Marxism and Orientalism

Since the events of 9/11 there has been a renewed interest around questions of political Islam, Orientalism, religion, and imperialism. This book is a collection of four essays, which offer a clear and sharp analysis of the Marxist approach to these questions. The first essay titled “Religion and politics today from a Marxist perspective” outlines Marx’s view of religion and then offers a comparative analysis of Christian liberation theory and Islamic fundamentalism. The second, “Orientalism in reverse: Post-1979 trends in French Orientalism,” employs the formulation “Orientalism in reverse” to analyze the field of French Islamic studies. The third, “Marx, Engels, and Orientalism: On Marx’s epistemological evolution,” takes on Edward Said’s charge that Marxism is orientalist. The final essay, “Marxism and cosmopolitanism” traces the origins of cosmopolitanism, how Marx and Engels used the term, and its evolution up to the era of globalization. These are all invaluable essays, but here I will focus on the two that address Orientalism. 

The Syrian intellectual Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm coined the term “Orientalism in Reverse” (OIR) to describe a tendency in Arab thinking that accepted the basic assumptions in Orientalist thought but inverted its priorities. Orientalist thought is based on the notion that there are essential cultural features that characterize the East and West as civilizations, and that the two are polar opposites. OIR accepts this premise but asserts that the East is superior to the West. It further insists that such supposedly Western notions as nationalism, socialism, and communism are antithetical to the East and that “popular political Islam” is both an authentic, and a superior, framework through which Arabs might liberate themselves from the yoke of colonialism.  

Achcar argues that OIR is not limited to Arab intellectuals and therefore develops this concept beyond the Arab context. He lists six key characteristics that define this form of thinking:

  • The West and East are polar opposites, and therefore Western ideologies, including Marxism, are unsuited for people in the East. 
  • Western standards such as democracy, secularism, and women’s rights are inappropriate categories by which to measure Muslim societies. 
  • The Islamic Orient cannot be grasped with the epistemological tools of Western social science and therefore no analogy with Western phenomena is relevant.
  • Culture (Islam) is the primary factor that leads to change in Muslim majority countries rather than economic and social/class dynamics.
  • Islam offers the only path to an Eastern renaissance.
  • Political movements that organize around Islam are not reactionary or regressive but rather are progressive and are the product of Western cultural domination.

Achar then conducts an original and insightful analysis of the field of Islamic Studies in France with a particular focus on the work of 1968 radicals who by 1979 had abandoned their leftist politics. Keen to counter Orientalist hostility to the Iranian revolution, as well as Soviet hostility to the Afghan Mujahideen, this group of post-1979 scholars would develop a new oeuvre. They rejected terms like “fundamentalism” and “integrisme” to discuss the rise of political Islam, and argued that Western-originated categories cannot be used to analyze the East. Thus, despite their effort to differentiate themselves from Orientalism, they end up echoing Orientalism’s faulty premise that the East and West are epistemologically incompatible. 

Olivier Carre, an influential figure in this new paradigm, argued that “Islamism” (the preferred term of these scholars) was not only appropriate in Muslim majority countries but that it was a harbinger of modernization. Carre asserted that Islam is the essential language of Muslims. In this, Achcar notes that OIR “shares a common core with traditional Orientalism: the essentialist view according to which “religiosity is a permanent and essential phenomenon” for Muslim peoples. Achcar then examines the work of French writers who are better known in the English-speaking world, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, to expertly demonstrate the features of OIR in their work. French OIR didn’t stay static, however. It went through shifts, in some cases reverting back to traditional Orientalism, and in others creating a new form of Orientalism which asserts that not only are Islam and modernity compatible but that “Islam is the only and necessary path to modernity in the Muslim world.”

Achcar concludes by taking a different view of OIR from al-‘Azm who sees it as just as reactionary as Orientalism, stating that OIR adherents in the West come from a place of empathy for the victims of empire. However, like the politics of “Third-Worldism” before it, OIR adopts an uncritical and naively positive assessment of forces that are opposed to imperialism. Readers would do well to pay heed to Achcar’s warning that such analyses are ultimately unhelpful and can only lead to demoralization; an apt and highly prescient assessment given, for instance, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt since 2011.

If Orientalism is based on an essentialist view of the “Muslim world” that sees Islam and “Oriental culture” as the key lens through which to explain social dynamics, Edward Said, one of its most brilliant critics, also falls into an essentialist trap. Achcar argues that Said is prone to geographical essentialism when he suggests that knowledge produced in the West is necessarily tinged with Orientalism. As Achcar writes, Said’s critique of 

[a] western essentialist view of the Orient is itself essentialist at its core, premised as it is upon an essentialist definition of the West. This was underlined by Said’s Oriental Marxist critics—al-’Azm, ‘Amil, Samir Amin, and Aijaz Ahmad—who all reproached him for adhering to a construction of the West that postulates a continuity from Ancient Greece to the present-day United States, and for positing that true knowledge of the Orient is beyond the reach of Western minds, thus pandering to Oriental ethnocentrisms and their own mythical representation of their communities. 

Thus, one of the consequences of Said’s charge that Marxism is Orientalist, as Mahdi ‘Amil argues, is that it strengthened the hand of ultranationalists and religious fundamentalists who sought to marginalize radical and Marxist activists in the global South claiming that these “foreign” ideas have no place in the East. 

The core of Achcar’s argument against Said’s critique of Marx, however, is based on Marx and Engels’ method of analysis, historical materialism, which radically departed from earlier idealist views of history. Achcar suggests that Said’s key theoretical weakness in his critique of Orientalism is his failure to grasp that “historical idealism [is] the main matrix of cultural essentialism.” Idealist interpretations of history offer the ideology of historical actors, or the culture of a region/people, as key to understanding social dynamics. This mode of analysis was dominant in Europe prior to Marx and informed the methods used by Orientalist scholars. The German philosopher Hegel represented the pinnacle of philosophical idealism as a method, an approach he used in his analysis of the “Mahometans.” When Marx broke with Hegelian idealism and developed a materialist conception of history, he broke also with cultural essentialism. 

As Achcar explains, 

If Orientalism in the pejorative sense consists of adhering to a set of prejudices about the Oriental (Muslim, Arab, Indian, etc.) ‘cultural nature,’ there is no more radical rejection of this perspective than a conception that discounts the very idea of a “cultural nature” in order to explain every cultural form as the historical product of the material circumstances shaping the existence of the human group that bears the culture in question—a culture that will inevitably be altered when the material circumstances themselves change.

However, Achcar does note that Marx’s early writings on colonialism and colonized nations were in fact Eurocentric. Thus, the early Marx wrote pejoratively and wrongly about India’s stagnant economic condition. Achcar argues that these mistakes were the product of a lack of accurate knowledge about non-European societies. He refers to this form of Eurocentricism as epistemic, as opposed to the supremacist type of Eurocentrism rooted in imperial ethnocentrism. Above all, Marx and Engels were internationalists who were on the side of workers and the oppressed everywhere, and who through the course of time would come to correct their views of non-European societies.

The first learning moment was the discovery that British capitalism had stunted Irish development. This recognition that colonialism did not create progress led Marx and Engels to revise their perception of non-European societies as well. Ireland, as Achcar writes, was “key to India and Algeria.” Between 1848 and 1857, Engels shifted his assessment of Algeria radically, going from a position that colonial capital plays a “civilizing role” to a harsh denunciation of the ravages of colonialism. Similarly Marx’s attitudes would change dramatically in the late 1850s. Thus, the first volume of Capital contains a searing critique of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, an advocate of the “civilizing mission,” and Marx’s letters from Algeria also mark a sharp break with his earlier views. Achcar therefore argues that “any comment on Marx’s attitude towards India that considers his 1853 articles alone, without exploring the whole history of his statements on India until his last writings, and builds on those articles in order to formulate a general judgment on his ‘Orientalist’ or ‘Eurocentric’ bias, is fundamentally flawed and unsound.” 

Said’s lack of mastery of Marx and Engels’ writing, and of historical materialism as a fundamental break with idealism, combined with an intellectual and political climate in the 1970s that was hostile to Marxism meant that Said never took his Marxist detractors very seriously. His methodological eclecticism, borrowing for instance from both Foucault and Gramsci, can be understood to be the product of on the one hand, his commitment to human liberation and his involvement in the Palestinian struggle which made Marxism appealing, but on the other, of the pressures in the academy towards a new postmodern oeuvre which was fundamentally anti-Marxist. It is his Foucauldian structuralism, and the view that subjects are constituted by discourse, that leads Said into the idealist and geographical essentialist camp, even while his activism opened up possibilities for real resistance.

Achcar has produced a fine volume of essays that are an essential read for a new generation of leftists, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. What would have been even more useful is if Achcar had turned his attention in the first chapter to the progressive reappropriation of Islam by Muslim youth in the era of the War on Terror. Looking for a liberation theology equivalent in Islam, young Muslims have turned to the Iranian writer Ali Shariati, the Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi, but more universally to the experience of Black Muslims in the US and the work of Malcolm X. An analysis of this phenomenon, from a scholar like Achcar with a comprehensive mastery of the relevant subjects, and a comparison with Christian liberation theory, would have been extremely helpful.

Don’t let the size of the book fool you, this small book is packed with dense and useful arguments that are vital for Marxists today. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story