Ali Shari’ati

Ali Shari’ati: Islamic revolutionary

Ali Shari’ati, Man & Islam Fatollah Marjani trans. (North Haledon, NJ: Islamic Publications International, 1981), 128 pp. pb.

Ali Shari’ati, Marxism and Other Western Fallacies R. Campbell trans. (North Haledon, NJ: Mizan Press, 1980), 122 pp. pb.

Ali Shari’ati, Religion vs. Religion Laleh Bakhtiar trans. (Chicago: ABC International Group, 2003), 75 pp. pb.

Ali Shari’ati, What Is To Be Done: The Enlightened Thinkers and an Islamic Renaissance Farhang Rajaee, ed. (North Haledon, NJ: Islamic Publications International, 1986), 181 pp. pb.

A great tragedy of always arguing with the left-wing of parasitism in the rich countries is that we miss out on works such as those of Ali Shari’ati. Shari’ati was a college lecturer who inspired students opposing the U.$.-installed regime in Iran, until his untimely death in 1977 after going into exile. The Iranian Revolution was in 1979 and some see Shari’ati as second-most influential in that revolution, behind Khomeini. Shari’ati is an international influence in radical Islamism, a Shiite version of Qutb.

Algerian Liberation

From reading Shari’ati, this reviewer gathers that the liberation of Algeria in 1962 was really an underestimated dividing line in the international communist movement. Shari’ati was a student of Sartre’s and colleague of Fanon. Fanon and Shari’ati aided each other in their struggles.

People such as Huey Newton, George Jackson and Arghiri Emmanuel dealt with both Marxism and the Algerian struggle. The French settlers in Algeria sometimes came from the bottom of France, but enjoyed the highest privileges in Algeria. Those who could deal with that fact became the MIM and allied organizations or their precursors. Others who denied the bourgeois nature of the French relative to Algerians took up mechanical materialism and contemplative materialism while holding hope out for the French so-called workers.

After reading four books in English, I would not be surprised if some people thought MIM had already read Shari’ati. Actually, the answer is not until 2009. In fact, it is clear to this reviewer who has spoken with Iranian revolutionaries more than 25 years, that I still do not understand cultural references within Iranian politics. For that matter, I find it unlikely that we Western communists understand Islamic references within the works of Iranian supposed communists. (I gather Roger Cohen at the New York Times understands the references better and I have seen some discussion by Indian communists at a higher level.)

Sartre and philosophy

Shari’ati says if he were a Westerner, he would be a Sartrean, and Sartre said if he had a religion it would be Shari’ati’s. Shari’ati says:

“The Western societies in general are in need of a ‘Sartrean’ revolution. . . . A Western enlightened person is one who, understanding the situation, feels the urgency to provide appropriate slogans, objectives, and directions for his people a promoting a moralistic, monastic, and anti-consumeristic life-style.” (1986, p. 9)

At the bottom the question is whether one can win at the scientific level. Shari’ati concludes that he has pre-scientific tasks to achieve and that they are appropriate for the vast majority of Iran.

Like Sartre, Shari’ati chafes against economic determinism: “This future, which begins with the discarding of capitalism and Marxism, is neither predestined nor prefabricated. Instead, it remains to be built.” (1980, p. 95)

Sartre and Shari’ati were both more interested in individual responsibility questions than the proper subject of science which Marxism handles. The motion of groups of people is the substance of Marxism, but the meaning questions that the individual faces are more the property of Sartre and Shari’ati.

Shari’ati on the need for a concrete thought

We sometimes say MIM developed a MIM Thought for the imperialist countries, a specific application of concepts and methods. There is no Maoism that is not concrete. Likewise, Shari’ati
put the proper emphasis on this problem, if anything going further than Mao: “Indian culture being Vedic, a modern Western educated sociologist has very little relevance in India. A Gandhi, because he knew his society and the mind of his fellow Indians, could move the society far greater than others. The same is true of an enlightened Muslim.” (1986, p. 19) MIM would not go so far as to endorse Gandhi, but we understand the larger point.

The reviewer finds that Shari’ati provides some apt criticism of mechanical and contemplative materialisms. He dismisses all materialism as bourgeois, but he also decides that Islam had nothing to say about atheism. Atheist materialism he says only appeared in recent centuries, and all previous arguments about “non-believers” and “infidels” are about and within religion. (2003, p. 21-2)

In place of dialectical materialism, Shari’ati says there is always struggle within religion and the key is to steer a middle course between superstitition of religion and the culture of the oppressor. Shari’ati takes up the same themes as Kim Il Sung and Mao on self-reliance. Shari’ati was obviously traumatized by the people his age who went to the West and came back as copy-cats and parrots for multinational corporations.

Without mentioning Mao, Shari’ati criticizes Mao’s applicability for Iran. According to Shari’ati, the Iranians are not a “blank slate” (1981, p. 44) as Mao said of Chinese peasants. Shari’ati was familiar with such discussion and he translated the works of Fanon and Che.

Without Islam, Shari’ati feared the people would have no sense of self and set themselves up for exploitation by the West. At bottom, Shari’ati is concerned with the same problem as MIM. Unlike the left-wing of parasitism constantly telling MIM the grass is pink, Shari’ati had a better grip on reality.

Ironically, Shari’ati gives us many internationalist takes on religion. To start with, he did not hark back to Persian Empire, but a religion that started with Arabs. He also says there have been times that Hindu religion produced scholars much more advanced than their own. There is no Islam-chauvinism in Shari’ati. At one point, he discredits “internationalism” as a reflection of the interests of the Western “proletariat.” (1981, p. 115) MIM just thinks of Shari’ati as likely more internationalist than those claiming Marxism and a Western proletariat.

Marxism is at root a method that has to be applied without corruption. That an Indian communist leader would have to know Vedic culture does not strike MIM as false. When Shari’ati speaks of Marxism he presumes that Marxists cannot practice other than a concrete Western application of Marxism. The present reviewer finds it very interesting to contrast Shari’ati with Kim Il Sung and Mao. Shari’ati and Kim Il Sung stress the unique aspects of culture more than Mao did, but Iran and Korea are medium-sized countries and Mao led the world’s largest population. Were Kim and Shari’ati slightly insecure and hence more subjectivist or did they more accurately reflect how far to go in resisting providing any opening to Western penetration?

Shari’ati on MIM’s third cardinal principle

“Even the proletariat of the Western nations are ripping me off! . . . Do you think it is due to only eight hours of work that Europeans have a prosperous economy? A taxi driver in France works 6 hours and lays around for the remaining 18 hours, and in the meantime he is secure from financial anxiety. Is this due to his work or his country’s looting of Africa?
. . .
“I can never forget that in the 19th century the great socialists, humanists, and upholders of
democracy and equality talked about everything. . . but never mentioned exploitation.”
(1981, pp. 116-7)

Before there was a MIM, Shari’ati said the Western proletariat had been bourgeoisified — again from the influence of Sultan-Galiyev before him and the practice of the Algerian Revolution.

For MIM, the question Shari’ati raises is scientific, not methodological. So there is a difference in emphasis in our work. That Shari’ati was Sartre’s student shows. We would say there is concrete proof that specific groups of people in the West appropriate surplus labor.

For MIM, speculative attacks on the dollar undercut trade deficit related parasitism and hence a certain type of politics. Deeper than that, if MIM is correct about the origin of super-profits in the
Third World, then currency wars have profound meaning for class struggle. If MIM is concretely wrong, not just morally wrong, then currency wars do not damage the capitalist system that much.
By strict bourgeois Liberal theory, the last exchange one should suspect of anything being wrong is one currency for another. A used car could be a lemon. Only dollars ripped into less than one-half pieces are overly used.

Liberalism thus has a reality test. The so-called Marxists opposing MIM have the same reality test in this field, because de facto they abandoned the labor theory of value a long time ago. Where we are right now is a contest in reality between those who can see some connection between the class struggle and currency bubbles on the one hand, and those like MIM accepting that and going further saying that there are more hidden surprises in currency wars thanks to the flow of surplus-value
stemming from the racist international wage structure.

From listening to Western so-called Marxists though, one would think surplus-value is only a
mathematical possibility to teach, sort of like an appreciation of Thai food or for that matter, religious values. For MIM in contrast, Marxism on surplus-value is really a matter of applying the theory, taking it seriously by putting real world numbers into play.

In place of dialectics

“Poverty and class conflict may exist in a society for thousands of years without causing any
structural transformation. Dialectic has no intrinsic motion.” — Shari’ati (1986, p. 17)

At times Shari’ati will insist he is an idealist in the Marxist sense, but actually he weaves in and out of materialism and the sociology of religion the same way Max Weber does. Shari’ati has no dialectics, but he insists on struggle. He frames history as the history of inner-religious struggle — between two sides, one superstitious and the other progressive or revolutionary.

It is obvious that Shari’ati feared that the Iranian people would take up Marxist materialism as a justification for passivity, and then Western enculturation. For some people, Marxism opens up a path. For others, contemplating the motion of groups of people is a passivity-producing experience. For these people, relating the group to the individual is impossible — a frequent hang-up point.

For example, MIM tells people not to waste time on the wall of the Western labor aristocracy.
One can bump into it thousands of times and only get disoriented. So we say don’t hurt your head,
and take a detour.

Before MIM formed, it was clear to MIM what minority-strategy was. This is apparently another thing we get from the French, whether we know it or not. It has to do with understanding the Jacobins. MIM took the hard-line for gay liberation from the beginning despite its being unpopular in the early 1980s.

Lately, we talk a lot about the relative merits of the national bourgeoisie compared with the Western so-called workers. Mao’s Three Worlds Theory was not a mistake on the whole. At the moment, intelligent people globally are seeing the labor aristocracy organizations back up I$rael against MIM in concrete but covert struggle. That has to do with how the national bourgeoisie is actually more perceptive than First World so-called workers, and in fact it is our duty to give the national bourgeoisie a more accurate sense of its political place in the world, especially that it cannot wait for the white workers to do anything in the rich countries.

Desperate to divert intellectuals, oppressed nationalities inside imperialist country borders and the entire Third World, bourgeois individualists arise to tell us that individual biography is important. These individualists go so far as to infiltrate Marxism and Maoism and tell us that we need a persynality cult in individualist countries as if bourgeois individualism were still progressive in the late capitalist mode of production.

For these bourgeois individualists, calculating super-profits and thus who is and is not exploited is
“academic.” Yet that is what MIM does without recourse to study of individual biographies. First we separate exploiter and exploited. Then we look at the national question. That turns out to do the most to illuminate the path toward liberation.

What shines the most light on the path forward is called the “principal contradiction.” Concretely, today the principal contradiction is the struggle between imperialist countries and oppressed nations.

The idea of a “path” helps the individual to connect to group questions. Shari’ati is correct that Marxism is a power-efficiency question. However, without it, MIM fails to see how people can weigh whatever pre-scientific things they want to weigh. Take a turn here, and a turn there and you will get to communism in 20 years is a lot different than bang your head and conduct civil wars for a 1000 years and get nowhere as far as communism or even socialism. Hence, we can say efficiency/power questions do matter; hopefully, they matter even to the pre-scientific. Those questions matter whether the pre-scientific know it or not. There has to be a way of trying to measure whether the population can go forward into communism, measuring the altruism of the people for instance.

To return to our train of thought, we have done the class analysis and national analysis. When we are done, we say we no longer want people in our party who are going to tell us “the grass is pink.” We don’t want people to tell us the middle of the road is in the ditch. We want the party composed of intellectuals able to discern the center of revolutionary gravity. Without getting the international exploitation question correct, one is in essence driving on the side of the road headed for the ditch all the time. That is the meaning of having the path down.

In the imperialist countries, a heavy pre-scientific ideological haze overlays this question — racism and national chauvinism. So concretely, we have the national bourgeoisie even buying into imperialist propaganda in the 1990s. We heard that the Internet was the great revolution in technology making Westerners so productive. The price to earnings ratio of stocks headed up to 44, as the New York Times just recounted. Now it is down to 12. So what happened was that the national bourgeoisie handed Amerikans goods and services in exchange for a check in dollars. The national bourgeoisie then turned around and invested that money in the U.$. stock market. Next the Internet bubble burst. So what it was was an exchange of exploited Third World labor for nothing. It had to do with being suckered by what Mao and Marx before him called “the theory of the productive forces.”

In the past year, of course it happened again. We had a couple more bubbles in the 2000s and then the collapse of half the stock market’s value we see now as of March 2009. Contrary to Bill Clinton who states in nationalist drag that no one ever made money betting against the united $tates, the repeated bubbles prove otherwise.

We hear that the price-earnings ratio is now 12 on Wall Street, but in fact if U.$. capitalism were suddenly deprived of the trade deficit, the price-earnings ratio would trend upwards, in some years up toward infinity. So once again the national bourgeoisie handed over the labor of its people in the form of export goods to the Amerikkkans. The national bourgeoisie received money coursing through the world economy in the guise of “petro-dollars” and other names, often to end up back on Wall Street and disappear.

Then our great politicians get up and talk about fighting global poverty without mentioning a path connected to avoiding the ditch of parasitism. Thanks to the dynamism of productive labor at this moment of the contemporary history of the world, it seems MIM has much to say about concrete reality; however, let us concede that even Marx said it was possible for a humyn society to stagnate thousands of years. That makes dialectics seem weak to some people, unappealing. Shari’ati replaces dialectics by making struggle sacred, at the pre-scientific level.

Shari’ati for revolutionary religion

“A revolutionary religion gives an individual, that is, an individual who believes in it, who is trained in the school of thought or maktab of this religion, the ability to criticize life in all its material, spiritual and social aspects. It gives the mission and duty to destroy, to change to eliminate that
which one does not accept and believes to be invalid and replace it with that which one knows and recognizes as being the truth.” (2003, p. 31)

“No one has as much grudge against religion as I have.” (1981, p. 86)

Shari’ati does not talk about political economy in quite the concrete way that MIM does. Nonetheless, he is more concretely accurate than the left-wing of parasitism — a real wrinkle for those of us used to arguing for atheism against the deluded. Before MIM said the radical Islamists are more realistic than our left-wing of parasitism, Shari’ati already had it covered:

“Although calling themselves staunchly realist, they become more idealistic than Plato, even as they entangle humanity still further in their fanatical materialism.” (1980, p. 91)

Before there was a MIM, Shari’ati ridiculed the output of existentialism in the West, while also supporting existentialism for the West on the other hand. Derisive discussion of hippies and mountain hikers follows. Shari’ati believed existentialism was better for the West, however, and less appropriate where there is Islamic history.

Despite being more realistic than the imperialist left-wing of parasitism, for Shari’ati, there is not a vanguard party as with Sultan-Galiyev. Rather we have enlightened individuals. In fact, he stresses the vast majority of intellectuals is an obstacle and even the progressive free thinkers are a minority that cannot run a revolution, only serve as yeast. So Shari’ati says what we have is prophets. In a slightly different and ironic expression Shari’ati says,

“The stars still have a religious feeling. And the distance between the religion of the stars and the religion of the common people at the base is greater than the gap between the religion of the stars and the blasphemy of these intellectuals.” (1981, p. 81)

He also says,

“Lack of a precise definition of ‘enlightened’, coupled with the ambiguity of the ensuing
responsibilities, have cost the human race in general, and the Easterners, in particular, dearly. . . .There is no group of enlightened individuals in some universal mold with a common trait.”
(1986, p. 7)

It may surprise readers to know that this highly influential Islamist opposed the party idea essentially because he saw the public as too larded in religious mysticism to be able to carry out a meaningful party to class relationship. It was disappointing for MIM to read that about Iran, but then again, Shari’ati pointed out periods of time when the total industrial workers would number in four digits in a single Arab country. “In Saudi Arabia (where there are industrial resources and western production), about 500-2000 workers live in the top echelon, but the country as a whole lacks the workers’ foundation; it has a tribal, agricultural, or feudalistic base.” (1981, p. 103) One pictures some moron Trotskyist arguing with Shari’ati as if Iran had a majority of industrial workers, from a de facto religion made of certain chapters in Das Kapital. The people who cannot reach up into the heights of method and theory are not Marx’s fault.

Shari’ati’s comments on the mode of production boiled down to saying that Iran was still in early stages, as in 13th or 14th century Europe. (1986, p. 18) What Marx called the distinctive feature of capitalism, productive labor had not made much of a mark in Iran yet according to Shari’ati. For that matter, Shari’ati in two different places make remarks that could be seen as resisting the advance into productive labor typical of capitalism. However, even as a youth he was for Islamic socialism. Shari’ati argued that it was possible to skip modes of production. (1981, pp. 57, 113)

If Iran was actually living in the equivalent of 14th century Europe, that explains why Muslims often appear to confuse ideologies and modes of production. We often cannot tell when Muslims use the word “capitalism” whether they are speaking of an ideology or mode of production. The way the question is put is that there is capitalism, Marxism and Islam.

In listening to Asian Muslims, the idea of there being capitalism, Marxism and Islam should be taken as two ideas developed for Western conditions and one for other conditions. In particular, when the Islamists condemn “polytheism,” that should be seen approximately as a condemnation of Liberalism.

Shari’ati provides an even more historically thorough translation of the polytheism concept consistent with Marxism.

“The roots of this religion, the religion of multitheism, are economic. Its roots are in the ownership of a minority over the abased majority. It is this very factor of economics and the seeking of superiority which requires a religion in order to preserve and legitimate itself and eternalize its way of life. . . . The religion of multitheism moves in two forms in history. The first form is that of a straight path which we see in the history of religions, that is, the religion of the worship of beads, the worship of something which is taboo, the worship of Magi, the worship of new lords, the worship of several gods and the worship of spirits. . . . The second form is the hidden form of the religion of multitheism which is more dangerous.” (2003, pp. 35-6)

The Prophet Muhammad won his battles with multitheism, but Ali lost them according to Shari’ati. (2003, pp. 54-5) And so multitheism in the guise of monotheism is the most dangerous enemy, the same role played by revisionism in Marxism.

To be direct, today’s post-modernism and Liberal diversity projects are the open polytheist enemies of Islam:

“Human society from the original partnership order which used to be human monotheistic order, was transformed into the order of racism and class plurality which we call the order of social polytheism. And social polytheism is incompatible with monotheism.”(1981, p. 21)

When we see elections in Central Asia or Russia where the Liberals end up third with six or nine percent behind Islamists and ex-communists, the reason is that these societies have a variety of ways of expressing opposition to Liberalism.

Another important subject that Shari’ati explains is how he sees his religion as dualist. (1980, p. 85; 1981, p. 9) He says Islam appoints the humyn as “Vice-Regent” on earth, (1980, p. 68) neither total dust nor God. Shari’ati is also anthrocentric like MIM in that this central role goes only to humyns.

Drawing the line between materialism and idealism

Obviously Marx did not approve of dualism. Nonetheless, there is no Marxist method worth teaching alone in the abstract. If the results of the method are not correct in the concrete, Marx warned us about the underlying economic reasons production of scientific thought could be corrupted.

The Islamists are not more dualist than those putting the labor theory of value on the board and teaching people surplus-value is 17x out of 20x in the West. A correct blackboard diagram for the West would show the concept of negative surplus-value. Usually the Western teachers leave out negative surplus-value and allow any bourgeois to think of him or herself as exploited. This is polytheist idolatry no less religiously rooted than teaching appreciation of gods of rocks, thunder, trees etc.

Abstract mathematical appreciation of a concept is akin to teaching the “humanities” or religion or music. The way others teach it, one should think of Marxism as Western music, so then naturally the Third World response is going to be to teach Third World music, and Third World ideologies, not Marxism.

Perhaps at first, one explains in a general way what a trade deficit is. However, if one always follows teaching of trade deficits with a discussion of how a currency’s value falls, then one is teaching the equivalent of Western music. After a while, if one does not understand what MIM is saying about the U.$. trade deficit, we start to think maybe our critics do not know what a trade deficit really is. That’s how important the this-sidedness of method is.

It’s only when you’ve got the right numbers or proportions up there on the board that one is materialist. And between those who claim to be dualist and those who say they are not but in fact are, MIM will prefer the open dualists.

Catharine MacKinnon and Ward Churchill do not claim to be Marxist. Kasama and the Trotskyists — these people have claimed to be Marxist. Nonetheless, if any of these are Marxist, then Shari’ati is moreso. If Shari’ati is not Marxist, then none of these others are either. That is our dilemma in the West, that we have so little defense against Liberalism, that someone deprecating polytheism is closer to the mark. Such people are non-existent in the West but quite popular in the Third World.

The ills of mechanical materialism, contemplative materialism and dualism stem largely from failing to stick to one definition of proletariat. Marx did not intend for us to contemplate for hundreds of years about inanimate objects rising up. Revolutionary change is either there in social reality or it is not. Marx showed us how to answer that question overall.

These four books were eye-openers, a great antidote to the trash of the left-wing of parasitism in the West.


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