Dividing the Left

It’s May Day, which means that it’s the perfect opportunity to discuss the state of the Left. For the past ten years, I’ve often sought to build bridges between disparate groups in order to encourage organization.

Here, however, I want defend dividing the left for the time being.

There are times and places to build united fronts, of course, but at the moment, we need to have the opportunity and space to continue discussing, debating, pinning down ideological points. With sweeping generalizations being made about every event – Syria, Brexit, Trump – it is the time now to swim in polemics.

Now is the time to divide.

I'm voting for the Communist block

In Germany in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were essentially three factions on the Left who were opposed to one another. There were the anti-nationalists, the anti-imperialists, and the anti-Germans.

The anti-nationalists focused, obviously, on nation-states and treated all of them with equal contempt. Anti-nationalists saw all states as equally repulsive, whether the U.S. or Senegal. Since all states are mere constructions in capitalism, then they should all be fought.

The anti-imperialists argued that imperialism is the dominant force in the world, which therefore meant that different states (or non-state actors) occupy different positions in relation to imperialism. Forces that encourage imperialism (mostly stemming from the United States and Europe) should be fought and forces resisting imperialism (whether nominally leftist or not) should receive at least critical support.

The anti-Germans took the position that Germany was the primary entity that ought to be opposed, as Germany was responsible for the most horrific crimes of the 20th century. Anti-Germans were against German reunification, against NATO bombing Serbia, and against EU economic policies, all the while offering uncritical support to Israel, as the Jews had been the primary victims of Germany’s past. After 9/11, Anti-Germans used Marx’s formulation of the economic stages (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism) to support the Amerikkkan invasion of of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Since all of these peoples were lumped into “anti-Semitic feudal Islamists”, then the U.S. was going to force the Middle East into capitalism, which would then open the world up for the next stages – socialism and communism.

As you can probably tell, I’m pretty anti-anti-German.

I’m far more sympathetic to the anti-nationalists and anti-imperialists.

In Germany today, the differences between these groups are disintegrating. One of my friends recently told me that he’s happy about this development, because he thinks it’s more important to build coalitions.

I am not so sure.

It seems to me that these distinctions were never made in the United States leftist scene. Ideologically speaking, it’s more difficult for anarchists and communists to come together than anti-nationalists and anti-imperialists, even if those anarchists and communists aren’t sure why.

The political constellations are different and, in my opinion, much more weakly defined.

As a prime example, the tendency in the United States is the endless question of “uniting the Left”. Personally, I’ve sat through countless brainstorming sessions that reached hair-brained solutions to the “factionalism” and “sectarianism” between leftists.

Differences shouldn’t be articulated and politicized, argue these saviors of leftist in-fighting.

But why not? Through polemics, we have leftist groups engaging one another. Communist parties and organizations vie for correct positions and anarchists clarify their positions as they adopt and adapt their adjectives: Anarcho-Syndicalist-Communist-Primitivists!

However, it’s clear that I’m in the minority. A lot of leftists crave “unity”, because they see that as a way of organizing and thereby succeeding. (Never mind the fact that “success” here means something entirely different to every grouping.)

The main point for them is openness.

This openness is the idea that brings us a magazine like Jacobin.

I should mention here that I often like articles on Jacobin and have cited them numerous times on this blog. However, Jacobin represents this tendency and there are plenty of articles on Jacobin that are absolute nonsense.

In the goal of “unity”, Jacobin, posturing as a broad-leftist, big-tent magazine, is careful not to talk too much about characters that are divisive: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao go almost totally unmentioned. Even Marx and Engels are barely cited.

The usual cast of characters of leftist debate are mostly left untouched, as this might cause division.

Jacobin articles are particularly philosophically empty.

Rather than offering a structured system of analysis in any way, Jacobin magazine leaves us to dwell in a post-modern, non-polemical space.

We are free to take up contradictory political positions based on feelings. Politics in this world are based on convenience. You can check your brain at the door, as long as you’ve brought your heart along.

stalin churchhill fdr

“I don’t know who to support here!”

The Soviet Union is gone, the PRC is totally capitalist, Castro is dead, we don’t have to defend anything icky!

Although in some ways we can see this ideological vacuity an asset, it seems to me rather often to result in the publishing of some rather absurdly silly arguments.

At the same time, because the differences between positions like anti-nationalism and anti-imperialism were never articulated on the American Left, there is no space for a proper discussion on these points between mainstream leftist tendencies.

But Jacobin still encourages its readers to take hard political positions.

A good example is this article, super critical of Hezbollah for not being “proletarian enough” and this other article that calls for general solidarity with the Rojava, while pointing out criticisms from a left-liberal human rights perspective.

So, we are told, we shouldn’t support Hezbollah, based on a Marxist analysis, and we should critically support Rojava, based on a liberal analysis.

Where does that leave us?

Why one and not the other?

Is the PKK/PYD seriously representative of the Kurdish proletariat? Obviously not.

Jacobin does us no favors here. Due to the lack of ideological clarity, we have a variety of positions on a variety of issues and they can range from left-liberal to Marxist, which, it should be noted, are competing and mutually-exclusive worldviews.

(This hypocritically coming from the Muslim communist.)

Without any ideological rigor and in the constant attempts to “unite the Left”, we’re offered almost nothing. All the “solutions” don’t give use anything concrete.

When we’re divided over polemics, we’re at least negotiating ideological space, when we’re “united”, we’re barely saying anything of substance to each other.

So on this May Day, 100 years after the Russian Revolution, I’d like to say to all my fellow leftists:

Let’s remain divided, at least for now.

Bill Oreilly

Advertisements

Confessions of a Muslim Communist

At first glance, you might suspect some intense cognitive dissonance with me claiming to be a “Muslim Communist”, but I can assure you, dear reader, these ideas are not as opposed as they might seem.

In order to locate myself on this spectrum of political and religious thought, we have to go back a few years. We have to retreat to my adolescence and its discontents.

We have to talk about the first prophet that I ever followed.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in April in the year 1870 at the twilight of the Russian Empire. When he attended university in the late 1880’s, Ulyanov was transformed by the works of Marx, Engels, and Chernyshevsky. After he changed his name to Lenin in 1901, Vladimir went on to lead the Great October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and establish the Soviet Union. For the next four years, he and Leon Trotsky led the Red Army against the White Army (a collection of monarchists, nationalists, and proto-fascists) in a brutal civil war. His meteoric career was cut short by a series of strokes and by 1924 the communist leader was dead.

Lenin Mr. Skittles

When you think of the Soviet Union, you probably think of a gray, icy dungeon; a frozen hell where all there is to eat is one single potato, and even that is covered in mold and ice. The people are surrounded by chains and commissars and, in order to pass the time, everyone drinks vodka and builds nuclear weapons.

We all know the distorted image that Americans have of the Soviet Union.

But you can rest assured that I’m not here to sing the praises of the USSR.

However, when I was fifteen, I was more than happy to do so.

After all, the Soviet Union under Lenin was the first country in the world to decriminalize homosexuality (which would later be re-criminalized by Stalin and remains an issue to this day), it was the first country to legalize abortion and provide abortions on demand for free, and it was the first country to implement universal healthcare.

I was totally willing to overlook the pitfalls of the revolution as long as I could maintain my glossy-eyed reverence for Lenin and my deep and abiding love for the Communist movement.

To this day, I still have to catch myself occasionally, because once you slip into that mindset, it becomes far trickier to wiggle yourself free. Conviction turns into some sort of self-righteous rebellion and your ego takes over.

If you’re ready and willing to see the good things that the USSR accomplished, then you’re probably ready and willing to see the terrible things that the US has done. At this point, it becomes easier to simply flip allegiances and latch on to the absurd notion that 20th century Soviet-styled countries were borderline paradise.

Before you know it, you’re wishing Fidel Castro a happy birthday on your blog, despite your better judgement.

(To be clear, I don’t regret wishing Castro a happy birthday, but I wish I would have written something more balanced and critical, because I think that post doesn’t really reflect my genuine opinions about the government of Cuba.)

Stalinn

This actually reads “Thank you, dear Stalin – for the happy childhood!”

But if Lenin was my first prophet, then it wasn’t Stalin who served as my first khalifa (or “Caliph”, meaning “successor” or “vicegerent”). No, Stalin’s Russian chauvinism and bureaucratic despotism represented to me everything wrong with 20th century communism.

The only legitimate khalifa I would recognize would be someone with whom I felt a deep affinity in their opposition to such a deformed communism.

That title goes to the man with whom Lenin commanded the Red Army throughout the civil war – Lev Davidovich Bronstein, also known as Leon Trotsky (if you want to his life story, I highly recommend this excellent documentary).

Trotsky had joined with Lenin on the eve of the revolution and would stand by his side for the next 7 years (not without a few hiccups here and there). Following Lenin’s untimely demise, Trotsky fought against Stalin for control over the Communist Party. Stalin had successfully consolidated his power by 1926 through some political maneuvering and in 1929 Trotsky was thrown into exile. He spent the next 11 years writing, speaking, and organizing against Stalin’s “degenerated worker’s state“. He was assassinated in 1940 by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico.

In the eyes of many, Trotsky was a man of theory while Lenin was a man of action. Trotsky was the esoteric and Lenin was the exoteric. Trotsky was the tragic hero and Lenin was simply the hero.

Trotsky

“Ladies.”

But, as time went on, I moved on to a more nuanced position regarding the “Great” October Revolution.

This isn’t to say that I don’t still have love for Lenin and Trotsky, because I do. However, I’m not the Trotskyist that I once was. On the flip side, I’m also certainly not trying to strengthen the pathetic argument that Marxism is some sort of religion with prophets and false prophets, blah blah blah.

I’m simply placing the lens upon my experiences as a former Trotskyist and a current Muslim.

The story of a prophet and his/her dispossessed rightful successor has played out countless times throughout the history of humanity.

And if you happen to know the story behind the Sunni-Shi’a split, then you’re probably already able to predict the parallels I’m about to draw. If not, dear reader, then away we go!

There exists a classical and incredibly potent story of a prophet and his/her dispossessed rightful successor. That is the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) and Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him).

Briefly, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in or around the year 570. When he was 40 years old, he was visited by the Angel Gabriel and began receiving revelation. This revelation would be eventually compiled into what is now the Qur’an. Throughout the rest of his life he would fulfill the roles of father, grandfather, husband, statesman, general, diplomat, and (most importantly) messenger of God. He passed away when he was 63 and his death sent the young Muslim community into disarray.

Two main factions emerged almost immediately – the proto-Sunni and the proto-Shi’a.

The Stalinists and Trotskyists of their age (although neither group would like me characterizing them in those terms).

The people who came to be called “Sunni” pledged allegiance (or some form thereof) to the actual political successors to the Prophet (PBUH) in the following centuries. The Shi’a, on the other hand, believed that Imam Ali (a.s.) had been designated by the Prophet (and by extension, by God) to be the true successor. Just as the Trotskyists had been designated by Lenin (and by extension, by Marx) to be the true successor.

And since Imam Ali (a.s.) was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and had been raised in his shadow, it’s easy to see why. Imam Ali (a.s.) is considered to be one of the most noble individuals to have ever lived. In his marriage to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (a.s.), and their lineage, the Shi’a draw the people whom they consider to be the 12 imams – the 12 true successors to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

In fact, even the Sunni venerate Imam Ali (a.s.), albeit not recognizing his imamate and unrivaled claim to khalifa from the beginning. He instead fulfills the role of 4th Rightfully-Guided Caliph. And although his son, Hasan (a.s.) was the 2nd Shi’i Imam and the 5th Sunni Caliph, his brief political career is overshadowed by the preceding and succeeding civil wars.

(For a great, also brief, video about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the religion of Islam, I recommend this video.)

Kofi Annan Imam Ali

The nexus between the story of the Russian revolutionaries and the early Muslim community might seem a bit tenuous at first, but I’d invite you to examine the haunting similarities between Imam Ali (a.s.) and Leon Trotsky.

Both men were considered to be almost too fitting for the role of successor.

In the case of Imam Ali (a.s.), the argument has often been made that if he had led the Muslim community, it would’ve collapsed into strife, simply because he was too noble in his decision-making. Whereas in the case of Trotsky, the other Bolsheviks were trying to prevent him from becoming a second Napoleon.

You see, the early Soviet leaders very much saw themselves as having taken up the mantle of the French Revolution of 1789.

Therefore, they constantly were analyzing the progress of the Russian Revolution against that of the French Revolution. And who killed the French Revolution?

Napoleon.

He was too clever, powerful, and charismatic. The others banded behind Napoleon in the counter-revolution and the establishment of the First Empire.

So the Bolsheviks looked around and thought to themselves, “Who is a potential Napoleon here?” For them, the answer was obvious.

Trotsky had studied literature, languages, culture, politics, and history. He was charming, attractive, and intelligent. He was the best public speaker among them and he had the broadest support throughout the ranks of workers. He had led the Red Army to victory and all the while wrote brilliant works of literary criticism like Literature and Revolution.

He was clearly the next Napoleon.

And it was this paranoia of Trotsky’s power that eventually led to a number of Communists standing behind Stalin, whom they initially believed would serve as the perfect mindless bureaucrat and just shuffle paperwork.

trotsky-bourgeoise-are-punks.gif.pagespeed.ce.sPlL1gJJW2

Trotsky, being charismatic.

And although the 7th century Muslims probably weren’t scared of Imam Ali (a.s.) morphing into Napoleon, the tribal leaders certainly didn’t want him in power.

After all, he was from the same blood as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which means that once that bloodline was established in power, other factional groups were not going to be able to regain the control that they lost after the message of Islam decimated their Pagan political-economic systems.

Imam Ali (a.s.) says in Nahj al-Balagha: “Greed is an eternal slavery.”

Sounds fairly close to communism to me.

These two men share more than just their dispossession. They were both top-notch generals and warriors. They were both considered to be men of deep theory and sharp wit. They both spent their lives fighting against what they perceived as injustice. And they both were assassinated by former allies.

And Trotskyists and Shi’a Muslims have more in common than might initially meet the eye. They both obsess over the distortion of “correct” history – about rumored (and actual) last wills. They both read heavily into texts in order to grab at historical indications of their prophets designated the true successor. And they both mourn for the loss of the true, righteous path of the ideology.

If only my person had won out, everything would be different!

I do it too. How could you not?

Sometimes it’s easy for me to play with the histories of my two ideologies.

I can imagine Imam Ali (a.s.) commanding the Red Army in the war against the fascists.

Or Leon Trotsky pressing his head in the sand in submission to Allah and reciting duas in Russian.

The call to prayer echoing over Saint Petersburg, including the Shi’a line “ashhadu anna aliyun waliullah”.

Shaykh Lenin’s Mosque being constructed in Saudi Arabia around his tomb proclaiming his elevated place among the community of the believers.

Sufi mystics twirling on Red Square during the Victory Day Parade.

My two seemingly paradoxical viewpoints seamlessly blending into one another in my head. It’s never been difficult for me to justify both positions, even though everyone may look at me like I’m incredibly neurotic.

Perhaps it’s my need to identify with the dispossessed in order to feed into some self-righteous nonsense.

Maybe there’s something deeply psychological in the way I’ve read and interpreted the stories.

It might not be so accidental that a young Trotskyist would later identify with a minor sect of Islam.

Or maybe I’m not as neurotic as I seem.

sultan-galiyev

“Yes you are.”

That insanely handsome man in the photo was a Tatar Muslim Communist who became a prominent member of the Bolshevik Party during the early years of the revolution.

Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev serves as one of my clear historical reference points.

He was the theorist and strongest proponent of national communism. He fought for national self-determination for the Muslims of the former Russian Empire and supported a Marxist analysis of economics, while remaining committed to the Muslims of the world. Lenin and he were incredibly close, but after Lenin’s death he was purged from the Party and eventually killed by Stalin’s systematic persecution of early Bolshevik leaders.

But, for Sultan-Galiev, there was nothing inherently contradictory in the tenets of Islam and the tenets of Marxism.

In fact, in many ways, they complemented each other.

And he isn’t alone in this trajectory.

Abu Dharr al-Ghifari was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and sided with Imam Ali (a.s.) in the initial question of succession. We could call him a proto-Shi’i Muslim, while at the same time easily slipping him into the history of socialism.

Frantz Fanon, who although himself was not a Muslim, wrote extensively about Muslims struggling against the imperialist yoke of the West. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he formulates a new method of thinking about resistance to European/American hegemony. His account of the Algerian Revolution is considered to be one of the most important accounts of any revolution ever.

And Ali Shariati, the man considered to be the theorist behind the Iranian revolution, made a point of sewing together the fabric of socialism with the fabric of (Shi’a) Islam. His works on reinterpreting Shi’i history as well as his anti-imperialist positions make his works a light in the darkness.

Ali Shariati

Alright, that’s the most terrifying image of Ali Shariati.

Putting the words “communist” and “Muslim” together is fairly dangerous these days.

Some crackpot, right-wing lunatic is going to steal this blog post in order to defend their bizarre conspiracy theories about Barack Obama.

So I’ll leave you with this, dear reader:

Unfortunately, Barack Obama is neither a Muslim nor a Communist. A Muslim would not drone-bomb Pakistani children and a Communist would not have such dismal policies in helping impoverished people.

And, of course, there’s probably no convincing you of that if you’re one of the wretched idiots who still thinks that Obama is a socialist, Muslim, fascist, black-power, Kenyan Nazi.

But you can rest assured, dear reader, if Barack Obama was a Muslim Communist, then I would have voted for him.

From Muhammad to Marx: Re-Mapping Political Constellations

“Do not wrong [others] and you shall not be wronged.” – Qur’an 2:280

“And all that believed were together and owned all things in common; and sold their possessions and gave everyone what he or she needed.” – Acts 2:44-2:45

“From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” – The communist programme

Ever since Marx declared religion to be the opium of the people, there has been an unfortunate suspicion between many religious people and the movements for radical social change. Luckily for us, this distance has occasionally been punctuated by moments of brilliant, cohesive struggle. The most obvious of which has been Liberation Theology throughout Latin America. The movements for justice have seen their goals in the soul of religion – the soul of the prophets. Abraham, Joseph, David, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be upon all of them) established not only a religious legacy, but also a political legacy.

What is the political legacy of these prophets?

A state-less, class-less society.

In other words, communism.

This may sound absurd to those of us who have been raised with religion often being taught (manipulated) in order to fit a certain worldview. Listening to some people, you’d think that Jesus was a rich white guy who spent all of his time talking about abortion and homosexuality (rather than spending exactly 0% of his time talking about abortion and homosexuality). Other people contend that Muhammad was more focused on which way your toes pointed when you pray than showing people to take care of each other.

It’s a really silly concept. And it’s an absurd notion that religion is more about these tiny, fragmented acts than it is about essentially being a good person.

Prophets never came to a people and said, “Yo, you’re doing everything right.” They always came with a radical message of change. They called out the rich, corrupt, thieving parasites at the top of society – the Pharisees, the Quraysh, the Babylonians.

Do you think they would be cool with neoliberal capitalism?

Image

Does it make sense at all that some people are rich and some people are poor?

Does it make sense that some people are starving and some people are throwing food away?

Seriously – think about it.

Many people with whom I’ve spoken over the years have told me that they left their parents’ religion due to the hypocrisy and seeming ridiculousness of the fundamental beliefs. The purpose of religion is lost on them.

And why shouldn’t it be?

If you associate Moses with genocide, Jesus with racism, and Muhammad with female genital mutilation, then why would you ever embrace the core of religion?

It takes a great deal of effort to move beyond these distorted images.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.”  – Karl Marx, 1844

Rarely is the first sentence included in the quote. However, it is the first sentence that ought to be emphasized in order to understand the true place of religion in the world. Marx knew what his later followers did not.

However, Marx was also subject to his time and place. He couldn’t have imagined the socialist elements of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam shaping world politics as much as they have since the 19th century. In his time, capitalism was not yet a global force and anti-colonialism was not yet married to religion throughout the world.

Image

“Certainly we disagree with the Communist Party, as we disagree with other political parties who are trying to maintain the American way of life.” – Dorothy Day

Archbishop Romero infused his call for socialism and freedom with Christ’s message. The Algerian uprisings against the French were sharpened with the spirit of Muhammad. The Jewish communists of the early 20th century relied upon the principle of justice from the Old Testament as they fought the fascists and racists in the streets. These people used the message of the ancient prophets, but there have been important modern prophets as well: Ali Shariati, Desmond Tutu, Malcolm X.

Let’s not forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was a democratic socialist, anti-imperialist, black revolutionary Christian.

 

My favorite story about Jesus is one that I’ve only heard in the Islamic tradition.

Isa, as he’s called in Arabic (and probably Aramaic), only had three possessions. He had a comb to brush his hair, a bowl to drink water, and a garment to cover himself.

One day he was walking past a river and saw a man combing his hair with his fingers. Isa thought, “What do I need this comb for?” and immediately gave it away.

A few days later he saw a women drinking water directly from the river with her hands. He thought, “What do I need this bowl for?” and he gave it away.

From then on he lived with no possessions but his cloak.