|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Wednesday, December 03, 2003
Discovering Mansoor Hekmat
Perry Anderson, in a review of G. E. M. de Ste. Croix's monumental The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, remarked that the first surprise about the book was the name of its author. The constellation of British Marxist historians had been, one had assumed, 'a finite pleiad'. The names of Hill, Hobsbawm, Thompson, Thompson et al were familiar, but who le heck, as it were, was de Ste. Croix?
I've just had a similar surprise. I had thought I knew at least the names of all the great Marxists. I was wrong. A notice of a public meeting to be addressed by a speaker from the Worker-communist Party of Iraq led me to the website of it and its older sister, the Worker-communist Party of Iran; and thence to the collected works of its founder, the late Mansoor Hekmat. It's a bit like discovering you had an unknown contemporary called Rosa Luxemburg.
I can't say I've been altogether unfamiliar with the current that calls itself 'worker-communism'. When I lived in London in the 1980s, some people from Iran or Iraq would intervene in demonstrations or meetings with arguments quite foreign to those of most exiled revolutionaries. Instead of asking for help, they offered it, in the form of trying to clear up the confusions of the left. For people to descend from the mountains of Kurdistan with sophisticated Marxist critiques of not just the Iranian but the Western left was unheard of, and almost unnatural.
Now I can see where they were coming from. To many readers a body of work whose first item is titled Iranian Revolution and the Role of the Proletariat (Theses) might seem recondite, if not quite uninteresting. This would be a mistake, and one the reason for which was spelled out by the writer himself, in explaining his differences with most of what has passed for Marxism in recent decades:
The Marxist theoretician has been reduced to one who can reply to people who have declared in advance that they belong to the same doctrine. Outside this milieu, outside this given 'market', our theoretician is not even a worthy and influential thinker and critic in his contemporary world. In fact, even from the viewpoint of intellectual calibre and theoretical capacity he is usually a second-rate thinker.
His/her thoughts have an inside-the-sect consumption and have significance by virtue of the sect. Leave out Maoism and you will have no Bettelheim in the realm of critical thought. In my opinion, communist theory - and thereby the communist theoretician and critic - should assert itself as the critic of ruling ideas. Rather than acting as a mere guide for its disciples and followers, it should explain the world for the vast masses of the class and play its part in shaping the general class consciousness.
Having read those of his works that have been translated into English, I would claim that Mansoor Hekmat was indeed a thinker who lived up to the challenge he sets here. For him, as for Marx, socialism wasn't some ideal the world had to take or leave, but a conscious expression of the spontaneous resistance to, and rejection of, the wages system by the wage-earning class. From this standpoint he could develop a critique of the whole world - East and West, North and South - and a practice that sought to change it. The alternative to socialism, he said, was 'nothing but barbarism gift-wrapped in technology.'
He outlined, before (in substance, long before) the fall of the East, an original and radical socialist critique of the Soviet experience, one that made no concessions to the once-fashionable abuse of Lenin:
The applause for the downing of Lenin's statues is not out of hostility to a paralyzed and defeated state-capitalist bloc in the East. They are pulling down Lenin as the symbol of [the] working class's insolent attempts against the sanctity of capital; the symbol of the struggle of downtrodden working masses for changing the world.
To debate a fundamentally nationalist current, as Stalinism always and everywhere is, about its deviations from Marx would, he said, be as futile and ultimately frivolous as disputing with racists over their misappropriation of Darwin. A characterisation of the Soviet Union (and all the rest) as state capitalist simply dropped out of the logic of his analysis:
Today, in order to regard it a socialist country, the defenders of the Soviet Union point to the absence of bourgeois personal ownership over the means of production and the predominance of state ownership in this country. A large section of the critics of the Soviet Union also accept this definition of socialism but spend all their time and resources to show that 'the Soviet state is not proletarian', and thus the state ownership in this particular case is not tantamount to socialism. To reduce socialism to state economy is truly a bourgeois falsification in Marxist theory. It is this version of socialism which the bourgeoisie spreads throughout the world. Unfortunately up to now this fundamental distortion in the economic vision of the working class has not met any serious theoretical challenge by the Marxists.
Pivotal to such a bourgeois conception of socialism, is the bourgeois assessment of capitalism. In this outlook, capitalism is recognised not on the basis of the labour-capital relation but on the basis of the relation of capitals to each other. It is the outlook of an individual capitalist, and thus a bourgeois attitude to capitalism. Competition and anarchy in production is considered to be the basis of capitalism. And therefore in opposing it, as the anti-thesis of capitalism, state ownership and planning is placed. This is a common conception. For Marx, and for us as Marxists who have grasped the essence of Marx's criticism of the political economy of capitalism, it is simple to understand that capital is defined in the domain of social production and on the basis of its relation to wage-labour.
The prevalence of wage-labour, the predominance of labour-power as a commodity and the organisation of social production on the basis of wage-labour, are all sufficient to prove that the Soviet economy is a capitalist economy.
Consequently, in his view this social formation's final capitulation to the market wasn't the end of socialism:
This was not the end of socialism, but was a glimpse of what a nightmare the end of socialism could really be and what a swamp the world could become without the herald of socialism, the hope of socialism and the 'dangers' of socialism.
In The History of the Undefeated he lashed those who took the fall of the Soviet Union as a clarion call to desert the struggle for a better world:
Despair became the symbol of wisdom. Forsaking high human ideals was seen as a sign of realism and insight. It suddenly became evident that any newly appointed journalist and assistant lecturer or any recently retired general had ready-made answers to the intellectual giants of the modern world from Voltaire and Rousseau to Marx and Lenin and that the entire complexities of freedom and equality seeking and the efforts of hundreds of millions of people in recent centuries, was nothing more than a complete waste of time on the road to the grand monument of the 'end of history' that must be forgotten ever so quickly.
It is said that history is written by the victors. It must be added, however, that history, which is written by the defeated is ever [even?] more false and venomous, since this latter is nothing but the former dressed in mourning, surrender and self-deceit.
He counterposed freedom to the slippery ideal of democracy. His criticism of religion was unsparing, as was his contempt for those who pinned progressive hopes on it:
A hundred years ago, the avant-garde humanity would have laughed at the proposition that human liberation could be achieved through priests, moderation of religion and the emergence of new interpretations from within the church. Today, sadly, 'professional scholars' and academics can prescribe that the Iranian woman can for now take secularism to mean the addition of a lighter shade of black to the officially approved colours for the veil.
He called - controversially - for the defence of children against the imposition of the veil:
The question of freedom of clothing concerns adults, i.e. those who, at least formally and legally, have the right to choose and can face the consequences of their choice -- even though the-right-to-choose of an adult woman who is familiar with the threat of the Islamic knife or the Islamic jar of acid on her face is as formal as formal can be. The argument for the freedom of clothing says nothing about the rights of children or the little or adolescent girl who lives in an Islamic family under the custody of her parents.
The child has no religion, tradition and prejudices. She has not joined any religious sect. She is a new human being who, by accident and irrespective of her will has been born into a family with specific religion, tradition, and prejudices. It is indeed the task of society to neutralise the negative effects of this blind lottery. Society is duty-bound to provide fair and equal living conditions for children, their growth and development, and their active participation in social life. Anybody who should try to block the normal social life of a child, exactly like those who would want to physically violate a child according to their own culture, religion, or personal or collective complexes, should be confronted with the firm barrier of the law and the serious reaction of society. No nine year old girl chooses to be married, sexually mutilated, serve as house maid and cook for the male members of the family, and be deprived of exercise, education, and play. The child grows up in the family and in society according to established customs, traditions, and regulations, and automatically learns to accept these ideas and customs as the norms of life. To speak of the choice of the Islamic veil by the child herself is a ridiculous joke.
His four-part article on The World After September 11 may live as his testament:
The media does not reflect the real intellectual and ideological makeup of the world. They give their own version, the dominant version, the version of the ruling class. A version that suits them. Militarism, terrorism, racism, ethnicism, religious fanaticism and profit worship are headline news but do not have a firm place deep down in the minds of the majority of the people of our times. Even a cursory look at the world shows that the vast masses of the people are more to the left, more altruistic, more peace loving, more egalitarian, more free and more freedom-loving than governments and the media. The people on both sides of this appalling conflict have no desire to dance to the tune of the leaders of the bourgeoisie. The gunslinging American administration immediately realises that despite one of the most horrendous terrorist crimes, despite the live broadcast of the perishing of thousands of people in an instant, despite the sorrow and rage which takes hold of anyone who has not sold their conscience to some material interest, still this same horrified western society, these very people who are daily brainwashed, these very people who are from dawn to dusk 'educated' by the ruling ideology of racism and xenophobia , call for "caution, fairness, justice and a measured response". The people of the Middle East who are conceived as zealous Moslems and members of the 'Islamic civilization' - be it in the sick minds of clerical rulers in Iran and Afghanistan and the assorted sheikhs of the Islamic movement or in the deluxe studios of the CNN and BBC - are mourning with the people of America and rising in the condemnation of the genocide of September 11. It does not take a genius to realise that the majority of the people of the Middle East despise political Islam, that huge segments of the people of Western Europe and America are fed up with Israel's injustices and sympathise with the deprived people of Palestine, that the majority of western people want an end to the economic sanctions against Iraq and can put themselves in the shoes of heartbroken Iraqi parents who are losing their children to shortage of medicine, that the vast masses of the world's decent and honourable people are on neither side of the war between Bush and Bin Laden - old friends and present-day rivals. This civilised humanity has been silenced under the barrage of propaganda, brainwashing and intimidation in the West and East, but it has clearly not accepted the garbage. This is a massive force. It can come to the fore. For the future of humanity, it must come to the fore.
He goes on to challenge the conventional interpretations of what is at stake in what he calls 'the war of the terrorists'. (Clue: the US is not fighting to defend civilization, spread democracy, or grab oil. The Islamists are not fighting imperialism.) The failures of the 'war against terrorism' and the weaknesses of the - immensely positive - antiwar movement are described in advance, with a view to arming 'the camp of humanity' with a strategy for victory, and with it peace.
I've only scratched the surface of his writing. His theoretical range was extraordinary. But, as was said of Marx, the man of science was not even half the man. He was 'above all else a revolutionary.' With all his evident humanism he didn't flinch from 'the criticism of arms'. Certainly the successive regimes he fought - that of the Shah, and that of the Islamic Republic - have rivalled in the depth if not the scale of their vileness anything seen in the bloody history of the modern world. For his fight against them he deserves every decent person's respect. Even those who disagree with what he stood for may find much to agree with, or to productively argue with, in what he wrote.