Discrimination against Muslims in Britain has increased markedly over the last few years. The horrendous, inhuman attack in Beslan, which outraged the world’s population including the vast majority of Muslims, will undoubtedly increase anti-Muslim prejudice. Hannah Sell takes a socialist approach to how Islamaphobia can be fought, and draws out lessons from the policies of the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. This article is from the Ocotober 2004 edition of Socialism Today
Islam & socialism
Between one-and-a half and two million Muslim people live in Britain today.
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party
In London alone they come from 50 ethnic backgrounds. As a whole, Muslims are one of the poorest sections of British society. One in seven of economically active Muslims are unemployed, compared with one in 20 for the wider population. The two biggest Muslim communities in Britain, those originating in Pakistan and Bangladesh, are particularly impoverished. For example, in 1999, 28% of white families lived below the poverty line compared with 41% of Afro-Caribbean and 84% of Bangladeshi families.
The history of Muslims in Britain has been one of poverty and discrimination. Historically, however, the discrimination against Muslims in Britain has been one of many facets of the racism of capitalist society. In different forms, racism has been an intrinsic part of capitalism since its inception. Over the last decade, and particularly since the horror of 11 September 2001, there is no doubt that anti-Muslim prejudice – Islamaphobia – has risen dramatically. While other forms of racism remain, Muslim people face the sharpest manifestation of discrimination in Britain today. The government sheds crocodile tears at the increase in racism against Muslims and those who people ‘perceive’ to be Muslims. Yet it is the government’s policies that have resulted in a 41% increase in ‘stop and search’ against Asians by the Metropolitan police. More fundamentally, the government’s participation in brutal wars of subjugation against Afghanistan and Iraq – both majority Muslim countries – with all the accompanying propaganda denigrating the peoples of those countries, has inevitably increased Islamaphobia.
The home secretary, David Blunkett, has suggested that ethnic minorities have to make greater efforts to ‘integrate’ into British society, effectively blaming Muslim and other communities for the increase in racism. In reality, the converse is true. The more hostile society is towards them, the more ethnic and religious minorities will identify solely with their own communities. For example, it is true that the strength of many Muslims’ identification with their religion and culture has increased markedly. According to a recent survey, 74% of British Muslims considered that their religion had a very important influence on their daily lives – compared to 43% of Hindus and 46% of Sikhs. While there are many reasons for this, there is no doubt that the increased prejudice against Islam has led many young Muslims to defend their religion by increasing their identification with it.
However, it is not true that young Muslims in Britain identify only, or primarily, with the country from which they or, more often, their parents or grandparents came. Two thirds of all Muslims in Britain are under 25. Having been brought up in Britain, most have a dual identity, both part of Britain and alienated from it. These young people have grown up in a society where they feel under constant threat of arrest because of their colour and religion. They face increased discrimination in education and the workplace. They have been enraged by the government’s imperialist warmongering. However, only a tiny minority have drawn the entirely mistaken conclusion that the barbaric mass terrorism of reactionary Islamic organisations like al-Qa’ida offers a way forward. Contrary to tabloid propaganda, 73% of British Muslims are strongly opposed to terrorist attacks. At the same time, the potential for a united movement involving Muslim people is shown by the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who took part in the anti-war movement, alongside other sections of the population, in the biggest demonstrations ever in Britain.
How should Marxists approach the Muslim communities of Britain? Our starting point is to stand firmly against anti-Islamic discrimination, and in defence of the right of all Muslims, regardless of their class or outlook, to be able to live free of Islamaphobia. Concretely, this means fighting for the right of Muslims to practise their religion freely, including the right to choose what they wear. Genuine Marxism has nothing in common with those on the far-left in France who failed to oppose the ban on young Muslim women wearing headscarves in school. We have to actively defend the right of all to practise whatever religion they choose – or to practise none – free from discrimination and prejudice.
This does not mean that we see the entire Muslim population of Britain as one homogenous and progressive block. On the contrary, many factors, such as class, ethnicity and outlook divide the Muslim population. There are 5,400 Muslim millionaires in Britain, most of whom made their fortunes exploiting other Muslims. There are small Muslim communities that are extremely wealthy – for example just 88 Kuwaitis, most of whom are resident in Britain, have invested £55 billion in the British economy. While we have to defend the right of these billionaires to practise their religion free of repression, we also have to attempt to convince working-class Muslims that they have diametrically opposed interests to these people, and that the road to liberation lies in finding common cause with other sections of the working class worldwide but, as they are living in Britain, first and foremost here.
For socialists, the programme we put forward should always be aimed at encouraging the unity of the working class as part of the process of raising its confidence and level of understanding. That is why our sister organisation in Northern Ireland has always fought for unity of the Catholic and Protestant working class. In Britain today, the reactionary policies of Tony Blair and New Labour are fostering division – we have to attempt to cut across that.
Historically, there are strong traditions of unity in Britain between Muslim workers and other sections of the working class. This stems from the important role played by the best elements of the labour movement in fighting racism. Consequently, black and Asian workers, including Muslims, formed a strong bond with the labour movement even though the majority did not come from an urban background in their home countries. In the 1970s, black and Asian workers played a key role in many industrial struggles. The Grunwicks strike against low pay in 1976, which largely involved Asian women, was one of the key battles of the decade.
As a result of these positive traditions, until recently, Muslim people in Britain have tended to support the Labour Party. One survey in 1992, for example, concluded that: “Muslims are loyal to the Labour Party because they believe it to be for the working class, and also the Labour Party is far less racist in both attitude and practise than other parties, particularly the Conservative Party”. A Mori poll following the 1997 general elections showed that 66% of Asian voters and 82% of black voters voted for Labour, much higher than the national average of 44%. In comparison, the Conservatives gained only 22% of the Asian vote.
However, New Labour today in no sense represents the interests of the working class. On the contrary, it is now a party of the ruling class, within which the unions are powerless. No wonder that not only Muslims, but a majority of the working class, no longer believe that the Labour Party is ‘for them’. Disillusionment is particularly profound amongst working-class Muslim voters. New Labour’s racist policies, despite having a more sophisticated gloss than those of the Tories, have deeply disillusioned most Muslims. But it is the war on Iraq that has acted to decisively break many Muslims from their traditional support for Labour. An opinion poll before the European elections reported that Labour’s support had fallen from 75% of Muslim voters at the last general election to only 38%.
While the anti-war movement gave a glimpse of the potential to win working-class Muslims disillusioned with Labour to a class alternative, this is not automatic. A vital precondition is that, following the complete betrayal of New Labour, the labour movement proves again and again in practise that it is determined to fight racism and Islamaphobia. But socialists also have to put the case for a class and socialist approach to Muslims. It is a real step forward that Muslims and socialists marched side by side in the anti-war movement. But we should not leave our discussions with anti-war Muslims at the level of our common opposition to the imperialist occupation of Iraq. We should extend the discussion into class issues here in Britain – including a programme and strategy for fighting New Labour’s privatisation and cuts. We must also raise the need for a political alternative to New Labour – a new mass party that brings together the anti-war movement with trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners – a party that represents and organises all sections of the working class.
In the course of these discussions it will be sometimes necessary to raise issues on which there is not complete agreement between socialists and some Muslims. For example, understandably given the racism that exists, a growing number of Muslims are demanding separate Muslim schools. On the one hand, we have to fight against racism and discrimination in schools, and for the right of all students to have the facilities to practise their own religion. However, this does not mean supporting separate Muslim schools, any more than we support other religious schools. We have to patiently explain that this road will lead to greater segregation and isolation of the Muslim communities which, in turn, will lead to increased racism against them.
Equally, while we campaign for the right of young Muslim women to choose to wear the veil, we also have to make it clear that we support their right to choose not too, even when that means coming into conflict with some other Muslims.
Respect’s mistaken approach
Unfortunately, this class approach has not been adopted by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Respect, the new electoral coalition it has formed with George Galloway MP, has had some electoral success. This has been largely achieved by appealing to Muslims. In the European elections it produced a specific leaflet aimed at Muslims which described Respect as “the party for Muslims”. Under the headline, George Galloway – Fighter for Muslims, it said: “Married to a Palestinian doctor, teetotal, he has strong religious principles about fighting injustice. He was expelled by Blair because he refused to apologise for his anti-war stance. Our Muslim MPs stayed silent or supported the war. Who do you want to be our voice?”
While it is right to advertise Galloway’s anti-war credentials and to attack Muslim MPs for failing to oppose the war, the rest of this statement is a highly opportunist attempt to appeal to Muslims on the basis of their religion. Instead, socialists should be attempting to convince those Muslims we can reach of socialist ideas – especially the young working-class Muslims who make up a majority of Britain’s Muslim population.
If Respect was taking advantage of this situation to step in and win Muslims, alongside other sections of the working-class, to genuine socialism, it would be commendable. Instead, it is appealing to Muslims as a bloc in the hope of making short-term electoral gains. In fact, the history of Muslim engagement in politics has shown that this approach does not work. No doubt some Muslim New Labour politicians went into politics with the intention of helping their communities. However, unless they have taken a socialist approach they have failed to do so. It is entirely wrong, for example, for Galloway to explain that he will not stand against Mohammed Sawar, MP for Glasgow Govan, because he is a Muslim. Sawar has consistently voted with New Labour on every issue. Although he broke the whip to vote against the war, even on Iraq he has since voted with the government on every occasion. The fact that he is a Muslim does not mean he stands in the interests of ordinary Muslims. At local level, Muslim councillors have tended to come from the small Muslim elites rather than from the working class. More importantly, the majority has persistently carried through New Labour’s Blairite policies.
At the same time as failing to raise class consciousness amongst Muslims, Respect, if it continues down this path, could foster dangerous divisions within the working class between Muslim and other communities. If Respect gains by being seen as a Muslim party which does not address the needs of other sections of the working class, it could push other sections away and reinforce racist and divisive ideas.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the road Respect is on. In the recent Leicester South by-election, Respect received a creditable vote. Its candidate was Yvonne Ridley, the journalist who converted to Islam after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Once again, Respect appealed to the Muslim community on a purely religious basis. The special leaflet it aimed at the Muslim community quoted a local community leader saying that Ridley was “… the only MUSLIM [capitals in original] candidate”, and that “Muslims will play a pivotal role in the election”. The leaflet gave no other reason for voting for Respect.
Russian revolution as justification
In order to justify its political opportunism in Britain today, the SWP has been rifling through history to try and find an example which backs its approach. It is clear from a recent article in Socialist Review by Dave Crouch that the SWP believes that the attitude of the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the Russian revolution can be used to back its stance.
While Crouch’s article gives an interesting account of the events that took place it is completely one-sided – with its emphasis clearly tailored to justify the SWP’s attitude to Respect – and, in being so, miseducates its readers. In a much longer article on the same subject, published in the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism, in 2002, Crouch shows he is capable of taking a somewhat more balanced approach. Ironically, in that article he criticises another author on the subject for discussing the “national policy [of the Bolsheviks] in almost hermetic isolation from pre-revolutionary society, 1917, and the Stalinist counter-revolution”. But in Socialist Review he makes exactly that mistake because he completely fails to point out the vast differences between the situation of Marxists in Britain today and in Russia in the years immediately after the revolution, merely stating that “we can learn from and be inspired by [the Bolsheviks’] achievements”.
For example, the Red Army did take part in a number of military alliances with pan-Islamic forces. However, this was in a situation of civil war. Numerous capitalist armies were attacking and attempting to crush the first successful workers’ revolution in collaboration with local ruling classes, dominated by the big landlords. The civil war was particularly desperately fought in the predominantly Muslim areas of Central Asia. Direct comparisons with Britain today are obviously severely limited.
This does not mean that there are not valuable lessons we can learn from the pioneering work of the Bolsheviks. But Crouch’s article only tells half a tale. It concentrates almost exclusively on the points of unity between Muslim leaders and the Bolsheviks, without explaining the political differences, conflicts and complications that existed or how the Bolsheviks attempted to win the Muslim masses to a Marxist programme. Without saying so explicitly, the article also gives the completely incorrect impression that Islam was an intrinsically more progressive religion than others because it was primarily the religion of oppressed and colonised peoples, and that the Bolsheviks therefore treated Muslims in a fundamentally different way to others.
In fact, while Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky correctly treated the religious rights of all oppressed minorities with extreme sensitivity, this was part and parcel of their approach to the national question – where their aim was at every stage to minimise division and differences between different sections of the working class. They understood that to achieve this it was necessary to demonstrate again and again that Soviet power was the only road to national liberation for the oppressed nationalities of what had been the tsarist Russian empire, what Lenin called a “prison house of nations”. They did this, however, without lowering the banner of international working-class unity. Where concessions to nationalist forces were made it was openly and honestly explained why the concessions were necessary, at the same time as the Bolsheviks continued to clearly argue for a Marxist programme amongst the masses of the oppressed territories.
This has to be viewed in its context. The Bolsheviks were operating in phenomenally difficult circumstances. Despite the potential for successful revolutions in other countries, they did not come to pass and so the first workers’ state was left isolated in an economically backward, predominantly peasant country. Ultimately, these factors led to the rise of Stalinism and the crushing of workers’ democracy by a hideous bureaucracy.
These extreme conditions – where the survival of the revolution literally hung by a thread – forced the workers’ state to make concessions in all spheres. In 1921, when it was clear that a successful revolution in another country could not be relied on in the short term, against the background of mass starvation Lenin was forced to propose the New Economic Policy, which involved concessions to the market. These overwhelming material difficulties inevitably had an effect on the ability of the workers’ state to implement its policies in a whole number of fields.
Nonetheless, the approach to national, religious and ethnic rights of Lenin and Trotsky, in particular, was a model in the way it combined sensitivity to national aspirations with a principled approach. This has nothing in common with either the opportunism of the SWP or the narrow, rigid approach of some others on the left.
Right of nations to self-determination
The approach of the Bolsheviks towards the Muslim population did not flow primarily from the question of religion in itself, but rather how religion related to the right of nations to self-determination. The unification of countries and the solution of the national question is one of the key tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, along with the elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations on the land and the introduction of bourgeois democracy. These tasks had never been completed in tsarist Russia, which was a semi-feudal absolute monarchy. The Bolsheviks understood that, given the belated development of the bourgeoisie as a class in Russia and its mortal fear of revolutionary movements of the working class, the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying out the tasks of its own revolution.
It was Trotsky who, in his theory of permanent revolution, was the first to fully draw the conclusion that this task would fall on the shoulders of the working class, drawing behind it the peasant masses. Trotsky explained that, important as the role of the peasantry was, because of its heterogeneous and scattered character it was incapable of acting independently, but would always be pulled behind either the ruling class or the working class.
Trotsky went on to explain that the working class would not stop at the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution but would pass on to the tasks of the socialist revolution in an ‘uninterrupted’ fashion. Lenin drew the same conclusions later, in his April Theses of 1917. In the revolution of October 1917, the working class did indeed move straight from the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the beginnings of the socialist revolution.
These tasks were far greater in the territories of the Russian empire than in Russia itself. While different regions had different characteristics, the general picture was of extremely undeveloped economies and populations made up overwhelmingly of poor peasants. If the liberal bourgeoisie was weak and cowardly in Russia, it was virtually non-existent in most of these territories. What working class existed was often overwhelmingly made up of Russian émigrés, and the small membership of the Bolsheviks that existed before the revolution mostly came from this strata. All of these factors were particularly acute in Central Asia, which was predominantly Muslim. But it would be wrong to conclude that the backward features of Central Asia – such as the universality of kalym (bride price) – had any connection to it being predominantly Muslim. These features were a result of the feudal economic and social relations that existed, and the situation was little different in similarly underdeveloped regions that were predominantly Christian.
Lenin and Trotsky clearly understood the enormous difficulties the new workers’ state faced in beginning to solve the national question in these regions. The imperialist domination by Russian tsarism had been felt deeply and there had been determined and bloody struggles against that oppression as recently as 1916. It was therefore vital to demonstrate again and again to the nationalities that had been oppressed by tsarism that Soviet power was not a new form of imperialism but the only route by which they could achieve national liberation.
Hence the constitution, adopted in July 1918, made it clear that regional soviets (councils) based on ‘a particular way of life and national composition’ could come together to decide whether, and on what basis, they would enter the Russian Socialist Federative Republic (RSFSR). However, constitutions alone were insufficient. The carrying through of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution meant assisting in the development of a national culture which had never been allowed to flower before. For example, after decades of ‘Russification’, the use of local languages was encouraged, including in several cases the development of a written form for the first time.
There was no contradiction between this approach and the internationalism of the Bolsheviks. Only by being the best fighters for the national liberation of the oppressed could Soviet Russia show that the road to liberation lay with the world’s working class and specifically with the working class of Russia. However, this approach was not understood by all of the Bolsheviks, a layer of whom tended to see the support of nations to self-determination as in contradiction to their internationalism – an approach which, in reality, played into the hands of Great Russian nationalism. By contrast, it was Lenin’s extremely skilled and sensitive approach which meant that the RSFSR included many of the nationalities that had been oppressed by tsarism – on a free and voluntary basis.
The Bolshevik approach to Islam
As Islam had been repressed by tsarism – and was also oppressed by British and French imperialism worldwide – it was inevitable that the right to practise their own religion would form a central part of the demands of the Muslim masses. This was a right that the Bolsheviks recognised and were, correctly, extremely sensitive towards, just as they were towards other oppressed religions, including Buddhism and non-Orthodox Christianity.
However, Dave Crouch goes too far when he says that “the Bolsheviks took a very different attitude to Orthodox Christianity [as compared to Islam], the religion of the brutal Russian colonists and missionaries”. He adds to this impression by stating that “1,500 Russians were kicked out of the Turkestani Communist Party because of their religious convictions, but not a single Turkestani”. This is a vast over-simplification. The Russians were expelled for continuing the colonial oppression of imperial Russia under the name of the revolution, rather than simply because of their religion.
Of course, the Bolsheviks understood that in the imperial territories of the tsarist empire Orthodox Christianity played a deeply reactionary role as one of the major tools of Great Russian oppression. Nonetheless, particularly in Russia itself, Orthodox Christianity had a dual nature – it was the oppressive religion of the tsars but it was also what Karl Marx called the ‘sigh of the oppressed’ Russian masses. Lenin included the millions of Russian workers, and particularly peasants, who were still believers in Orthodox Christianity when he said that “we are absolutely opposed to giving offence to religious conviction”.
The genuine Marxism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks bore no resemblance to the later crimes of Joseph Stalin. While starting from a materialist, and therefore atheist, standpoint, the Bolsheviks correctly stood for the right for all to follow whatever religion they wished, or to follow none. They understood that this meant the complete separation of church from state. State religion formed one of the major pillars of oppression in feudal society, and capitalism continues to use it as such in a modified form. In semi-feudal Russia the apparatus of Orthodox Christianity – the state religion – was a potentially strong force for reaction. But in a different way that was true of Islam in the Muslim-dominated republics. While Orthodox Christianity had been the religion of colonial oppression, and Islam an oppressed religion with the overwhelming support of the poor masses, the indigenous elite nonetheless attempted to use support for Islam as a tool for the counter-revolution. Clearly, the separation of church from state in Central Asia applied not only to Orthodox Christianity but also to Islam. The Bolsheviks adopted this approach even though it meant conflict with a section of Muslims. For example, as a result of this policy, Muslim parents in some areas refused to send their children to school.
But while they argued for the separation of religion from the state, the Bolsheviks were very careful to avoid giving the impression that they were imposing ‘Russian’ society on Central Asia from above. So, where the population was in favour of sharia (Islamic law) courts they understood that it would have been seen as Russian imperialism to oppose their existence. This does not mean that the Bolsheviks accepted the reactionary feudal policies sometimes pursued by sharia courts, any more than they accepted the reactionary feudal attitudes that existed in different aspects of society throughout what had been the Russian empire. However, they understood that reactionary attitudes could not be abolished but had to be changed over time. That is why they established a parallel Soviet legal system in Central Asia, to attempt to prove in practise that the Soviets could offer justice. To safeguard the rights of women, in particular, use of the sharia courts was only permitted where both parties involved agreed to it. If one party was unhappy with the outcome, they could appeal to a higher Soviet court.
ON THIS AND other issues, Crouch gives a one-sided impression. Reading his article one would imagine that virtually the entire Muslim population of Central Asia was progressive and allied with the Bolsheviks. In a two-page article containing numerous examples of the positive relationship between Muslim forces and the Bolsheviks, only two brief references are made to the fact that this was not the case in every circumstance. The first is in passing, in the second paragraph, where Crouch says, “at the same time, conservative Muslim leaders were hostile to revolutionary change”, but no further explanation of the role of these ‘conservative Muslim leaders’ is given. The second reference is to state that “the Basmachi movement – an armed Islamic revolt – broke out”. However, the blame for this counter-revolutionary revolt is laid solely at the feet of the undoubtedly colonial policies of the Tashkent Soviet in the period of the civil war.
It is true that during the civil war, when large parts of the East were cut off from Russia, some Russian chauvinist émigrés supported the revolution because they saw it as the best means of ensuring the continuation of Russian domination. The policies they enacted in the name of the revolution continued the tsarist oppression of Muslims. In Tashkent, which was over 90% Muslim, the soviet – under the leadership of the Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties – conducted all its proceedings in the Russian language and excluded native leaders in an unprincipled and chauvinist fashion. These reactionary policies played a major role in pushing bands of Islamic guerrillas to found the Basmachi movement. But by October 1919, the Bolshevik leadership had re-established contact with Tashkent and from there moved to reverse the policies of the Tashkent Soviet. As early as April 1918, 40% of the delegates to the Tashkent Soviet were Muslim.
While Great Russian prejudice undoubtedly remained, the Bolsheviks went to considerable lengths to show that Soviet power meant national and cultural freedom. As Crouch describes, “sacred Islamic monuments, books and objects looted by the tsars were returned to the mosques. Friday – the day of Muslim celebration – was declared to be the legal day of rest throughout Central Asia”. But none of these measures prevented the Turkish nationalist, Enver Pasha, from arriving in Central Asia in the autumn of 1921 and immediately joining the Basmachi revolt, thereby turning disparate tribal factions into a unified fighting force for Islamic reaction. This was because a section of Muslims had joined the counter-revolution, not simply because of the crimes of the Tashkent Soviet, but to win land and territory on which they could exploit other Muslims. In other words, to further their own class interests.
The Bolsheviks always understood that their task was to establish the maximum possible unity of the working class and to draw behind them the peasant masses. This meant convincing the poor Muslim masses that their cause lay with the revolution, not with reactionary Islamic leaders. Unlike the SWP today, they consistently attempted to do this.
Dave Crouch refers to how the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to try and develop indigenous national leaderships of the soviets in the newly-formed autonomous states. Policies included establishing the Muslim Commissariat (Muskom), the leadership of which was largely made up of non-Bolshevik Muslims. At the same time, there was a policy of recruiting indigenous peoples to the Communist Party (CP – the new name for the Bolsheviks), which led to a dramatic increase in the number of Muslim members.
Crouch goes on to say: “There was serious discussion among Muslims of the similarity of Islamic values to socialist principles. Popular slogans of the time included: ‘Long live Soviet Power, long live the sharia!’; ‘Religion, freedom and national independence!’ Supporters of ‘Islamic socialism’ appealed to Muslims to set up soviets”.
Once again, this glosses over a more complicated reality – no mention is made of what attitude the Bolsheviks took to ‘Islamic socialism’. It is, of course, true that, while the CP was Marxist and therefore atheist, religious belief was in itself no obstacle to joining the party, and many Muslims were recruited. However, this did not mean that a party would be admitted to the CP simply because it was Islamic and had pledged its support for the revolution. Although short-term military alliances were formed with all kinds of forces, there was only one Muslim organisation on Soviet territory that the Bolsheviks recognised (on the basis of its programme) as a genuine socialist party – Azerbaijani Hummet, which later became the nucleus of the CP of Azerbaijan. Others, like the liberal nationalist Kazakh party, Alash Orda, were turned down despite their claim to support the revolution because of their programme and class basis.
Nonetheless, such was the importance of trying to develop indigenous leaderships of the CP that individuals who had a markedly different approach to Lenin and Trotsky were allowed to join. One such was Mirsaid Sultangaliev, who became chairman of the Central Muslim Commissariat after joining the CP in November 1917. He argued that: “All Muslim colonised peoples are proletarian peoples and as almost all classes in Muslim society have been oppressed by the colonialists, all classes have the right to be called ‘proletarians’.”
On this basis, he argued that there could be no class struggle within oppressed nations. In reality, his ideas were a cover for the interests of the local ruling elite. However, his ideas were consistently and publicly argued against by the leadership of the CP. For example, the Theses on the National and Colonial Question, agreed by the second congress of the Comintern, says clearly: “A struggle is necessary against Panislamism, the Panasiatic movement and similar currents which tie the liberation struggle against European and American imperialism to the strengthening of the power of Turkish and Japanese imperialism, the nobility, the big landlords, the clergy etc”.
It adds: “A determined fight is necessary against the attempt to put a communist cloak around revolutionary liberation movements that are not really communist in the [economically] backward countries. The Communist International has the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies only for the purpose of gathering the components of the future proletarian parties – communist in fact and not just in name – in all the backward countries and training them to be conscious of their special tasks, the special tasks, that is to say, of fighting against bourgeois-democratic tendencies in their own nation”.
This example shows how utterly different the approach of the Bolsheviks was to that of the SWP today. It is true that the Manifesto of the Congress of the Peoples of the East did, as Crouch quotes, call for a holy war, which today Marxists would not do given its implications. Nonetheless, what was actually said had a clear class content: “You have often heard the call to holy war, from your governments, you have marched under the green banner of the Prophet, but all those holy wars were fraudulent, serving only the interests of your self-seeking rulers, and you, the peasants and the workers, remained in slavery and want after these wars… Now we summon you to the first real holy war for your own well-being, for your own freedom, for your own life!”
And throughout the congress, the points were made again and again that a struggle had to be conducted against “the reactionary mullahs in our own midst”, and that the interests of the poor in the East lay with the working class in the West.
The revolution of 1917 inspired millions around the globe. Huge swathes of poor people from the oppressed nations flocked to the banner of the first workers’ state, including many Muslims. Lenin and Trotsky’s approach was to correctly emphasise that to join with Soviet power would mean national liberation and religious freedom. This was all the more crucial given the disgusting history of the social-democratic Second International in supporting colonial rule. However, in doing so they did not lower their socialist programme. Instead, it was emphasised that the road to freedom did not lie in uniting with the national bourgeoisie but with the world’s working class in a struggle against imperialism, and also against their ‘own’ feudal landowners and those reactionary mullahs who propped them up.
What lessons for today?
In Central Asia, Lenin and Trotsky were attempting to win a predominantly Muslim peasant population, who were fighting for their national rights, to the banner of world revolution, against a background of the desperate struggle for survival of the first workers’ state. In Britain today, we are attempting to win an oppressed minority of the working class to the banner of socialism.
In most senses, ours is a far easier task. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain are part of the working class, and many work in ethnically-mixed workplaces, especially in the public sector. The mass anti-war movement gave a glimpse of the potential for a united movement of the working class, with Muslims playing an integral role. The formation of a new mass workers’ party, campaigning in a class way on both the general issues and against racism and Islamaphobia, would act as an enormous pole of attraction to working-class Muslims at the same time as beginning to cut across racism and prejudice.
However, the lack of such a party at the present time encapsulates the difficulties that we face. In the 1990s, the collapse of the regimes that existed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union provided world capitalism with the opportunity to dismiss socialism as a failure (they falsely equated socialism with these Stalinist regimes). This allowed the ruling classes to conduct an ideological onslaught against the ideas of socialism. The rightwing of the Labour Party, and of social democracy worldwide, used this opportunity to abandon any vestiges of socialism in their programme, and to become clearly capitalist parties.
Over a decade after the collapse of Stalinism, a new generation is drawing the conclusion that capitalism is incapable of meeting the needs of humanity – a minority is beginning to draw socialist conclusions. Nonetheless, consciousness still lags behind objective reality – and socialism has not yet become a mass force.
Given the vacuum that therefore exists, radical young people are searching for a political alternative. A small minority of young Muslims in Britain are looking towards right-wing political Islamic organisations like Al-Muhajiroun. The lack of alternative offered by such organisations is summed up by their opposition to the anti-war movement because it involved demonstrating alongside non-Muslims. The majority of young radical Muslims were repelled by Al-Muhajiroun and company, and understood the need for a united anti-war movement. The potential to build a strong base for socialists amongst Muslims undoubtedly exists – but only if we both engage and argue the case for socialism.
Worldwide there are greater parallels with the situation the Bolsheviks faced, although the differences remain large. In Iraq today, for example, socialists face the difficult task of rebuilding independent workers’ organisations and mobilising the workers and poor masses in defence of their rights – including their right to organise independently of the Islamic organisations, whose programmes do not offer a way forward for the masses of Iraq. The lessons of the 20th century highlight the dangers for socialists if we give up our independent programme. In the Middle East, in particular, it was the failure of mass CPs to lead the working class to power which allowed right-wing political Islam to gain. In the Iranian revolution in 1978-79, the working-class led a movement which overthrew the vicious, imperialist-backed monarchy. The Communist Tudeh Party was the largest left force in Iran, but did not pursue an independent working-class policy. Instead, it sought to link up with Ayatollah Khomeini in spite of the clergy’s attempts to suffocate the independent workers’ movement. The result was the coming to power of the Khomeini regime that crushed the Tudeh and murdered the most class-conscious workers.
On the other side, despite the enormous difficulties they faced, the Bolsheviks gave a glimpse of the only road to liberation – including national and religious freedom – with the world’s working class united around a socialist programme.
The 80 years since have been a nightmare of national oppression for the same minorities that tasted liberation in the years after the revolution. First Stalinism and now capitalism have meant the brutal oppression of national minorities in the region. Following the horror of Beslan, the danger of a new Caucasian war is even posed. Quite rightly, the barbarity of the hostage-takers in Beslan has shocked the world – no cause could justify such inhuman actions. Nonetheless, the roots of the current situation lie in successive Russian governments’ horrendous subjugation of the Chechen people – with 250,000 killed and the capital, Grozny, flattened. It is the utter inability of capitalism in the 21st century to solve the national question that will lead to a new generation rediscovering the genuine legacy of the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks and Muslim women
The Zhenotdel – the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women – conducted a campaign to reach oppressed peasant women throughout the Soviet world, often at great personal risk. In Central Asia, Zhenotdol activists organised ‘Red Yertas’ (tents) where local women were offered instruction in different crafts, literacy, political education and so on.
However, while the revolution remained isolated, this approach could not fully succeed – in Muslim areas or in the rest of the Soviet Union – in essence because the revolution was unable to provide the economic and cultural means to liberate women. Trotsky describes how the new society planned to provide free, high-quality “maternity houses, crèches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organisations, moving-picture theatres” to give “woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters”.
But he goes on to explain that: “It proved impossible to take the old family by storm – not because the will was lacking, or because the family was so firmly rooted in men’s hearts. On the contrary, after a short period of distrust of the government and its crèches, kindergartens and like institutions, the working women, and after them the more advanced peasants, appreciated the immeasurable advantages of the collective care of children as well as the socialisation of the whole family economy. Unfortunately society proved too poor and little cultured. The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on a basis of ‘generalised want’. Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before”. (The Revolution Betrayed)
‘Generalised want’ was particularly acute in Central Asia. Practically, this meant that women who broke out of repressive family situations faced starvation as they had literally no alternative means of support. Even if the economic means had existed to lift the domestic burden from women and to allow them an independent economic role, there is no doubt that the new workers’ state would still have faced resistance, particularly in the economically backward areas where the working class did not yet exist. However, as Trotsky describes, over a period of time, on the basis of the resources being provided, the overwhelming majority would have come to understand the advantages of women’s liberation.
From the October 2004 edition of Socialism Today
, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales
Other articles on Islam and socialists can be found here