« Mmm...Fish | Main | Worse and Worse »

Communism Before The Cold War

After the Beinart Purge Proposal there was a certain amount of dispute kicking around about in what sense, if any, the struggle with the global jihad movement resembles the Cold War. I considered making a counterproposal -- this is like fighting Communism in 1904 or some such thing. Via Gregory Djerjian I see John Abizaid has a similar notion:

Salafist preachers see themselves as part of a vanguard whose mission is to radicalize other Muslims to overthrow their leaders. Abizaid likens them to Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders. During a gathering of foreign-policy experts in Washington last October, he posed a haunting question: What would you have done in 1890 if you had known the ruin this Bolshevik vanguard would bring?
I don't know what historical analogies are really worth, but there's something to this. A word of caution. The term "Salafist preachers" covers a lot of ground. You've got basically peaceful Salafis who want to use democracy and/or evangelism to spread their doctrines. You've got violent Salafis who think (not entirely unreasonably) that if you want to eliminate the dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, you need to use violence against them. You've got bin Laden and al-Zawahiri who want to attack the "far enemy" -- i.e., us. You've got linkages between Salafi visions and nationalistic conflicts in Palestine, Chechnya, Sinkiang, etc. You've got disputes about takfir and dividing the Islamic community. All sorts of controversies, linkages, disagreements, shades of gray, etc. It's all very complicated. If you were in 1890 and thinking about Communism, what you probably would have been doing was getting Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, democratic socialists, the SR Party, and all sorts of other people mixed up. You wouldn't have known whether Czarist reform initiatives were sincere or tactical feints. You'd get very confused and you would mishandle the situation.

No one who could plausibly be called a "Salafi" in any sense is going to look very sympathetic to an American or any sort of westerner. But there are degrees of objectionableness to these doctrines, degrees of threateningness to our interests and our values, degrees of feasibility to externally combatting an ideological movement, etc., etc., etc. It would serve us well to tread somewhat cautiously in analytical terms before coming to sweeping conclusions.

December 28, 2004 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Communism Before The Cold War:

» Is Islam the Next "Ism" Confronting the West? from THE BELGRAVIA DISPATCH
"Islam has replaced Marxism as the ideology of contestation," says Olivier Roy, a French scholar of European Islam. "When the left collapsed, the Islamists stepped in." --Craig Smith, in the NYT. Abizaid believes that the Long War is only in... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 28, 2004 12:44:52 PM


"Salafist preachers see themselves as part of a vanguard whose mission is to radicalize other Muslims to overthrow their leaders. Abizaid likens them to Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders."

Yes, because history only allowed Abizaid to see the "world" as North America and something which runs from the Atlantic to the Urals. Whatever "Salafist" (?) preachers are why draw comparisons to Lenin, Trotksy and the Bolsheviks? Why not see them on their grounds (wrong though they maybe).

Salafism(s) (which arenot Wahhabism, and of which there are many types as you rightfully point out) grew out of anti-colonial activities in the ME and the "retrogressive" trends of Abduh's 'salafi' project (which was modernist), largely under his student Rida.

Posted by: thbt | Dec 28, 2004 12:17:14 PM

Also, Communists of all stripes were progressive in their outlook. However kooky teleological materialism might be, it clearly thinks that the future will make things better.

Most of these Salafist strains that we hear from, though, are reactionary in outlook. They believe that the Islamic world needs to "get back to its roots," or some such notion, much like fundies in all religions.

Whether this distinction makes a difference in terms of whom to kill, I don't know. But it seems quite foolish to me to describe people who want to go back a millenium as a "vanguard."

Posted by: bobo brooks | Dec 28, 2004 12:31:03 PM

If only liberals would show such solicitousness toward "Jesusland."

Of course, we shouldn't throw the moderate Salafi babies out with the al Qaeda bathwater, but the analogy is apt. Getting ahead of a violent, universalist totalitarian movement is a good idea.

Posted by: Greg Scoblete | Dec 28, 2004 12:32:15 PM

The problem with salafism(s), and similar ideologies rampant in the Muslim world, is that they espouse independence from the US--economic, military, political--directly or indirectly.

The ideologies may be similar to or different from the various strands of communism over time, but the actual content is incidental relative to the fundamental problem posed to American interests: the salafis et. al dont like that, although we probably dont control nearly as much of their lives as they think we do, we do play a pretty big role in much of it. For ex, we support dictators, have troops there, support Israel. And we do all or most of this (in the Middle East at least) mostly because we want to influence how much oil is produced, at what price, and where it goes. So they dont like us, and we don't want them to get any meaningful power unless we can co-opt them.

I am generalizing and simplifying, but overall I think thats a pretty accurate description from the perspective of a US planner.

Posted by: AH | Dec 28, 2004 12:41:08 PM

Good point. According to Gilles Kepel, a lot of salifi preachers in Saudi Arabia with online advice sites serve as something of a moderating influence on European Muslims by urging them to reject violence. Still, he says, there's some overlap between people who adhered to these guys--who merely advocate separation--and the really bad guys, who say they should go around killing kufr.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 28, 2004 12:47:59 PM

But if you want to play the analogy further: communism took root in Russia because of the instability that followed World War I. How many violent, committed islamic fundamentalists are being created in the heart of Iraq?

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 28, 2004 12:53:29 PM

Interestingly enough, the communists took power in 1917, before the war was over.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 28, 2004 12:54:54 PM

Massive historical forces gave rise to Lenin, Hitler, and such like figures. The idea that if you killed Lenin in 1904, those historical forces would simply go away, is totally misguided. The nadir of this sort of historical reasoning goes that, if Rousseau hadn't existed, there would have been no Robespierre, no Marat, no Napoleon.

Same goes for the present day: reactionary preachers in the Middle East aren't the cause of current events, but were themselves brought into being by events going back to WW1.

Posted by: son volt | Dec 28, 2004 1:00:59 PM

But doesn't Rousseau publishing his crap count as "events?"

Posted by: praktike | Dec 28, 2004 1:04:00 PM

son volt is onto something here. The Salafists are a symptom--a result--not a cause. If we wiped out all of them tomorrow, the underlying conditions would remain and give rise to the same symptoms, though perhaps with different names or guises.

The same holds true if we look back to the nascent roots of Russia's communist revolution. Had we somehow wiped out all the communists in 1904, Russia still would have gone through something very similar to the revolution.

Would it not make sense to address the underlying conditions and thus kick the props out from under the Salafists?

Posted by: Derelict | Dec 28, 2004 1:14:42 PM

Massive historical forces gave rise to Lenin, Hitler, and such like figures. The idea that if you killed Lenin in 1904, those historical forces would simply go away, is totally misguided.

I don't think many people argue that killing Lenin in 1904 would make "historical forces" go away; they argue simply that events would have transpired differently. And some perhaps dispute the existence of something called "historical forces".

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 28, 2004 1:18:53 PM

What Son Volt said - historical materialism rules. Seriously, it does.

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

-- Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 28, 2004 1:21:03 PM

Abizaid's suggestion is fundamentally misguided, both in our current context and in 1890.

First, he imposes a right-wing American viewpoint of 2004 onto 1890. Notably, he ignores that Fascism was co-evolutionary along with Bolshevism. What that really means is that the dominant political solutions of 1890 (or, of any other time) were fundamentally unstable by 1918. The political structures of 1890 (in certain parts of the world) were going to collapse as soon they encountered a massive crisis.

Whether you put proto-Bolsheviks (leaving aside there were no Bolsheviks in 1890) in jail in 1890 or try to burn Marxist books or put out anti-socialist articles and newspapers is irrelevant - in fact, all of those things were heavily tried in the era of 1890. The Socialist party was pretty close to entirely banned in Germany before 1918 (Socialist leaders were regularly put in jail, no Socialists were allowed to become government ministers, etc) but became the dominant party immediately afterwards, due to their inherently large amount of public support.

The fact is that the leftwards section of political belief was and is inherent in the common political/social/economic structures of the time. You don't get a worldwide socialist movement or a worldwide Marxist movement or a worldwide Communist movement because Marx or Saint-Simon or Bellamy or Sorel or whomever are really cool writers (not that I necessarily think that they were really cool writers myself). You get it because those movements address inherent structural-level problems of the society of the time. Essentially, if you have a large number of industrial workers laboring in the economic/political/social conditions of 1890, you will have movement of this type.

The same can be said about the far-right-wing movements of the time. Which, by the way, weren't conservative either, since conservative in 1890 meant a return to royalist and aristocratic regimes. Again, people all over the world didn't flock to the numerous far-right movements (from the revived KKK to the Falange to the Action Francaise to the PPF to neo-Imperial Japan) because Gentile or Sorel or La Rochelle or Hitler were such cool thinkers (not, again, that they were, in my opinion, cool). They were responding to structural-level problems inherent in the political situation of the time. Essentially, if you have a sufficiently radicalized political environment, significant portions of naturally conservative groups (capitalists, professionals, wealthy landowners, military elites, rural conservatives) probably WILL move from democratic conservative views to supporting far-right radical movements.

The problem with the Salafist preachers is that they are one natural intellectual solution to the inherent structural problems facing the Middle East (or the Muslim world). In fact, the intellectual journey of the Salafists preachers is very similar to the ones undergone in the same time period by American Christian funamentalism and a lesser extent similarly by Jewish fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism and so on. Fundamentalism IS one natural and major response to the structural problems faced by the American South, the Middle East, India and so on.

Until the structural situation changes in the Middle East, fundamentalism is going to be one of the major (if not THE major) response to the region's problems. Putting people in jail, or writing anti-Salafist articles in National Review isn't going to change that.

Posted by: burritoboy | Dec 28, 2004 1:34:45 PM

Son volt is correct, in that the present-day Salafism is a symptom or result of historical forces. Although Salafism and other fundie/conservative interpretations of Islam have existed in varying degrees of popularity for what, 800 years? And I guess we could say that the fascist/Pan-Arabist/nationalist movements of 50's Nasser and Saddam and Assad etc were a result of the same historical forces?

The problem with historical materialism is that the huge forces play out in so many different ways that causal connections and predictive powers are a little weak. Secular modernism and a conservative reaction to it makes more sense to me, except in Europe and Asia, where it doesn't.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 28, 2004 1:39:14 PM

Interestingly enough, the communists took power in 1917, before the war was over.

Of course, you're right. I should have said, "communism took root in Russia because of the instability caused by World War I".

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 28, 2004 1:41:59 PM


Of course, individuals make a huge difference. The fact that Lenin was a Bolshevik and not a Menshevik has huge historical implications. The fact that FDR (and La Guardia and Cermak) were Democrats in 1930-1932 and not Republicans has huge implications (and that the Republicans had no one of anywhere near the charisma of any single one of those three).

However, it's not completely random either that Lenin was a Bolshevik. Tsarist Russia was clearly going to collapse in the near-term, at a major crisis point (as was Sultanic Turkey, Mandarin China, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Diaz's Mexico, Second Republic Spain, etc). If major parts of the world's political regimes are clearly going to undergo massive change, then the people of those regimes' first concern is obviously the nature of the replacement regimes.

Some of those responses to that foreseen change are going to be radical in nature. Activists of a particularly brutal sort of personality are going to be quite attracted to the more radical movements. It's, of course, important whether those activists are efficient, are competent, strategically savvy, charismatic and so on. That's why, say, Lenin takes over Russia but Piludski takes over Poland or Primo (or later Franco) takes over Spain.

Similarly, persons of a certain character are going to be attracted to the Northern Democrats in the 1920s and early 1930s, and not the Republicans. It's hard to see how Cermak or La Guardia would either join or be welcome in the Republican party of the 1920s. So, when the historical moment came for charismatic leaders with certain views and policies came about because of the Depression, those charismatic leaders were mostly to be found on one side and not the other. And, remember, in the very different circumstances of the 1920s, La Guardia and Cermak only enjoyed very local political success and were barred from the national political stage - which then demanded leaders of very different characters.

Posted by: burritoboy | Dec 28, 2004 1:57:09 PM

The problem with historical materialism is that the huge forces play out in so many different ways that causal connections and predictive powers are a little weak.

Umm, I dunno. It sure is weak on the 'daily events' level, but the simple basic rule is clear: if something stands in the way of progress, it'll be swept away eventually. In this case it's residual western colonialism and imperialism, most obvious manifestation of which is the Arab-Israeli conflict going on for over 50 years now; and there are plenty of more subtle manifestations too of course. Plus the Iraq war.

Western imperialism will have to call it quits eventually, that's all there is to it. The more vigorously it tries to hold on, the uglier the backlash will be. This is, pretty much, all we need to know.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 28, 2004 2:01:00 PM

if something stands in the way of progress, it'll be swept away eventually

Well, sure. But the salafists aren't looking for progress.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Dec 28, 2004 2:24:29 PM


The war was already over on the Eastern Front. Russia could no longer effectively fight against the German armies, at least not without a Western Front to tie up most of Germany's forces. Germany knew it could not occupy Russia with the forces it could devote to an active Eastern Front, but they had essentially little concern by that point that Russia would be able to make serious inroads into Germany itself (essentially, all they had to do was keep a certain size army in their Eastern provinces in present-day Poland and they were quite safe). The reason Germany made peace was so they could ship much of that certain-sized army to the Western Front. Soviet Russian was unable to conquer Poland in the 1920s after years of re-structuring and military rebuilding by the Bolsheviks.

The last major battles the Russian Tsarist army undertook were in June-August of 1916 (over a year before the Bolshevik revolution), and they were really unable to undertake major-level operations after that.

Posted by: burritoboy | Dec 28, 2004 2:24:51 PM

"but the simple basic rule is clear: if something stands in the way of progress, it'll be swept away eventually"

Probably, but what is put in place of the old order is also important, and not as predictable.

I think secular modernism is at least as important as vestigial colonialism as a perceived enemy of traditional structures and self-determination, as evidenced in Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan. And it might help if we could understand the reactionary forces that have arisen in the US, and how to counter them, as we look to combatting Salafism.

burritoboy made good and useful comments.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 28, 2004 2:30:42 PM

...salafists aren't looking for progress...

Right, but that's the whole point of historical materialism: individuals and groups are not necessarily intelligent agents looking for progress, they are only a symptom. Their role is to bring down the current system that breeds all this stuff, that's all; you can't seriously believe that they may be able to establish a medieval society over there, can you?

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 28, 2004 2:48:54 PM

Their role is to bring down the current system that breeds all this stuff, that's all; you can't seriously believe that they may be able to establish a medieval society over there, can you?

No. I was just quibbling, really--I don't think "progress" is the force that threatens Western Imperialism, at least in the short term. Change does; chaos, even. In the long term, there may be progress from what's coming; in the short, bad things are inevitable.

You know. Life is a Heraclitian fire.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Dec 28, 2004 3:10:46 PM

It would be an awful shame if we spent trillions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of young American lives creating weak Arab democracies that eventually fell to hardline Islamists.

Posted by: David C | Dec 28, 2004 3:13:58 PM


Thanks for the praise!


We should also remember that most of the Middle East was, before Western colonialism, under hundreds of years of colonialism from Sultanic Turkey. We shouldn't make the mistake of saying that all colonialisms are equal or the same. The Sultan's regime was very different from Western colonialism in the region, which again was quite different from Western colonialisms in other parts of the world.

Back to Bob,

The Salafists and Wahabists aren't quite reactionary - at least, they aren't reactionary in a straightfoward way. They themselves believe that they are, but that's not quite the case. The Sultan's Empire, which really did structure most of the current Middle East, had very different types of Islamic thinking than the modern-day Salafists/Wahabists.

We should also remember that the primary intellectual competitor against fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East was various forms and derivatives of Marxism/socialism. Pan-Arabism was far, far more driven by Marxism/socialism than by Islam. The early PLO and PFLP were primarily Marxist Leninist groups. Assad, Nasser, Sadat, and Hussein are/were all socialists, at least theoretically. The Iranian revolution was initially an attempt to combine socialist and Islamic elements, before the regime rejected the socialist aspects of their revolution and became "reactionary" entirely.

The decline of socialism/Marxism internationally means that there is really one intellectual strand left standing in the Middle East - Islam. The Middle East is highly unlikely to adopt neoliberalism full-bore (the now-dominant intellectual strand in the West) for many reasons, some of which are:

1. Neoliberalism structurally relies upon institutions that, in the West, are already quite old and therefore, can be portrayed as traditional or conservative (corporations, heavily capitalized international economies, abstract and impersonal forms of law, traditions of political moderation, seperation of church and state without explicit anti-clericalism, etc). These are not things that are conservative or traditional in the Middle East.

2. The Marxist/socialist critique of neoliberalism, though no longer quite dominant, makes neoliberalism much more dubious in the Middle East context than elsewhere.

3. The Middle East has very different forms of under-developement than, say, East Asia or Latin America. The types of neoliberalism or development economics that worked in those regions are unlikely to work similarly in the Middle East. On the other hand, the Middle East is very different from African economies as well.

4. It has turned out to be possible to map out paths to neoliberalism from what were once viewed as highly antagonistic traditions - people from Confucian, Latin American and Indian cultures did get the hang of democracy (and we shouldn't ignore the vital ground-work the Marxists/socialists did do to assist that in all those regions). It's not entirely clear that Islam CAN be made to bring the gaps the way Latin Americans use their long tradition of cultural Leftism to bolster their own understanding of their now democracies, for example.

Posted by: burritoboy | Dec 28, 2004 3:18:25 PM

What would we have done in 1904 if we had known something we couldn't possibly have known and would have had no idea how to prevent if we had known? Answering that question is supposed to help us in our current, equally murky, situation just how, exactly?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Dec 28, 2004 3:26:42 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.