Coping with Modernity – Leftism and Islamism

From the beginnings of the steam engine in Scotland, to the semiconductor fabrication plants in California, human history over the last three hundred years has witnessed the unfolding of an inexorable trend and veritable explosion of material progress. The end of the Eighteenth Century saw the rise of portable firearms and the resulting obsolescense of traditional European set piece warfare; the discovery of the nature of electricity; and the development of the steam engine. The end of the Nineteenth Century witnessed the birth of mechanized warfare, conceived in the Crimean War, born in the fires of the American Civil War, nurtured through the Franco-Prussian War, and imitated in the Sino-Japanese War; the harnessing of electricity by the Wizard of Menlo Park; the development of the internal combustion engine; the rise of Darwinism as an explanation for natural history; and the building of an ever more sophisticated telecommunications network. By the end of the Twentieth Century, nuclear weapons were the ultimate military status symbols; electricity is taken for granted even in developing nations; gas engines were becoming hybridized with electric motors; the Human Genome Project was nearly completed; and the Internet was already old enough to drink, even in the United States, and web logs were already laying their seeds.

Amidst all this modernization, work has become more efficient, the world has become smaller, and people were in touch with each other as never before. But concurrently, people have become less in touch with themselves. For these three hundred years, the now-familiar story of dysfunctional families have been the subject of many sermons and philosophers, as traditional leaders bemoan the dying of the “Good Old Days”. The trauma of this transition into modernity has been sharper in nations that have not had to endure the same long, very public debates as did nations which were in at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, leading to social disruptions. Different societies have developed different ways of dealing with the trauma. Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea represent the successful accommodations of traditionalism and modernism; while Japan during the Meiji Era and China during the Cultural Revolution demonstrate the massively disruptive effects this accommodation can have on society when it is forced upon the populace by the government.

Even the West, or Europe in any event, has had its troubles with dealing with modernization. In the United Kingdom, where industrialization began earlier than in other nations, the adaptation has been relatively smooth. In the United States, which was a little slower to the game, the changes brought by industrialization have included increasing feelings of alienation and individual isolation, a loss of a sense of purpose. This, in combination with the religiosity of Americans, contributes to the cyclical rise of charismatic Bible-thumpers, from George Whitefield during the Great Revival of the 18th Century, to Billy Graham today. Yet this process, too, has been relatively smooth, and has often had the effect of reconciling people with modernity instead of setting them at loggerheads.

The same cannot be said for France, where adaptation to industrial modernization was often hampered by the great political turbulences that began with the French Revolution of 1789. Because of the lack of a large bourgeoisie, France’s political spectrum resembled a sideways hourglass rather than an almond. That is to say, the middle class that did exist was a weak bond between the upper and lower classes. Thus, when domestic tranquility was finally brought about after the 1848 crisis, there was already a large political class that found itself temporarily unemployed. They looked abroad, and found Marxism to be an intellectually stimulating model and a rich source of sloganeering. (After all, the very last sentence of Das Kapital was an exhortation to political revolution on behalf of an unenfranchised class, which appealed to the liberal instincts of the most intellectual members of that political class.)

The most tragic and turbulent forced modernization probably came in the form of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Romanov Russia. By this time, Marx’s ideas had been around for well over half a century, and there had already been international Communist congresses. What followed the revolution were three strands of thought: Leninism answered the need for political organization for a revolutionary party (as a model, it was very successful, and remains a model for political party organization even in many democracies); Trotskyites pushed for modernizing the serfs so that they could fulfill the role of the proletariat, in true Marxist fashion; and Stalinism, which was a ruthless study in authoritarianism. What essentially was provided by Marxism was the ability not only to recognize and acknowledge the trauma of modernization, but to shoehorn it into a model. In this model, modernization is seen as an arrow of history, down which cycles of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (borrowed from Hegel) ping-pong until arriving at last at pure communism. By providing a model for explaining reality, and for making predictions regarding the future, and particularly by envisioning a brighter, better future, Marxism became an idea with real currency. It is the only formalized school of thought that acknowledges that we can’t go back to yesterday, and through a sense of determinism and an expectation of utopia, it implied that the Good Old Days™ were not necessarily that.

However, Communism was only the least unsuccessful of several pseudo-scientific Leftist schools of thought. A distinguishing characteristic of the Left is its insistence on a neo-elitism. While all societies hope to be led by wise men, Leftism, as with other, more traditional forms of governance, relied on a cadre of elites, often refusing to allow the people a say, on the premise that the public would be too foolish to choose the best leaders. Instead of relying on a religious basis, Leftists tended to rely on “science”: Marxism was based on a so-called “scientific model of history”, and called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. So, too, German National Socialist Workers Party of the 1930’s called for an elite cadre to oversee an extreme form of eugenics, at the time a very popular and widely accepted “science”, that would lift the nation out of the misery it had endured since the end of the Great War. Like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis claimed to have a scientific model upon which to shape history. In both cases, that extended even into the economic sphere, as both championed central economic planning, or “command economies”.

At the end of the Second World War, Stalinism, a far more virulent and violent form of Communism (Marxists, though, might balk at the characterization), with the help of its largely English-speaking Allies, prevailed over Nazism. Leftists might point out that the reason was that Nazism was, after all, an ideology heavily reliant on nationalism as well as socialism (if they would accede to that second point at all), and as such, not only violated the internationalist spirit of Marxism, but also thus could not appeal to other nations, particularly subjugated ones.

However, nationalism was not to die completely. After the Second World War, drained European powers began to decentralize their Empires. In the case of the British Empire, the transition was relatively peaceful. Not so with the French and Belgian Empires. (In fact, the breakup of the French Empire ended up pulling the United States into its most controversial military adventure.) While Europeans learned to keep their nationalist sentiments relatively quiet due to the balance of power on the Continent during the Cold War, developing nations found it useful to assert their national identities in the hopes of gaining the support of one or the other of the two superpowers. (In fact, Ho Chi Minh appealed first to American support for Vietnamese independence from French rule, but when the Americans decided to side with the French, whose support in the Cold War the Americans needed, and who were still sore at the American intervention in the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, Ho turned to the Soviets and the Chinese.)

Nationalism works best, though, among people once great. Irredentism is also a common feature of nationalism: Hitler wanted the Sudetenland; the Chinese still want Taiwan, Tibet, and the Spratlys; and the French want their dignity, and the respect they used to be held in when the Sun King reigned. But Hitler was defeated; the Chinese are now trying to rebuild their economy, which centuries ago was the envy of the world, gambling that a vibrant economy and a high standard of living might just be enough to entice plucky Taiwanese into rejoining the Motherland; and the French try to earn brownie points by being the loudest voice against anything American. So one threat is merely simmering, while the other two have, effectively, been neutralized.

But there is one place in the world where nationalism was not only not to die, but was to be blended with more extremist influences.

Between the ends of the First and Second World Wars, the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire, which had chosen the wrong side the first time around, had been carved up and distributed to Great Britain and France, the pre-eminent European powers, as mandates under the League of Nations. Thus a large chunk of the Arab world passed from the hands of an occupying power that not only had become a fact of life after some centuries, but was also Muslim, into the hands of people that looked different, spoke very much differently, and, most infuriating of all, were more likely to be Christian or atheist. Still, the new occupying powers, particularly Great Britain, brought about infrastructure reforms, thus raising the standards of living. Nonetheless, the differences were jarring, and a nationalist sentiment gathered steam. After the Second World War, the French gave up Syria and Lebanon, and the British created the Hashemite Kingdoms of Transjordan and Iraq.

In 1948, however, a great wrong was inflicted upon the Arab world with the creation by the United Nations of the Jewish State of Israel. To many Arabs, it must have seemed like a betrayal of the promise of independence, especially as it seemed to aid an already-growing independence movement among Palestinian Jews. In the eyes of the Europeans, though, it was justice served, as recognized by the Balfour Declaration. By giving the Jews a homeland, it was thought, not only would they have a national sponsor of the rights of Jews worldwide, but they would also have an incentive to leave a Europe that could not look them in the eyes for the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Thus the Arab resentment at the creation of Israel would engender several wars. For the Arab powers, it was a poor testimonial to the efficacy of their governments, that they could not even stand up for the rights of “brother Arabs”, to say nothing of the corruption that would seep into their domestic affairs. Pervertedly, the Israeli victories would become a bogeyman for the Arab regimes, a way to deflect criticism of their harsh rules. Yet the failure in foreign policy was but a reflection of the failures in domestic policy.

Much as was the experience in Nazi Germany, the National Socialist regimes in Syria and Iraq (better known by their Arab name, the Ba’athists) at first afforded much modernization, particularly in Iraq, which had oil resources, and was anyway the seat of Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Western Civilization. But the Socialist policies in the Arab world resulted mostly in stagnation, as was also the case in other places, such as India until the ’90s. Meanwhile, a political culture rooted in nepotism and corruption and undemocratic means (including even the European mandates of the early Twentieth Century) meant that governments that were failing to raise living standards were, even so, incapable of addressing their citizens’ grievances. As with any corrupt regime, the Arab governments presided over an immense wealth gap, one that offered the poor absolutely no way of rising to the top.

As with any other modernizing process, that in the Arab world witnessed a growing resentment of the more corrupting influences. As industrialization encroached, and communications and entertainment became more instantaneous, private, and personal, communities began to lose cohesion. Against this backdrop of confusing change came a religious revival not unlike the Great Awakening in the United States over two centuries prior. But this Arab Awakening was also political in nature, and in many occasions worked with pan-Arabism. The name that would be given this political religiosity would be Islamism, named after the Brotherhood of Islam, which first arose in Egypt.

The Islamists were not simply people who sought to bring back some traditional Islamic values to everyday life, but, perhaps due to the pervasiveness of politics in everyday life, to overthrow the corrupt and repressive regimes. Their greatest victory came with the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Thus Islamism is an extremist political school whose tactics are little different from the Basque Separatists (ETA) or the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

However, in already religious Saudi Arabia, the reaction to the corruption of the House of Saud took on the character of the austere national sect of Wahabbism, in the form of bin Ladenism. Established by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the bin Ladenists began as a group of militant Puritans fighting the atheistic Soviets in Afghanistan. Indeed, just as the Islamists had been critical of Sadat’s socialist policies in Egypt, the bin Ladenists were rather critical of the Ba’athists in Syria and Iraq. But the bin Ladenists were also pan-Arabists; though they certainly hoped for a revival of the Caliphate of Baghdad, preferably with bin Laden as the Caliph, instead of the secular Saddam Hussein.

In its war against modernity, though, al-Qaeda’s tipping point against the United States was the repulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. That Saddam was defeated probably brought mixed feelings due to his secularism; but the establishment of American military bases in Saudi Arabia drove bin Laden to oppose the United States — at least Saddam was an Arab. The clash of civilizations had, in bin Laden’s view, begun. The rest of that is history.

But what I want to deal with here is the notion of the how different groups react to modernization. New Sisyphus notes, in his article on the Left’s central thesis regarding the Cold War, that the International Left is not only suspicious of military action, but, as has not changed since the days of Karl Marx, fingers industry and commerce as the motivating factors for violence.

The reason for this is clear: the U.S. isn’t interested in winning liberty for the world’s people. Nor is it even very worried about the so-called Soviet threat. It’s all about profits, power and control. We prop up dictators in Central America because major companies and Republican-campaign contributors rely on the profits of United Fruit, Dole and other major American conglomerates. We have military bases in the Philippines because they are instruments of neo-colonial control. We dominate Korea because it provides a ready market and an endless supply of cheap labor.

Concern over the Soviet Union is nothing more than cheap cover (and threadbare cover at that) for a program of world domination, the hallmark of which is the exercise of raw, deadly power whenever it feels threatened. Labor organizers in El Salvador, human rights campaigners in South Africa, dissenters in Saudi Arabia die in their dozens as a result.

If we can only reduce our view of the Soviet Union to that which reality should lead it (i.e. an impoverished nation actually incapable of inflicting much harm), and strip away the hypocritical lies of the Right, the United States could get back on the right side of history and support the worlds’ peoples’ rightful struggles for self-determination, justice and equality. Until then, the U.S. is only going to suffer more Vietnams and more embarrassments. We must work for a people’s democracy, one that speaks to our real values and conduct ourselves in accordance with those needs and wants and not those of General Motors.

Meanwhile, Arthur Chrenkoff ponders what he calls the “Red-Green Alliance“: The shared short- and mid-term political goals of the International Left and the International Islamist movement. Many commentators and pundits, particularly on the Right, have argued that the Left and Islamists are not just allies of convenience, but kindred spirits. But Art is skeptical.

I don’t believe that the far left are the ultimate realists who would support the Islamist assault on their own societies in order to weaken the domestic political, economic and social structures to a sufficient degree so as to allow a painless takeover by the left to complete the revolution.

Islamofascism is irrelevant to the left’s designs because the left doesn’t believe that Islamofascism matters per se. It is not a problem, but a symptom of a problem. The problem is the West, and when it gets fixed, the symptoms will vanish, too. For the left, Islamism is an understandable reaction to Western (or more specifically, American) policies and actions: the support for Israel, the thirst for oil, support for Muslim autocrats, economic exploitation, cultural imperialism, militarism and interventionist foreign policy, unilateralism and political hegemony. Eliminate all of these and reduce the United States to a status of an appendage of the United Nations, a sort of an American Union, and Islamism will disappear, too. Because there is such a huge overlap between the grievances of the left and grievances of Islamofascists, and because the critique of the Western society is so often indistinguishable between Berkeley and Beirut, for the left, therefore, Islamofascism is not a weapon or a tool as much as a propaganda exhibit and a debating point.

All very well and good, but I would submit that, while bin Ladenism is not seen by the Left as relevant other than as Exhibit A of the consequences of national capitalism, it shares with the Left not only an advocacy of the destruction of the Western capitalist system, but both seek to usher in a period of revolution, after which they would take over. To borrow an idea from Art, both bin Ladenists and Leftists hope that the other is destroyed along with Western capitalism, so that each could take over.

Bringing back the point of the Great Revival, notice that both the Left and the Islamists in general believe not only in intellectual narcissism (if only everyone thought and acted like me, the world would be perfect), but both have spawned more radical branches that are willing to effect violence in order to achieve such goals. If the world really did run the way they wanted it to, there would be no room for argument, except possibly in regard to tactics during the run-up to the Revolution.

Despite these similarities, however, they are different strands of thought. Leftism generally is forward-looking: Its supporters generally believe in an end of history, an ultimate goal (not unlike the Christian view, incidentally, and perhaps related, due to its origins among European intellectuals). Islamism, on the other hand, generally is backward-looking: Its existence is largely dismissive of Western decadence and amorality to begin with, and yearns to return to an imaginarily austere Caliphate. There are, of course, exceptions. Among the Left there is a rather large subgroup that is very backward-looking, that makes a fetish out of anything “untainted” by civilization. These are your New Age types, who dredge up every ancient belief from all around the world because the Western culture they grew up with was somehow unable to answer their spiritual needs. And among the Islamists there is a smaller subgroup that believes in integrating Islam with modern institutions, so that the civil code of Egypt, for example, need not be precisely sharia, but is informed and influenced by it, much in the same way many European institutions are informed and influenced by nominally Christian sensibilities. But these are exceptions.

Finally, history is not a static thing. We see it move in great waves, such as the Protestant Reformation, the American Revolution, the two World Wars, and so on; and we see it in small ripples, like when a Richmond High School basketball coach insisted that his formidable team must first earn passing grades before being allowed to play. Trying to roll back tides is trying to roll back time, and thus Islamism’s current fetish is nothing but a pipe dream. And supposing that the waves will immediately cease once they reach a determined point, that there is, indeed, such a thing as an end, is equally unrealistic.

Perhaps it is this unrealism that makes these goals somehow seem worthwhile. An incomplete Revolution will always need soldiers, and if, as Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage“, then everyone will want to have a bigger role. Because these dreams are unreal and unfinished, the dreamers will go on dreaming and trying to live and realize the dream.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

1 thought on “Coping with Modernity – Leftism and Islamism”

  1. One small quibble I have with this otherwise excellent esssay is the importance of Islamism as an outlet.

    The mosques were the one place where Arabic governments were often, but not always, reluctant to interfere. In a society without free political and civil institutions, such as: a truly free press, genuinely fair and open elections resulting in an independent and empowered legislature, and an independent judiciary, there is no outlet for dissent, nor is there a civil/political mechanism for redressing injustice, nor is there any open debate on the state of the country and society, and possible future courses of action.

    Islam, being an integral part of Middle Eastern culture for one and a half millenia, took on those roles. In doing so, the political and social discussion and dissent took on a religious cast. This occurred out of political necessity, since open political agitation could land one in jail or worse, and also because the leadership found within the mosque, the imams and other religious scholars, were predisposed to see the world through purely religious eyes by nature of their training and belief system.

    Therefore, Islamism became the modus operandi through which all social and political change must flow. The Ba’athists, being Stalinists, of all Middle Eastern governments had the fewest qualms about repressing the Islamists and deemphasizing the role of religion in society in general. They, as a result, had the fewest problems with Islamists. By contrast, Egypt and Iran had repressive governments but an open and relatively autonomous religious sector, so it’s no coincidence that these were the places where we saw the greatest extent of political-religious agitation, which was really mostly political agitation wrappped in religious clothing, that being the only clothing or disguise that was safe. Parables and religious texts are very pliable things. They also have the power and the virtue of being ‘The Word of God.’ What greater authority can one appeal to? Especially and particularly in a society where an appeal to reason is not allowed.

    It’s also worth noting that in any political movement the leadership will be claimed and assumed by those who believe most deeply in its’ tenets and who are most effective at overcoming, silencing or defeating any who would oppose their goals. So, by definition, the more radical or fundamentalist will rise to the top. In a free society this is a self regulating process, since the most radical proponents will often be least successful in making their ideas appealing beyond their core group of adherents, which argues for leaders who’re moderate and accommodating. Not so when religion is your only outlet and your sole means to your goal. Then the most radical will rise since there are no alternative groups or ideas to debate them or argue against them, and there is no alternative power structure to appeal for your support.

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