Monday, April 23, 2007


What are the prospects for revolution in an age of religious dogma? In the past few days there has been some lively discussion of this question among certain anglophone Surrealists, both online and off. The immediate spur to this discussion was the publication of our British comrade Jay Woolrich's statement "Lost in Translation?" , which was itself a response to the declaration "To Have Done with the Spectre of God", issued by the Paris Surrealist Group in December 2006. Jay offers a clear, forthright and principled critique of the Paris declaration, and in doing so has underlined for all of us the urgency of this matter -- a matter of both Surrealist principle and revolutionary strategy.

On Surrealism's virulent, uncompromising and militant atheism there is no disagreement between any of us. Surrealism spurns all mysticism, supernaturalism, other-worldly credulousness or religious belief. Miracles, apparitions, ecstasies and hermeticisms have value for us not because they reveal, in Breton's words, "an invisible universe tending to make itself manifest", but precisely because they make manifest the utopian and poetic possibilities of this world. There is no question, then, over this fundamental Surrealist principle. The questions arise, rather, over how to put that principle into revolutionary practice under current political conditions.

There is much in "Lost in Translation?" with which we concur. We share the discomfort at the Paris declaration's use of the term "Islamo-fascism", a term which does nothing to clarify the political realities we all face. Jay very much hits the mark when he points out that "there is no comparable balance of power, or balance of terror, between the American Empire and the Muslim world". He rightly decries the Paris declaration's claim that "in an Islamic society people's lives are even worse than just about anywhere else". Such claims reproduce exactly the "false division" between so-called democracy and the "Islamic world" that the Paris group themselves denounce elsewhere in their declaration. Life for a middle-class UK citizen in London is certainly better than life for a poor villager in Afghanistan under the Taleban, but life for an Malaysian bourgeois is no less certainly better than for a poor African-American displaced by the New Orleans flood. The question of whether one lives under an Islamic regime or a "western' democratic one is beside the point: there is no fundamental contradiction between Islamism and capitalism. The operations of the global trade in both arms and heroin demonstrate this all too vividly.

We concur too with Jay's condemnation of the tactics of the British SWP, to which the Paris declaration also alludes. Indeed if anything we would say that Jay's condemnation does not go far enough. Here in London we have witnessed at close hand the despicable dealings of the SWP-sponsored Respect Party, which deliberately and cynically conflated popular anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiments with religious (mainly muslim) dogmatism to build a power base for itself in the East End. The result was that the anti-abortion catholic MP George Galloway was presented as a working-class hero -- in between the prayer breaks at his meetings and election rallies -- and that it was regarded as perfectly normal and acceptable when, for example, a local demonstration against racist police violence was segregated by gender, with women marching at the back. Such breathtaking betrayals are, of course, the inevitable result of what Jay rightly refers to as Popular Frontism. The political history of the twentieth century teaches us quite clearly that Popular Frontism always betrays revolutionary aspirations, and actively thwarts revolutionary potential. The Popular Front gains an apparent size and strength which make it appear to be a viable force for change, but it does so precisely by appealing to the kinds of constituencies which are, in reality, change's enemies. In this case the SWP, under the guise of the Respect Party, made itself look big and strong by pandering to reactionary religious forces directly opposed to genuine liberty or social equality.

And it is here that we part company with Jay's position. The Paris declaration assertively condemns "all those who, under the pretext of fighting imperialism, appear not to feel in their bones everything that is repugnant and unworthy in offering their hand to some proponent or other of religious dogmatism". Jay mocks this position as a fatuous statement of "pristine purity [which] repeats the worst errors of those tiny revolutionary sects who became a laughing stock from the 1960s onwards". But for us the refusal to offer our hand to any proponent of religious dogmatism is not a question of ideological purity but, more straightforwardly, of tactical effectiveness. To make any kind of accommodation to religious dogmatism is to make an accommodation to our revolutionary enemies: it is, in other words, the thin end of a Popular Frontist wedge.

As for Jay's claim that the Paris declaration "neatly writes off as irredeemable not just the majority of the anti-war movement but also the greater part of the working class itself", this seems to us to be unduly pessimistic. It assumes that "the majority of the anti-war movement" and "the greater part of the working class" are prey to some form or other of religious dogmatism -- a moot point in itself, and it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that in the UK the recent Popular Frontism of the Respect Party has probably grossly exaggerated the extent of religious dogmatism among those constituencies by actively suppressing the voice of atheism within its own ranks. But even if it were the case that most of those constituencies were religious dogmatists, we would still reject Jay's conclusion that we should in any sense accommodate them. When Marx said that religion "contains the sigh of the oppressed", he meant that we should address ourselves to the oppression, not the sigh. Is religious dogmatism the only ground on which political solidarity with working class or anti-imperialist activists can be forged? Isn't the whole point of revolutionary politics that the position from which we fight is based on solid, materialist common ground, on our hatred of exploitation and our passion for liberty -- not on the "false divisions" of religious illusion? What we have in common with our comrades in the Surrealist movement, the anti-war movement and the working class alike is the fact that we all live in an oppressive, repressive, exploitative, imperialist, self-destructive, violently fucked-up capitalist world, and that's the basis on which we should be holding out our hand -- not just to the anti-war movement and the working class but to all people, everywhere, with all of the fervour with which we believe that SURREALISM IS WHAT WILL BE.

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