This article appeared in 1988. At that time, Iran’s Shia Islam was the main Islamist force. The people who were to become al-Qaeda were then working with the USA against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Islam: Ideology Of Progress?
- Russian Retreat From Social Ownership
- Change Of Policies
- An Alternative Lead?
- Islamic Fervour
- Western Religions
For fifty years Russian Communism provided the ideological lead for Third World countries which wished to modernise. The Soviet model no longer exerts that attractive role, but what will take its place?
Could it be Islamic Fundamentalism? Is Islam a possible vehicle for Third World self-development? This article is a contribution to that discussion.
In the last issue of the Irish Political Review it was suggested that Gorbachev was not trying to introduce democracy into the Soviet Union. The aims of his reforms were to make the Communist Party’s hegemony over Soviet society more efficient and, like all Soviet leaders, to increase the power of the Soviet Union throughout the world. While the Soviet Union has dismantled some of its medium range nuclear missiles in Agreements with the West, it was pointed out that the Soviet Union would benefit from a nuclear-free Europe, since it had a superiority in conventional forces. Indeed, since Gorbachev acceded to power in 1985 there has been a quantitative and qualitative improvement in the conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact in Europe.
The implication of all this is that Western enthusiasm for Gorbachev is misplaced. Nevertheless, the delight of the Western bourgeoisie for his economic reforms is understandable.
Gorbachev has decided to allow a greater role for market forces. The State Farms are to be dismantled and land is to be leased to farmers for periods of up to 50 years. This amounts to a restoration of private property. The Soviet leader has characterised these reforms as a return to the Leninist “New Economic Policy” of the 1920s. But Lenin introduced the NEP as an expedient measure before greater social ownership could take place. It was never the intention of Lenin to make a virtue out of the necessity for the NEP.
It is noticeable that Nikolai Bukharin is one of the figures being rehabilitated in Gorbachev’s rewriting of history. Bukharin favoured the continuation of the NEP and resisted the collectivisation of the first five year plan in 1928. The latest from Moscow is that Trotsky will not be rehabilitated. Trotsky, of course, was a left wing Bolshevik who wanted the NEP to be abandoned far sooner than Stalin did.
Gorbachev’s selective rewriting of history is not an indication of liberalism. His spurious ‘Leninist’ justification for his economic reforms cannot hide his retreat from the ideals of social ownership. This has enormous implications for East-West relations.
From the 1930s until the 1950s it was widely felt in the capitalist world that world civilisation was going to follow the lead of Soviet Communism. This was by no means merely confined to the Labour movement, but was also shared by such intellectuals as George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, who were rapturous in their praise of the ‘new civilisation’ in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Third World Developments Following Khrushchev’s secret speech and the total failure of his agricultural policies, communism was not perceived as such a great threat to the industrialised world, but the Third World was ‘up for grabs’.
Many Western foreign policy experts felt that the West had serious disadvantages in the sphere of foreign policy. The rapid turnover of leaders as a result of elections made it impossible for the formulation of long term coherent foreign policy. The Vietnam War showed that America was incapable of engaging in a long term war abroad. It was far more serious than a military defeat. The American people decided that their politicians would not lead them directly into any war on foreign soil.
Despite these handicaps, Soviet ‘dominos’ in the developing countries have not impinged on neighbouring countries to anything like the extent that was feared. In the 1980s, economics has reasserted itself over politics. Countries like Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia, which have followed the Western economic model, have been more successful than their communist equivalents. That has not gone unnoticed.
Countries which have communist regimes have abandoned standard communist policies. Mozambique, Angola and Ethiopia are now borrowing from the International Monetary Fund. Now, when the IMF lends money to countries, it is on the understanding that its right wing economic policies are implemented. If a Western institution is dictating the economic policies of these countries, in what sense can any of them be called communist?
Maggie Thatcher is a loyal supporter of ‘communist’ Mozambique. She has been urging Reagan to back the Mozambique government against Renamo, the South African backed resistance organisation, which has caused so much damage in that country. British mercenaries have been to the fore in defending economic targets against Renamo.
As we approach the last decade of the 20th century, the ‘world-wide communist threat’ seems to be receding. It is likely that the Soviet Union will remain a military rival to America and Western Europe. But never again will the Soviet Union be able to appeal to sections of the West’s population on the basis that its political system was better and was the direction in which world civilisation should follow.
If communism is no longer a moral alternative to liberal/social democratic values, where will the new alternative come from? A hint of where the new rival will come from can be seen in the unfolding of the Iran/Iraq War and the way America conducted its foreign policy.
American and Western support for Iraq was most interesting. America in the past has had some strange bedfellows. Franklin D. Roosevelt said of the Nicaraguan dictator, Somoza (a forebear of the character who was overthrown in 1979 by the Sandinistas) that he was: “a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch”.
Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, certainly qualifies as a “son of a bitch”. Iraq was the aggressor in the war with Iran. It was fortunate that Israel knocked out its nuclear capability, but Hussein had no compunction in using chemical weapons. Now that peace with Iran is in sight, the Iraqis are busy wiping out the minority Kurdish population in their country. But, unlike Somoza, Hussein was not America’s “son of a bitch”. Iraq had been a longstanding ally of the Soviet Union.
At first, I thought Reagan was responding in a fit of pique to the Iran/Iraq war as a result of the hostages crisis, and was ignoring the long term foreign interests of
America. But, on reflection, the West was right to prevent an Iranian victory. A Khomeini victory might have sparked off Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Saddam Hussein might be a “son of a bitch”, but at least he is not a righteous “son of a bitch”. I suspect that Moscow, which has its own Muslim population in Central Asia, was quite happy with the outcome of the war.
Although Iran did not win the war, Islamic fundamentalism is still strong. In some of the Gulf States, the ruling cliques have had a restraining influence on the religious appetites of the masses. But in Egypt, for instance, Islamic fundamentalism is in the ascendant. The current Egyptian leader, perhaps learning from his predecessor, makes sure that he is perceived as being a good Muslim.
The one thing that the Muslims have going for them is that their population is increasing far quicker than in the West. The Jewish population of Israel, the West’s most reliable ally in the Middle East, is only very slightly above 50%. At present there is a debate within Israel about the future of the West Bank. Yitzak Shamir wants the territory retained, while Shimon Peres, the leader of the Labour Party, is prepared to consider an Israeli withdrawal, providing that arrangements are made to ensure that the new state would not be a threat to the security of Israel. Part of the reasoning of Peres is that the Arab population is growing at such a fast rate that, if the West Bank is retained, the relatively liberal politics of Israel would be threatened.
The leaders of the Soviet Union must keep an eye on population trends as well. The Russian population is declining, as are the populations of the Soviet Baltic Republics and the Ukraine, while the Muslim populations of Central Asia are increasing at a rapid rate. Both East and West European populations are declining and getting older.
With this in mind, it might be better if the European Common Market overruled Greek objections to the Turkish application to join the Community. Turkey is one of the few countries in the Middle East with a relatively secular culture, thanks to the great Kemal Ataturk, who was an atheist. We should be very reluctant to spurn its willingness to contribute to Western culture.
If Islam begins to present itself as a rival to the West, what will be the role of the existing religions in the West? These religions might develop an affinity with the Islamic world, which shares a contempt for ‘decadent western culture’. Some Christians may become fellow travellers of Islam, in the same way as many socialists used to sympathise with Moscow. If this happens, a new urgency will be given to the demand for the separation of church and state.
Of course, much of this article is speculation. The extent of the rivalry between Islam and the West may be limited. The Muslim population is split between 700 million Sunnis and the 90 million Shiites. Nevertheless, the Middle East is an extremely volatile part of the world. While the Soviet Union could always be depended upon to make a rational calculation of its interests, who knows what the Muslims will do for Allah?
This article appeared in September 2010, in Issue 3 of the new series Problems magazine. It contained articles from 1988 from Irish Political Review. You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.