In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Tony Judt reviews Leszek Kolakowski’s reissued Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, the Breakdown. The review is a good read because of the book, the valuable look back at Marxism now that we are afforded with almost 20 years of hindsight since 1989, and the current war on terror (i.e., a war on non-Western culture?) being waged by the Bush administration.
I will not delve into Judt’s review in a general manner, so if you are interested go read it.
I will, however, use Judt’s review as a jumping point to compare Marxism and terrorism. As Bush repeatedly reminds us lately, the war on terror “is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century” (to steal a line from someone I know: way to not sit around on that one George). But how similar are the ideologies of Marxism and terrorism-associated radical political Islam, which is what Bush presumably actually means when he uses the term terrorism and, even worse, Islamic fascism?
In asking the question, I do not wish to compare the tenets of the two ideologies but the motivational power of the tenets of those two ideologies. Judt, through Kolakowski, focuses on why Marxism was so attractive, particularly to those (educated people) outside the areas in which the revolutions and battles were physically being carried out. Judt writes:
From first to last, Marxism’s strongest suit was what one of Marx’s biographers calls “the moral seriousness of Marx’s conviction that the destiny of our world as a whole is tied up with the condition of its poorest and most disadvantaged members.”
Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of left and right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point.
Today, however, things are changing once again. What Marx’s nineteenth-century contemporaries called the “Social Question”—how to address and overcome huge disparities of wealth and poverty, and shameful inequalities of health, education, and opportunity—may have been answered in the West (though the gulf between poor and rich, which seemed once to be steadily closing, has for some years been opening again, in Britain and above all in the US). But the Social Question is back on the international agenda with a vengeance. What appears to its prosperous beneficiaries as worldwide economic growth and the opening of national and international markets to investment and trade is increasingly perceived and resented by millions of others as the redistribution of global wealth for the benefit of a handful of corporations and holders of capital.
To quickly summarize, Judt credits Marxism’s/communism’s–the combination being used to draw the lineage between the intellectual tradition and the “enemy” of “the decisive ideological struggle” of the 20th century–focus on the poorest and most disadvantaged as being its greatest recruitment (of minds) tool. And I think he is correct, although there are some amusing notes he includes about how Marxism is a secular religion for the lazy.
Judt rightly stays on topic, avoiding digressing into a discussion of terrorism and Islam, but the attention paid to the hook of Marxism/communism raises the question of what is the hook of radical political Islam.
The short answer, I think, is that it lacks such an effective mechanism. That is, whereas everyone works and the world is rife with the exploited, not everyone is Muslim and the world, at least not yet, is rife with Muslims. And although the theoretical slippage from worker to peasant is relatively easy to make in Marxism, as Lenin and those who followed to him in the east did, a similar slippage from Muslim to a larger demographic is not so simple. In fact, demographic growth (i.e., population growth) may be the only way–a way that the world is susceptible to buying into (i.e., being irrationally afraid of) and a way that is terribly inefficient.
Furthermore, the traction that radical political Islam had been gaining through attacks on neoliberal policies–ground that Judt hints at in the second section I quote–its proponents appear to be shying away from such a position and adopting a significantly weaker one. Allow me a simple and narrow use of examples to illustrate my point. In the past, the rhetoric and action of Al Qaeda (AQ) mostly focused on the wrongs associated with the West’s socio-economic imperialism. AQ wanted to remove, or even just reduce, the US presence in the Middle East (i.e., destruct the corrupting influences) and reassert a pan-Arab/pan-Muslim identity and control (i.e., construct a just society). So far so good (in terms of covering the basics of what an ideology wants and what can hook people), although the base of support, namely Arabs or Muslims, is still a limited group vis-a-vis Marxism’s worker/exploited target.
But during the past couple years, the group’s actions and rhetoric have slipped toward one focused less on both the destruction and construction elements toward a simple message of destruction. What was a superficially moderate use of violence (even if the language of violence was not always superficially moderate), is now an extremist perspective and use that has no room for anything but a total social world revolution. This slippage is, in some ways, the opposite of what happened with Marxism and communism, where we have the existence and flourishing of violent groups who are comfortable with a progressive or non-totalitarian view of change (e.g., western European groups including the IRA).
It should be noted that the usually superficially moderated tone of liberal democracy has also slipped toward an uncompromising position with a propensity for violence as the first-considered and first-used solution. What these implications are remain to be seen but are here for us to fear now.
So what is my point? Radical political Islam does not have and will not develop the intellectual weight and popular power to carry out widespread change that people, such as Bush, fear. Instead, we should continue to expect low-intensity engagement with little change and decreasing popular support, despite the US’s best efforts to spark a more widespread conflict through a series of proxy wars (e.g., Israel-Lebanon, Syria, and Iran) ala the Cold War and its hot fronts in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
A note on my use of superficial: When using superficial, I am drawing a distinction between an immediate and direct use of extremism and one that is found through slippery slope type investigations. Liberal democrats are just as extremist as any other group because their world order, which they see as the most just, requires a foundation of individual identities and rights and reason (among others).