Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

In Defence of the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

with 18 comments


Protest Against Tunisia’s Islamists (September 2013).

“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British Left  in one of its periodical fits of morality.” (Tendance Coatesy. Collected Works Vol.3).

At present the Alliance for Workers Liberty is caught up in such a spasm of outrage.

Beside himself with rage   Marcus Halaby writes of the “AWL’s anti-anti-imperialist Islamophobia” in Workers Power  Yassamine Mather in the Weekly Worker (October the 31st)  spends a page pinning down  “angry accusations of Islamophobia, racism and pro-imperialism” against the AWL leader Sean Matgamma. Halby states, “Matgamna’s shameless Islamophobia, the latest, virulent strain of racism in the West, and the AWL’s failure to distance itself from it certainly deserves to be harshly criticised and condemned.”

One AWL member states that it is this was the final straw that pushed him to resign from the group,

Pat Smith says, “Not just the Islamophobic language, but the chauvinist – worse than chauvinist – world view that it presents; a world view that permeates and informs the entire article, a world view upon which Sean’s explanation for the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is predicated.”

The response of the AWL is here.

What is this all about?

One article, originally published in 2007, and now re-presented, Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today

Yassamine Mather summarises its arguments,

  •  First, that “The ‘war on terror’ was not a ‘put-up job’, an artificially concocted replacement for the old cold war with Stalinist Russia … to create an external enemy which can be used to bind atomised capitalist society together.”
  •  Second, that “[the west] did not for that purpose invent the upsurge of militant political Islam, or, rather, the emergence of political Islam as a force in international politics …” So “Neither covert western encouragement nor neo-con manipulation” explains the “fundamental root of the luxuriantly thriving Islamic fundamentalism.” Instead, “it has other, indigenous, roots.”
  •  Third, that “In the Arab countries, especially, political Islam has expanded to fill the space created by the collapse of Arab nationalism”, which imploded “in part … because it had achieved all it could achieve – the independence of Arab states such as Egypt and Iraq, which were semi-dependencies of Britain until the 1950s.”
  •  Finally, that today’s political Islamist movements are the contemporary equivalents of the “desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik – so now much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.”

For her the fault line is clear, for the “philistine Matgamna…. this phenomenon is simply as some sort of ideological ‘living fossil’, separate from the main developments that characterise the other, ‘modern’ world.”

Sean Matgamn’s  “monstrosity” largely centres on this paragraph – the pivot of all the other arguments (nobody is, to be honest,  interested in the comments on Christianity).

Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.

Marcus Halby says, “Thus he is accusing, let us put it plainly, Muslims of making hypocritical denunciations of the Western world when in reality they want to plunder it of its riches and enjoy its corruption.”

Yasminna comments, “It is oddly reminiscent of passages one might have read in a mid-19th century history text book, possibly taught in a (second-rate) public school.”

Halby outdoes her, “It should, of course, be shocking that the leading figure of a far left organisation should be using the sort of racist and Orientalist language more traditionally associated with professional Islamophobes like Melanie Phillips, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel and Mark Steyn: a fleshly paradise, harems of virgins, a starved beggar squatting, desert tribes, primitive simplicity and purity, decadence, envy and covetousness, the sharpening of knives, a walled city, the walls of Vienna, sexual sinfulness, infidels, luxuriantly thriving.”

Well, so much for the colourful language. And so much for Marcus Halaby whose detailed sectarian attacks on the AWL – even for Coatesy – pass  beyond the will to read further than the lines we cited.

In fact the passage is more than reminiscent of the following note by Frederik Engels (surely familiar to most Marxists).

“A peculiar antithesis to this was the religious risings in the Mohammedan world, particularly in Africa. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins.

Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the “law.” The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures.

Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning.

That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English. It happened in the same way or similarly with the risings in Persia and other Mohammedan countries.

All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses (On the History of Early Christianity. 1894).

Marxists do not work on the basis that Marx and Engels writings are “eternal truths”.

As Marx’s first biographer  Franz Mehring pointed out, Das Kapital is incomplete.

It offers a series of analyses, that unravel the core of how capitalism works. But it leaves many questions unanswered.

If that is true for Marxist economics, it is still more so for Marx and Engels political works.

In this case Engels’  note on Islam is itself more than an echo of the famous Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldūn (1332 –  1406) and his dichotomy of sedentary life versus nomadic life.

It is seriously flawed when applied to the modern world.

Yasminna writes, “The overwhelming consensus of all informed commentators who have written or spoken about political Islam in the last few decades is that it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a creation of contemporary capitalism. Indeed, even those who do talk of ‘envy’ of the west being one of its motivating factors – authors such as French sociologist Olivier Roy – propose a far more complicated analysis than the blood-curdling siege scenes Matgamna  paints.”

“It is actually pretty much a consensus view that the current form Islamist movements take is linked to the global economic relations that have developed over the last three decades. The support for political Islamic movements is, essentially, derived from the uprooted – those who, for a variety of reasons, have been waylaid on the path of socio-economic development and to whom the new structures have brought nothing but ruin. At every level the new Islamism represents the rising not only of those who are alienated within their own national boundaries, but also of those who think they have discovered the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside those boundaries.”

We agree with Yassamine Mather’s view that, “Radical Islam is a reaction to the effects of particular forms of modernisation, not to modernisation per se.” “the rising not only of those who are alienated within their own national boundaries, but also of those who think they have discovered the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside those boundaries.”

Is there a general paradigm for radical Islam? If it is a ‘reaction’ then what form does this take? What kind of alienation are we talking about?

Iran is an exceptional case of a revolution that was captured by Islamists with deep roots in the country’s religion, culture and politics. Afghanistan too is exceptional, Islamists won a civil war.

In other cases political agencies Islamists have attempted to form “micro-states” where their oppressive rule is enforced on daily life.  In Algeria Islamists began bullying people, and murdering leftists, feminists and intellectuals, well before the civil war of the 1990s. Today in many parts of the world Salafists (or their equivalent) act as outriders, performing the role of the Brownshirts in punishing all who disobey. Their ideology is one of class harmony, and social organic unity. They do not shrink from violence to enforce their views.

Islamists are fundamental enemies of democrats, the left and the labour movement.

If there is alienation – deprivation, detachment  from the political system, poverty and unemployment – why did it take an Islamist form?

Clearly religious ideology – ideas that captured the masses – is not spontaneous.

This is not just ideas, or prayers.  Like Olivier Roy we see ideology as a crucial material force in the growth of the specially political form of Islamism. Islam as a ‘solution’ to social problems is not an idea that simply gathers support on its own. Political Islamist groups, from small cells led by ‘Emirs’, to larger political parties such as the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, materialise the ideas. They offer practical help to those in difficulty, as well as presenting a heart in heartless world.  Islam binds these formations together (as well as fomenting endless divisions).

Not only then is Islamism (in all its varieties) not a simple protest but it is linked to class interests: the pious national bourgeoisie seeking its own place in the globalised capitalist system

In all cases where Islamism has come to political power its  class basis becomes more oblivious.  After the Arab Spring Islamist-led  governments adapted quickly  to neoliberalism, and allied with Arab Gulf State finance capital. The resulting class bloc, of the pious bourgeoisie and sections of the masses, is directed against the working class and the non-Islamic intelligentsia. This reinforces its anti-democratic ideology, which can broke no opposition to its hallucination of social harmony.

One might suggest that Maxime Rodinson ‘s Islam and Capitalism (1973)  – tracing the elements of Qu’ranic doctrine that favoured merchant capital – was a better guide to this economic outcome than Engels or Ibn Khaldūn.

It may be that these movements have reached an impasse. Gilles Kepel suggests that we have reached a stage where there is a “postIslamism” which questions the doctrine of Velayat-e faqih the absolute sovereignty of Islamic doctrine in political and social life.

In relation to the world system we agree again with Yasminna. “The US, UK and imperialism in general may not have invented political Islam – to borrow Matgamna’s weasel words – but they have promoted it from its inception, allied with it, materially and financially supported it and were happy to help deploy it in murderous assaults on the workers’ movement in the countries of the Middle East and beyond.”

Many have predicted that Political Islam would fail. It cannot provide solutions to the problems capitalism creates, still less its utopia. It can repress, oppress, and kill, but it cannot create.

This is less clear.

In Turkey where a struggle between the Islamist bourgeoisie, secularists, the labour movement, and civil society,  is being played out, the Islamist government is proceeding with its project to spread religious ideology into everyday life. Opposition has not succeeded.

The Maghreb and the Mashriq – above all Syria –  are the sites of still more epic battles, whose direction is very uncertain.

Roots of the Controversy. 

If we do not agree with  Sean Matgamna’s views we are not outraged by them.


The Alliance for Workers Liberty is a small group on the British left, with real roots in the labour movement.

Its paper, Solidarity, is widely read by activists because of its serious coverage of union disputes, welfare issues, and politics.

It has, unlike large parts of the British left, taken a stand against Islamism.

Most recently it was the first group to publish significant, well-informed, analyses on the Tunisian uprising, directly from activists on the Tunisian secular working class left.

Other articles have offered important and in-depth accounts of Moslem Brotherhood ideology and politics.

Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today is less helpful.

It is not hard to see why Yassamine, who is widely respected on the left, not least for her own courage in physically confronting Islamism in Iran, would take an exception to Matgamna’s concluding lines,

“In Britain, the USA, and many other countries, the pseudo-left has collapsed prostrate at the feet of militant political Islam. They side with religious fascists — even with Al Qaeda — against the Iraqi labour movement!”

But frankly, is this article worth all the outrage?

18 Responses

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  1. Andrew,

    As you quote, Yassamine Mather states:

    “The overwhelming consensus of all informed commentators who have written or spoken about political Islam in the last few decades is that it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a creation of contemporary capitalism.”

    Perhaps in sections of the far left, this view might be taken seriously, but as soon as someone steps away from it a view that political Islam is a creation of capitalism is so ludicrous that it would be laughed at. Does the Weekly Worker wish to be taken seriously by anyone outside the small band of followers that it has and those that read it purely for far-left sectarian gossip?

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    November 9, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    • Michael my own explanations (not original but taken from writers like Roy, Achcar, and Kepel, with some Foucault on micro-powers) are not based on the idea that the Islamism is the “creation” of capitalism.

      Nor is Yassamine Mather’s view reduced to this.

      Obviously there are links.

      Andrew Coates

      November 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm

  2. Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    I look with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, salafist-ridden, sexually sinful advanced islamist societies of the Gulf.


    November 9, 2013 at 9:18 pm

  3. Has anyone told the devout of the ‘umma’ that we have arrived at a ‘postislamicism’ stage?

    Sue R

    November 9, 2013 at 10:12 pm

  4. In answer to your last point, “is this article worth all the outrage”, it depends on what comes out of this debate.

    So much of the left in this country tail ends various Islamist movements. This results in so-called progressives giving cover for a movement that is misoginist, homophobic & anti-Semetic as well as just plain totalitarian.

    In part I think this arises from some kind of mistaken beleif that if they support such movements (such as Hamas, Hezbolah & make excuses for the Iranian clerical fascists) then what they see as the “lynchpin” of imperialsm (Israel) can be destroyed and somehow the whole international order will collapse.

    As a result the desire for a rational & peaceful two state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict is seen as an obstacle. Anyone (including the AWL) who doesn’t seek the destruction of the Jewish state is an “evil Zionist”. The expulsion of Frances Clarke-Lowles from the so-called Palestine Solidarity Campaign for his Holocaust denial should send a message to the rest of the left.

    Ant-Semitism exists and growing. Most Jews (myself included) will tell you that what we come across today in ordinary life is Islamic anti-Semitism. The left has a habit of ignoring such developments. I have substantial political differences with the AWL (not being a Marxist that’s no surprise) but they along with Tendency Coatsey and Shiraz Socialist are one of the few that take a stand against religious bigotry on the left.

    As an active atheist and secularist I am acutely aware of how easy it is to be accused of Islamophobia when that is not the case. My starting point is that there is no God (or gods) so the divine practises (a lot of which are cruel, backward and undemocratic) are just enforced to keep the religious (and usually male) heirachy in power.

    Islamism attracts attention more than others simply because it is highly active around the world trying to destroy reason. I will oppose it and so should everyone else.

    Otherwise the left will end end like the appeasers of Socialist Unity.

    Howard Fuller

    November 9, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    • One of the problems is that the Left in the past was always identified through well-known papers like Socialist Worker which took a very ambigious line on Islamism (and still do).

      That is why commentators talked about an Leftist-Islamist alliance.

      There was consistent opposition to the alliance with Islamism in small circulation journals like New Interventions (er hum, I wrote several long articles ion this, as did others). The same was true in some other publications, where – notably – Respect was attacked, and not just for laughing-stock Galloway.

      I should note that if you read Jewish Socialist Howie you’ll find they did not like this lash up either.

      The AWL were perhaps they only group with a high-enough profile to make their opposition clearly heard by the (limited) audience interested in these subjects.

      We should note that the Weekly Worker is also strongly opposed to the tie-up with Islamism.

      Now with Blogging and Facebook those issues can be more freely aired and secularism seems to be much more popular on the left than some thought.


      PS: sorry your post caught in spam.

      Andrew Coates

      November 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm

  5. Thank you for a fair and balanced account, even if I don’t agree with everything you’ve written. Forward to the Pab-Cannoite-Shactmanite united front in defence of Marxism!

    Jim Denham

    November 10, 2013 at 10:56 am

  6. Andrew; you write “Now with Blogging and Facebook those issues can be more freely aired ”

    But is not Facebook at least partly behind the minor difficulties the AWL are having with regard to this article? From reading some of the so-called “coverage” in the Weekly Worker (i.e. the AWL ex-member (a member for a couple of months, seemingly!) forwarding the internal discussion e-mail list to the so-called CPGB) a couple of quotes were taken out of context and posted by the AWL’s “enemies” on Facebook, Twitter & Co. with a lot of faux outrage and demands that the Youth distance themselves from this disgusting stuff, some of whom seemed to do just that, without even having bothered to have read the ancient article themselves. The Facebook-literate (but maybe not literate on much else?) Youth did indeed, as one person put it, “shit their pants” and joined in the supposed outrage with their own organisation.

    Just by chance (not), Martin Thomas writes a very good, if I may say so, opinion and comment article on the downsides of the use of “social media” for the left (or, as I would put it: for humanity, for anyone who wants to develop and use analytic skills at all) in the latest issue of the AWL’s paper Solidarity.

    “Getting your news through Facebook is not as poor as being a medieval village-dweller dependent for news on village gossip fed by words from travellers from the big cities, but it’s not much better.”

    Heaven forbid that village might be in Afghanistan!

    (And, while I am just part the age to be classed as part of The Youth, I’m certainly not an oldie, either. But all this Facebook shit is just that. Shite. And email lists aren’t a replacement for proper discussion either.)


    November 10, 2013 at 8:12 pm

  7. Martin’s excellent article made a comment on Facebook and the Web to the effect that people often ‘skim’ material rather than properly read it.

    This example would both back his and your point.

    Andrew Coates

    November 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm

  8. Excellent first sentence, Andrew, and an excellent final sentence. All the protagonists should take them on board.


    November 11, 2013 at 2:02 pm

  9. Strangely though, Martin Thomas’ article is *longer* on the web than it was in the printed newspaper. It’s as if he is deliberately trying to contradict himself.


    November 11, 2013 at 4:51 pm

  10. Ah well at least Francis read two sentences of this post!

    Andrew Coates

    November 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm

  11. I read it all, Andrew. And after carefully weighing up all the sentences, I found the first and last ones to be the most insightful of all. The truth and wisdom they contain was merely confirmed by the bit in the middle. 😉


    November 11, 2013 at 9:09 pm

  12. Thanks Francis.

    When this first came out in the Weekly Worker I immediately thought of the Engels’ passage. I said that somewhere on Facebook.

    I was not going to Blog on it until I found that this was becoming an ‘affair’.

    I’m sure that many many people – at least anybody interested in the writings of Marx and Engels on religion – would know this bit by Engels.

    Andrew Coates

    November 12, 2013 at 11:23 am

  13. The AWL is quite inconsistent in respect of Islamism. It did indeed warn against the dangers of Islamism in Tunisia and Egypt, yet cheered on the opposition to Gadaffi in Libya, despite the fact that there were quite a few Islamists prominent in the opposition, and al Qaeda elements to boot, and they are now in the government, including a certain Mr Belhadj, not so long ago a leader of the jihadist Libyan Islamist Fighting Group. Why the silence? Similarly, in the Yugoslav collapse, the AWL said nothing about the presence of jihadists in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo. As for Afghanistan, it’s often stated that the AWL (or whatever it called itself then) supported the jihadists against the Soviet Union, but as I don’t have proof to hand, I’ll wait for others to clarify this.

    As for anti-Semitism, I have been personally accused of that by an AWL member; not, as might be expected, by an inexperienced young cadre over-enthusiastically projecting the party line in an exaggerated, ill-learnt manner, but by the ganzer-macher himself, Sean Matgamna. Why? Because I feel that the best solution to the Israel/Palestine crisis is a single state in which all the inhabitants have full and equal rights, that one can be ethnically and/or religiously a Jew, a Christian or Muslim or Arab, or whatever. This, he mumbled to me in his inimitable manner, was ‘an anti-Semitic position’.

    This — a call for racial and religious equality and genuine democracy — might be considered a little unlikely to occur in the near future (but then so is socialism, and the AWL doesn’t stop promoting it on those grounds), but only by the most abstruse logic — or the most tortuous form of ‘dialectics’ — could it be considered as based upon racial discrimination, particularly as it is predicated upon the demand for national/ethnical equality between Arabs and Jews. Moreover, this casual throwing around of accusations of anti-Semitism — that is, hatred of Jews — in response to a political position such as this makes it less easy to combat real anti-Semitism whenever it raises its head, as it trivialises a very serious question.

    As for the AWL’s presence in the labour movement, it has broadly speaking been the most positive aspect of its activities over the years. It was its trade-union work which attracted me to the group 35 years back; other aspects, in particular its attitude towards the Labour Party, put me off it. It is in respect of other issues, less directly connected to the working class, where the less positive aspects of its politics are evident.

    Dr Paul

    November 12, 2013 at 10:32 pm

  14. “with real roots in the labour movement”
    On what fucking planet? This noxious cult doesn’t even exist outside of London and Yorkshire, so its real roots are by definition somewhat truncated. The AWL ex-member interviewed in the WW had been a member for 3 years, not a couple of months, and the story he tells together with the evidence of the email exchanges will be familiar to anyone who has encountered this sect – bullying, suppression of any real dissent and an appeal to sect loyalist groupthink, and crude scatological insults. And talk about a few words being taken out of context is pretty rich from a group which has been doing precisely that in order to smear people as anti-semites for years (with AWLers of the Denham stripe, even words taken out of context are not necessary, since he is capable of divining what people are “secretly” or “objectively” thinking, often the very opposite of what they actually say).,

    holy joe

    November 13, 2013 at 10:12 am

  15. Well, for what it’s worth, I did not agree with them at all on the Yugoslav collapse, and while I agree with the ‘two-state’ solution to Palestine I would not go into detail about the Israel-Palestinian dispute because it is like walking into a burning pit.

    If you tot up every political dispute, all you get (as with us all on the left) plenty of disagreements/agreements on a host of issues.

    More fundamentally personally I do not come from, to say the least, their strand of Canon-Trotskyism.

    Sean Matgamna is, as they say, “controversial”, but then there’s plenty of people in that category.

    But on this one I was impressed by Solidarity’s coverage of the Arab Spring and a serious approach to Islamism.

    Andrew Coates

    November 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm

  16. […] In Defence of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, where the article is critiqued and its importance questioned. […]

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