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22.02.09

Is my mind occupied?

“Equality and justice are the only ends of socialism, everything else is means”. This sentence from Roy Hattersley probably gets as close as any sentence to capturing the fundamental essence of my political beliefs. These are beliefs that stretch back to Immanuel Kant via Roy Hattersley, an acolyte of Tony Crosland, who was an advocate of the “democratic equality” propagated by John Rawls, and Eduard Bernstein, the Marxist revision who argued that “Kant was not cant” and upon whom Crosland self-consciously modelled his thought. This constitutes a fertile heritage of moral and political philosophy on the nature of equality and justice and the application of these concepts to politics. So it came as rather a shock on Friday night to be told that I might have to liberate myself from a mental occupation by this heritage if I am to properly understand and take forward my stated objectives: equality and justice.

Alastair Crooke provided this revelation in a talk he gave to City Circle on his new book ResistanceThis book argues that the heritage from which my politics flows is one in which individualism remains “the organisational principle around which society, politics and economics are organised”. My social democratic views might seek to humanise markets and the individualism upon which markets are based. But, ultimately, they accept them. In contrast, it is argued, political Islam rejects markets in favour of a world view that insists upon a primacy for “human beings behaving to one another with justice, equality and compassion”.

My objectives, therefore, parallel those of political Islam: justice and equality. However, political Islam doesn’t understand these objectives in a way that John Rawls would recognise. This divergence derives, Crooke suggests, from different conceptions of the ‘essence of man’. His book cites an Iranian cleric who says that “the message of the Iranian Revolution to today’s world lies in hoisting up the banner of the essence and the truth of man … and to show that the concepts upon which Islam is based are identical with human objectives throughout history, but from which we have diverged under the influence of the modern world”.

Just as, according to Crooke, “the Prophet Mohammad did not see himself as founding a new religion” but, rather, providing “a ‘reminder’ of truths that everyone knew”, so too the Iranian revolution is said to be a ‘reminder’ of truths about the ‘essence of man’ that the modern world has allowed itself to forget. These truths involved “the command to build a community in which men and women behaved with compassion, with respect for others – whatever their standing in life – and in which there was a fair distribution of wealth. In short, Islam is about the experience of daily living in such a society … Muslims are commanded actively and literally to fight daily for justice and for human respect and compassion. It is the revival of this radical message of social justice that lies at the centre of the Islamic revolution”.        

In reviving this radical message, claims Crooke, the Iranian revolution stood against both the occupation of Iran by western powers and the occupation of Iranian minds by ways of thinking that the western world has produced but which have diverged from the ‘essence of man’. As a product of the west, I inevitably find this difficult to properly understand.

However, Crooke’s central argument is that this dispute about the ‘essence of man’ is at the core of the conflict between Islamism and the West. When Crooke asked the Iranian cleric citied earlier about this conflict “he did not give the answer that this conflict was all about a tussle over power and sovereignty, as many westerners instinctively assume; nor did he mention foreign policy as its immediate cause; and most certainly, he did not attribute it to ‘envy’ at western ‘achievements'”. Instead, the cleric said that “what we are facing is a conflict between two civilisations; between two views about living. Recognising these two different ways of living is the main task facing us in terms of thinking and learning”.

I accept the importance of this task. Not least because conflicts are unlikely to find a happy resolution if their true causes are not properly understood. I do not accept, however, that if I should complete this task, assuming that I am able with a mind so bathed in the western world, that I will conclude that my mind has necessarily been occupied by modes of thinking that have entirely forgotten the ‘essence of man’. This would be to accept that understandings of justice and equality that derive from individual rights are alien to this essence. Thus, I would be abandoning the tradition of Kant and all that it has bequeathed, such as universal human rights as codified by the UN. This is a step far too far for someone who sees the breaches of these rights in Iran – “torture, executions and the suppression of legitimate dissent are still being replicated in Iran”, according to Amnesty International – as being as contrary to this essence as anything that I can imagine.

Nonetheless, I look forward to completing Crooke’s book. This might be a small step towards overcoming the misunderstandings that exist between the west and the Islamic resistance. It would be wonderful to move beyond these misunderstandings to a debate about the nature of justice and equality and to means of realising these concepts. I do not presume that the tradition of Kant has a monopoly of wisdom on what is meant by these concepts but remain certain that torture, executions and the suppression of legitimate dissent are in conflict with these concepts. Any understanding of these concepts that sanctions such abuses strikes me as faulty. But, perhaps, that is just because my mind is occupied?

Or, alternatively, just as the Soviet Union didn’t reflect what Karl Marx’s thought was all about, these abuses are not what the Islamic resistance is all about? This may be so but my sense is that there is a much greater risk of such outcomes when rights are defined not on the level of the individual, as in Kant’s tradition, but on a community level, as Crooke seems to indicate is the preference of the Islamic resistance.

Crooke claims not to offer a “clash of civilisations” thesis as conclusions akin to those of the Islamic resistance do feature in western thought, particularly in the Frankfurt school. “The leaders of the Frankfurt School, like our Shi’i cleric of today” became “increasingly pessimistic … about a conversion to a different set of values achieved through critical thinking and the stimulation of the public’s critical facilities … They, like our Iranian interlocutor, disagreed with western claims for ‘modernity’ profoundly: western politics was not satisfying man’s deepest needs – far from it”.

It is striking, to me, that the Frankfurt School was born out of Karl Marx’s thought. Marx himself largely defined communism in negative terms: the absence of the exploitation and alienation that he saw as generated by capitalism. The “false consciousness” – or mind occupation – that so concerned the Franfurt School was said to prevent this capitalist stage being overcome but, ultimately, classical Marxism argued, the tensions within capitalism were such that it had to give way to communism.

Bernstein was a revisionist in that he argued against this historic inevitability. Indeed, he argued, as Crosland later did, that capitalism had so adapted since the time of Marx that it was compatible with the values of justice and equality, which they propagated. In contrast, Marx saw morality as contingent upon the dominant class of the historical age. Therefore, Kant was not an inspiration to Marx, as he was Bernstein, so much as an articulator of the dominant bourgeoisie, individualist morality. Bernstein could compromise with the market system but Marx could not; just as Crooke claims that social democrats are defined by their compromise with the market and the Islamic resistance demands its rejection.

So: social democrats and Islamists need to debate the extent to which justice and equality can be reconciled with the market, as well as whether rights are properly defined on the level of the individual or the community. I am sure that I have much to learn from Islamic thought but I see the debate between social democrats and Islamists as replaying many of the themes that western politics and philosophy has played out over the past 200 years between the traditions that follow from Kant and those who follow from Marx. Bernstein created social democracy by moving from the later to the former camp – but in doing so reconciled himself to the market in a way that Islamists contend forgets the ‘essence of man’.