Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Archive for the ‘Stalinism’ Category

Stalinism and Trotskyism both back in vogue says Andrew Murray (Chair of the Stop the War Coalition).

with 14 comments

Image result for stalin trotsky alan wood

Both Stalin and Trotsky Back in Vogue says Chair of Stop the War Coalition.

Stalinism and Trotskyism appear to be back in vogue. Their shrouds are being waved — entryism here, a purge there — to terrify bystanders to the struggle over the future of the Labour Party, writes Andrew Murray.

“This illustrates the extent to which “dead Russians,” using the term slightly loosely, still hold the imagery and lexicon of the international left in thrall nearly a century after the October revolution.”

Andrew Murray is, to repeat, Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and holds some other positions in the labour movement.

He continues on this site.

In a learned analysis of Trotsky’s uncompleted book Stalin (apparently now out in a definitive edition) Murray  outlines within this context the background of the founder of the Fourth International’s final (uncompleted)  book.

It was Trotsky’s last major literary endeavour and he was working on it when he was assassinated by an agent of Soviet security in 1940. It was a biography so unauthorised that it may be the only one in the history of the genre whose author was murdered by its subject while the book was still being prepared.

We should nevertheless get the low-down on the cash involved.

Trotsky had been paid $5,000 for the job by a US publisher who was accurately anticipating a sustained assault on the Soviet leader.

Murray outlines the new version of the text now published by Socialist Appeal

In a herculean labour of love, Alan Woods and Rob Sewell of the Socialist Appeal group — that vindicated element of the old Militant tendency which argued that the fight in the Labour Party was not over — have restored the book to something more like what Trotsky would have intended. (1)

Here are some choice quotes from Murray’s review,

There is more to Trotsky’s bile than Olympian Marxist analysis. His outrage at the fact that he, the great leader of the insurrection and the Red Army, should have come off second best to a man obviously inferior to him in every salient respect — orator, writer, reader of second and third languages and so on — permeates every page.


The USSR won the war and Stalin emerged stronger than ever, with socialism spreading to half of Europe and much of Asia, perhaps the most significant of the many circumstances which left Trotskyism without Trotsky stillborn as a major political movement.

Trotsky would have found all this quite incomprehensible but perhaps not as incomprehensible as his own political worsting by a nonentity from the provinces. Historians and some on the left will continue to dispute these questions ad infinitum.

Murray concludes,

But no, the Labour Party is not living through “Stalinism” versus “Trotskyism” reincarnated.

Time, perhaps, for a new political vocabulary.

Time indeed.

I shall leave it to the comrades to discuss this review in more detail, including this claim against Trotsky, his assertions about the number of Red Army officers suppressed in the purges are wide of the mark by significant magnitudes.”

Personally I much prefer Boris Souvarine’s Stalin:A Critical Survey of Bolshevism (Translated by C.L.R. James 1939. French edition 1935) (see also this  « Staline » de Boris Souvarine). “Souvarine was a founding member of the French Communist Party and is noted for being the only non-Russian communist to have been a member of the Comintern for three years in succession. He famously authored the first biography of Joseph Stalin, published in 1935 as Staline, Aperçu Historique du Bolchévisme (Stalin, Historic Overview of Bolshevism) and kept close correspondence with Lenin and Trotsky until their deaths.”

According to the one-time Trotskyist Fred Zeller in Témoin du siècle while he visited the Marxist leader in Norway he informed Trotsky of Souvraine’s work.

Trotsky did not have a high opinion of it, noting that the book was even not unreservedly  respectful of Lenin…..

Souveraine was, one observes today, critical of Trotsky, but rightly laid the emphasis on the monstrous crimes of Stalin and the immense social apparatus of repression and killing that was built from the 1920s onwards.


(1) More here: In these videos, Alan Woods and Rob Sewell discuss Leon Trotsky’s great unfinished work, Stalin, which is being published this year by Wellred Books.  Alan Woods discusses the political and theoretical analysis provided by Trotsky, who attempts to explain some of the most decisive events of the 20th century, not just in terms of epoch-making economic and social transformations, but in the individual psychology of those who appear as protagonists in a great historical drama.  Meanwhile, Rob Sewell provides the story behind the publication of this magnum opus – the most extensive edition of the book ever released, completed from the original archive material.

Written by Andrew Coates

October 20, 2016 at 5:16 pm

Comrade Seumas Milniski on Protests at Russian Embassy over Czechoslovakia ‘Invasion’.

with 9 comments

Image result for socialist protest LOndon at invasion of Prague

Diversionists Protesting at Russian Embassy:  1968.

From Sputnik 1968.

“…the focus on the comradely Warsaw Pact intervention to restore stability on Czechoslovakia  was diverting attention from US-led coalition atrocities elsewhere.”

“.. unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism demand  an implacable struggle against bourgeois ideology and all antisocialist forces. ” “The petty-bourgeois forces outside the London, so-called International Socialists’ are wrecking elements foreign to the working class, must be condemned.”

Seumas Milniski.

Speaking on the Schwarze Kanal George Gallowski said,

“Already tourists are massing on the Czechoslovakian  borders to take advantage of the good butter and beer that have come with this new era of normalisation.”

Lindsey Germain’s comments remain unknown but it believed that she considers that nature of the Czechoslovakian government  is an issue for the people of the country alone to decide.






Written by Andrew Coates

October 17, 2016 at 1:33 pm

Spain in Our Hearts. Americans in the Spanish Civil War. 1936 – 1939. Adam Hochschild. A Review.

leave a comment »

Image result for spain in our hearts


Spain in Our Hearts. Americans in the Spanish Civil War. 1936 – 1939. Adam Hochschild. Macmillan. 2016.

Arthur Koestler wrote in 1937 of Spain’s civil war, “Other wars consist of a succession of battles; this one is a succession of tragedies.” (Spanish Tragedy) As a Soviet agent, a correspondent with the Republican Army who had been captured and then freed from Franco’s gaols, the author of Darkness at Noon (1940) embodied the sadness of twentieth century history. In that record the Spanish conflict was exceptional. Spain in Our Heart opens by noting that the Caudillo launched the “fiercest conflict in Europe since the First World War marked by a vindictive savagery not seen even then.” (P xiv).

Hochschild is the author the landmark Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2005). It put centre stage the activism of Thomas Clarkson, the radical Quaker and admirer of the French Revolution in the British campaign against slavery. The present work explores the lives of American (and three Englishmen) involved in Spain, International Brigade volunteers and reporters, Hochschild manages the difficult task of honouring those who fought for the Spanish Republic without losing sight of the broader catastrophe in which they had become involved.

2,800 Americans fought in Spain’s battles, with an estimated 750 dying during these crucial years in the country’s history. About three quarters of the US volunteers were members of the Communist Party, or its youth league. With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the Great Depression sweeping the world, the Soviet Union “became a place into which millions of people projected their hopes.” (Page 11)

Some had not stay at a distance building dreams of the Soviet Union. In 1935 the Merriman couple moved from Berkley to Moscow, as Robert, Bob studied the newly collectivised farming joined by his wife, Marion. But fired up in 1936  by the defence of the elected Popular Front government against far-right military rebellion the couple, despite her misgivings, left for the Iberian Peninsula. As they arrived in 1937  the drama of the desperate combats, socialist, anarchist and republican democrats facing the anti-Semite, feudal and arch-Catholic Franco-led military rebellion with its reactionary social support, was already unfolding.

As a an officer in the US Army reserve, with ROTC training (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) fresh from Moscow (with an exaggerated ‘year’ at a Communist Academy’), Merriman was appointed by that harshest of task-masters André Marty, the American Lincoln Brigade’s second-in-command. He joined the Spanish Communist Party. The volunteers, few of whom “had ever been under military discipline”, were flung into the battle to defend the Madrid-Valencia road. It did not help that their arms, from the only country willing to supply them the Soviet Union, initially were as antiquated and obsolete as to be “barely usable”. The Spaniards called one set of artillery pieces “the battery of Catherine the Great” (Page 118)

Wounded under fire, his wife Marion accompanied Bob, and joined up to work in International Brigades Headquarters in Albacete. He was a committed supporter of the Soviet Union. Above all, “Physically fearless, he inspired such loyalty that at least two Lincoln veterans would name children after him.” (Page 289) Spain in our Hearts does not lose sight of this brave couple, right to the final confirmation, in 1987, of how Bob Merriman died under Nationalist fire in Gadensa.

Hochschild traces the stories of many others engaged in the fight to defend the Republic, including those who perished in the increasingly difficult journey to Spain. There is the Briton Pat Gurney, Oliver Law, the black CP organiser appointed Captain, the machine-gunner David McKelvy White, and Toby Neugass of the mobile American medical team. There was also Vincent Usera, who resurfaced in the US Navel Academy in 1939 lecturing on the war. With a full US military career during the Second World War, he ended in military intelligence. One of his last posts was “as a military adviser in Vietnam” (Page 233).

The US ‘Moral Embargo’. 

Could America have been brought to support the Republic? A propaganda and information war was fought out in the American press. In the New York Times there was an “indirect duel” between the reporter on the republican side, Herbert Matthews, and the very pro-Franco William P. Carney.

A film, directed by Communist fellow-traveller Joris Ivens, The Spanish Earth, which involved Hemingway, which many expected would powerfully influence American opinion in favour of the elected government, failed to change Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to back a “Moral embargo” on weapon sales – while Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy showered military support on Franco The official arms ban was accompanied by turning a blind eye to Texaco boss, and dictator admirer, Torkild Rieber’s gift to Franco of an “unstinting stream” of oil, on credit. (Page 248) When, in 1938, there was an apparent move toward lifting of the embargo, it never materialised.

Spain in our Hearts both brings to life individual lives, through memoirs, books, letters, through events, grief and passion,  and to make cautious points about the battles going on inside the Republican camp. It lends support to the view that winning the war had to be a priority over social revolution. He asks if the moral economy of the collectivised enterprises in Catalonia and elsewhere would have long survived in their initial, pure, non-capitalist co-operative form. In the event the Spanish Communists and Socialists were determined in an attempt to win middle class support and international respectability, to restore market norms and crush the anarchists and independent Marxists of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista. Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista)  along with this spontaneous socialisation. Was it also possible to run an army democratically? Some would agree that it was equally right to end this experiment.  Ernest Hemingway said, “I like Communists when they’re soldiers. When they’re priests I hate them” (Page 290)

Could the Communist military commissars escape the paranoia and distorted morality of the Stalin priesthood? Not everybody was a hero of the stamp of Bob Merriman. Louis Fisher, who appears in the present volume as the quartermaster of the International Brigade, wrote that “André Marty, French Communist leader and the chief commissar of the Brigade “loved power and abused it, in the GPU way, through nocturnal arrest sand similar outrages.” (In The God That Failed. 1950)

Perhaps this is the final judgement of this deeply researched, insightful,  and moving work. Portraying the devastation wrought to secure Franco’s victory and its aftermath, Hochschild states, “If the Republic had won, Spaniards would not have had to endure 36 years of Franco’s ruthless dictatorship.”(P 353)


Written by Andrew Coates

September 14, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Daily Mirror descends to utter tripe: Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are like Lenin style bully boys who’d send women to the gulag

with 8 comments

Foreign readers of this Blog (and roughly two thirds of the people viewing this site are not from the UK) will have been shaken by the tripe that has been said in this country over the last weeks.

But this is beyond a joke. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are like Lenin style bully boys who’d send women to the gulag.

Daily Mirror. Carole Malone. Today.

THIS is what the once great Labour Party has become – a hate-filled, violent, lunatic fringe where members who disagree with the hardliners are abused, threatened and intimidated into silence.

In the old days, these militants would be happy to see women like Eagle sent to the gulag and tortured. Today she is tortured on social media by bully boys who believe they’re acting in Corbyn’s name. And what does this supposed man of principle do when women in his party are being threatened with death for challenging him? B*gger all, that’s what! When there’s a TV camera in his face he meekly condemns it and says it’s awful.


The big joke here is that Corbyn is the one who told us he would make politics kinder. “Kinder politics, a more caring society. These are the values I was elected on,” he said 10 months ago.

And just look what his leadership has done to those values and to the party. Labour, under him, is finished and its politics have never been more vile, more ugly, more hate-filled and more divisive. No Corbyn rally is complete without violence or the threat of it. Anyone who disagrees with the great leader is shouted down as a “ f***ing Tory” or a traitor.

Our great Labour Party used to be one where socialism was achieved through ­parliamentarianism, through democracy.

Under Corbyn, we’re following the Lenin model – where it’s created through ­revolution, intimidation and violence. This kind of socialism doesn’t believe in democracy. And it forces women to live under police protection.

The tragedy here is no matter what Corbyn’s policies are, no matter what he says he wants for the poor and the disenfranchised, no matter how noble his intentions might be, no one is ever going to listen to him while his supporters are threatening to murder women.

As a life-long anti-Stalinist I cannot even begin to explain how offensive this is to me and my comrades.

Written by Andrew Coates

July 18, 2016 at 11:53 am

Ken Loach Wins Palm D’Or with I, Daniel Blake.

with 7 comments

Palme D’or Triumph for the Daniel Blakes of the Whole World. 

Some good news, at last.

Ken Loach has won the Palme d’or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake.

“Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old joiner in the North-East of England who falls ill and requires state assistance for disability from the Employment and Support Allowance. While he endeavours to overcome the red tape involved in getting this assistance, he meets single mother Katie who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, must take up residence in a flat 300 miles (480 km) away.”

France 24 reports,

The 79-year-old Briton attacked the “dangerous project of austerity” as he accepted the festival’s top prize from actor Mel Gibson and Mad Max creator George Miller, who headed this year’s jury. “The world we live in is at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe,” Loach said, adding: “We must give a message of hope, we must say another world is possible.”

And, he continued, “Necessary”.

Le Monde’s review noted that ‘welfare reform’ forms the heart of the film. That in the UK there is a veritable ‘crusade’ against the disabled, to root out those feigning illness (“la chasse aux tire-au-flanc a pris les allures d’une croisade) in a “néo-victorienne” Britain.

Moi, Daniel Blake n’est pas une satire d’un système absurde. Ken Loach n’est pas un humoriste, c’est un homme en colère, et le parcours de l’ouvrier privé de travail et de ressources est filmé avec une rage d’autant plus impatiente qu’elle est impuissante.

I, Daniel Blake, is not a satire about an absurd system. Ken Loach is not a humourist, he’s full of anger, and the progress a worker without a job, and without assets, is filmed with an indignation that is as exasperated  as it is impotent.

This Blog is not an uncritical admirer of Ken Loach. He is against austerity and for social rights, the cause of the left.  But his more specific politics, which include a lengthy membership of Respect and support for the cultural Boycott of Israel, as well as no known activity against Islamist genociders, or support for the Kurdish people in their fight for dear life against ISIS,  are not always the same as ours.

Nor are all of Loach’s films, for all of their skill and intensity, always as deep as they set out to be.

Of the most recent The Angels’ Share (2012) is amusing but slight tale of Scottish scamps. It is not free, for all its would-be irony, of whatever the Caledonian equivalent of Oirishness is,. The Spirit of ’45 (2013) may seem a strangely uncritical account of the post-war Labour government. Jimmy’s Hall  is a fine story set in the Irish Free state. But it is straining things for this emssage to pass, ” The behaviour of the state’s police is shown and explained to be occurring at a time when Stalin was in full control of the Soviet Union and it is obvious that the state and church are fearful of forces that threaten to destroy them. It is this tension between the ideals of Christianity and the fear of the church and its natural tendency to be reactionary that is the central issue that the film explores.”

It can still be argued that the trio have strong narrative coherence, and, in the case of Jimmy’s Hall, insights into the history of republicans, and the left, in the Irish Free State, and the characters swept up in the struggle for independence, the civil war,  and their fate in in the aftermath, as well as cinematique beauty.

Loach will, nevertheless, be remembered for Poor Cow, Kes, Land and Freedom, and smaller, less technically polished, but robust films such as Raining Stones, Riff Raff and the Navigators, which demonstrate that ‘social realism’ is not always worthy but unwatchable didacticism, and Bread and Roses, which shows politically engaged drama at its best.

That said by tackling head-on the effects of the ‘reform’ of the British Welfare state I, Daniel Blake, hits at a sensitive nerve, and, frankly, righteous indignation is an emotion that’s widely shared about this. Its tale of people pushed from pillar to post,  has been compared to Loach’s exposee of homelessness in the 1966 television play Cathy Come Home ,

The Minister in charge of the system of oppression bearing down on Daniel Blake, Iain Duncan Smith, is now a leading Brexit campaigner.

Appropriately Loach stands on the other side of the European Referendum debate,  the solution is ultimately voting to stay. “we need to “make alliances with other European left movements”.

The film is a worthy successor to last year’s winner, the riveting, Dheepan,directed by Jacques Audiard.

Sivadhasan is a Tamil Tiger soldier during the last days of the Sri Lankan Civil War. After the armed conflict resolves, his side loses and he is forced to move to a refugee camp. There he decides to move to France to take a fresh chance at life. However, in order to secure political asylum, he requires a convincing cover story. He is given the passport of a dead man, Dheepan, and pairs with people he barely knows posing as his family. Along with his supposed wife, Yalini and his supposed 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal, they get on a ship bound for Paris. Upon arrival, he lands a job as a resident caretaker and starts building a new life in a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northeastern suburb of Paris, which turns out to be another conflict zone for him.

I saw Dheepan only a few weeks ago.

One hopes that Loach’s picture will not take so long to get to our screens.


Written by Andrew Coates

May 23, 2016 at 11:10 am

Lions Led By Jackals. Stalinism in the International Brigades. Dale Street. Review.

with 10 comments


Lions Led By Jackals. Stalinism in the International Brigades. Dale Street. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. 2016.

During Franco’s dictatorship “the defeated in Spain has no public right to historical memory..” observed Paul Preston in The Spanish Holocaust (2012). The movement to recover these memories, beginning in the new millennium, continues to expose this past. The defeated side in the Spanish civil war, and those who fell during and after the Caudillo’s victory in the 1939, are honoured across the world as fighters against fascism. As Preston states, Franco’s war against the “Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic’ Republic brought the murder of hundreds of thousands in its wake.

Those who escaped prison, death or slave labour faced systematic persecution well into the 1950s. Many exiles passed by Bayonne to France, some joining the French army to fight the German invasion. Amongst the refugees were those who ended up in the invaders’ hands, portrayed in Spanish exile Jorge Semprum’s Le Grand Voyage (1963). Spanish republicans perished in the extermination camps. Around 60% of these died in Mauthausen.

Dale Street is concerned with one of the saddest aspects of the Spanish tragedy: the role of Stalin’s Comintern in the International Brigades. Lions led by Jackals underlines the political and organisational hold of this body that took the decision to form the Brigades in September 1935. André Marty, the leader of the ‘Back Sea Mutiny’, and Communist on his release from prison in 1923, Secretary of the Comintern in the 1030s, he became their effective ‘commander in chief’.

Marty emphasised on the ‘popular front; politics of the Spanish government – the democratic authority the International Brigade had been formed to offer military support against the Franco-army rebellion. Street states that many volunteers “found the idea of Popular Frontism incomprehensible. From their point of view, they were in Spain not just to ‘fight fascism’ but also to fight for socialism and working-class revolution.” The Stalinists, he writes, confused such people with this talk of a “bourgeois democratic revolution”. As he points out, had they – and no doubt those Spaniards who elected the Popular Front and fought for it – if they’d read Trotsky they would have known that this was “Menshevism” and “utter disregard for the ABC of Leninism.”

Socialists will be familiar with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) and Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom. (1995). Orwell inspires his readers with his account of Spain’s “foretaste of socialism” where one “had breathed the air of equality.” Loach puts these moments on screen.

Orwell was to experience first hand the other side of Comintern influence: its war on ‘Franco’s Fifth Column” – the ‘Trotskyist traitors’. The POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unifición Marxista), a fusion between two small anti-Stalin groups, backed the Popular Front and their leader, Andreu Nin (who had indeed originally been close to Trotsky), entered the Catalan government. They believed that socialist objectives tallied with the front against fascism, war and revolution went together. Trotsky himself accused Nin of having rallied to the defence of property. He advocated that the small group should be opposed to all other Popular Front parties, and teach radical forces, notably within the powerful anarchists and syndicalists of the FAI and CNT, to form soviets.


Trotsky’s strategy barely belongs even to the realm of historical might-have-beens. Nin was drawn into practical politics, in a Spain where it is hard to see how a sharp ‘Bolshevik’ vanguard party could be made out of disparate republican, socialist, and anarchist movements, left alone supplanting a Communist Party funded by the only international power offering the Republic serious military aid. Along with that help went a propaganda campaign against the POUM, its banning, and the dissolution of its militia. After the 1937 Barcelona May Days of anarchist and POEM resistance it was tracked down and ‘liquidated’ On Russian orders, and with NKVD direct participation, their leaders were arrested. Nin was taken from his house and shot. Fabricated documents pointed to POUM co-operation with Franco’s Falange.

Lions led by Jackals, describes the way into which those in charge of the International Brigades were infected by this Moscow-driven hunt for ‘Trotskyists’, ‘wreckers’ and ‘saboteurs’. Their training material included the instruction that “As in all other counties, so too here in Spain, the Trotskyists are the conscious enemies of the freedom of the people”. To Marty Trotskyists formed just one part of “multiple networks”, “the Gestapo, OVRA (Italian secret police), the Polish police, the Caballero group, anarchist, socialist and above all the Deuxieme Bureau (French secret service.” Articles intended for Brigaders asserted “the POUM was working in favour of Fascism”. The Independent Labour Party, linked to the POUM through the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre (the non-Trotskyist anti-Stalinist left international grouping, founded in 1932, known as the London Bureau), and whose own volunteers took part in their militia, was singled out. Any dissent, which could include the most minor disagreements, was noted with suspicion.

Street breaks new ground by indicating the details of these politics, and, more strikingly, in the endless, petty and spiteful reports on all Brigaders by the Political Commissars. Real issues of national frictions, personal problems and tensions, are overshadowed by the documents known as “Characterisations”. Often exaggerated concerns about possible infiltration by enemy agents and discipline aside, “thumbnail assessments” range from people’s sexuality, drinking habits, and temperament. Categories, such as Cadre, Very Good, Fair, Bad and Very Bad, were used.

With this licence to the small-minded it is not surprising that along with allegation about somebody’s alleged Trotskyist” or “criticisms of the Soviet Union”, that the sexual activity of some women volunteers is noted.

Stalinism, Street conclude, had “absolute political and organisational control”. On the most prominent Comintern representative, André Marty, Lions Led by Jackals, states that his “paranoid incompetence and general buffoonery guaranteed his failure, even in his own terms, as commander-in-chief of the Intentional Brigades.”

The paranoiac and murderous cadres who exported the purges and efforts to duplicate the Moscow trials to Spain, should nevertheless not be allowed to diminish the courage and sacrifice of the Brigaders, including Communists.

As for Marty he was portrayed under that name in Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), as a suspicious thug with a “mania for shooting people”. These killings earned him the sobriquet of the Butcher of Albacete. 1943 found him the representative of the French Communists in the de Gaulle led Resistance based in Algiers. There was an ascension  to become the ‘Number 3’ in the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). Following the Marty-Tillon ‘Affair’ in which included accusations that Marty was a Police agent, he was expelled from the Party in 1952.

Lions led by Jackals is available from here: Stalinism in the International Brigades

Written by Andrew Coates

May 19, 2016 at 12:55 pm

Un Silence Religieux. La Gauche Face au Djihadisme. Jean Birnbaum. Review Article.

leave a comment »

Un Silence Religieux. La Gauche Face au Djihadisme. Jean Birnbaum. Seuil 2015.

“Quand on voudra s’occuper utilement du bonheur des hommes, c’est par les dieux du Ciel que la réforme doit commencer.”

When we wish to carry out some useful work for human happiness, reform will have to begin with the gods in the heavens.

D’ Holbach. Système de la nature. 1777. (1)

The Brussels killings, have “nothing to do with Islam” said the Belgian Muslim on Sky News on Saturday. Amongst the disarray that follows each atrocity, the dignified quiet of mourning, there is this statement, “It has nothing to do with Islam” – Jean Birnbaum cites the official, the specialist, the columnist, and the academic in France, as across the world. Charlie Hebdo, the Hyper-Cacher, the Bataclan, and now Brussels; the slaughters in the Middle East, North Africa, Nigeria, and so many elsewheres, have nothing to do with Islam. These are, we are informed, acts of terrorism, with ‘causes’, about which the interested will find a very long, very weighty, list. But one is stubbed out: religion, left in silence. Rien-à-voirisme, that is, “nothing to with-ism” is the response. Jihadism has nothing to do with Jihad.

The massacre in Lahore leaves us enveloped in the deepest of silences, the most profound sadness. But we have to listen. Jean Birnbaum asks, by what right does anybody have to deny the religious claims of the Jihadists? If members of Daesh are ever brought to the Hague Tribunal and judged for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity will the religious doctrines that order their lives and by which they destroy those of others, be ruled inadmissible evidence?

Birnbaum’s Un Silence Religieux is not an essay on the failings of politicians grappling with the need to avoid scapegoating religious minorities. It is not about the generous feelings of people who wish to show respect for the beliefs of Muslims. It is not against those who point out the faulty syllogisms of the hate mongers who assert that ‘all’ Muslims are Islamist Jihadist sympathisers because…they too are Muslims. It is not, to cite a daily reiteration of his point, about the BBC’s official “rien-à-voirisme” labelling the Islamic State “so-called”.

Un Silence Religieux, the Gauche Face au Djihadisme is a dissection of the French left’s failure to tackle the fact of the irruption of Islamic belief in politics and war. His charge is that the majority fail to deal with the power of religious faith, its “autonomous force” in the lives of the Jihadists, reinforced in rituals and in murder. That Islam far from being consigned to the past, is a “universalism” with its own political impact – Islamism – is hard to accept, he argues, for a French left that is incapable to taking religion seriously.

If French left-wingers, intellectuals and activists, are more likely to dismiss faith as reactionary than, say, the English-speaking left, there remain those who take the that there is a form of “rebellion” at work in Islamism, a – distorted – projection of social causes. For every reflection on the Middle East and Islamism itself, another immediately jumps out: on Europe’s Islamists, on Europe’s states, on the French Republic, and the Salafism of the housing estates. That is to follow Olivier Roy, an “Islamisation of radicalisation”, (l’islamisation de la radicalité) a ‘nihilist’ and ‘generational revolt by those uninterested in written doctrine. (Le Monde. 30.11.15). To look for the sources in the failings of the French Republic, Western foreign policy, to look everywhere but in religion, In short, to explain away the fact of faith, that “day after day” by prayer and ceremonies guides the Jihadists, animated by the “récits mythiques et les formes symboliques” that “orientent leur esprit” (Page 31).

For Birnbaum this “community of fate” is the only ideal in the world for which young people by tens of thousands are willing to risk their lives, “le combat en faveur du rétablissement du ‘califat.” (Page 186) That claim, for all the elegance, clarity and passions he puts into this landmark essay, as they say, se discute – that is, it is very very debatable.

Un Silence Religieux traces the French left’s refusal to come to terms with the force of religion in the anti-colonialist history of North Africa. The minority of the country that stood in support of the struggle for Algerian independence and against the vicious repression of the French state was also marked by a tendency to remain silent about problems posed by the nationalist movement. Above all they treated the central role of Islam as “folklore”, the result of colonial underdevelopment that would disappear in the universalism and third-world socialism of the new society.

Four years after independence, in 1966, Pierre Maillot, closely involved in the conflict and its aftermath, sent an article criticising the Algerian programme of Arabisation and Islamisation to the ‘personalist’ left journal, Esprit. They accepted its truth, but judged it “inopportune” to publish.

Readers of the (colonial) Algerian raised Camus’ condemnation of all forms of blind terrorism, and those familiar with the section of the French left that backed the FLN’s opponents, led by Messali Hadj, and the small circulation writings of those who quickly denounced the new regime’s bureaucratic and repressive turn are familiar with some of the issues. But, as Claude Lanzmann recalls, having been overwhelmed by the necessity to defend the fight for independence against French repression and torture, the majority of the anti-colonial left was not about to denounce the efforts of the independent nation to create a new society.

One result, as Birnbaum states, was that nobody singled out the project that Maillot and a few others tried in vain to signal, the “arabo-islamisme” of the majority of those fighting against the occupiers, and the FLN’s determination to make Islam the centre of national life. Those critical of the new government concentrated their fire on these issues, and the emerging bureaucracy In Socialisme ou Barbarie, Jean François Lyotard warned in 1963 immediately after independence of the economic difficulties facing an underdeveloped country and a regime empty of democratic political life which began with populist slogans, including Ben Bella’s simultaneous railing against “cosmopolitanism” and calls for an Islam freed from “superstition”. Even the anti-totalitarian Claude Lefort, warning in the same year of the dangers of One-Party rule, considered the issue of secularism and Islamism to be a diversion from the economic – agricultural – and social problems of the country. (2)

Birnbaum argues that the legacy of this stand has indelibly marked the French left. The view that Islam is a religion of the “dominated” served to explain away the dominance of religious themes in the anti-imperialist Algerian struggle, to make it seem as if it was vehicle of revolt, and to conceal the autonomous importance of religious fervour. This had a long afterlife. In the 1980s Ahmed Ben Bella, the emblematic figure of the revolution deposed by the 1965 Boumédienne coup, was inspired by the Iranian example and became a fervent Islamist. An Arab nationalist (with all the problems that creates in a country with a strong Berber minority) he came to pronounce that Islamism was the “only authentic revolt against the economic and cultural domination of the West.” (Page 96) Freed from Maghreb detention he put his ideas into action, and, within a few years, founded an Islamist party opposed to the Algerian one-party state. Bella’s former comrades on the French left – and here I am speaking from direct experience – excused the turn. Asked if there was room for atheists in his version of the Islamic society when his template theocracy murdered non-believers it was said that a follower of Das Kapital could be considered one of the People of the Book.

It is hard, however, not to consider that the attitude of the French left towards Islam, like other European lefts, has been influenced by much wider considerations. The Bolsheviks, we learn from the Socialist Workers Party, tried in their early years to win Muslims to socialism. The early Comintern responded favourably to Pan-Islamism, as an anti-imperialist force. No less an authority than J.V. Stalin, supported the fight of the Emir of Afghanistan for independence, since his struggle “weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.” If Trotsky’s assertion that, “the rule of Islam, of the old prejudices, beliefs and customs ……these will more and more turn to dust and ashes” was not fulfilled the tradition of supporting any movement which saps imperialist power was established. It has endured. If the principle that undergirded the strategy, that all these movements were part of the era of revolutions which would produce, sooner or later, the “transition” to socialism and a communist mode of production, has become threadbare there are still many on the left, in France and across the world, who remain trapped within its premises. (3)

From Foucault to Harman.

In this respect Birnbaum offers two contrasting accounts of the relation between Islam and revolution. The first is a sympathetic (some would say, unduly so) account of Michael Foucault’s writings on the late seventies Iranian Revolution. Foucault, we learn, was struck both by the originality of this revolt, a people united in a “ collective will” without – apparently – a vanguard – and by its originality, that is, its ‘political spirituality”. He remained, Birnbaum assures us, suspicious of “power”.

At the time Maxime Rodinson discerned the potential in the clerics for the totalitarian exercise of that power in the Iranian movement. If he charged Foucault with ignorance about the ambitions already apparent in Islamism, from the Moslem Brotherhood onwards, others have questioned the ‘anti-modernist’ project itself. In a comprehensive study of these writings, Janet Afray and Kevin Anderson (Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. 2005) ask ““Did not a post-structuralist, leftist discourse, which spent all of its energy opposing the secular liberal or authoritarian modem state and its institutions, leave the door wide open to an uncritical stance toward Islamism and other socially retrogressive movements, especially when, as in Iran, they formed a pole of opposition to an authoritarian state and the global political and economic order?” (4)

Foucault was no doubt right about the importance of the Iranian Revolution and its long-lasting effects. The evidence for that legacy is there to read on the left. Alistair Crooke’s claim that “The key event that emerge from the Islamist revolution has been the freeing of thinking from its long tutelage to the tyranny of instrumentalism” may be more muted today. Judith Butler’s claim that the Burka represents a form of oppositional spirituality to the Western gaze, follows Foucault in ignoring the struggle of Iranian feminists against the veil. For Butler the March 1979 enforcement of the Muslim dress code to cries of “You will cover yourselves or be beaten” is invisible as well. Such indeed is the autonomous power of Islamist spiritual ideology. (5)

Birnbaum then delves into Chris Harman’s The Prophet and the Proletariat (1994) for a less exalted view of Islamic revolution. Harman, a leader of the “puissant” (powerful – yes….see Page 148) Socialist Workers Party recognised the importance of the Iranian revolution. A polemic against those who considered the Islamists ‘fascists’., and those who were prepared to directly align themselves with Iran against imperialism, Harman’ account, notably of the Algerian government’s own role in encouraging ‘moderate’ Islamism in the 1970s and early 1980s, indicates the realism of the text. To Harman the class character of diverse Islamist movements, in the petty bourgeoisie, amongst ‘new exploiters’, went without any fascist ambitions to attack the workers’ movement. He noted (see J.V. Stalin, above), “the destabilising effect of the movements on capital’s interests right across the Middle East.” Their main fault in this respect was not being anti-imperialist enough; their petty bourgeois utopia envisaged justice without challenging capitalism.

Harman stated, that this, “utopia” emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class. As with any

“petty bourgeois utopia” its supporters are, in practice, faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation. It is this that leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without “oppressors” to using them to impose “Islamic” forms of behaviour on individuals.“ (6)

In fact what Harman advocated was not a formal alliance with the Islamists ‘against the state’ but – sometimes – being on the “same side” against racism and against (see J.V. Stalin again) against imperialism. Always naturally involving discussion, and exposing the ‘contradictions” of the Islamists’ utopian ideas and trying to win them to “revolutionary socialism.” As Birnbaum observes, this was not only an “optimistic” belief, it also rests on the assumption that the “objective” course of history, the working out of economic laws, favours the socialist left. Given the SWP’s own self-belief in the creation of its party as a “tribune of the people”, is equally, Birnbaum accurately gauges, is tied to the much shakier claim that they would emerge as the principle voice and vehicle for the oppressed.

This is not the place to more than outline the collapse of this attempt to embrace the same constituency as the Islamists. Birnbaum does not cover the grotesque alliance that brought forth the shambles and shame of Respect, a party that claimed to represent ‘Muslims’, and the SWP’s work with its leader, George Galloway, now puttering around on Russia Today, railing against Europe. Nor does he cover the miasma that came from these quarters following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the British Je ne Suis pas Charlie, workshop organised by the ‘anti-racist’ movement, Unite Against Racism, from those who had barely heard of the Hebdo who knew, just knew, that they (and the Hypercacher victims?) had it coming to them. But Un Silence Religieux, well informed as ever, does cover the more limited attempts on the French left, in the shape of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA) to reach out to Islam. The admirable Pierre Rousset’s comment that the NPA’s acceptance of a veiled candidate in Avignon that this was (see J.V.Stalin above) an alliance against the “main enemy” and an inability to take religion seriously. And yet, as Rousset has more recently remarked, for the veiled candidate, Ilham Moussaïd, the « le voile incarnait ce projet politique » (7)

These examples would appear to show that anything but the most transient and punctual joint-action between those engaged in politics on the basis of Islam and those engaged in politics as socialists – that is those who derive their principles from the supra-human and those who base them on the world – is bound to run aground. If the British left could oppose the invasion of Iraq in alliance with a variety of forces, including the Liberal Democrats, it is hard to see how this can endure into the Syrian conflict where even the most moderate Islamists have sympathies for …Islamists who wish to create an Islamic – moderate – state. And that is without confronting the issue of secularism in its broadest and weakest sense. No Islamist, by definition, can back the principle of freedom from religion in the running of the public sphere.

Marxism and Religion.

Are there deeper fault-lines within Marxism that have contributed to this failure to come to terms with the religious reality of Islamism? Birnbaum discusses Marx’s conjecture that faith, as an imaginary projection of social relations, will evaporate once a fully transparent, communist society is created. He spends some time on the equally speculative writings on the origin of the religious imaginary in human alienation, despair and hope for the future. The feeling that somehow, at is origin, that Christianity, and – once whispered – Islam was a form of ‘primitive communism’, or at least socialistic, views expressed with some verve by Karl Kautsky and repeated by many, from Rosa Luxemburg, to, Birnbaum discovers, Gramsci, may yet encourage a renewal of that famous “dialogue” between the left and the believers that clearly some hanker after. Knowledge of the exclusive nature of these early communities, not to mention the reign of Mohammed, do not encourage imitation amongst more than small circles. The history of utopian communities is riddled with factionalism and failure. Medieval and other apocalyptic revolts with their mass killings, and hysteria, may also be important moments of early class – peasant – class conflict – but they do not inspire modern supporters of the right not to believe.

But for Islamism that time has long passed. Birnbaum contrasts the hopes for a fully human world that animated the Spanish Internal Volunteers with the Jihadist refrain of Viva la muertre! (Page 213) The social relations that are turned upside down and projected in the visions of death that appear in the jihadist wish for the “end of the world” and a “good death” are perhaps the affair of specialists, who might trace them in Olivier Roy’s nihilism. They do not fit easily into the explanations of those who wish to uncover a Universalist society of equality – a religious utopia in Ernst Bloch’s sense – amongst those attracted to violent Islamism. What we see bears a strong resemblance to another of Foucault’s visions, a disciplinary society based on obsessive regulation of every gesture by the learned interpreters of the Qur’an, or their home-made improvised pretenders. A world in which every form of behaviour, every belief we hold in our hearts under surveillance – by the vice-regents of god – and corrected. Which is ruled by punishment, always punishment. And mortal cruelty. (8)

Birnbaum asks why the enthusiasm for Islam, which has led in the form of Daesh, to a “cruel violence” a hatred of modern Reason, in its different shapes, philosophical, Marxist, bourgeois or proletarian, inspires. The left, after the Fall of Official Communism, the triumph of capitalist economics and the predatory wars of the West, briefly came to life in the anti-, or ‘other-‘globalisation movements, which have faded. We are, in sum, confronted with not the end of the ‘grand narratives’ of the left, progress, emancipation, but at an impasse.

Shoulder to Shoulder.

In these conditions what remains? If we recognise “la force autonome de l’élan spirituel” we have made a step forward: ideology is a material practice. But is that all? The rationalist strain in Marxism, which owes something to d’Holbach, has tried to concentrate on exposing the ‘error’ of religion. Yet science, atheism, or simply rational explanation, has so far fared badly faced with ideology. Translating Reason into lived experience has always looked a formidable task. But now when a world-view so all-encompassing, enforced by a web of publishers, of ‘educational’ bodies, and Courts, state backed or not, and financed so generously by the twin arms of Islamic intolerance, Riyadh and Tehran exists how can this be confronted but by open political struggle? (9)

They are already engaged in inter-Muslim warfare. But outside, from the institutions down to the jihadist micro-powers, right up to the Islamic State itself in Syria and Iraq, another battle, ideological, and ultimately, physical, is taking place. New fault-lines are emerging. It is clear, and Birnbaum admirably contributes to the literature, that there are many in the Islamic world, including those who consider themselves good Muslims, who for love of the world and its people, promote democracy, human rights, and free-thought about religion. We are less sanguine than Birnbaum’s former teacher, and one-times supporter of the Gauche Prolétarienne, Christian Jambert, on the resources available inside Islamic philosophy that can continue to the spirit of liberty. Will they, as d’Holbach suggested, be able to reform the idea of god? Will we be able to attract widely for the secular cause of freedom? For the moment it is for us to stand shoulder to shoulder with these democrats. (10)


(1) Page 67. D’Holbach. Premières oeuvres. Les Classiques du people. 1971.
(2) Albert Camus. Chroniques algériennes. 1939 – 1958. Gallimard. 2012. Pages 498 – 591 Claude Lanzmann. Le lièvre de Patagonie. Gallimard. 2009. Page. 56. Jean-François Lyotard: L’Algérie évacuée Socialisme our Barbarie. No 34. 1963. La Politique et la Pensée de la Politique. (Les letters nouvelles. 1963) Reprinted in: Sur un colonne absente. Claude Lefort. Gallimard. 1978.
(3) Page 75. J.V. Stalin. The Foundations of Leninism. Peking. 1970. Also available here, The Foundations of Leninism  THE NATIONAL QUESTIONLeon Trotsky: Perspectives and Tasks
in the East. 1924. C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\Desktop\Temporary\Leon Trotsky Perspectives and Tasks in the East (1924).htm.
(4) Page 136. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.. Gender and seduction. Janet Afray and Kevin B. Anderson University of Chicago. 2005.
(5) Resistance. The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. Alastair Crooke. Pluto Press.2009. For Judith Butler the Burka, “signifies belong-ness to a community and religion, a family, an extended history of kin relations, an exercise of modesty and pride, a protection against shame, and operates as well as a veil behind which, and through which, feminine agency can and does work.”(Page 142) It is related to the fear of “decimation of Islamic culture and the extension of US cultural assumptions about how sexuality and agency ought to be organised and represented,”(Page 142). The Precarious life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler. Verso 2006
(6)  Chris Harman. The Prophet and the Proletariat.
(7) Pierre Rousset. Le NPA, sept ans après : projet, réalités, interrogations. January 2016. K:\Le NPA, sept ans après _ projet, réalités, interrogations – Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières.html
(8) Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish. Penguin, 1991.
(9) Marx et la baron d’Holbach. Denis Lecompte. PUF. 1983.
(10) On the forces sustaining and dividing the power of Islamism see: Riddles of the Book. Suleiman Mourad. New Left Review. No 86. Second series. 2014. Christian Jambert. Q’est que la philosophie islamique. Folio. 2011.