Saturday, April 16, 2011

Islamism and the extreme left

When Jules Monnerot was writing his Sociologie du communisme in the late 1940s (see 'Possessed by the truth'), and for some decades thereafter, the greatest threat to Western democracy and economic liberalism seemed to many to be Marxism-Leninism and the communist states which exemplified this ideology. Western radicals were generally committed to Marxism in one form or another, and many had links of a sentimental or more substantial nature with the Soviet Union or other communist states.

Monnerot, seeking to explain the appeal of this ideology, made historical comparisons with Islam. His polemical purpose was not to attack Islam, however, which seemed at the time to be a tradition in decline and primarily of historical interest, but rather to attack Marxism-Leninism.

It is something of an irony that, only a few decades after Monnerot wrote, the tables have turned and it is Marxism-Leninism which is now of historical interest, whereas political Islam - or Islamism - is ascendant once more. In geopolitical terms, the Cold War threat does seem to have been replaced by the Islamist threat, but ideologically the situation is not so simple. Leftist and anarchist groups - which still find inspiration in the writings of 19th and 20th-century radical thinkers - are flourishing, and occasionally join forces with the Islamists in seeking to undermine the status quo.

One thing that particularly interests me in Monnerot's analysis is the concept of subversion. The liberal elites in the West in the second half of the 20th century generally did not take the notion seriously, and made fun of (or demonized) those whose love of their country and/or their way of life led them to be deeply suspicious of those who sought to promote communist ideas or to engage in (or to protect those engaged in) the process of supplying sensitive information to foreign powers.

In Patricia Highsmith's novel, The tremor of forgery, set amongst American and European expatriates and tourists in Tunisia at the height of the Cold War, there is a character I quite warmed to who secretly recorded weekly talks promoting American values which were broadcast to the countries of Eastern Europe. He was a good-hearted and serious soul who was (predictably) patronized by the sophisticated American writer whom he befriended. The writer-character called him (but not to his face) OWL (for Our Way of Life).

OWL acts as a counterweight to the relativizing and amoral forces which dominate in this novel and typically dominate in Highsmith's fictional world. He represents a much-maligned tradition of boring and reassuring decency that I find very attractive - but such an attitude is usually tethered to an actual social order which supports it.

Socially, so much has changed, of course, since those times. America and other Western countries are scarcely recognizable. We don't seem to have the option of that simple patriotism any more. The new patriots are all too often loud and xenophobic, seeking to regain something that has been lost rather than - as in the past - simply being quietly proud of their country, its customs and its history.

Some might say, then, that there is nothing left to subvert. I disagree. Despite all the ugliness and dysfunctionality of Western societies at present, they still embody notions of decency and political and economic freedom. And those violent groups which join in street protests against austerity measures or who organize their own violent protests and attacks on property at various economic forums are clearly bent on attacking and undermining this system which still delivers - in varying degrees - freedom, prosperity and order.

Islamists of various kinds - from the openly violent to the ambiguously intellectual - have been and will remain in an uneasy relationship with the extreme left. Islamist ideologue Tariq Ramadan has expressed support for anti-globalization protests and many anarchists and leftists have seen in him and others like him useful allies.

As Paul Berman writes: "On the activist far left, some of the anti-globalist radicals and the die-hard enemies of McDonalds saw in Ramadan, because of his denunciations of American imperialism and Zionism and his plebian agitations, a tribune of progressive Islam, even if his religious severities grated on left-wing sensibilities." [The flight of the intellectuals (Melville House, 2010, p. 17)]

The recent killing of the Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni is a tragic illustration of the paradoxes inherent in the de facto alliance between Islamist groups and the far left.


  1. Lots to think about here, Mark.

    History is so annoyingly unpredictable. No-one predicted 9/11, despite the previous nearly-successful attempt to bring down the WTC. No-one predicted what is happening now in North Africa and, incredibly, in Syria. How brave are those Syrians!

    Marxism supposed that history can be known in advance, in broad outline at least. That idea didn't work out too well. The last remains of the ideology have ended up in Cuba and North Korea and in some tiny intellectual enclaves. Marx would have died of embarrassment if he had known.

    Maybe the North Africans are ditching both autocracy and political Islam. So far they are looking OK to me. But I tend to be naively optimistic.

  2. This is a lovely piece, redolent of an almost antique sensibility. You have captured my own ambivalence about the right wing. We have slid all the way down from Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley to, well, the loud and the intellectually slothful. And yet, their decibels somewhat express my own ire at seeing the world turned upside down.

    Islamism and Communism share a hatred (or fear?) of liberty. We confront two totalitarian systems, one nominally economic and the other nominally religious, but both actually political.

  3. Alan, I am concerned that the Islamists may take advantage of the situation in a number of countries. The Muslim Brotherhood is a real danger in Egypt, I think.

  4. CONSVLTVS, thank you for the kind words. Freedom will survive but I don't see how it can really flourish when the culture that has sustained it in the West seems to be petering out. The economic stresses don't help, either.

  5. I'm curious as to how and why Monnerot saw Islam and Marxism as comparable. Presumably he was writing before radicalised Islamism had much presence.

    The comparison seems an implausible one to make back then, even if it has turned out to be an interesting one for us to consider, after decades of dealings with the PLF, Carlos the Jackal, Black September, Hezbollah, Hamas, Saddam, 9/11, Bin Laden, and dozens of other such phenomena.

  6. Alan, he saw Islam as a religion which incorporated social and political elements (Renan's 'seamless web'). Its ideals were/are universal and egalitarian and it tends to challenge national and other laws and customs and seeks to supplant them (subversion, world revolution). I suspect he got his ideas from history rather than contemporary Islam.