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Three Responses to Arundhati Roy


Introduction


Arundhati Roy is a well-known and powerful writer, associated with the left. As a result, when she lends er name to a cause, many people listen. However, her recent foray, Walking With the Comrades, in Outlook magazine, has serious problems.Aboe all, it reinforces the fraudulent notion that conflicts in India are a one-to-one battle between the state and some corporate groups on one hand and the Communist Party of India (Maoists) on the other. The Maoists would love to have this image deeply engraved. And the state too would like to reduce all conflicts to the monochromatic image of a Kishenji with his face covered. We reproduce below three thoughtful responses to Roy's article.

Pulp Fiction from the Red Corridor

A Response to Arundhati Roy’s ’Walking with the Comrades"

Monday 22 March 2010, by Jairus Banaji

(The below comment first appeared on kafila.org)

Arundhati Roy’s essay Walking with the comrades is a powerful indictment of the Indian state and its brutality but its political drawbacks are screamingly obvious. Arundhati clearly believes that the Indian state is such a bastion of oppression and unrelieved brutality that there is no alternative to violent struggle or ‘protracted war’. In other words, democracy is a pure excrescence on a military apparatus that forms the true backbone of the Indian state. It is simply its ‘benign façade’. If all you had in India were forest communities and corporate predators, tribals and paramilitary forces, the government and the Maoists, her espousal of the Maoists might just cut ice. But where does the rest of India fit in? What categories do we have for them? Or are we seriously supposed to believe that the extraordinary tide of insurrection will wash over the messy landscapes of urban India and over the millions of disorganised workers in our countryside without the emergence of a powerful social agency, a broad alliance of salaried and wage-earning strata, that can contest the stranglehold of capitalism? Without mass organisations, battles for democracy, struggles for the radicalisation of culture, etc., etc.? Does any of this matter for her?

In Arundhati’s vision of politics the only agent of social change is a military force. There are no economic classes, no civil society, no mass organisations or conflicts which are not controlled by a party (or ‘the’ party). There is no history of the left that diverges from the romantic hagiographies of Naxalbari and its legacies, and there is, bizarrely, not even a passing reference to capitalism as the systemic source of the conversion of adivasis into wage-labourers, of the degradation of their forms of life and resources and of the dispossession of entire communities. In Arundhati, the vision of the Communist Manifesto is reversed. There Marx brings the Communists in not to prevent the expansion of capitalism but to fight it from the standpoint of a more advanced mode of production, one grounded in the ability of masses of workers to recover control of their lives and shape the nature and meaning of production. The primitive communism in terms of which she sees and applauds the programme of the CPI (Maoist) recalls not this vision of the future but the debates around the possibility of the Russian mir (the peasant commune) forming the basis for a direct transition to communism. On that issue Marx was, as always, profoundly internationalist, speculating that ‘if the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for the proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land [the mir] may serve as the starting point for a communist development’. That didn’t happen, the revolution in Russia remained isolated, it was subverted internally by the grip of a leadership every bit as vanguardist as Kishenji, and if we don’t learn from history, we cannot truly speak as the beacons of hope that Arundhati sees the Maoists as. It is not hope but false promises that will lie at the end of the revolutionary road, aside from the corpses of thousands of ‘martyrs’ and many more thousands of nameless civilians who of course had no control over ‘the’ party.

Obama and Cuba: The End of an Illusion


“The times we live in reflect that in Latin America and the Caribbean the confrontation between historic forces is getting worse.” — Raul Castro [1]

On February 23, 2010, incarcerated Cuban Orlando Zapata Tamayo [2] died after a prolonged hunger strike, despite the efforts of Cuban medical personnel to treat him and prevent the ending of his life. Over the past several years Zapata Tamayo identified himself with Cuban opponents of the Revolution who are directed and sustained by Washington. His political “awakening” followed a career in petty crimes such as burglary and fraud that escalated into more serious offenses of assault landing him several separate stints in prison.

Zapata Tamayo’s death quickly became the pretext for an orchestrated and deeply cynical campaign by the US government and its European imperialist allies — echoed in the big-business media — to slander Cuba around human rights, torture, and political prisoners.

On Capitol Hill, calls have increased to halt the supposed efforts by the Obama Administration to “improve” relations with the sovereign Cuban state and to instead step up open political hostility and action. Proposed Congressional legislation to end travel restrictions to Cuba for US citizens, never very warm in the first place, is likely to go into deep freeze. On March 11, 2009, the European Union Parliament strongly [3] condemned Cuba over the death of Zapata Tamayo by a vote of 509 to 30 with 14 abstentions. The EU resolution further mandates its “High Representative” and “Commissioner” to “immediately to begin a structured dialogue with Cuban civil society and with those who support a peaceful transition in Cuba,” that is, to openly establish political collaboration with would-be clients (many of whom already are on Washington’s payroll) who aim to overturn — “peacefully” of course — the Cuban Revolution and sovereign government. (The Cuban government has begun a vigorous counter-campaign. The March 1, 2010 online edition of Granma International corrects the factual distortions and false assertions on “political prisoner” Zapata Tamayo’s life and death in the article “For Whom Is Death a Useful Tool?” [4] by Enrique Ubieta Gomez. See also the March 3, 2010 speech by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez [5] at the United Nations Human Rights Council.)

Of course, the crocodile tears shed by imperialist governments, institutions, and media over the death of Zapata Tamayo stands in great contrast to the relative silence and lack of action over the numerous (no one knows exactly how many) detainees — often picked up arbitrarily and not charged, let alone tried, for anything — who have been tortured and beaten to death in the “democratic” custody of US, British, Canadian, and other secret European “facilities” in the so-called "war on terror.

The US government openly spends dozens of millions of dollars in direct financial and other material “aid” to its Cuban clients and agents inside Cuba. Obviously this is a violation of Cuban law. The Cuban government — as the sovereign product of the Cuban Revolution — is under no legal or moral obligation to tolerate such activity from the conduits of a foreign power currently committed to its destruction. In fact it would be the height of naïve irresponsibility to not act rigorously and firmly against such mercenary subversion. Accordingly, there are several dozen individuals in Cuban jails, all of whom have been convicted in Cuban courts with all their legal rights protected, including right to legal council and defense. It should be added that the convictions were based on incontrovertible evidence of acts of receiving material and financial aid and direction, that is, of being mercenary clients and agents, of US government agencies, not “conspiracy” charges, which are the gambit used by US prosecutors when they lack evidence of actual deeds, as in the case of the Cuban Five. (For more information on the case of the Cuban Five, in US prisons for over 11 years, framed up and convicted on trumped-up “conspiracy” charges, for their heroic activities infiltrating Miami-based Cuban-American organizations involved in terrorist acts against Cuba, and the international campaign to free them [6].)

Of course, the death of Zapata Tamayo is not a cause for any happiness or satisfaction for any Cuban revolutionary or defender of the Cuban Revolution. It is particularly a cause for regret and frustration because it is an inevitable byproduct of US policy. The normalization of US-Cuban relations would bring with it the definitive end to the current US policy of “regime change by any means possible.” When that happens, opponents of the Revolution like Zapata Tamayo can present and attempt to win support for their views in a legal framework and not as agents of an aggressive foreign power.

In any case Cuban President Raul Castro has repeatedly offered to exchange all the imprisoned agents and clients of Washington in exchange for the Cuba Five.

As I will demonstrate in this essay, many months before Zapata Tamayo’s death, it had already become clearer that the Obama Administration had no hidden desire for normalizing US relations with Cuba or fundamentally alleviating, let alone ending, Washington’s economic and political war against the revolutionary socialist island. In fact the Obama-Hillary Clinton team is — after some peripheral adjustments in the opening months of the new administration — continuing the firmly bipartisan, half-century-long policy of overturning the sovereign Cuban government. This policy, set in place shortly after the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, remains the longest unchanged foreign policy position of the US government in the history of US diplomacy.

The assertion that a fundamental change in US Cuba policy was in the works with the new Obama Administration was made by many conservatives and ultra-rightists, some of whom fantasized in horror that Obama was a secret supporter of the Cuban Revolution. The illusion, from the other end of the bourgeois political spectrum, was shared as well by many liberals and leftists who fantasized in wishful thinking that Obama planned to end US sanctions and hostility. Among the former, it is still seen as useful to present Obama as a barely closeted commie. Among the latter, on this and virtually every other central domestic and foreign policy orientation of the current administration, a sobering-up, at varying pace and degree, is taking place.

 

McAffrey'sSignal

 

On December 22, 2009, retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey [7] wrote a letter to Wayne Smith, a prominent voice in US academic, think-tank, and diplomatic circles who advocates an end to the US embargo of Cuba and the normalization of US-Cuba relations. In the letter, McCaffrey withdrew from a scheduled January 2010 delegation of fellow dignitaries to Cuba Smith was organizing. McCaffrey cited comments by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez sharply denouncing the behavior of President Barack Obama following the fiasco of the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit as the ostensible reason for his withdrawal from the trip.

McCaffrey had visited Cuba before, met top Cuban leaders including Fidel and Raul Castro, and declared publicly and before a US Congressional panel that Cuba represented no “military threat” to US “national security.” His Congressional testimony brought him harsh criticism from elected Cuban-American officials who defend the heirs and interests of Cuba’s former ruling classes that were ousted in the 1959 Revolution and other policymakers who oppose any “liberalization” of anti-Cuba US policy. McCaffrey had long spoken out formally, and with some force, against the longstanding US policies of overt “regime change,” employing trade and travel sanctions, political hostility, and military intimidation. McCaffrey aligned himself with a significant, growing minority in US ruling circles who have argued for “engagement” as the best way to advance the goal of ending, once and for all, the Cuban Revolution and its political resonance and influence worldwide and, in particular, across the Americas.

McCaffrey is no mushy, naïve bourgeois politician. He has a “distinguished” military career defending the interests of US imperialism in combat action, from the 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic to multi-medaled “service” spanning Vietnam and the first Gulf War. In that latter war, McCaffrey’s command oversaw one of the most despicable examples of war crimes in recent decades, when US forces bombed and shot to death many thousands of unarmed, fleeing Iraqi troops — abandoned by their officers following the military rout by US forces — who had shed their uniforms and were attempting to return to Iraq from Kuwait, along what became known as the “highways of death.” The defenseless, forcibly conscripted former soldiers were massacred and buried in mass graves after the slaughter. Among the soldiers participating was the future Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who no doubt picked up a few pointers on the morality of the merciless targeting of unarmed innocents.

McCaffrey has a direct, intimate connection with US policy in Latin America, going back to the aforementioned invasion of the Dominican Republic. The liberal Democratic Lyndon Johnson Administration dispatched over 40,000 Marines and 82nd Airborne troops to that impoverished island to abort an increasingly powerful popular uprising that threatened to overturn the military dictatorship that had seized power overthrowing the elected, constitutional government of Juan Bosch. At least 2,000 Dominican civilians were killed in the US invasion, which aimed at averting what Johnson called a “second Cuba.” Under President William Clinton from 1994 to 96 McCaffrey was Commander-in-Chief for Southern Command of the US Armed Forces with the charge of coordinating “national security operations” in Latin America. Next, still under Clinton, he became the so-called “Drug Czar.” Of course, the pretext of combating drug trafficking has become finely tuned over the decades as an increasingly central rationalization for US intervention in the Americas and political campaigns against governments in conflict with Washington. This has been further deepened under the Obama Administration as it has moved in 2009 to implement the Bush Administration plan to greatly expand direct US military presence on the ground in Colombia with seven military bases there and to reactivate the Fourth Naval Fleet off the waters of Latin America, six decades after being disbanded. Both moves were rationalized in terms of the “war on drugs.”

By itself, McCaffrey’s announcement may seem to have limited significance. But McCaffrey is a savvy bourgeois political operative who never functions as a lone wolf. He is a disciplined figure who can read the tealeaves. So his action should be understand in its proper context, which is the downward trajectory of US policy toward Cuba under President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as 2009 unfolded and ended, following a period of false expectations and widespread illusions that a change was coming. More precisely, after the initial months of his administration, which found the Obama team on the defensive and isolated, Washington has subsequently pushed back and scored a certain degree of progress in asserting its positions and strengthening its allies in Latin America, while tamping down expectations of significant change in US policies towards Cuba.

The successful — for Washington — outcome of the June 2009 coup in Honduras gave impetus to the US pushback. After its isolation at the San Pedro Sula Summit of the OAS, Washington took advantage of the coup in Honduras to step up its fight to regain political leverage under the Obama Administration. The White House and State Department formally opposed the coup even as political operatives close to the Administration worked on behalf of the coup makers. Once the US government became a central player in diplomatic maneuvers and intrigue after the June 28 coup, it was guaranteed that any process that unfolded would be skewed in the most demobilizing, conservative manner possible. All of this culminated in the farcical signed agreement on October 30, 2009 which was presented as facilitating the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya to his presidential post but which actually did no such thing. With the signed document in hand, the “de facto” Honduran regime brusquely shunted Zelaya aside, and Washington announced that it would support the outcome of the November 29, 2009 elections held under the auspices of the coup regime and significant repression and closing of democratic political space.

 

Obama Pushes Back

In the period immediately preceding and following the time when General McCaffrey canceled his trip to Cuba, a sequence of events unfolded which underlined this shift:

  • On November 19, 2009 Obama chose, in a clear provocation, to publicly correspond with Yoani Sanchez, the so-called “dissident blogger,” the latest wholly manufactured, financed, and highly promoted darling and tool of both liberal and conservative anti-Cuba forces in US bourgeois media, academic, and political circles. This was done as an answer to the repeated invitations of Cuban president Raul Castro for direct dialogue between the United States and Cuban governments where every question and political difference would be, as put by Raul Castro, “on the table.”
  • On November 30, 2009 a document was issued accusing the Cuban government of persecuting an Afro-Cuban doctor and, in general, practicing institutionalized racism. The initiative was under the direction of Carlos Moore, a notorious Afro-Cuban counter-revolutionary activist who presents himself as a fighter against “racism” in Cuba. Moore has a long history of working with US-based counter-revolutionaries who are creatures of US government and intelligence agencies. The document, “Acting on Our Conscience: A Declaration of African-American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba,” was signed by a number of prominent “progressive” African-American academics and figures such as Prof. Cornell West, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Ruby Dee Davis, Prof. Ron Walters, and Prof. James Turner. In response to this slanderous “Declaration,” defenders of revolutionary Cuba’s exemplary role in fighting racism inside Cuba as well as its amazing record in combating colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid in Africa went into action (see the counter-petitions “In Solidarity with the Real Anti-Racist Movement in Cuba” [8] and “Declaration of African American Activists, Intellectuals and Artists in Continued Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution” [9] and the article, “Latest Attack on Cuba Falsifies History of Fight Against Racism in Cuba” [10]).
  • Washington-Havana talks on legal rules and procedures governing immigration, which had been scheduled for December 2009 following their unilateral termination by the Bush Administration in 2003, were pushed back by the Obama Administration after an initial meeting in July 2009. (The talks resumed on February 19, 2010.) Since then, Washington has stonewalled Cuba’s offer to expand bilateral negotiations to reach accords on the issues of combating drug trafficking and terrorism as well as collaboration and cooperation towards hurricane preparedness and relief.
  • On December 5, 2009, Havana police arrested one Alan Gross, formally an employee of an outfit calling itself Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI). Gross is being held in a Cuban prison accused of spying. DAI is a major for-profit mercenary business employing 350 full-time staff in its central office in Washington, DC suburbs and operating in over 60 countries. That is in line with the contemporary US policy of utilizing so-called “subcontractors,” operating as “private” for-profit corporations, as proxies for promoting and implementing US government policy (DAI’s website calls the US State Department’s Agency for International Development its “principal client”). This policy of manufacturing “front” organizations with elaborate business structures is nothing new for US and other imperialist intelligence services. However, this “privatization” of US intelligence and operational tasks has become more rampant and brazenly open. (There are tens of thousands of employees of such “contractors” working for US military and intelligence agencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other fronts in the so-called “war on terror.”) It has the advantage of establishing degrees of separation — what spook jargon calls “plausible deniability” — from the US government source of political direction and financing, although few in the world are taken in by the elaborate charade. Perhaps most important for the individuals heading up these myriad fronts — most of whom are themselves graduates from direct government “service” in military, intelligence, or other such fields — is the lucrative material rewards involved, as these relationships are a “legal” cash cow. Gross and DAI were nabbed handing out highly sophisticated satellite cell phones and computer equipment as part of open US polices to finance individuals and groups that will work hand-in-hand with Washington to subvert and eventually destroy the Cuban Revolution under the guise, of course, of innocently promoting “democracy” and “human rights.” The 2008 Federal US budget openly allocated $45 million for this purpose. (These are separate from covert funding operations.) In that budget DAI received nearly 10% of the mercenary money. In the past, much of these funds were handed to rightist Cuban-American outfits based in Florida, who tended to just pocket the money for personal use. The botched DAI operation seems to indicate that the Obama Administration was moving towards new methods to get money and equipment directly to their mercenary clients inside Cuba, without the gusano middlemen and their sticky fingers. So far the Obama Administration has issued perfunctory statements of “concern.” The above-mentioned Wayne Smith, who was the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana when it was established under the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, told the Miami Herald that if Gross distributed satellite phones and other high-tech equipment, it will be hard for Washington to argue his case. "If he was caught with simply a cell phone, even if he didn’t have proper documents, they would have just expelled him. . . . I’m struck by the fact that the United States has not raised hell over this. If I were down there handling the case, and the guy hadn’t done much, I’d be making noise. Maybe he was up to something he shouldn’t have been up to.’’
  • Following the Christmas Day 2009 attempted terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines plane headed to Detroit, the US from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Washington made all citizens of Cuba, along with a number of other countries, subject to enhanced searches and harassment at US Customs checkpoints on the basis of Cuba being on the US State Department list of states that “sponsor” and “support” terrorism. The degree of hypocrisy and mendacity involved here is breathtaking. Thousands of Cuban citizens have died in terrorist attacks launched from US soil against Cuba since the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution. These attacks have either been directly organized and promoted by US government agencies or winked at and tolerated by US authorities over the years. Perhaps the most notorious incident in a long and sordid history was the October 6, 1976 terrorist destruction of a Cubana Airlines craft and the murder of all 73 passengers aboard, which included the 24 members of Cuba’s juvenile national fencing team, which had just won all the gold medals at Central American and Caribbean athletic games. The two organizers of that crime, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posadas Carriles — both former operatives of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — are currently living freely in the United States. There is not an iota of factual evidence tying Cuba to any act of terrorism in the United States or anywhere else. The fact that the Obama Administration has refused to remove Cuba from this list is a clear indication of its continuation of the essential core of US anti-Cuba policy.
  • In the “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, given on February 2, 2010, US “Director of National Intelligence” Dennis Blair stated, “Cuba has demonstrated few signs of wanting a closer relationship with the United States. Without subsidized Venezuela oil shipments of about 100,000 barrels per day, the severe economic situation would be even worse. President Raul Castro fears that rapid or significant economic change would undermine regime control and weaken the revolution, and his government shows no signs of easing his repression of political dissidents.” Translated from sophistry into English, Blair is lamenting the fact that the Cuban government has refused to surrender to Washington’s demands and do US imperialism the favor of liquidating the Revolution itself in exchange for all the charms and benefits of US domination.

“We Send Doctors, Not Soldiers”

It should be noted that the social catastrophe in Haiti has complicated Obama’s anti-Cuba pushback in the hemisphere. Inside the United States, there has been a near-total blackout of Cuba’s medical solidarity with Haiti — a truly inspiring history — where the Cuban medical personnel and brigades, who were already on the ground before the earthquake providing, free of charge, much of the medical care existing in Haiti, were the first responders in the disaster. The Cuban teams, reinforced with doctors from Cuba, as well as Haitians and others from the hemisphere trained in Cuba, set up the first open-tent clinics and operating facilities, which have already served tens of thousands. This is widely known and acknowledged in the Caribbean, Latin America, and worldwide. Cuba, by far, has the most, and the most effective, personnel and programs actually providing medical aid to the Haitian people. As Fidel Castro wrote, “We send doctors, not soldiers.” [11]

The Obama Administration, on the other hand, has rapidly poured in troops and essentially seized the Haitian Airport at Port au Prince, while slowly getting medical equipment, supplies, and food, not to speak of on-the-ground functioning medical facilities, to the people. In the initial days and weeks, US and other Western resources went primarily to rescue UN personnel, foreign diplomats, and Western tourists and citizens, criminally failing to provide minimal assistance to devastated working-class Haitian neighborhoods. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was forced on the defensive as outrage mounted internationally over the heavy-handed US military role which prioritizes the landing of troops at the airport and seaports while forcing some aid shipments to travel overland via the Dominican Republic. According to the Associated Press [12], for every dollar in US “aid,” 40 cents goes to the US military while 10.5 cents is for food, 10.5 cents is to transport the food, 1.6 cents to pay Haitians working on recovery, 1 cent goes to the Haitian government, and ½ cent to the government of the Dominican Republic. We should all be very grateful, however, that the Western imperialist hyenas, who have looted Haiti for centuries, and, with Washington in the lead, imposed the blood-soaked tyranny of the Duvalier family protecting a system where 1% of the Haitian population controls 50% of its wealth, has magnanimously agreed to cancel $290 million of Haiti’s $890 million international debt!

(Towards the end of February 2010, the US government announced the withdrawal of those doctors under its direction, the closing of its last field hospital inside Haiti, and the departure of the highly publicized US Navy Medical Ship Comfort from its Haitian dock. Of course the medical needs of the earthquake survivors are multiplying rapidly as the legions of homeless living in “tent communities” in horrid conditions including massive rain are facing diarrhea, malaria, and all the disease produced by such conditions on top of constant undernourishment and hunger. In addition it is estimated that up to 30 percent of those who received emergency surgery in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake will need follow-up operations. While Washington withdraws its minimal direct medical assistance the Cuban medical mission in Haiti is expanding.)

From Trinidad to Turtle Bay

The first months of the Obama Administration found Washington playing defense on the “Cuba Question” at a series of hemispheric meetings under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), a body traditionally dominated by the US government. Obama came face to face with the political ground lost by Washington in the Bush years that needed to be made up under his Administration.

In two successive OAS Summits held in April 2009 in Trinidad and June 2009 in Honduras, the Obama Administration was embarrassingly isolated. Washington came under remarkably open pressure over its anti-Cuba policy, which formally united every other government in the OAS, and dominated the agenda, much to Obama and Clinton’s chagrin. Nevertheless at the June Summit, hosted by the soon-to-be-ousted Honduran President Zelaya, the Obama-Clinton diplomatic team was able to prevent a formal vote openly condemning US policy although it was forced to retreat and acquiesce to the abrogation of the 1962 OAS resolution expelling Cuba (see my articles “Trapped in Trinidad” [13] and “Slipping and Sliding in San Pedro Sula” [14]).

Washington’s isolation and near-humiliation over Cuba at the OAS Summits was squared a few months later on October 28, 2009 when, for the 18th consecutive year, and with the most lopsided vote yet (187 for the Cuban resolution and 3 siding with Washington with 2 abstentions), the UN General Assembly voted on, as the resolution put it, the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” Washington was only able to get 2 other votes this year — Israel and Palau, while losing El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan from the 2008 vote. It is surely a delicious irony — and a powerful symbol of how utterly isolated US anti-Cuba policy is (and how embarrassing for Washington’s diplomacy and political authority) that even the US-created, sustained, and dependent governments of Afghanistan and Iraq felt compelled to vote for Cuba!

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriquez’s UN presentation [15] was a factual, devastating indictment of the grotesque reality of US sanctions, which extend to life-saving medicines and technologies that are even partially manufactured or developed in the United States:

“Alexis García Iribar was born in Cuba, in the province of Guantánamo. He suffered from a congenital cardiopathy known as persistent arterial duct. At the age of 6 and after successive deferrals and hemodynamic complications, he had to be submitted to an open-heart surgery on March 9, 2009, because the government of the United States prevents the US companies NUMED, AGA and Boston Scientific from selling to Cuba the ’amplatzer’ and ’embolization coil’ devices required to perform a catheterization that will spare children from this type of surgery. I could mention another 12 cases of children between the ages of 5 months and 13 years who have had to undergo a similar procedure in the course of the last one and a half years — two of them underwent surgery after last January 20. Cuban children suffering from lymphoblastic leukemia whose bodies reject traditional medicines can not be treated with the American product”Elspar" (Erwinia L-asparaginase), created specially to treat intolerance. Consequently, the life expectancy of these children is reduced and their suffering increases. The U.S. government forbids Merck & Co. to supply this medication to Cuba.

Cuba has not been able to acquire Gene Analyzer Equipment —indispensable to study the origin of breast, colon, and prostate cancer — which is manufactured by the company Applied Biosystem (ABI). Lactalis USA, a supplier of dairy products, was fined $20,000 by the US government. Since the election of President Obama, there has been no change whatsoever in the implementation of the economic, commercial, and financial blockade against Cuba. The blockade remains intact."

US ambassador Susan Rice [16] found herself tangled up in Turtle Bay (the Manhattan neighborhood where the UN is located) where she defended, in a lonely place, US policy with childishly knee-jerk rhetoric: “Here we go again. I suppose old habits die hard. The hostile language we have just heard from the Foreign Minister of Cuba seems straight out of the Cold War era and is not conducive to constructive progress. We will not respond in kind to painfully familiar rhetoric that we have heard in years past.”

What a stupid joke! Of course it is Washington that is continuing its “Cold War” against revolutionary Cuba. It is Washington that refuses to accept — 50 years later! — the actuality of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s right to self-determination. It is Washington not Cuba that claims a right to subvert, intervene, and harbor and protect terrorists so as to bring about a return to US domination. The surreal remarks of Rice register how tied up in knots Washington finds itself politically as it flails about furiously from its isolated diplomatic corner. But embarrassment and diplomatic isolation are far from sufficient to bring about a change in US policy. Washington under Obama is determined to change the unfavorable political relationship of forces that accumulated over its Cuba policy across the Americas under the years of George W. Bush’s Administration.

Obama Advances Bipartisan US Policy Aims in Latin America

Under Obama’s leadership, Washington has made some progress toward its bipartisan political goals in Latin America. Obama was aided by the initially widespread hopes and illusions in him in Latin America and worldwide as well as in the United States by many self-described “progressives.” While, after one year, these are being increasingly discarded, the initial illusions were a useful cover for the Obama Administration as it pushed forward an agenda in essential continuity with its predecessor in Latin America and internationally.

Under the Bush Administration there were concerted, failed efforts to subvert and overturn the proletarian state in Cuba and the left-wing, anti-imperialist governments in Venezuela and later Bolivia that came to power amid massive popular struggles. None of this worked out very well for Washington. All of its targets were politically strengthened and the policy had virtually no support in Latin America. The governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia — in close alliance with revolutionary Cuba, which provided tremendous solidarity in the form of large-scale medical and educational assistance — successfully resisted US-backed military coups and counter-revolutionary plots and subversion and carried out significant policies in favor of working people.

Under the new Obama Administration there was a tactical diplomatic shift — a necessary retreat in form, more of a regrouping. The bellicose rhetoric and in-your-face confrontationalism of the Bush years were ratcheted down somewhat. Ambassadors were again exchanged with Venezuela and Bolivia. At the OAS Summit in Trinidad, Obama was photographed shaking hands with Hugo Chavez. Nevertheless, the aims of US policy were unchanged. (And, in recent months, alongside the shift to direct contention again with Cuba, there has been a ramping up of political hostility, demonization, and destabilization against the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela. Corporate media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post and the increasingly bellicose and conservative editorial page of the Washington Post have echoed, albeit more harshly, the US State Department government line painting a picture of Venezuela in utter economic and social chaos under a repressive government lashing out at dissent and “dropping the mask of democracy.”)

On Cuba, Obama quickly adjusted US policy on some secondary questions — in the face of the mounting hemispheric and near-unanimous international opposition to the US economic, financial, and commercial embargo — in order to more credibly defend and promote the core policy aim which remains the overturning of the revolutionary government, the destruction of the social relations and conquests of the Revolution, and the restoration of capitalism and US domination.

Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to end existing travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans and has eased somewhat the ability of some Cuban academics, musicians, artists, and scientists to visit the US and some similar categories of US individuals to legally travel to Cuba at the invitation of Cuban society. Also, there has been a slight US liberalization in granting so-called “people-to-people” licenses. Nevertheless, so far, the Obama moves still are far from taking us to where the policy on exchanges and licenses was under Clinton and the first several years of the George W. Bush Administration.

These anemic measures, doled out with an eyedropper, are presented by Obama and Clinton as bold moves begging for a Cuban response. They are saying in essence: “We’ve done our bit, now you must basically commit suicide and end the Revolution in exchange.”

Colombia

Over the course of the first decade of the new millennium, the political and moral deterioration of the armed guerrilla movement of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) became more pronounced and apparent, to the great advantage of the Colombian officer corps and capitalist political parties. Their political consolidation took place under the leadership of Alvaro Uribe. (This entire development was candidly analyzed by Fidel Castro in a remarkable small book, Peace in Colombia [17], which is a treasure trove of the Marxist method and principles.)

In this framework, on October 30, 2009, the US and Colombian governments signed an agreement to significantly expand the US military presence there in seven military bases. This puts potentially large-scale US military forces directly on the ground for future political contingencies in the heart of the South American continent. Colombian territory has become the wedge by which Washington hopes to regain on-the-ground military striking power, under the cover of fighting “drug trafficking,” on the South American continent. This military presence will aim to threaten and intimidate governments in conflict with Washington and to counter the inevitable explosions in popular struggles and revolutionary bids for power that are built into the contemporary reality of economic crisis and class and social polarization throughout the Americas.

Endgame

There is no question that, if Cuba were to drop its revolutionary political orientation and become more responsive to the interests and dominance of world capitalism and imperialism, then Washington would change course and establish full diplomatic relations and end all sanctions in a New York minute. But short of Cuban political capitulation, what will end the US economic and political war against Cuba? There are three factors which can be looked at separately, but which are totally intertwined, playing upon and off each other.

First and foremost is independent mass pressure inside the US, that is, independent of the maneuverings, machinations, and intrigues of the bait-and-switch game on Capitol Hill. This first factor is weak today, although that can change. And while there is a vibrant, committed core of Cuba solidarity activists in cities across the United States, as a national movement it is decentralized and diffuse. Of course the “Cuba Question” is not at this time a pressing issue in US politics. There is no imminent momentum towards direct US aggression. Widespread sentiment against the US embargo in US public opinion exists, and there is even a small but significant layer of US public opinion that is consciously sympathetic to the example, legacy, and historic leadership of the Cuban Revolution, particularly among Blacks. There is furthermore great, broad interest in Cuba, and the prospects of visiting there, among ordinary US citizens. Preventing people from seeing the actual Cuban reality as opposed to the hell painted by imperialist propaganda is, of course, a major reason US authorities strain to maintain travel restrictions.

Second is hemispheric and world pressure. In formal diplomatic terms it’s hardly possible for Washington to be more isolated in its Cuba policy, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, among Washington’s imperialist allies who are also its dog-eat-dog competitors on the world capitalist market, opposition to the US embargo at the UN has more to do with antagonism towards US attempts to impose its economic and financial policies extraterritorially than with any sympathy for revolutionary, socialist Cuba. The above-cited EU Parliament vote strongly condemning Cuba is a truer reflection of the class and political antagonism of European imperialism. In the Americas, while popular solidarity with Cuba is very widespread and is a big factor weighing on the postures of even conservative governments, it is certain that as social and political polarization deepens in the wake of growing economic crisis, antagonism towards Cuba — the permanent example and inspiration for all hemispheric forces fighting for social justice — consciously fostered and demanded by Washington, among certain governments and political tendencies is bound to grow. There are many delicious contradictions within the actuality and dynamics of the Cuban Revolution’s place in Latin American history and contemporary politics.

The third factor is divisions within the US ruling class. This factor totally flows from and is dependent on factors one and two. Short of a victorious social revolution inside the United States bringing working people to political power, it is the political representatives of the US “Establishment” that will make the decision to end the five decades of economic and political war against the Cuban Revolution. So far we have only seen tactical divergences from within an utterly united policy of defeating the Cuban Revolution and destroying Cuban socialism.

If Obama and Clinton had any illusions that the Cuban government under Raul Castro would be less inclined to promote revolutionary internationalism and solidarity with the oppressed and exploited overwhelming majority of humanity against the policies of world capital, they have had enough time to shed them.

Despite years of stupid speculation and assertions about splits and divisions between Raul and Fidel Castro, it seems fairly clear that Washington no longer thinks that anything fundamental has changed in the Cuban leadership and political orientation, either within Cuba or in its foreign policy, under Raul Castro’s Presidency. Cuba remains revolutionary and Marxist. Revolutionary continuity is the reality in Cuba.

Therefore so does continuity remain the reality of US policy under Barack Obama.

by Ike Nahem


Notes

* From MRZIne:
http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/201...

* Ike Nahem is the coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York (email: ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ), a member of the National Network on Cuba. Nahem is an Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters Union. These are his personal political opinions.

On the Situation in Sri Lanka


Sixteenth World Congress of the Fourth International


Last May the national struggle of the Tamil people suffered a total defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan government. The defeat, which was a product of the “war on terror” was the most comprehensive defeat suffered by a national liberation struggle for many years. It is a defeat not just for the Tamil people but for the whole of the left and progressive forces in Sri Lanka.

Last May the national struggle of the Tamil people suffered a total defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan government. The defeat, which was a product of the “war on terror” was the most comprehensive defeat suffered by a national liberation struggle for many years. It is a defeat not just for the Tamil people but for the whole of the left and progressive forces in Sri Lanka.

In the last two months of the war, the armed forces committed relentless and indiscriminate artillery and air attacks killing some 40 000 civilians, including many women and children.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was reelected last January, has no intention of resolving the Tamil national question for which the Tamil people have struggled for decades.

After the war, some 300,000 civilians were forced to flee from the war zone and were locked up in internment camps behind barbed wire fences. These internally displaced persons (IDP), as they were branded, have been allowed since December to go back to their original homes but the Rajapaksa government has not given the means for a real settlement. People are still waiting for financial assistance and also food support, medical and sanitary aid. To this day around 100 000 civilians are still remaining in the camps.

Besides this situation, the Rajapaksa government uses open and brutal repression to silent its opponents and the media. There are 12,000 political prisoners behind bars, some of them for years, without any legal inquiries and most of them are Tamils. Not less than 20 journalists have been killed in the last three years. Many of them have fled the country in fear of their lives. The government must seriously address a political settlement for the Tamil national question. The first step should be to build a power-sharing arrangement.

We also demand that:

• All political prisoners be released unconditionally,

• The Sri Lankan government stop suppression of media freedom,

• The Sri Lankan government assure the IDP a safe settlement in their home and secure the livelihood.

We congratulate our comrades in the NSSP for the courageous stand they have made, and continue to make, in the face of Sinhala state repression and regret that some on the left internationally were unable to lend more support to this struggle.

The International Becomes a Perspective


Salvatore Cannavò

 

To recount the 16th congress of the Fourth International, we could begin by speaking of the reconstitution of the Russian section of the International, a kind of return to the sources: the Fourth International was founded at the initiative of Leon Trotsky in 1938, in the wake of the struggle and defeat of the Left Opposition to Stalinism, destroyed in Russia during the 1920s and 1930s.

sixteenth-world-congress
The Sixteenth World Congress
Photo: Inprecor

We could continue by noting the presence of many Latin American organizations, starting with Marea Socialista, which is part of Chavez’s United Socialist Party in Venezuela and proposed to strengthen political and international unity so as to respond collectively to the proposal for a Fifth International launched by the Venezuelan president. We could stress the importance of the birth of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France, regardless of its contradictions and its growing pains, constituting the main novelty of European politics as well as the dynamics, under other political latitudes, of the German left.

However, to reflect the success represented by the 16th World Congress of the Fourth International - which ended on February 28, 2010 at Ostend, Belgium, on the North Sea - we prefer to cite three elements:

* Firstly, participation. Delegates, observers and guests coming from a good 40 countries helped develop a debate powered by the presence of all the continents, from Australia to Canada, Argentina to Russia, China to Britain, and Congo to the United States. To succeed in bringing together in one place over five days, in completely self-financed manner and without any institutional support, so many organizations, is not an easy thing.

* Then the fact, that for the first time the new International Committee elected at this Conference is more than 40% female. And there were many young members. The international Committee is a “federal” body, which means that each national reality has its own representatives. There is no “rebalancing” of the central bodies - history taught this international current that a political line cannot be imposed from above, still less by a “guide” party - the composition of the international Committee therefore reflects a generational renewal, a change of mentality and a new political and social reality.

* The third element was the major political and organizational discussions, focused on the future. The Congress turned towards the East, to Asia, with a fundamental role played by the Philippine organization, the already mentioned presence of the Russians (Socialist Movement Vperiod), the Polish Party of Labour (PPP) invited, the orientation of the Hong Kong group in China and the new Japanese organization under construction. But above all with the important and decisive presence of the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), a significant organization, whose national Congress in January ended in a rally involving over ten thousand workers, peasants and, especially, women.

Revival

For the Fourth International this was a renewal, a symptom of the overcoming of the difficulties of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. After a series of defections or divisions and a loss of perspective, the discussion concerning the possibility or, at least, the will to consider a "new international" – the fruit of a possible political process, initiated by the choices made in France, by the attendance of organizations such as the Pakistani one or by the debate taking place in Latin America - has provided a fresh impetus and a new internal debate. The political process that must be watched carefully is the construction of “new anti-capitalist parties”, broad and with a mass influences, including “the current response to the crisis of the workers’ movement and the necessity of its reconstruction”. A perspective that has an organic, international character without however resulting automatically in a “line” that should be followed slavishly everywhere.

A perspective, we should emphasise, which coincides with the desire and the project to strengthen this political current which has now existed for more than seventy years, but which retains considerable vitality, as evidenced by its ability to devote a session of its debate to - and approve a new resolution on - climate change, considered one of the main novelties of the new century and a decisive battle in the “capital-labour” conflict. Moreover, this attention to new themes and new subjects of conflict had been shown already in the previous Congress which approved a resolution on the anti-globalization movement and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) issue. There are not many revolutionary Marxist organizations which can integrate, or even aspire to integrate, in their programme questions which were so controversial in the history of the labour movement. Indeed, there is no other.

Obviously we have to keep a sense of proportion: we are talking in various parts of the world of small political organisations, sometimes small groups, even if generally they are activist collectives inserted in their national, social and political reality. But the fact of belonging to an international framework helps the preservation of a certain vitality and the ability to maintain a thread and a common discussion. And thus to respond now to current challenges, such as the possible convening by the Venezuelan Government of a debate for a Fifth international. The propagandist nature of this proposal and the complexity of an invitation from a head of government escaped nobody. At the same time, and this has been stressed repeatedly, the hypothesis gives new credibility and a new visibility to the conception of the International, the fact that this dimension is crucial to confront capitalist globalisation and its crisis. And it is no coincidence that, besides the proposal from Chavez, there is another, originating from the US Znet website, with, among its first signatories, people like Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Vandana Shiva, Michael Löwy, John Pilger and many others.

during-the-int-discussion
During the international discussion
Photo: Raoul

The Congress decided to participate in this debate while maintaining intact its conception of the International, i.e. of a body based on a program, a common perspective (the transcendence of capitalism), internal democracy, social effectiveness and absolute independence from governments. At the same time, Marea Socialista’s call for the holding of an international meeting in Caracas, possibly in June, was welcomed positively. Also the question of the social movements was at the centre of discussion, with the commitment to the "Summit" in Cochabamba on global warming, called by the Bolivian President Evo Morales, the various Social Forums - that of the Americas in Asunciòn, the European Social Forum in Istanbul and the World Forum, in 2011, in Dakar, the Euro-Latin American summit in Madrid next May and that against NATO in November 2010 in Lisbon. Fresh impetus was also given to the Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, which will be supported by two new "regional" centres, in Manila and Islamabad, whose symbolic importance is obvious.

At the European level, in addition to the above-mentioned emphasis on the Madrid and Lisbon summits, it is important to put in motion the process of convergence of the anti-capitalist left, beyond formulas and forms, necessary to advance common reflection and, above all, to initiate common political campaigns. In this connection, the Congress voted in favour of the organization of thematic conferences to discuss various issues with a view to taking common initiatives. The first meeting will be dedicated to the economic crisis and in particular how to effectively oppose it in three aspects: redundancies, and attacks on pensions and public services.

  • Salvatore Cannavò is a member of the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International and of the leadership of Sinistra Critica in Italy. In November 2009 Sinistra Critica decided to declare itself in political solidarity with the Fourth International thus bringing its political experience and forces to strengthen the FI.

Attacks on Civil Liberties in Gujarat


“Is it a crime to work in a democratic and peaceful way for the empowerment and development of Adivasis”? 
- Adivasi Mahasabha Gujarat & People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat.

Mr. Avinash Kulkarni and Mr. Bharat Pawar, activists of long-standing repute, have been working relentlessly for the rights of the Adivasis of Gujarat, over the past 15 years. Based in Ahwa, Avinash and Bharat have been actively involved on issues pertaining to the empowerment and development of Adivasis, through the Dangi Lok Adhikar Samiti and the Dangi Mazdoor Union, in Dang district. Avinash and Bharat have played a significant role in the struggle for the Forest Rights Act and for people's rights to use, manage and control forests and forest resources as part of the leadership of Adivasi Mahasabha Gujarat, both in the advocacy and struggle that brought about the Forests Rights Act and the monitoring of its implementation across the Adivasi areas of Gujarat. It is a well known fact that they have always worked for democratic and peaceful means of securing the rights and entitlements of the Adivasis and have stood by non-violent means of working for social change.
In the afternoon of 21st March, 2010, about 2 P.M  Avinash  was picked up by Dy. S. P.  Shri Patil under the pretext of questioning and took him to an undisclosed location, without giving any information to his family members or colleagues as to where they were taking him or giving him the right of contacting his advocate. Bharat Pawar also was detained the same evening in a similar fashion by policemen from the DSP office of Ahwa, Dangs. This is a clear violation of Justice D. K. Basu Guideline of Supreme Court.

We are aware of the abysmal human rights track record of the Gujarat Government, not only during the 2002 communal carnage, or the infamous police encounter killings, but also the serious violations that the police and the forest department staff have perpetrated on the Adivasis of Gujarat, particularly over the past one decade. The Antarsuba police firing in which 2 Adivasis were brutally shot dead and more than 26 Adivasis hounded in an inhuman fashion under the pretext of destroying the forest is still fresh in our memory. The Gujarat Police and the Government has lived up to their notorious image in this yet another shameful episode by detaining these activists working for Adivasi rights.

Adivasi Mahasabha Gujarat and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat strongly condemns and requests all those who value human rights and human dignity to condemn the illegal detention of Avinash Kulkarni and Bharat Pawar by the Police on false grounds and demand that they be released forthwith.

We also condemn in the strongest possible terms the manner in which the Adivasis of Gujarat are being trampled upon and oppressed, and the sinister conspiracy of the government to decimate all efforts to secure their rights by filing false charges and resorting to unconstitutional practices such as illegal detention against all those who work for social awareness and human dignity. We urge the Gujarat Government to end this Police Raj and show respect to human rights and constitutional procedures.


Bahnubhai Tadvi   Rameshbhai Tadvi     Prasad Chacko      Trupti Parekh        Xavier  Manjooran

Adivasi Mahasabha, Gujarat

Dr. J. S. Bandukwala                        Rohit Prajapati                      Trupti Shah

People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat.

Marxists and Religion - yesterday and today

Gilbert Achcar

 

1. Classical Marxism’s theoretical (‘philosophical’) attitude towards religion combines three complementary elements, the germ of which can be already found in the young Marx’s Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843-44):

First a critique of religion, as a factor of alienation. The human being attributes to the divinity responsibility for a fate which owes nothing to the latter (‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’); he/she compels him/herself to respect obligations and prohibitions which often hamper his/her full development; he/she submits voluntarily to religious authorities whose legitimacy is founded either on the fantasy of their privileged relationship to the divinity, or on their specialisation in the body of religious knowledge.

Gilbert Achcar
Gilbert Achcar

Then a critique of religious social and political doctrines. Religions are ideological survivals of epochs long gone: religion is a ‘false consciousness of the world’ - even more so as the world changes. Born in pre-capitalist societies, religions have been able to undergo - like the Protestant Reformation in the history of Christianity - renewals, which necessarily remain partial and limited so long as a religion venerates ‘holy scriptures’. But also an ‘understanding’ (in the Weberian sense) of the psychological role which religious belief can play for the wretched of the earth.

"Religious misery is, at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery. 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."

From these three considerations emerges in the view of classical Marxism, one sole conclusion set forth by the young Marx:

"The overcoming (Aufhebung) of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

2. Nevertheless, Classical Marxism did not pose the suppression of religion as a necessary precondition of social emancipation (the remarks of the young Marx could be read thus: in order to overcome illusions, it is necessary first to put an end to the ‘condition that requires illusions’). In any case - as with the State, one might say - the point is not abolishing religion, but creating the conditions for its extinction. It is not a question of prohibiting ‘the opium of the people’, and still less of repressing its addicts. It is only about putting an end to the privileged relationships that those who trade in it maintain with the powers that be, in order to reduce its grip on minds.

Three levels of attitude should be considered here: Classical Marxism, i.e. the Marxism of the Founders, did not require the inscription of atheism in the programme of social movements. On the contrary, in his critique of the Blanquist émigrés from the Commune (1874), Engels mocked their pretensions to abolish religion by decree. His clear-sightedness has been completely confirmed by the experiences of the 20th Century, as when he asserted that "persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions" and that "the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced."

Republican secularism, i.e. the separation of Church and state, is on the other hand a necessary and irreducible objective, which was already part of the programme of radical bourgeois democracy. But here also, it is important not to confuse separation with prohibition, even as far as education is concerned. In his critical commentaries on the Erfurt Programme of German Social Democracy (1891), Engels proposed the following formulation:

"Complete separation of the Church from the state. All religious communities without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are to be deprived of any support from public funds and of all influence on public schools." Then he added in brackets this comment, "They cannot be prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and from teaching their own nonsense in them!"

The workers’ party should at the same time fight ideologically the influence of religion. In the 1873 text, Engels celebrated the fact that the majority of German socialist worker militants had been won to atheism, and suggested the distribution of eighteenth century French materialist literature in order to convince the greatest number.

In his critique of the Gotha programme of the German workers’ party (1875), Marx explained that private freedom in matters of belief and religious practice should be defined only in terms of rejection of state interference. He stated the principle in this way: "Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in." He added however :

"But the workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, whereas it [the party] strives much more to free the consciences from the witchery of religion."

3. Classical Marxism only envisaged religion from the viewpoint of relationships of European societies to their own traditional religions. It took into consideration neither the persecution of religious minorities, nor above all, the persecution of the religions of oppressed peoples by oppressive states belonging to another religion. In our epoch, marked by the survival of colonial heritage and by its transposition into the imperial metropolises themselves - in the form of an ‘internal colonialism’ whose original feature is that the colonised themselves are expatriates, i.e. ‘immigrants’ - this aspect acquires a major importance.

In a context dominated by racism, a natural corollary of the colonial heritage, persecutions of the religions of the oppressed, the ex-colonised, should not be rejected only because they are the ‘best means of promoting disliked convictions’. They should be rejected also and above all, because they are a dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, as intolerable as political, legal, and economic persecutions and discriminations.

To be sure, the religious practices of colonised peoples can appear as very retrograde in the eyes of the metropolitan populations, whose material and scientific superiority was in line with the very fact of colonisation. Nevertheless, it is not by imposing their way of life on the colonised populations, against their will, that the cause of the latter’s emancipation will be served. The road to the hell of racist oppression is paved with good ‘civilising’ intentions, and we know how much the workers’ movement itself was contaminated by charitable pretensions and philanthropic illusions in the colonial era.

Engels however had indeed warned against this colonial syndrome. In a letter to Kautsky, dated 12 September 1882, he formulated an emancipatory policy of the proletariat in power, wholly marked with the caution necessary so as not to transform a presumed liberation into a disguised oppression:

"The countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated, India, Algiers, the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, must be taken over for the time being by the proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution, and as the proletariat emancipating itself cannot conduct any colonial wars, this would have to be given full scope; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of course, but that sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algiers and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us.

"We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses, I think. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing."

An elementary truth but still so often ignored: any ‘blessings’ imposed by force equal oppression, and could not be perceived otherwise by those who are subjected to them.

muslims1a

4. The question of the Islamic scarf (hijab) condenses all the problems posed above. It allows us to outline the Marxist attitude in all its aspects.

In most countries where Islam is the religion of the majority, religion is still the dominant form of ideology. Retrograde, more or less literal, interpretations of Islam serve to maintain whole populations in submission and cultural backwardness. Women especially and intensively undergo a secular oppression, draped in religious legitimisation.

In such a context, the ideological struggle against the use of religion as a means of submission is key in the fight for emancipation. The separation of religion and the state should be a demand prioritised by the movement for social progress. Democrats and progressives must fight for the freedom of every man and woman in matters of unbelief, of belief and of religious practice. At the same time, the fight for women’s liberation remains the very criterion of any emancipatory identity, the touchstone of any progressive claim.

One of the most elementary aspects of women’s freedom is their individual freedom to dress as they like. When the Islamic scarf and, a fortiori, more enveloping versions of this type of garment, are imposed on women, they are one of the numerous forms of everyday sexual oppression - a form all the more visible as it serves to make women invisible. The struggle against the requirement to wear the scarf or other veils is inseparable from the struggle against other aspects of female servitude.

However, the emancipatory struggle would be gravely compromised if it sought to ‘free’ women by force, by resorting to coercion, not with regard to their oppressors but with regard to women themselves. Tearing off religious garb by force - even if it is judged that wearing it denotes voluntary servitude - is an oppressive action and not an action of real emancipation. It is moreover an action doomed to failure, as Engels predicted: the fate of Islam in the ex-Soviet Union as well as the evolution of Turkey eloquently illustrate the inanity of any attempt to eradicate religion or religious practices by coercion.

‘Everyone should be able to attend his/her religious as well as his/her bodily needs’ - women wearing the hijab or men wearing beards - ‘without the police sticking their noses’.

Defending this elementary individual freedom is the indispensable condition of an effective fight against religious diktats. The prohibition of the hijab paradoxically legitimises the act of imposing it in the eyes of those who consider it an article of faith. Only the principles of freedom of conscience and of strictly individual religious practice, whether in relation to clothing or anything else, and the respect for these principles by secular governments, allow legitimate and successful opposition to religious coercion. The Koran itself proclaims ‘No coercion in religion’!

Moreover and at the risk of challenging freedom of education, the prohibition of the Islamic scarf or other religious signs in state schools in the name of secularism is an eminently self-defeating position, since it results in promoting religious schools.

5. In France, Islam has been for a very long time the majority religion of the ‘indigenous’ people in the colonies and it has been for decades the religion of the great majority of immigrants, the ‘colonised’ of the interior. In such a case, every form of persecution of the Islamic religion - numerically the second religion of France, though it is very inferior to the others in status - should be fought.

Compared with religions present on French soil for centuries, Islam is underprivileged. It is victim to glaring discrimination, for example concerning its places of worship or the domineering supervision that the French state, saturated with colonial mentality, imposes on it. Islam is a religion vilified daily in the French media, in a manner that is fortunately no longer possible against the previous prime target of racism, Judaism, after the Nazi genocide and the Vichy complicity. A great amount of confusion laced with ignorance and racism filtered through the media, maintains an image of an Islamic religion intrinsically unfit for modernity, as well as the amalgam of Islam and terrorism, facilitated by the inappropriate use of the term ‘Islamism’ as a synonym for Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, the official and dominant discourse is not overtly hostile; it even makes itself out to be benevolent, its eyes fixed on the considerable interests of big French capital - oil, arms, construction etc., in the Islamic lands. However, colonial condescension toward Muslim men and women and their religion is just as insufferable for them as open racist hostility. The colonial spirit is not confined to the right in France; it has long been rooted in the French left, constantly torn in its history between a colonialism blended with an essentially racist condescension expressed as paternalism, and a tradition of militant anti-colonialism.

Even at the beginning of the split of the French workers’ movement between social democrats and communists, a right wing emerged among the communists of the metropolis themselves (without mentioning the French communists in Algeria), particularly distinguishing itself by its position on the colonial question. The communist right betrayed its anti-colonialist duty when the insurrection of the Moroccan Rif, under the leadership of the tribal and religious chief Abd el-Krim, confronted French troops in 1925.

The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz about this to the Executive Committee of the Communist International retains certain relevance:

"The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same degree of civilisation as the French armies, and that semi-barbarian tribes cannot be fraternised with. It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the rapacity of French imperialism."

6. The duty of Marxists in France is to fight unfailingly racist and religious oppression conducted by the imperial bourgeoisie and its state, before fighting religious prejudice in the midst of the immigrant populations.

When the French state concerns itself with regulating the way in which young Muslim women dress themselves and exclude from school those who persist in wearing the Islamic scarf; when the latter are taken as targets of a media and political campaign whose scale is out of proportion with the extent of the phenomenon concerned and thus reveals its oppressive character, perceived as Islamophobic or racist, whatever the intentions expressed; when the same state favours the well-known expansion of religious communal education through increasing subsidies to private education, thus aggravating the divisions between the exploited layers of the French population - the duty of Marxists, in the light of everything explained above, is to be resolutely opposed.

This has not been the case for a good part of those who call themselves Marxists in France. On the question of the Islamic scarf, the position of the Ligue de l’Enseignement (the League for Education), whose secularist commitment is above all suspicion, is much closer to genuine Marxism than that of numerous bodies that claim it as their source of inspiration. Thus, one can read the following in the declaration adopted by the Ligue, at its June 2003 general meeting at Troyes:

"The Ligue de l’Enseignement, whose whole history is marked by constant activity in support of secularism, considers that to legislate on the wearing of religious symbols is inopportune. Any law would be useless or impossible.

"The risk is obvious. Whatever precautions are taken, there is no doubt that the effect obtained will be a prohibition, which will in fact stigmatise Muslims....

"For those who would wish to make the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a political fight, exclusion from state schools will not prevent them from studying elsewhere, in institutions in which they will have every opportunity to find themselves justified and strengthened in their attitude....

"Integration of all citizens, independent of their origins and convictions, passes through the recognition of a cultural diversity, which should express itself in the framework of the equality of treatment that the Republic should guarantee to everyone. On these grounds Muslims as with other believers, should benefit from freedom of religion in the respect for the rules that a pluralist and deeply secular society imposes. The struggle for the emancipation of young women in particular goes primarily through their schooling and respect for their freedom of conscience and their autonomy: let us not make them hostages to an otherwise necessary ideological debate. In order to struggle against an enclosed identity, secularist pedagogy, the struggle against discrimination, the fight for social justice and equality are more effective than prohibition."

In its report of 4 November 2003, submitted to the Commission on the application of the principle of secularism in the Republic, the Ligue de L’Enseignement deals admirably with Islam and its representations in France, of which only some excerpts are quoted here:

"The resistance and discrimination encountered by the ‘Muslim populations’ in French society are not essentially due, as is too often said, to the lack of integration of these populations but to majority representations and attitudes which stem in large part from an old historic heritage.

"The first is the refusal to recognise the contribution of Arab-Muslim civilisation to world culture and to our own western culture....

"To this concealment and rejection is added the colonial heritage ... bearer of a deep and long-lasting tradition of violence, inequality and racism, which the difficulties of de-colonisation, and then the rifts of the Algerian war amplified and reinforced. The ethnic, social, cultural, and religious oppression of the indigenous Muslim populations of the French colonies was a constant practice, to the point that it is echoed in limitations to its legal status. It is thus that Islam was considered as an element of the personal statute and not as a religion coming under the 1905 Law of Separation (of Church and State - trans).

"For the whole duration of colonisation, the principle of secularism never applied to the indigenous populations and to their religion because of the opposition of the colonial lobby, and in spite of the requests of the ulema (Muslim scholars - trans) who had understood that the secular regime would give them freedom of religion. Why should we be surprised then that for a very long time secularism for Muslims was synonymous with a colonial mind-police! How should we expect that it would not leave deep traces, as much on the previously colonised as on the colonizing country? If many Muslims today still consider that Islam should regulate public and private civil behaviour, and tend sometimes to adopt such a profile, without demanding the status of law for this, it is because France and the secular Republic have ordered them to do it for several generations.

"If many French people, sometimes even amongst the best educated who occupy prominent positions, allow themselves to make pejorative appraisals of Islam, whose ignorance vies with their stupidity, it is because they subscribe, most often unconsciously while denying it, to this tradition of colonial contempt."

A third aspect gets in the way of the consideration of Islam on a footing of equality: it is that Islam as a transplanted religion is also a religion of the poor. Unlike the Judeo-Christian religions whose followers in France are spread across the whole social chessboard, and in particular unlike Catholicism, historically integrated into the dominant class, Muslims, whether French citizens or immigrants living in France, are situated for the moment in their great majority at the bottom of the social ladder.

There the colonial tradition still continues, since the cultural oppression of the indigenous populations was added to economic exploitation, and since the latter has for a long time weighed very heavily on the first immigrant generations, while today their heirs are the first victims of unemployment and urban neglect. The social contempt and injustice that strike these social categories affect every aspect of their existence, including the religious dimension. No one is offended by the scarves on the heads of cleaners or catering staff in offices: they only become the object of scandal when worn with pride by girls engaged in studies or women with managerial status.

The lack of understanding shown by the main organisations of the extra-parliamentary Marxist left in France of the identity and cultural problems of the populations concerned, is revealed by the composition of their electoral slates in the European elections: both in 1999 and 2004 citizens originating from populations previously colonized - from the Maghreb or from sub-Saharan Africa in particular - have been outstanding by their absence at the tops of the LCR-LO slates, by contrast with the French Communist Party slates, a party so many times stigmatized for its failures in the antiracist struggle by these two organizations. In so doing they are at the same time depriving themselves of an electoral potential amongst the most oppressed layers in France, a potential which the results obtained in 2004 by an improvised slate such as Euro-Palestine demonstrated in a spectacular fashion.

7. In mentioning "those who would wish to make of the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a political fight", the Ligue de l’Enseignement was alluding, of course, to Islamic fundamentalism. The expansion of this political phenomenon in the West amongst people originating from Muslim immigration, after its strong expansion for the last thirty years in Islamic countries, has been in France the preferred argument of those whishing to prohibit the Islamic scarf.

The argument is a real one: like the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other fundamentalisms aiming to imposed a puritan interpretation of religion as a code of life, if not as a mode of government, Islamic fundamentalism is a real danger to social progress and emancipatory struggles. By taking care to establish a clear distinction between religion as such and its fundamentalist interpretation, the most reactionary of all, it is necessary to fight Islamic fundamentalism ideologically and politically, as much in the Islamic countries as in the midst of the Muslim minorities in the West or elsewhere.

That cannot however constitute an argument in favour of a public prohibition of the Islamic scarf: the Ligue de l’Enseignement has explained this in a convincing fashion. More generally, Islamophobia is the best objective ally of Islamic fundamentalism: their growth goes together. The more the left gives the impression of joining the dominant Islamophobia, the more they will alienate the Muslim populations, and the more they will facilitate the task of the Islamic fundamentalists, who will appear as the only people able to express the protests of the populations concerned against "real misery".

Islamic fundamentalism is, however, heterogeneous and different tactics should be adopted according to concrete situations. When this type of social programme is administered by an oppressive power and by its allies in order to legitimate the existing oppression, as in the case of numerous despotisms with an Islamic face; or when it becomes a political weapon of reaction struggling against a progressive power, as was the case in the Arab world, in the 1950-1970 period, when Islamic fundamentalism was the spearhead of the reactionary opposition to Egyptian Nasserism and its emulators - the only appropriate stance is that of an implacable hostility to the fundamentalists.

It is different when Islamic fundamentalism plays the role of a politico-ideological channel for a cause that is objectively progressive, a deforming channel, certainly, but filling the void left by the failure or absence of movements of the left. This is the case in situations where Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a foreign occupation (Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, etc.) or an ethnic or racial oppression as in those situations where they incarnate a popular hatred of a politically reactionary and repressive regime. It is also the case of Islamic fundamentalism in the West, where its rise is generally the expression of a rebellion against the fate reserved for immigrant populations.

Indeed as with religion in general, Islamic fundamentalism can be "at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery", with the difference that in this case the protest is active: it is not "the opium" of the people, but rather "the heroin" of one part of the people, derived from ‘the opium’ and substituting its ecstatic effect for the narcotic effect of the latter.

In all these types of situation, it is necessary to adopt tactics appropriate to the circumstances of the struggle against the oppressor, the common enemy. While never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic fundamentalists in common battles - from simple street demonstrations to armed resistance, depending on the case.

8. Islamic fundamentalists can be objective and contingent allies in a fight waged by Marxists. However it is an unnatural alliance, forced by circumstances. The rules that apply to much more natural alliances such as those practised in the struggle against Tsarism in Russia, are here to be respected a fortiori, and even more strictly.

These rules were clearly defined by the Russian Marxists at the beginning of the 20th Century. In his preface of January 1905 to Trotsky’s pamphlet Before the Ninth of January, Parvus summarised them thus:

"To simplify, in the case of a common struggle with casual allies, the following points can be applied:

1) Do not merge organisations. March separately but strike together.

2) Do not abandon our own political demands.

3) Do not conceal divergences of interest.

4) Pay attention to our ally as we would pay attention to an enemy.

5) Concern ourselves more with using the situation created by the struggle than with keeping an ally."

"Parvus is profoundly right" wrote Lenin in an article in April 1905, published in the newspaper Vperiod, underlining the definite understanding, however (very appropriately brought to mind), that the organisations are not to be merged, that we march separately but strike together, that we do not conceal the diversity of interests, that we watch our ally as we would our enemy, etc.

The Bolshevik leader would enumerate many times these conditions over the years.

Trotsky tirelessly defended the same principles. In The Third International After Lenin (1928), in his polemic about alliances with the Chinese Kuomintang, he wrote the following lines particularly apt for the subject under discussion here:

"As was said long ago, purely practical agreements, such as do not bind us in the least and do not oblige us to anything politically,can be concluded with the devil himself, if that is advantageous at a given moment. But it would be absurd in such a case to demand that the devil should generally become converted to Christianity, and that he use his horns.... for pious deeds. In presenting such conditions, we act in reality as the devil’s advocates, and beg him to let us become his godfathers."

A number of Trotskyists do exactly the opposite of what Trotsky advocated, in their relationship with Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Not in France, where Trotskyists, in their majority, rather bend the stick the other way, as has already been explained, but on the other side of the Channel, in Britain.

The British far-left has the merit of having displayed a greater openness to the Muslim populations than the French far-left. It has organised impressive mobilisations with the massive participation of people originating from Muslim immigration against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the government of its country participated. In the anti-war movement, it even went as far as allying itself with a Muslim organisation of fundamentalist inspiration, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the British arm of the main ‘moderate’ Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood (represented in the parliaments of some countries).

There is nothing reprehensible in principle in such an alliance for well-defined objectives so long as the rules laid out above are strictly respected. The problem begins however with treating this particular organisation, which is far from representative of the great mass of Muslims in Britain, as a privileged ally. More generally, British Trotskyists have tended, during their alliance with the MAB in the anti-war movement, to do the opposite of what was stated above, i.e. 1) mixing banners and placards, in the literal as well as figurative sense; 2) minimising the importance of the elements of their political identity likely to embarrass their fundamentalist allies of the day; and finally 3) treating these temporary allies as if they were strategic allies, in renaming ‘anti-imperialists’ those whose vision of the world corresponds much more to the clash of civilisations than to the class struggle.

9. This tendency was made worse by the passage from an alliance in the context of an anti-war mobilisation to an alliance in the electoral field. The MAB as such did not, to be sure, join the electoral coalition Respect, led by the British Trotskyists, its fundamentalist principles preventing it from subscribing to a left programme. However, the alliance between the MAB and Respect translated for example into the candidacy on the Respect slate of a very prominent leader of the MAB, the ex-president and spokesperson of the Association.

In doing this the alliance passed de facto to a qualitatively superior level, unacceptable from a Marxist point of view: While it can be legitimate indeed to enter into ‘purely practical agreements’ that ‘do not oblige us to anything politically’ other than the action for common objectives - as it happens, to express opposition to the war conducted by the British government together with the United States and to denounce the fate inflicted on the Palestinian people - with groups and/or individuals who adhere otherwise to a fundamentally reactionary conception of society, it is utterly unacceptable for Marxists to conclude an electoral alliance - a type of alliance which presupposes a common conception of political and social change - with these sorts of partners.

In the nature of things, participating in the same electoral slate as a religious fundamentalist is to give the mistaken impression that he has been converted to social progressiveness and to the cause of workers’ emancipation both male...and female! The very logic of this type of alliance pushes those who are engaged in it, in the face of the inevitable criticism of their political competitors, to defend their allies of the day and to minimise, even to hide, the deep differences that divide them. They become their advocates, even their godfathers and godmothers within the progressive social movement.

Lindsey German
Lindsey German

Lindsey German, a central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party and of the Respect Coalition, signed an article in The Guardian described as "wonderful" on the MAB website. Under the title "A badge of honour", the author energetically defended the alliance with the MAB, explaining that it is an honour for her and her comrades to see the victims of Islamophobia turning towards them, with a surprising justification for the alliance. Let us summarise the argument: the Muslim fundamentalists are not the only people to be anti-women and homophobic, Christian fundamentalists are equally so. Moreover, women speak more and more for the MAB in anti-war meetings (as they do in meetings organised by the mullahs in Iran, it could be added). The fascists of the BNP (British National Party) are much worse than the MAB.

Of course, continued Lindsey German, some Muslims - and non-Muslims - hold views on some social issues that are more conservative than those of the socialist and liberal left. But that should not be a barrier to collaboration over common concerns. Would a campaign for gay rights, for example, insist that all those who took part share the same view of the war in Iraq?

This last argument is perfectly admissible if it only concerns the anti-war campaign. But if used to justify an electoral alliance, with a much more global programme than a campaign for lesbian and gay rights, it becomes altogether specious.

10. Electoralism is a very short-sighted policy. In order to achieve an electoral breakthrough, the British Trotskyists are playing, in this case, a game that risks undermining the construction of a radical left in their country.

What decided them, is firstly and above all an electoral calculation: attempting to capture the votes of the considerable masses of people of immigrant origin who reject the wars conducted by London and Washington (let us note in passing that the alliance with the MAB, was made around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and not around the Kosovo war - and for a good reason!). The objective in itself, is legitimate, when it is translated - as has been the case - into the concern to recruit amongst men and women workers and young people of immigrant origin, through a particular attention paid to the specific oppression that they experience, and through the promotion to this end of left men and women militants belonging to these communities, notably by placing them in a good position on electoral slates - everything in short which the French far left has not done.

But in choosing to ally electorally - even though in a limited way - with an Islamic fundamentalist organisation like the MAB, the British far left is serving as a stepping stone for the former organisation’s own expansion in the communities of immigrant origin, whereas it should be considered as a rival to be ideologically fought and restricted from an organisational point of view. Sooner or later this unnatural alliance will hit a stumbling block and will fly to pieces. Trotskyists will then have to confront those whom they have helped to grow for the mess of pottage of an electoral result, and it is far from sure that the results owe much to their fundamentalist partners anyhow.

All we need to do is look at the arguments used by the fundamentalists in calling for a vote for Respect (and for others, such as the Mayor of London, the left Labourite Ken Livingstone, much more opportunist than the Trotskyists in his relations with the Islamic association). Let us read the fatwa of Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, dated 5 June 2004 and published on the MAB website.

The venerable sheikh explains that it is obligatory for those Muslims living under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good.

The sheikh then underlines the difference between a vote for one of a number of systems, and voting to select the best individual amongst a number of candidates within an already-established system imposed upon them and which they are unable to change within the immediate future.

"There is no doubt", he continues, "that the first type is an act of Kufr [impious], as Allah says, ’Legislation is for none but Allah’, while voting for a candidate or party who rules according to man-made law does not necessitate approval or acceptance for his method." Therefore "we should participate in voting, believing that we are doing so in an attempt to minimise the evil, while at the same time maintaining that the best system is the Shariah, which is the law of Allah.

"Voting being lawful, the question is then posed for whom to vote.

"The answer to such a question requires a deep and meticulous understanding of the political arena. Consequently, I believe that individuals should avoid involving themselves in this process and rather should entrust this responsibility to the prominent Muslim organisations.... It is upon the remainder of the Muslims therefore to accept and follow the decisions of these organisations."

In conclusion, the venerable Sheikh calls on the Muslims of Great Britain, to follow the electoral instructions of the MAB and ends with this prayer: "We ask Allah to guide us to the right path and to grant victory for law of our Lord, Allah in the UK and in other parts of the world."

This fatwa needs no comment. The deep incompatibility between the intentions of the Sheikh consulted by the MAB and the task that Marxists set for themselves or should set for themselves, in their activity in relation to the Muslim populations, is blatant. Marxists should not seek to harvest votes at any price, as opportunist politicians who stop at nothing to get elected do. Support like that of Sheikh Al-Haddad is a poisoned gift. It should be harshly criticised: the battle for ideological influence within populations originating from immigration is much more fundamental than an electoral result, however exhilarating.

The radical left, on one or another side of the Channel, should return to an attitude consistent with Marxism, which it proclaims. Otherwise, the hold of the fundamentalists over the Muslim populations risks reaching a level which will be extremely difficult to overcome. The gulf between these populations and the rest of the men and women workers in Europe will find itself widened, while the task of bridging it is one of the essential conditions for replacing the clash of barbarisms with a common fight of the workers and the oppressed against capitalism.

15 October 2004

A first version of this article appeared in the French review ContreTemps, whose director is Daniel Bensaïd. Thanks to Peter Cooper for kindly translating this article into English and to Jane Kelly for her helpful editing and comments.

  • Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His best-selling book ’The Clash of Barbarisms’ came out in a second expanded edition in 2006, alongside a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, ’Perilous Power’. He is co-author of ’The 33-Day War: Israel’s War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and It’s Consequences’.

Misplaced Anger: The Assault on Illhem


TARIQ ALI
Forgive an outsider and staunch atheist like myself who, on reading the recent French press comments relating to Ilhem Moussaid the hijab-wearing NPA candidate in Avignon, gets the impression that something is rotten in  French political culture. Let’s take the debate at face-value. A young  Muslim woman joins the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party]. She obviously agrees with its program that defends abortion, contraception, etc, i.e. a woman’s right to choose. She is then told that despite this she does not have the right to choose what she wears on her head. It’s astonishing. There is no Koranic injunction involved.  The book says: "Draw their (women's) veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty", which can be interpreted in several ways but is disregarded most blatantly by hijab-wearing Egyptian women I see in Cairo and Karachi wearing tight jeans and T-shirts that contradicted the spirit of the Koranic message.

Patriarchal traditions, cultural habits and identity are what is at stake here and they vary from generation to generation. Pushing people back into a ghetto never helps.

I grew up in a Communist family in Lahore. My mother never wore a veil. She set up a feminist group in the Fifties that worked with working class women in the poorest quarter of the city. Half of them covered their heads in public. It did not affect their activism in the slightest. Similar stories can be told of women in different parts of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. The Algerian women who fought in the resistance against French republican colonialism did so as anti-imperialists. Some were partially veiled, others not. It did not affect the way they fought or the methods used by the French to torture them. Perhaps the torturers should have been more brutal to the hijabed freedom-fighters to help integrate their progeny better in the  Republican tradition.

In 1968-9, the Pakistani students, workers, clerks and women (including prostitutes) fought for three months against a military dictatorship and won: the only victory of those years.  The religious groups backed the military. They were isolated and defeated, but many of the women students who fought with us wore the hijab and chanted militant slogans against the Jamaat-i-Islami.  Should we have told them they couldn’t participate unless they took off their head-cover? Personally, I would have preferred that for purely aesthetic reasons, but it made nil difference to our struggle.

The anger against Ilhem and the NPA is completely misplaced. The real state of the world leaves the defenders of the Republic completely unaffected: the million dead of Iraq, the continuing siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, the killing of innocents in Afghanistan,  the US drone attacks in Pakistan, the brutal exploitation of Haiti, etc. Why is this the case?

Several years ago I noticed that French protests against the Iraq war were muted compared to the rest of  Western Europe. I don’t accept that this was due to Chirac’s opposition to the war [after all de Gaulle had opposed the Vietnam war even more strongly], but to Islamophobia: an increasing intolerance of the Other in French society, reminiscent of the attitude towards Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The conformism of that period explains the popularity of Vichy during the early years of the war.

Islamophobes and anti-Semites share a great deal in common. Cultural or ‘civilizational’ differences are highlighted to sanction immigrant communities in Europe. The narratives are multiple.  No universalist response is possible.  Immigrants and the countries to which they migrate are  different to each other.  Take the United States for a start.  This is a territory peopled by migrants, many of whom were Protestant fundamentalists,  from the seventeenth century onwards and which has depended on migrations ever since.

In most of Western Europe the first large wave of migrants were from the former colonies of the European powers. In Britain, the migrants were from the Caribbean Islands and South Asia, in France from the Maghreb.  Without abandoning their identities, they integrated in different ways and on different levels.  The South Asians, principally peasants and a sprinkling of workers, were not treated well by the trades-unions.  Despite this, South Asian migrant workers led some of the most memorable struggles for unionization.

The Indians in particular came from a highly politicized culture where Communism was strong and they brought this experience with them to Britain (like the New York taxi drivers today).  The Pakistanis were less political and tended towards networking groups reflecting clan loyalties in their villages or cities of origin.  The British governments encouraged religion by pleading for mullahs to arrive so that the migrants could be kept away from the racial currents in the working class during the 1960s and 1970s.
In France, there was forced integration.  Each citizen was taught that s/he had the same rights, something that was patently not the case. It is material needs and a desire to live better that fuel the rage, not spiritual beliefs. During the eruption of the banlieus in 2005,  Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, like the ultras in Stendhal’s novels, talked of ‘savages.’  I have often pointed out to the discomfiture of even some leftists that the kids who rioted had integrated well by internalizing the best French traditions: 1789, 1793,1848, 1871, 1968.  When oppression became unbearable the young built barricades and attacked property. Deprivation, not disbelief, was the root of their anger.

How many Western citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers undoubtedly took  humanity forward by recognizing no external authority of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: "Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes." Hume: "The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words." There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the Islamophobic ravings in sections of the global media.

Marx famously wrote of religion as the ‘opium of the people’, but the sentence that followed is forgotten. Religion was also ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’ and this partially explains the rise of religiosity in every community since the collapse of Communism. Compare the young Normaliens trooping in to say Mass today to the horror of their parents. My women friends in the Muslim world complain bitterly when their daughters wear the hijab as a protest against familial norms. It was always thus.

Published in Le Monde on February 20, 2010.

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