

Nonetheless, Lenin maintained, it was necessary to support Islamist movements under conditions in which they contested local ruling classes and/or colonial control. On this basis, the Bolsheviks argued for collaboration with the pan-Islamist Jadid movement. This 'astonishing alliance' was defended by Lenin with great vigour against those who believed that communists should have no dealings with a religious activism.16 He argued that it was vital to persuade such movements in the 'colonial' world that their future lay with the workers of Europe against the imperial powers and that a dual approach was required--both 'against' and 'for' such movements in measures determined by the specific circumstances.17

Within a few years, however, the Stalinised Comintern had abandoned these internationalist principles. This was itself a contributory factor in weakening the secular wing of the anti-colonial movement across the Middle East and in producing the Islamist revival which began in the late 1920s with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact it was the Brotherhood which the Stalinised Communist Parties of the Arab world subsequently both attacked and courted on an entirely opportunistic basis.

From the late 1920s the Communist parties' line zig-zagged according to Moscow's latest preoccupation. This was particularly evident in the case of Islamism. In the 1940s, for example, with communists making every effort to establish popular fronts with the nationalists, Islam was often presented as 'revolutionary'. The Lebanese communist Raif Khoury wrote:

Khoury went on to argue that the emergence of Islam in the 7th century was part of the same continuous historical process that had produced the October revolution. Muslim political activists could therefore be viewed as 'progressives' little different from communists themselves. This position could easily be changed, however, when Islamists clashed with the left. The popular front approach then allowed that they could be declared 'fascist'.19 Such opportunistic attitudes were carried into the post-colonial era, so that by the 1950s Egyptian communists, for example, were able to move casually in and out of alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood.20 When, a decade later, religious activism began to revive, the left was incapable of making an assessment of its real political character--one reason why some former communists and communist sympathisers moved so easily into the Islamist camp.

Islamist revival

Islamism has been shaped within a political environment dominated by the failures of secular nationalism and Stalinism. Its advance is intimately linked with the retreat of these movements; it is not, therefore, merely a product of uneven development but the result of an interaction of economic, social and political factors within which the question of ideas has been of enormous importance.

Thus Alex Callinicos has been right to argue that:

This pattern becomes even clearer when we examine situations in which Islamists have made the most rapid advance. In Egypt the events of the late 1960s put Islamism back on the agenda. Hinnebusch comments:

It was not inevitable, however, that the vacuum should be filled by the ideas of religious activism. In fact, the decade after the war saw a series of mass struggles during which conditions could hardly have been more congenial for the left. Initially the Islamist current grew only slowly--it was as if the secular alternative was being tested to the limit before there could be a turn to religious activism. But the left failed to meet this challenge, remaining what Fawzi Mansour calls 'an apologetic appendage' of the state,23 and in the absence of any political alternative Egypt's Islamists began to build a mass base.24

A similar pattern is evident in Iran. In the early 1950s the Tudeh (Communist) Party reacted to defeat of the mass movement by declaring Iranian workers unready for change and going into hibernation--it announced a policy of 'inactive survival'.25 This dismissive attitude to the working class was absorbed by the guerrillaist currents which emerged in the 1960s among young people convinced that they, rather than the working class, could be the agency of change. When the movement against the Shah emerged in 1977, culminating in the mass strikes of 1978-1979, the left was merely an observer.

The record of the left in such countries is often put down to problems presented by repression. In a number of recent analyses of the Iranian revolution, liberal and left wing Iranian academics have sought to show that secular forces were simply overwhelmed by the Pahlavi state. Mansoor Moaddel, for example, argues that during the 1960s and 1970s, 'the radical groups had been debilitated by state repression, many of their leaders had been either killed during armed clashes with the security forces or imprisoned, and the remaining cadres and members were too few to be able to mobilise the masses along the social revolutionary line'.26

This avoids facing the brute facts imposed by Stalinism: that as in the Arab world, the left in Iran had no 'social revolutionary line', having abandoned the notion of independent working class activity. Despite the fact of repression, the Iranian guerrillas had an enormous potential audience, one they self consciously dismissed. It was only after 25 years of retreat by secular radicals that Khomeini and his supporters, hitherto largely confined to the 'ulema and the bazaar, were able to make their breakthrough into the urban poor, the professionals and even into sections of the working class, giving the Islamists their chance to co-opt the revolutionary movement.27

Such cases show how Islamism grows amid the decay of nationalism and Stalinism, reproducing the latter's authoritarianism and elitism (and often intensifying them) but surviving because the crisis of political leadership has reached such critical levels.

What is Islamism?

Chris Harman does not characterise Islamism as a specific social and political force, although he hints that it is not a nationalism. I believe that this is a mistake: the development of Islamism suggests that it is one of currents which has emerged within Third World nationalism, albeit at the conservative end of the nationalist spectrum. Unless we see it in this way, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s within the anti-colonial movement is incomprehensible; so too in the 'post-colonial' era, with 'Khomeinism' emerging as part of the challenge to the Shah, and Islamism appearing as the most vigorous element within the Palestinian movement. Indeed, it has been a costly failure of Stalinism that Communist leaderships have been unable to identify religious activism in such terms.

Radical nationalism, Stalinism and Islamism are closely related-one reason why the latter has often been able to grow at the expense of the former without disturbing the structures of the political system. Initially such growth may be slow but if mass opposition develops against the background of a weak or discredited left some sections of society will be attracted to ideas which repeat the themes of secular radicalism--mobilisation against 'external' enemies, 'guided' change, and the orientation on the state--but do so in Islamic idiom. Olivier Roy maintains that this is no less than an imitation of the left, in which ideas are borrowed from the Communist strategy and then 'injected with Quranic terminology'.28

In this sense Islamic activism has operated at the political level as a nationalism apparently invigorated by religious belief. It has not been a break with the pattern of secular politics but an extension of it--one which promises to implement much the same strategies that radical nationalism and Stalinism have deserted.29

As Nazih Ayubi has observed of Egyptian Islamism in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement did not mark a break from Nasserism but was 'a mirror image of the Nasserist project, revolving similarly around the state and regarding the act of government as the main approach to changing society'.30 So too in Iran, where Islamist ideologues such as Ali Shari'ati attempted a fusion of social democratic and Islamist ideas which has sometimes been called an Islamic 'Marxism'.31 In the case of Algeria, Hugh Roberts has argued that in the 1980s the FIS emerged as 'the offspring of the [nationalist] FLN, a real chip off the old block'.32

Islamism is a 'cousin' of the petty bourgeois nationalisms which have preceded its recent revival. The relationship is close although the two currents are not identical. Even during the colonial period Islamism was a conservative nationalism, reflecting the concerns of a leadership drawn from petty bourgeois layers connected to commercial capital and landowning interests, and which has been implacably hostile to independent action from below. Radical nationalism has usually had somewhat different roots, its leaders emerging from the state bureaucracy and the new middle class and sometimes responding to pressures exerted by the mass movement.

There is confirmation of this pattern in Palestine, where until recently the Islamist presence within the national movement was negligible. Only since the failure of the intifada under the suffocating influence of Yasser Arafat have Hamas and Islamic Rhad really made headway. Disintegration of secular nationalism and the ineffectiveness of the Palestinian left have allowed religious activists to capture a large audience--indeed, leaders of Hamas have expressed their surprise at how easily they have been able to make progress merely by putting an Islamic gloss on Arafat's strategy.33

The sort of activists drawn to radical Islamism across the Middle East are those who, in an earlier generation, made up the cadre of the left. Few Islamist recruits show the systematic religiosity said to constitute 'piety'; indeed, this constitutes one of the chief complaints of leaders of the Islamist movements.34 Many Muslim activists gravitate towards a cause which alone seems to offer them a challenge to the state. It is in this sense that they should be seen as the Islamist children of Stalinism.


In 1922 Lenin argued that the issue of relations with the Islamic movement in Asia constituted 'a worldwide question' for the international workers' movement.35 The judgement proved to be prophetic. When Stalinism defeated the Russian working class and abandoned the Comintern approach it virtually guaranteed emergence of a new religious activism in those regions in which Islam could operate as an idiom for the expression of national aspirations. In the 'post-colonial' era, Islamism has continued to fill the spaces vacated by the left.36 Today's Marxists need not only to combat the state, and the ideological influence of Islamism, but the legacy of Stalinism, which has played a decisive role in putting religion back on the map.

There is now a real opportunity for revolutionary Marxists to point the way forward. Everywhere Islamism has failed to deliver. The Egyptian gama'at islamiyya, a mass organisation in the 1970s, has been all but wiped out as an active force in the country's major cities. The Algerian FIS is involved in a civil war in which its armed groups do no more than imitate the substitutionism which cost Iran's guerrillas mass support. In Palestine, Hamas seeks deals in the hope of sharing power in Fatah's 'Arafatistan'. Meanwhile, Iran's Islamic Republic and Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood regimes are parodies of the self-serving, violent regimes which preceded them.

Revolutionary Marxism can provide a perspective which offers mass action on the basis of wholly independent workers' parties, of internationalism and intransigent opposition to communalism. The hidden history of mass struggles in the Middle East provides the confidence required to pursue this perspective. It shows above all that the political potential of the working class is not in question. What is at issue is the negative and ultimately destructive tradition of Stalinist political leadership.


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