The New Anti-Capitalism and the Challenge of Political Islam

Book Review:
Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century
by Samir Amin
Monthly Review Press, 2008

by Vilosh Vinograd, World War 4 Report

There are few things so frustrating as a book that takes on a vital issue that few others are grappling with, and appears to make a serious stab at it—only to fall back in the end on customary denial and formulaic dogmas, seemingly afraid of the conclusions it had been moving towards. Samir Amin’s The World We Wish to See is such a book.

Amin, an Egyptian by birth and a veteran of the Nasserist bureaucracy, has since the ’60s worked in development both for governments and the UN in West Africa, and is Africa director of the NGO Third World Forum. His book (translated from his adoptive French) purports to point towards answers to Lenin’s old question of “what is to be done” for a world still dominated by capital and imperialism, but fundamentally transformed from that of 1917. Since Amin’s formative years in the Cold War, the world has witnessed the collapse of the East Bloc and the reign of globalized super-capitalism, the emergence of new anti-capitalist movements (crystalized in the 1994 Chiapas rebellion and the 1999 Seattle protests), and a surgence of ethnic and religious fundamentalism which has increasingly occupied the populist space left by demise of the (traditional) left. Especially since 9-11, the most significant of these on the global stage has been political Islam.

The post-Cold War anti-capitalist movements have largely failed to effectively respond to this surgence, either remaining in denial about the threat represented by political Islam and similar maladies, or (worse) misreading them as potential allies.

Amin gets creds for at least correctly identifying the question. But it quickly becomes clear that he is less rooted in the new anti-capitalism than his rhetoric would superficially indicate, and is more informed by a nostalgia for the Cold War order. This, as we shall see, leads him to his own fatal misreading of political Islam.

Amin concedes the “undemocratic practices” (not, significantly, undemocratic nature) of the Leninist model, and states that it has “rightly” been “reproached” (not, significantly, rejected). He even concedes a place to feminism, anarchism and radical environmentalism in the new anti-capitalist convergence.

But while rightly critiquing the “naive” post-anti-imperialism of Hart and Negri, and “apolitical” conceptions of civil society, Amin displays his own naivete about what used to be called “actually existing socialism.” He hails the “contributions of Maoism” and China’s “incontestably brilliant results.” He even praises post-Mao China’s “refusal to call into question collective property”—apparently unaware of the breaking up of collective farms into small private plots, and the increasing appropriation of these for industrial zones and real estate development, leading to a wave of angry peasant protests in the People’s Republic. Worse than illusions about Maoism is the illusion that it still exists!

Perhaps these kinds of illusions are forgivable for someone of Amin’s generation. Far more disappointing is his highly selective outrage at the ethno-religious fundamentalisms which he correctly identifies as competing with the left for the mantle of anti-imperialist opposition. When he bemoans the ascendence of “fabricated ethnic authenticity” in the Balkans, he invokes as examples the Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars—but not Serbs. When he writes that anti-imperialists are “disoriented and agree to line up behind questionable leaders who wave the flag of religious or ethnic identity,” he mentions Osama bin Laden, “Latvian Nazis”—and the Dalai Lama! Elsewhere, he equates wrong-headed leftist flirtation with political Islam and progressive sympathy for the “ravings of the Dalai Lama.”

Two mentions of the Dalai Lama in this regard, and none of Slobodan Milosevic—who has also won an amen corner among “anti-imperialists” (Ed Hermann, Diana Johnstone, even Noam Chomsky). Amin writes: “Anti-democratic movements, which de facto submit their peoples to the requirements of capitalist globalization, despite their anti-Western, culturalist verbiage, in reality are part of the alliance of the world Right.” This is a very good description of Milosevic’s program. But Amin’s omission of the late demagogue from his litany of examples suggests he may accept the pseudo-left propaganda that Milosevic was defending “socialism.”

In this light, Amin’s warnings against “fundamentally reactionary allies,” “chauvinistic ethnic movements” and “para-fascist responses to the challenges” of globalization ring slightly hollow. Any single-standard progressive analysis would recognize the bitterly opposed forces of Serb ethno-nationalism and political Islam as different manifestations of essentially the same phenomenon. The left is in danger of making the same grave error again in Georgia—lining up with Ossetian ethno-nationalism simply because US imperialism is backing Georgian ethno-nationalism. But Amin’s rejection of ethno-nationalism only seems to apply to those varieties which imperialism, for its own purposes, chooses to back.

Amin is perceptive in simply stating the central issue: “The new imperialist order will be called into question. But who will question it? And what will result from this? Such are the challenges confronting the states and peoples on the periphery today.” But when he calls for “defeat of Washington’s project for military control of the planet,” he fails to make clear if he means its political defeat by progressive anti-capitalist forces, or military defeat by what we might call the “actually existing resistance” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amin notes that two generations ago there was the potential for an “Islamist left,” rooted in the concept of fiqh al-tahrir (which he calls Islamic “liberation theology”; more literally “jurisprudence of freedom”) and exemplified by the ideas of Mahmoud Taha (a Sudanese independence advocate later hanged for heresy by the post-independence regime). But he states: “Quite simply, it does not exist.”

However, this refreshing honesty is offset by an oversimplified portrayal of political Islam as a pawn of imperialism. Despite Amin’s denial of a “conspiratorial conception of history,” his thesis of “support by the CIA for Islamic fundamentalist groups” extends to “the possible passive if not active complicity in the events of September 11th.”

What promises to be the most important discussion in the book—the first appendix, “Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism”—is the most bitterly disappointing. After all his warnings against “para-fascist responses,” Amin apparently cannot conceive the means by which political Islam has stolen the left’s fire in the Muslim world. Rather than acknowledge the populist stance of the Islamists, he writes that “their leaders repeat incessantly that [social] conflicts are unimportant,” that “political Islam aligns itself with the camp of dependent capitalism,” that it “defends the principle of the sacred character of property and legitimizes…all the requirements of capitalist reproduction.”

A movement that obsessively blows up oil infrastructure, nightclubs, hotels, pizza parlours, skyscrapers and other private enterprises “defends the…sacred character of property”? He cites in defense of this assertion the Muslim Brotherhood’s support for laws that protect the rights of property owners against those of tenant farmers in Egypt. One imagines this is a strategy to keep money coming in from Egypt’s conservative oligarchs, while the Brotherhood employs very different rhetoric while addressing their potential cannon fodder.

Amin concedes that “Political Islam is not anti-imperialist, even if its militants think otherwise.” (Emphasis added.) But his analysis of the relationship between the Islamists and imperialism (and its local intermediaries) is utterly lacking in the nuance this statement might lead us to expect. He writes that “political Islam has always counted in its ranks the ruling classes of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.” Such a clear-cut statement would have made sense in the ’80s, when Riyadh and Islamabad were backing the Mujahedeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. It makes considerably less sense when al-Qaeda is blowing up targets in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is waging a counter-insurgency war against Islamist militants.

Amin admits that “political Islam mobilizes numerous popular masses.” He states: “The power of the Islamist street is, in large part, simply the reverse side of the weakness of the organized Left…” But he fails to explore how political Islam has succeeded in meeting this challenge, while the left has fallen dramatically short.

This failure is all the more frustrating given Amin’s timely warning against a left alliance with political Islam: “If some unfortunate Leftist organizations come to believe that political Islamic organizations have accepted them, the first decision the latter would make, after having succeeded in coming to power, would be to liquidate their burdensome ally with extreme violence, as was the case in Iran…” But Amin insufficiently acknowledges why such an alliance is a lure for the remnants of the left.

Tackling the argument that the left must bloc with political Islam to combat Islamophobia, Amin astutely recognizes that “the two reactionary ideological campaigns promoted by the racist Right in the West and by political Islam mutually support each other…” But he cannot conceive that political Islam has such a relationship with imperialism. He can only portray the prior as a creation and tool of the latter.

He overstates the case again and again. The Muslim Brotherhood was “created” by the British in 1920s Egypt. The organization’s mass return from Saudi exile after Nasser’s death was “organized” by the CIA. The US “created” the Islamic Conference to counteract the Bandung Conference. It is “well known that the Israelis supported” Hamas in its early years. Political Islam had the “continual, powerful, and resolute support of the United States” in its spread beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. No evidence is provided in support of these assertions.

Amin’s distorting biases, as well as his lax standards for accuracy, are exemplified in his invocation of Afghanistan in this litany: “We are all acquainted with the history of the Taliban, formed by the CIA in Pakistan to fight the ‘communists’ who had opened the schools to everyone, boys and girls.” How many things are wrong with this statement? First, the Taliban was born in 1994, two years after the last Soviet-backed leader of Afghanistan, Najibullah, had been overthrown. Amin is presumably refering to the Mujahedeen. Second, if we assume he means the Mujahedeen, it s a vast overstatement and a denial of local context to assert that they were “formed” by the CIA—although the agency did of course massively back them. Third, the Communists (why the scare quotes?) in addition to opening schools to girls, also committed horrific atrocities in the countryside, driving the rural populace into the hands of the Mujahedeen.

(An aside: Amin’s book is an exemplar of the chronic factual sloppiness that is endemic to contemporary expository writing. On page 50, in a prescient argument that capitalism requires state policing, he has New York’s former attorney general Eliot Spitzer putting Wall Street millionaires in handcuffs. In fact, while both men went after Wall Street corruption, that particular media trick was only used by federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani nearly 20 years earlier. On page 53 he lumps the neo-conservatives, who always purport to act in the interests of pluralism and democracy, in with the post-modernists as “anti-Enlightenment.” On page 96, he has the British occupation of Egypt—which ended in 1922, with a 1942-5 reprise, unless one includes the policing of the Suez Canal zone as an “occupation”—lasting until 1956. On page 30, there is an egregious reference to conjugating nouns. One hopes this last one was a translator’s error.)

Amin concludes this appendix with a discussion of the four “front line countries” in the Islamic world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Iran. He begins it with a refreshingly clear, concise and astute outline of the motives underlying the US adventure in Iraq. None of the cant that plagues far too much left-wing commentary about Zionists seizing control of US foreign policy, or oil companies and defense contractors angling for a windfall. Instead he identifies four fundamental factors. First, the need to control the Persian Gulf’s strategic oil resources to assure the US a “privileged position” vis-a-vis both allies like Europe and rivals like China. Second, Iraq’s strategic geographic position, affording a “permanent military threat” to actual or potential rivals (China, Russia, India). Third, Iraq’s weakness after years of sanctions and war, assuring an easy victory. Fourth (and, appropriately, last), Israel’s presence in the region.

Once again, given this excellent start, the paucity of intellectual seriousness in the discussions that follow is all the more frustrating. The Afghanistan discussion is characterized by an unreconstructed defense of the Soviet position. “Afghanistan experienced the best period in its modern history during the so-called communist republic.” This period included army massacres, mass arrests and torture of the opposition, and Soviet aerial bombardment. Again, he conflates the Mujahedeen, the armed resistance of this era, with the Taliban, which followed a decade later, as well as throwing in a fictional “Pakistani military offensive” against Najibullah. He writes that “Afghanistan was devastated by the intervention of the United States and its allies and agents,” which is true enough—but completely exculpates the Soviets, who bore (at least) an equal share of the blame.

Hamid Karzai is “a clown without roots in the country”—an absurdity: there is plenty to be said against Karzai, but he was born and raised in Afghanistan, and is a scion of the Durrani dynasty that ruled the country nearly continuously from its birth as an independent nation through the Communist-backed coup of 1978. Amin also repeats as fact the widespread but unsubstantiated claim that Karzai worked as a consultant for a “Texas transnational” (Unocal—actually based in California). He calls the NATO presence an “occupation,” which is certainly defensible—but he never uses this word to describe the Soviet military presence of 20 years ago. The Soviet troop presence in Afghanistan peaked at 115,000. The US and NATO together have half as many in the country at present. And they are there, like the Soviet troops in the ’80s, at the ostensible invitation of Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government.

He concludes the Afghan discussion with a call for removal of all foreign troops from the country. That the US/NATO presence only fuels the Taliban insurgency is an arguable position. But Amin writes as if we could turn the clock back to 1978 and replace the US and Karzai with a modernist, secular regime. With nearly all of Afghanistan’s secular intellectuals and bureaucrats either dead or long exiled, no evidence suggests this.

Next comes Iraq. Amin offers brief acknowledgment that the “bloody dictatorship” of Saddam Hussein was “real enough.” But again he can’t resist a Manichean paradigm in which the Communists are the good guys. He writes that Iraq’s Communist Party was subject to a “systematic destruction” under Saddam. In fact, in Saddam’s long reign the Communist Party faced periods of both repression and cooptation—and is now actually collaborating with the US-backed regime! He exculpates Saddam of “stirr[ing] up the conflict between the Sunni and Shia”—ignoring the systematic exclusion of the Shi’ites under his rule, and the near-genocidal repression of their revolts. (He writes that the Shi’ites “rarely produced” bureaucrats, as if Saddam had nothing to do with this!) And despite his disavowal of conspiracy theory, he writes: “One day, we will certainly learn how the CIA (and undoubtedly Mossad) organized many of these massacres”—meaning the internecine sectarian slaughter which has characterized the US occupation.

Turning to the Kurds, Amin once again displays his double standard. He writes: “The repression of Kurdish demands has never attained in Iraq and Iran the level of police, military, political, and moral violence carried out by Ankara. Neither Iran nor Iraq has ever gone so far as to deny the very existence of the Kurds.” No, and Turkey never went so far as to gas them, as Saddam did at Halabja in 1988, instantly killing 5,000. Amin is merely inverting imperialism’s double standards, instead of adopting a single moral standard—the left’s greatest and most universal intellectual failing.

Amin mentions the gassing of the Kurds, and Saddam’s bombing of Basra to put down the Shi’ite rebellion in the aftermath of Desert Storm—but says these “excesses” (!) were a “response to the maneuvers of Washington’s armed diplomacy.” He calls these acts “criminal,” but his alarming use of the word “excesses” implies that some repression would have been OK!

Most appalling is Amin’s complete failure to square with the realities of Iraq’s contemporary insurgency. Having dismissed (on no evidence) the sectarian massacres as CIA black ops, he offers no acknowledgment that the insurgents are overwhelmingly reactionary jihadis—and this in an ostensible discussion of political Islam! He points to one program printed in a Lebanese newspaper as representing that of “the resistance”—ignoring the proliferation of factions. He then calls on progressives to “support the proposals of the Iraqi resistance”—ignoring the reality of self-declared “Islamic kingdoms” run by Taliban-style sharia law in the enclaves they have seized.

Amin’s assertion that “[t]he longer the occupation lasts, the more dismal will be the aftermath of its inevitable end” is all too plausible. But his call for a “US defeat”—presumably by the (Islamist) insurgents—is no prescription for anything better. A US political defeat by Iraq’s trade unions and secular civil resistance movements is what stands a chance of improving the post-occupation prospects. But Amin offers not a word about this.

Next comes Palestine—and similar confusion. He again portrays Hamas as having been groomed by Israel to undermine the PLO—and then states that its electoral victory was “probably desirable”! He accuses Israel of “the supreme crime against humanity” in denying the Palestinians “the right to exist,” and writes: “The accusation of ‘anti-Semitism’ addressed to those who reject this crime is only a means for appalling blackmail.” This assertion is obvious enough. What complicates the matter is that the charge of anti-Semitism, even when cynically employed to justify Israeli crimes, is often true. The Hamas charter, after all, openly cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Again, failure to even address this uncomfortable reality makes nonsense of the appendix’ very raison d’etre.

Finally Iran, and perhaps the worst contradiction of all. After all of his warnings to leftists against the lure of an alliance with political Islam, Amin adopts the widespread hard-left position of defending Iran’s nuclear ambitions! “Why should this country, just like others, not have the right to pursue [nuclear] capabilities, up to and including becoming a nuclear military power? By what right can the imperialist powers and their Israeli accomplice boast about granting themselves a monopoly over weapons of mass destruction?”

These are two very distinct questions. The answer to the second, of course, is: none. But the answer to the first is the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran and the US alike (although not Israel) are signatories. A second, and more fundamental answer is what should be the progressive demand for a nuclear-free world. The same NPT which legally bars Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons also mandates that the US and other Great Powers negotiate terms for their own disarmament. Of course, they have done no such thing. But we can’t very well demand that they do so while actively cheering proliferation. While on one hand rejecting political Islam, Amin would on the other see it armed with the ultimate weapon!

In his conclusion, Amin names three forces on the political stage of the contemporary Greater Middle East: corrupt and domesticated post-nationalists (presumably Mubarak, Assad and their ilk), political Islam, and neoliberals posing as “democrats” (presumably Lebanon’s “Cedar” alliance, US-backed dissident movements in Egypt and Syria, etc.). He writes: “The consolidation of power by any of these forces is not acceptable to a Left that is attentive to the interests of the popular classes.” And “American diplomacy keeps all these irons in the fire, since it is focused on using the conflicts among them for its exclusive benefit.” Both these assertions are unarguable. So is his warning against left “alliances with one or another of these tendencies (preferring the regimes in place to avoid the worst, i.e. political Islam or, on the other hand, seeking to be allied with the latter in order to get rid of the regimes).” But he offers no prescriptions for how to even add the left as a distant fourth to his triad. Ending with yet one more call for “defeating Washington in the region” sounds superficially good, but yet again dodges the critical question of who will be doing the defeating.



Monthly Review page on The World We Wish to See

Samir Amin biography, Monthly Review, September 1992

Third World Forum


Special to World War 4 Report, Nov. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution