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Marx and the Muslim Brothers

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How should one respond to the claim, made by Sheri Berman a political science professor at Barnard College, that Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are "Marx's contemporary successors"? [Oped- New York Times 8-10-13: "Marx's Lesson for the Muslim Brothers"]

This seems like an outrageous assertion and I doubt that there are many Islamist madrases where hadiths from the life of Karl Marx are discussed. Lets take a closer look at professor Berman's article to see the reasoning behind this statement.

She begins her article with the well known remark, allegedly adapted from Hegel by Marx about history repeating itself first as tragedy and again as farce. Marx puts it this way: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Berman says this remark (it is from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) was made in response to the revolution of 1848 and the overthrow of Louis Phillip the last French king (King of the French). The title of Marx's work refers to the month of Brumaire in the French Revolutionary calendar adopted to celebrate  the new era of liberty (and to get rid of the Christian calendar). Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d'etat on the 18th of Brumaire Year VIII of the Republic (November 10, 1799).

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This 1848 revolt ushered in a Republic (the Second Republic, 1848-1852) the French are on their Fifth now) but this republic, which the French masses had hoped would be a radical democratic and progressive government, was actually a conservative and even reactionary compromise that liberals made with the conservative forces because they feared the demands being made by the workers. The Communist Manifesto was written at this time.

The first president of the Second Republic  was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873: the undistinguished nephew of  L'Empeuror)-- he was the son of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother). In 1851 he staged a coup against the republic and later became the Emperor of the French as Napoleon III (Napoleon II, the son of Napoleon I died  from consumption in exile in Austria  at the age of 21 in 1832).

The "tragedy" in Marx's remark is the reign of Napoleon I (his downfall) and the "farce" is the coming to power of Napoleon III. Berman sees a pattern in the coup staged by Louis Bonaparte -- the dictatorship of Napoleon III came to be because "Conservatives were able to co-op fearful liberals and install new forms of dictatorship"-- i.e., the Second Empire. Basically that is what happened.
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Berman goes to say that these "same patterns are playing out in Egypt today." Three groups seem to be at work according to Berman-- LIBERALS ( not otherwise specified but must include the progressive petty bourgeoisie, secularists of almost- all types, the working class and  independent unions, progressive Christians (Copts), progressive Muslims, etc.,)-- AUTHORITARIANS (the compradore bourgeoisie, the armed forces, the supporters of Mubarak-- both secular and religious, conservative Christians, and some Islamists, etc) and ISLAMISTS (in this context this group must be the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters). We are told that the "Islamists" are "playing the role of socialists" -- i.e., the role the socialists played in 1848.  Zut alors!

She thinks 2013 Egypt is analogous to 1848 France because 1.)  the masses have overreached "after gaining power" [but the masses never gained power in 1848-- nor have they in Egypt in 2013];  2. the Egyptian "liberals" were put off by the the enactments of  their former allies the Islamists [ but the French liberals were afraid of the PROGRESSIVE demands of their former allies-- the working class while the Egyptian masses-- not just the "liberals"-- were afraid of the REACTIONARY demands and enactments of the Muslim Brotherhood]; 3. The liberals "have come crawling back" to the "authoritarians" to get protection [ this may be true of France, but in Egypt the "liberals" did not "crawl"-- they demanded, with the largest demonstrations and mass movement in the history of Egypt, that the army take action and remove the Islamists, who were elected under false pretenses, from power]; 4. The "authoritarians" have taken back the "reins of power" [while this seems to be what is going on in Egypt today, in France the liberals compromised with the "authoritarians" and both shared the reigns of power.]

So it does not seem to be the case that there is any merit to Berman's comparison of the French (actually it was was a broader movement ) Revolution of 1848 with the on going revolution in Egypt. Most glaringly it should be noticed that in 1848 the "socialists" never gained power so any comparison with the Egyptian "islamists" of today is off the wall (in more ways than one).

But wait! Berman's analysis gets even more Baroque. She says that if the Egyptian masses ("liberals") continue to support the crackdown by the army they will be playing into the hands of the Islamists (which may be the case) and that the Islamists are "Marx's contemporary successors." I am sure the Egyptian Communist Party, the independent labor federation and unionists in Egypt, as well as the Communist and worker's movements around the world  will be surprised to discover that it is not they but the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who are the "successors" to the teachings of Karl Marx.  Even as an analogy this is unhelpful.

Berman says the Islamists would be right if they adopted the slogan: "Islamists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains." Well, the Islamists should not be in chains, but unfortunately one of the things they try to do, as soon as they lose their chains, is to put them on non Islamists-- this is what they started to do in Egypt.

Berman says the "liberals" implored the military to end "the country's first experiment in democracy." What seems to have happened is that the vast majority of the Egyptian people rose up against the betrayal of their democratic aspirations which the Muslim Brotherhood began to engineer once they were in power. The military was asked to intervene so that the experiment in democracy could start up again. Plans for a new constitution and elections are in the works.

One of the most advanced politically of the opposition groups, the Egyptian Communist Party, has characterized the Muslim Brotherhood as the leading force of the "fascist religious right" in Egypt and the representative of the "most parasitic, tyrannical, corrupt, fascist, racist and reactionary segment of large capital" dominating the country. [The Egyptian Communist Party:  The June 30 (2013) Revolution" Its Nature, Duties and Prospects].

 So the current struggle being carried out in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities is a struggle to the death between the forces representing secular democratic people's power  and fascist reaction. The army, whose leadership is not Islamist, has, for now, sided with the people. The fact that major elements of the Western mass media seek to portray this epic battle as simply an anti-democratic military  coup merely indicates the sympathy of the imperialist powers with fascism when confronted with a people's uprising.

Trying to force the events in Egypt into the Procrustean bed of 1848, Berman writes that during the 1848 uprising the "liberals" feared that "workers and socialists might win" so they joined with the conservatives thinking "the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils."

"This," she tells us, "is almost exactly what is playing out in Egypt now." The only difference is that the Egyptian situation is exactly the opposite of what happened in 1848. In Egypt the "liberals" were not reacting to a socialist threat. An authoritarian reactionary Islamic movement came to power by running on a fraudulent democratic platform-- the "liberals", the Egyptian left, the working class, and the vast majority of the people coalesced together to fight this usurpation of the 2011 Egyptian Democratic Revolution. The armed forces supported the masses as the "lesser of two evils." How the armed forces will react in the future, once the Islamist threat is contained and eliminated, will depend on how unified the masses are and how determined they are to push through a really democratic and inclusive constitution.

What is Dr. Berman's analysis of why "liberals" act the way they do? Does she discuss what material interests they represent, what classes they represent and the relations of their interests and ideas to those of others they may be able to ally with or must needs come into conflict with? The answer is no. "Liberals" act the way they do because they "like order and moderation and dislike radical social experiments." They also "fear"  those who engage in "extremist rhetoric, mass protests and violence." Which is just what the "liberals" did to get rid of Mubarak!

She compares the coming of "democracy" to Eastern and Southern Europe after the implosion of the Soviet Union to the middle east.  In Europe "extremism and religion weren't major factors" (forget the genocidal  wars in the Balkans) and anyway the European Union "was there to help." The poor Egyptians don't have a European big brother to guide them (and won't do what the Americans tell them)--"there is no strong democratic neighbor to guide them." Maybe Bibi over in  Jerusalem could help out?

This "liberal" fear and or dislike of "radical social experiments" is as true today, we are told, as it was for "liberals" in 1789 and 1848 "and it's true of Egyptian liberals today." Oh my! It was the French "liberals" that brought about 1789 and there are not many people who have read up on the great French Revolution that would not call it a "radical social experiment." The whole point of a "tragedy" vs "farce" comparison is the contrast between the courageous, radical and revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie of the French Revolution of 1789 and the pusillanimous, conservative and counter-revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie of 1848.

After a few more irrelevant paragraphs concerning Marx's analysis of 1848 and the development of socialism in Europe and the errors the "liberals" made because they did not understand how to handle contradictions among the people-- she decides the Egyptian liberals should realize that just as all European socialists were not "proto-Stalinists" and that many were total sell outs ("socialists" who "wanted  social and economic reforms, but not ones that were mortal threats to capitalism or democracy'') so not all Islamists "want to implement a theocratic regime. " Liberals should work with these moderates or " Egypt's political future will be troubled."

The problem is she nowhere discusses what "Islamism" means. Islamism is a political and religious tendency, made up of moderate elements and also forces of extremism (restoration of the Calafate!), which seeks to create political states based on religion: "The Islamic Republic of -------." No state is meaningfully "democratic" if it favors one religion over others and thus treats some citizens as "more equal than others." The Muslim Brotherhood claimed to be moderate yet once in power brought about its own downfall by trying to impose its Islamic doctrinaire positions on the population at large which led to a massive revolutionary upheaval joined by the armed forces.

The imperialist powers and their press call this the imposition of an undemocratic military dictatorship but the Egyptian masses have yet to make this determination. How the masses and the military relate to one another in the coming months will determine the next stage of the Egyptian Revolution that commenced in 2011. Marx, by the way, has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.


Born Lake Worth, FL 1942. Educated FSU and Graduate Center CUNY. Currently teaching philosophy in NYC. Associate editor of Political Affairs online.

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This article deals with the view that the Muslim B... by Thomas Riggins on Thursday, Aug 22, 2013 at 10:32:40 AM
In the tradition of Marx's own journalism, exposin... by Jim Arnold on Thursday, Aug 22, 2013 at 4:26:15 PM