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Islam and Marxism: Some Comparisons Author(s): Ernest Gellner Reviewed work(s): Source: International Affairs (Royal Institute

of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 67, No. 1 (Jan., 1991), pp. 1-6 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs Stable URL: . Accessed: 19/03/2012 17:57
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Islam and Marxism: somecomparisons



The anthropologist Europe Ernest thattheMarxistworldofEastern Gellnerwrites and theSoviet Unionand thatofIslam are mirror-imagesone another two in of In has keyrespects. Eastern Europeand theSoviet UniontheMarxistfaith and of civilsociety in collapsed people are yearning thereturn pluralistic for to has in preference strong, centralized states. But there beenno loss offaith the has in there is civilsociety beeneroded Islamicsocieties and though Muslimworld, an came Gellneroffers explanation how these little of parallelisms callforitsreturn. about. To begin with theMarxistsocietieson Europe's eastern borders,the societiesof EasternEurope and the Soviet Union.' What is striking about the eventsthere those of I989, is a combination of two features. since I985, and particularly First, there has been a total collapse of faith. The Marxist world was an ideocracy,a puritanpoliticalsystemdedicatedto a certainvision and dedicated with conviction and to implementingit, and practisingthat implementation with great ruthlessness. That faithhas now totallydisappeared. often This total collapse is a unique situationtwice over, because thiswas the first A secularideocracyin the world's history. societywas built on a belief-system that claimed the monopoly of truth, from but on one that-wasbuilt entirely what were, officially, elements.There was no appeal to any other this-worldly world. Though of course therewere similarities between Marxism and other at level theproud boast of Marxism was religions, the doctrinaland intellectual fromsocial life.It claimed to be scientific, thatit had exiled thesupernatural and in a strictly it interpreted secular way. science I can thinkof no comparable total collapse of faith.Belief-systems normally have a curioustenacity:people have a deep emotionaland personalinvolvement of in them,and do not abandon themeasily.But the belief-system the Marxist faith been abandoned, and thishas been trueforsome years.It has forsome has timebeen almostimpossibleto finda Marxistin EasternEurope, and it is now virtually impossible to find one in the Soviet Union not totallyimpossible,
1 This article is drawn from a lecture given at the RIIA by ProfessorGellner on 27 Sept. I990.

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Ernest Gellner because among many million people anythingcan be found,but basicallythe faithis extinct. Combined with this collapse of faith and thisis the second phenomenon that concernsme therehas recentlybeen in EasternEurope and the Soviet for of Union a passionateyearning civil society,a resurgence theidea thatwhat really matters societyis not the state,but that complex of institutions in and associations thatcan act as countervailing forcesto the state.The whole notion of civil society has had a remarkablerebirthin Eastern Europe in the past decade. It is the combinationof thisyearningfor civil societyand the collapse of faiththat constitutes the centralcharacteristic Eastern Europe and the of Soviet Union at the moment. The situationin the Muslim world is almost a mirror-image this. The of and scientific theorywidely held by sociologiststhatmodernindustrial society erodes religious belief the secularizationthesis is by and large valid. Of course it is not IOO per cent valid, and it variesin detail and nuance fromcase to case, but in virtuallyall other societies,in different degrees and different forms,the political and psychologicalimpact of religionhas diminished.The world of Islam is a very striking and total exception to this. I thinkit is fairto say thatno secularization takenplace in the world of has Islam: thatthe hold of Islam over its'believersis as strong,and in some ways stronger,now than it was IOO years ago. Somehow or other Islam is and secularization-resistant, the striking thingis thatthisremainstrueunder a whole rangeof politicalregimes.It is trueundersociallyradicalregimeswhich tryto fuseIslam with socialistterminologyand ideas; it is equally trueunder traditionalist regimes whose elites belong to the world of Ibn Khaldun and come froma rulingtribalnetwork; and it is true of the regimesin between. As to the longing for civil societyin the Muslim world, it is not nearlyas strongas in the Marxist case. I would not say that the desire is absent that and who would be a travesty, ungenerousto thoseliberaland oftenbrave spirits do strivein thatdirection but it does not have a strength comparable to that which is found in EasternEurope and the Marxist world. That is a striking and I will tryto offer explanationas to why it has come about. an contrast, After Brezhnevism and Stalinism, what is Marxism? Let me begin with the Marxistworld. The horrorsof the Stalinist period the massive,random and pervasiveTerror did not underminethe Marxist faith. If anything it. theyfortified I don't mean by that,thoughit was also true,that people were so scared theydid not even dare articulatedoubts to themselves; I mean thatsomehow or otherthehorrors, massiveblood-letting, the were seen of as confirmation tremendoushistoricalchange. The Marxist revolutionary of of transformation thehuman conditionneeded a sacrament blood. It was felt to be fitting. I have recentlybeen reading Sakharov's memoirs,2and here we find a
2 Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs,trans. by Richard Lourie (London: Collins Hamill, I989).

Islam and Marxism man who was deeply scepticalof many of the individual supremely intelligent propositions Marxism,and oftenfoundthem comic and repellent, of but who neverthelesstacitly accepted both the basic premise that something very tremendouswas happening that human society was undergoing a radical transformation thebetter and theidea thattheblood and suffering some for in way confirmedthat transformation and ratifiedit. The curious thing about Stalin's Terror was that it struckabove all preciselyat the apparatthat was sustainingand supportingit. In this it was very different, instancc,from for Hitler's Terror, which struckat Hitler's genuine enemies or those whom he chose to designateas such,while by and large the intendedbeneficiaries that of did fromit,untilHitlerstarted dictatorship indeed benefit losingthewar. Their loyalty to the regime,in other words, was intelligiblein termsof theirselfinterest:it wasn't to theircredit,but it made sense. It is very curious, but the Stalinist blood-letting,which struck at the and officers the systemmore than at others,did not undermine of supporters in faith the Soviet Union. What did reallyundermine was not theTerrorbut it the squalor of the Brezhnev years,or perhapsthe successionof the two. The reactionto the Terror when the disclosures first came under Khrushchevwas, 'Well, the perversionof the best is the worst,and the second time around we are going to get it right.'But the second time around theydidn't get it right: roughly speaking,they stopped shooting each other and startedbribingeach other. Under Brezhnev therewas corruption, ratherthan random terror. The consequence was thatby the time the second liberalization came, under Gorbachev, it was very difficult logically to sustainthe Marxist faith.By now people were forcedto say thateven if the basic idea was right,not merelythe total perversion of it that was Stalinism but even the milder, Brezhnev the perversionwas wrong. In effect whole burdenof Marxistideology shifted It away fromthe basic idea of socialismor communismto the differentia. was no longer socialism as such, but some unidentified variant of it, resembling neitherStalinismnor Brezhnevism,thatwas valid. And if both Brezhnevism and Stalinismare wrong, nobody has yet located that residuewhich is leftas the valid socialistideal. Human societiesare of course infinitely varied, and I wouldn't wish to claim dogmaticallythat no way of life is conceivable that in could functionsatisfactorily an economically centralizedsocietydevoid of and resembling neither nor Stalinism. But by the privateproperty Brezhnevism time the hope has detacheditself fromthe centralidea of socialismand attaches to some sub-speciesof it which in any case has as yet been neitheridentified nor exemplified it reallybecomes ratherdifficult believe in it. That, at the to intellectual level, is, I believe, partof the explanationforthe loss of faithin the Marxist world. No room for normality between There is also anotherexplanationthatis relevantin drawinga contrast version of Marxism and Islam. The trouble with the twentieth-century 3

Ernest Gellner puritanism and ideocraticabsolutism(compared with the seventeenth-century versionfoundin the EnglishRevolution,forinstance)is preciselythatwhat is sacred for Marxism is not merelylocated withinthis world, which makes it rathertoo open to testing(though many religionshave survivedthe moment when prophecyfailsand it only servesto fortify faithof believers),but that the it is located in the economic sphere, so that no space is left for ordinary, humdrumactivity duringperiodswhen religiouszeal is diminished. religions In which locate the sacred elsewhere and leave the economic sphere neutral, human activity can withdraw to the economic sphere during periods of diminishedenthusiasm.But under Marxism not only was the failurein the economic sphere extremelyhumiliating,but also there was no ideological escape fromit. faithwas thusnot the recollectionof thehorrorsof What reallyundermined Stalinism,but the inescapable evidence of lower economic performance, plus the belief corrector otherwisc-that by liberalizingthe Soviets would also economic growth. In otherwords, my second explanationof buy themselves why the Marxist faithhas collapsed to the astonishing degree thatit has is the absence of any slack: the absence of a neutral,profanesphereinto which the soul and practical activitycan retreatduring the periods when the faithis dormant. If the economy is the vehicle of salvation, then a squalid and faith. ineffectual economy must corrode theCivil society, Marxism and Islam in Civil society has been atomized or fragmented both the Marxist and the Islamic systems, though in completelydifferent ways. Under Marxism, civil society was eventuallyatomized by the puritandoctrinethat total salvation, could be achieved in thisworld, and thatthiswas to be done total fulfilment, access to the means of throughthe abolition of classesdefinedby differential production.Because only propertydefinedclasses,a classlesssocietywould be In a propertyless no in society:no classes, conflict. practice, a complex industrial societywhere therehas to be some kind of management,thishas meant the complete unification of the productive, the political and the ideological and apparatuses in one single hierarchyor nomenklatura, this is what has pulverized civil society.In the end pluralismwas deprived of any economic, political or social base. of The great theorist the atomizationof civil societyin the Muslim world was the man whom I consider the greatestsociologist ever, the fourteenthIslam was Ibn Khaldun. His basic model of traditional centuryArab historian that societyis divided into two parts. On the one hand thereare the towns, economically creative and productive, but socially pulverized because the specialization,the division of labour and the dependence on protectionthat urban folk seem to require emasculatesthem politically.On the other hand thereare the marchlandsof mountainand desert,where the stateis powerless. theirown safety, and Here, in anarchicconditions,people have to look after. 4

Islam and Marxism theydo it by gangingtogether into local, mutual-protection self-administrative unitsknown as tribes,conceived of in real or fictitious 'kin' terms. There are thus two elementsin society: one the tribes endowed with politicaland military muscle,and the other the urban society productively more importantbut politicallyemasculated. Ibn Khaldun thought that this in simplywas thehuman condition,inherent thenatureof things.Civil society, or the nearestthing to it that he could conceive, was thus possible by the combinationof the two elements, with the tribesmen providingthe rulersand the town providingtheproductionand the civilization.Neithercould perform the other'stask,and the two should not meddle in one another'saffairs. Later, the Ottoman Empire came to formalize this theory in its officialpolitical the doctrine, famous'circle of equity', accordingto which theproducersare to produce and be taxed so as to keep the statein the condition to which it is accustomed,while the state makes use of this benefitin order to protectthe producersso that they can produce, and so on. This Ibn Khaldunian 'circle of equity' sketchis, I think,a correct,if very rough, outline of traditionalMuslim society. But the Muslim world we are facingtoday is no longer the traditional one, but a Muslim societyprofoundly modifiedby theimpactof industrialism theWest. Under thatimpact,what and has happened here? Islam in the modern era Although nominally Islam is one religion, and although Muslims might be shocked to be told thatunder the roof of a singleterminology very distinctive was religious stylespersisted,such was in fact the case. Islam traditionally divided into a 'high' form, the urban-based, strict,unitarian,nomocratic, Islam of the scholars; and a 'lower' form,the cult of puritanand scripturalist personality-addicted, ecstatic, ritualistic,questionably literate,unpuritanical and rusticIslam of the dervishesand the marabouts.At timesthe two were at peace with one another; from time to time there would be a revivalist movement,such as the Wahabis or Usman dan Fodio's jihad in West Africa. But althoughthe revivalist movement oftenwon temporarily (the coming of new dynasties was usuallyassociatedwith revivalist movements),therewas no social base for any more permanentvictoryby the higherformof Islam over the lower. The rusticelementof societyhad no role forthe high Islam. It was not interested abstract, in unitarian theology,but in having mediatorswith the divine who could presideover the rusticritualsthatwere forit the essenceof religion.. the Under modern conditions,by contrast, colonial and post-colonialstate was sufficiently units or tribes strongto destroythe rural self-administration that had provided the social base for the personalized,ecstatic,questionably orthodox, low religion; and in thisway it provided the base for a definitive, permanent victoryby one of thetwo conceptionsof Islam over theother.This, I think,is the great reformation that has taken place in Islam in the last IOO 5

Ernest Gellner years,which the West has only recently noticed in connectionwith Ayatollah of Khomeini in Iran and in the strength fundamentalism more widely. I find so importantabout all thisis that the presenceof a genuinely What indigenoustradition highIslam the scholarly, of puritanical, magicrelatively free,sober and individualist Islam-has enabled the Islamic world to escape the dilemma that haunted other 'underdeveloped' societies disturbed and humiliatedby the impact of the West: the dilemma of whetherto idealize and emulate the West (a humiliatingoption) or to idealize the local folk tradition and indulge in some formof populism,as exemplified recently people like by Solzhenitsyn,who repudiate the West in the name of an idealized and Islam had no conceived local tradition. Unlike many othersocieties, mystically in need forthis,because itsown highvarianthas dignity international terms and in yet is genuinelylocal. As a result,the process of self-reform response to dominationof the West could take place in the modernity and the temporary name of the local faith.This is my main explanation for Islam's remarkable resistance the secularization to trend. The consequence of this has been that, in the modern period, the moral earnestness enthusiasm Islam have gone over into the high Islam. Islam and of has the advantage over Marxism of leaving the economic spheremore or less alone. And politicallifeis now less a matterof conflict betweenrustictribesfor who is to supplythe new dynasty and be the next occupant of the capital (for modern militarycommunicationsand administrative technologyhave on the whole weakened the tribes,give or take a few exceptionslike North Yemen), but rather a blend of the tribal spirit and the great patronage networks, favouredby modern conditions,which now seem to be the main elementin which pervade the politicalorder, Muslim politics.These patronagenetworks, maintaininternal loyaltyratherthan a commitmentto the formalinstitutions withinwhich theyfight out forsupremacy;and the wider population at the it with the faithand expects the political order to same time tends to identify make observanceof the faithpossible, and indeed to enforceit. Beyond that extent,the sacred has not enteredthe political sphere,and no great economic are expectations aroused. So I would argue thatthe Ibn Khaldunian world has been perpetuatedunder modern conditions,in a curious combinationof very sincere and committed faith quite differentfrom the lukewarm and bowdlerized religion of the West with cynical patronage-network politics. This seems to me the basic sketch. for So, in the end, we findin the Muslim case littleyearning civil societybut a great commitmentto faith,whereas in the Marxist world we find the opposite. Whetherthe yearningwill prevail or be thwartedby the absence of the economic preconditions its success,and whetherthe Muslim faithwill for restrain or, on the contrary, release ruthless clientelistand occasionally adventurist politics only the futurewill tell.