A Book Review of Ali Shariati’s Marxism and Other Western Fallacies
Ali Shariati Mazinani was an Iranian revolutionary and sociologist whose work is largely on the sociology of religion. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century, and has been dubbed the “ideologue of the Iranian Revolution.” Despite experiencing an illustrious career shortened by an early death, he is reported to have authored more than a hundred books.
This book is based on Shariati’s private lectures delivered on various occasions, formerly compiled and printed under the title of Man, Islam and Western Schools of Thought and comprised of three chapters; “On Humanism,” “Modern Calamities,” and “Humanity Between Marxism and Religion.” It is this text, with an inclusion of an additional chapter, “Mysticism, equality, and Freedom,” that forms the basis of the present book titled Marxism and Other Western Fallacies‘ (a title coined by its editor).
In these lectures, Shariati aims to deconstruct the humanistic claims of Western paradigmatic discourses, particularly Marxism, liberalism, and existentialism, by alluding to fundamental epistemic contradictions. Besides this, he presents Islam as a comprehensive worldview, absolutely attuned with humanism, and therefore the only alternative for humanity to counter the crisis of modernity.
In the first chapter, Shariati delineates a general conception of human nature as agreed to by what he identifies as the four intellectual currents that represent or claim to represent humanism. More specifically, he focuses on unraveling the philosophical inconsistencies of the Marxian claim of it being a humanistic doctrine.
He delves into the nature of humanism as propounded by liberalism and Marxism, and explicates how their conception of man is in reality only an extension of that of Greek humanism. In Greek mythology, gods were essentially understood to be anti-human forces, whose be-all and end-all was to subdue humanity. Thus, Greek humanism strived to arrive at an anthropocentric universe, where ‘man’ and not ‘god’ would be in command. This anthropocentricity, in a bid to oppose the ‘divine,’ degenerated into pure materialism. During the Middle Ages, the encounter of this humanism with the anti-man, dogmatic Catholicism, which resembled Greek mythology in its portrayal of man-God relationship, further fortified its materialistic orientations. Subsequently, material prosperity was taken to mean a symbolic triumph of man over the anti-man deities.
Shariati argues that the two ‘apparently’ divergent worldviews of the modern era, liberalism and Marxism, having their fountainhead in Greek humanism, “converge in a single view of humanity…“, and so “the bourgeois tendencies of the advanced communist societies-which can no longer be simply dismissed-are no accident, no aberration, no revisionist deviation…“ Elucidating his argument further, he says that the Marxian philosophy of man and life is in reality ”an extension of the life of the bourgeoisie to all members of society.” Therefore, he asks, “Is not Marxism more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie?”
Then, he briefly analyzes radicalism and existentialism. He explains that humanism, under these two currents, did arrogate some space to morals and values contrary to its past materialistic dispositions, but their nature, as they emanated, either from man’s moral conscience or at other times from flimsy sources like “social conscience,” had undergone a dramatic transformation. Their age-old sublime and transcendental values had been destroyed. Extrapolating the commonalities from the aforementioned traditions, Shariati attempts to build a final understanding of human nature. He thus defines man “as a primary, aware, self-conscious, creative, idealistic, and a moral being with an independent volition.”
Towards the end of the chapter, Shariati touches the debate of value vs utility. It is here, according to him, that Marxism tends to be inconsistent. He argues that Marx, on the one hand, gives high regard to moral values and decries the alienation of man produced by materialistic capitalism. However, on the other hand, he stumbles into grave materialism while constructing the edifice of his thought on pure materialism, namely economic determinism. He concludes this chapter with the incident of Nietzsche sacrificing his life to save a draft horse, something the materialists would deride. Insinuating the primacy of values over utility/material, he says,
What produces this kind of judgment and motive in man is the transcendental dimension of human existence, in denial of which materialism and dialectical materialism have denied man, and in affirming which they have denied themselves!
In this chapter, Shariati attempts to explain the modern calamities that have led “to the deformation and decline of humanity,” classifying them under two categories; social systems and intellectual systems. He discusses capitalism and communism under social systems, and explains them to be based on the same principle of economism, and how they construct man as a mere consumer. A “worshipper of consumption” always worried about satiating his material desires. He laments how tragically “the man, a primary and supra-material essence, has been forgotten” and reduced to a brute “economic animal.” He says,
we have: state capitalism in the name of socialism; governmental dictatorship in the name of “dictatorship of the proletariat”; intellectual tyranny in the name of the one Party; fanaticism of belief in the name of “diamat” and finally, reliance on the principles of mechanism in the name of quickly attaining “economic abundance in order to pass from socialism to communism!
– all the while, turning a blind eye to the essence of the man, his transcendental nature. Therefore, humanity is reduced to be the product of the “mode of production” and hence, as Shariati says,
the primacy of man in Marxism derives from the primacy of tools . . .instead of humanism one might speak of “utensilism,” or one might say that mankind is not considered, as in Islam, the progeny of Adam, but rather that of tools!
Then under intellectual systems, he explicates how intellectual perspectives like historicism, biologism, sociologism, and naturalism have patently robbed man of his essence as a being having a supra-material essence. Tracing the genesis of major religions, he explains how they had originally arrived to deliver man from the bondage of various fetters but ended up degenerating into a farrago of superstitions, bigotry, and dogmatism – a tool of oppression and exploitation. As a result, in his revolt against religion, man embraced science as his savior. This science, rather a rigid scientism, coupled with liberalism, promised him the paradise that religion had promised for the hereafter, right here on the earth. It should be noted that Marxism also shared such wishful thinking. Such a state of affairs proved to be a breeding ground for existentialism spearheaded by Sartre. Shariati says,
a generation severed from religion, disgusted with capitalist mechanism, and now disillusioned with the promised land of communism, found a breath of fresh air in existentialism.
Existentialism tried to reclaim the ‘essence’ of man. It aimed to pull out man from the dungeons of materialism and determinism and equip him with free will – a will to create his own essence, thereby making him “a God who creates himself.” Ruminating on Sartre’s existentialism, Shariati argues that though he equips man with a free will, he utterly fails to assign an objective criterion for assessing the same. He makes “good sense”, a mere subjective feeling that inheres in humanity, the absolute criterion for distinguishing good from evil. Since a free will entails the question of responsibility, he, yet again, fails to answer the question as to whom should a man be responsible. Raising these contentions, Shariati asks,
as all objective moral criteria and human spiritual values fall away, is it possible that Sartre’s existentialism, by proclaiming the human will free and independent in the world and in society, has brought forth, instead of a god, a demon?
Humanity between Marxism and Religion
The third chapter puts forth an exhaustive account of Marxian worldview, juxtaposed with Islamic Jahanbini, and attempts to refute its claims of being a humanistic doctrine. Furthermore, it attempts to demonstrate the evolution of the crisis of modernity and makes a case for Islamic worldview as its potential panacea.
He preludes his argument by discussing four movements of his times, viz. Protestantism, capitalism, fascism, and Marxism. He argues that though all of them sprout from the same materialistic foundations and therefore bear a general indifference towards religion, Marxism however stands apart in its confrontation with religion, so much so that it considers the “systematic eradication of all form of religion” a “prophetic mission.”
While discussing the philosophical basis of Marx’s thought, Shariati contests his originality arguing that his critique of religion is mutatis mutandis, a mere replication of Fuerbach’s thought. He also argues that Marx’s understanding of religion is essentially based on the Greek mythological depictions of the God-man relationship that he discusses in the previous chapters. Marx very naively “replaces the intellectual and scientific facts concerning religion with the historical and social role of the religious minded” and hence annuls the former by attacking the latter.
Shariati then proceeds to take on Marxism in a manner more nuanced than in previous chapters. He argues that Marxism inheres serious self-contradictions – contradictions between Marx as a philosopher and Marx as a sociologist. He says Marx the philosopher
has constructed his humanism from elements derived directly or indirectly from religion, mysticism, moral philosophy, and particularly from seventeenth-century humanism and early nineteenth-century German moral socialism.
hence presenting man as “a two-legged god roaming the earth.” However, when Marx the sociologist takes over, it undoes what Marxian philosophy had done:
he takes this being who was seated on the divine throne and hurls him headlong to the ground. This mighty creator who has created God, history, and even himself…suddenly turns out to have been created by his own economic tools, themselves the inevitable product of the law of dialectical materialism.
After highlighting these stark contradictions, he scoffs that “Marxism has emerged as a major source of opposition to Marxism.” Shariati argues that Marx, on the one hand, postulates that any change in the superstructure is absolutely contingent upon the base, and, on the other hand, he subjects change in the base to the laws of dialectics where a human has no active role to play. Rendering revolution totally absurd for masses suppressed by feudalism or capitalism, this would mean that they simply had to wait for “the appearance of the promised Messiah, the machine, which would collectivise labour,” and only then could they expect a change in the superstructure, in their lives.
Shariati then dedicates the rest of the chapter entirely to the analysis of Marxism vis-a-vis Islam. He first answers the question of apparent similarities in both the worldviews by making a distinction between “shared ideals” and “ideology”. He contends that similarities of ideals do not necessarily mean that the ideologies per se are similar. Merely sharing ideals, for instance, of justice and equality, cannot equalize them at a paradigmatic level. The divergent processes of arriving at and conceptualizing these shared ideals set them completely apart as unidentical features of two opposing discourses.
Shariati then takes on the question of which of them can be a representative of humanism in the real sense. He enumerates eight points, putting forth a nuanced, comparative analysis of the fundamental claims of both these worldviews. He argues that while Marxism “completely undermines the conception of man as will and consequently leaves the principle of human responsibility without justification,’ Islam “considers the human will to be a manifestation of the universal Will of Being…Islam never hurls it into the terrible pit of materialistic determinism.” While Marxism reduces man to a passive “object” – a product of tools – Islam defines man as an independent “subject” with a free will and ultimately a vicegerent of God on earth. Shariati says,
True humanism is a collection of the divine values in man that constitute his morals and religious cultural heritage. Modern ideologies, in denying religion, are unable to account for these values.
Therefore, after delineating the essence of the Islamic worldview vis a vis Marxism in particular, and other doctrines in general, he concludes saying,
Islam will play a major role in this new life and movement. In the first place, with its pure tauhid, it offers a profound spiritual interpretation of the universe, one that is as noble and idealistic as it is logical and intelligible. In the second place, through the philosophy of the creation of Adam, Islam reveals in its humanism the conception of a free, independent, noble essence, but one that is as fully attuned to earthly reality as it is divine and idealistic.
Acknowledging the fact that this task is not absolutely prefabricated, he calls upon the Muslim intellectuals to partake “in the current war of beliefs” and thus “serve as an example to contemporary thought, where the new human spirit is seeking the means to begin a new world and a new humanity.”
Mysticism, Equality and Freedom
In this last chapter, Shariati revolves his argument around what he calls three basic currents: mysticism, equality, and freedom. He argues that it is the balanced interplay of these currents that results in the actualization of human essence, but that the discourses (viz. religion, socialism, existentialism) that have historically aimed at the deliverance of humanity have been one-dimensional in their approach. Shariati finally makes a case for Islam as an alternative, arguing that it is the only discourse that attends to all these currents in a balanced manner.
Shariati traces the genesis and transition of these three discourses and explains how each of them had attended to only one aspect of human life while ignoring the rest. Eventually, religion came to be recognized solely with mysticism, socialism with equality, and the latest of them, existentialism, with freedom. Furthermore, he highlights the severe ramifications on the working class brought about by the exploitative nature of capitalism and the historical role of religion as an instrument of the ruling classes. After analyzing these three discourses, he succinctly enumerates their weakness. He argues, the established religion “actually separates man from his own humanity…making him a slave to unseen forces beyond his power…and alienates him from his own will.” Socialism, on the other hand, “has turned out to mean state primacy and worship of the state which have become primacy of the…leader.” And lastly, existentialism, as “it denies both God and social issues,” thrusts him into an abyss of aimlessness and worthlessness.
Finally, Shariti arrives at Islam. He defines Islam as an all-pervasive and an all-comprehensive paradigm contrary to other religions that are confined to the spiritual or what he calls the mystic realm only. He argues that, to his knowledge, Islam is the only “school” that is harmoniously centered on all three dimensions, and thus the only way-out for the actualization of the essence of humanity. He argues that man who is realized by the Islamic paradigm is multi-dimensional. Inflamed with love, he cries in solitude, yearning for the unseen, yet at the same time situated in the social reality, he is always at the forefront in establishing justice. From the standpoint of existentialism, he is the best manifestation of man’s existence;
in Islam, there actually exists a paradoxical relation between man and God – a simultaneous denial and affirmation, a becoming nothing and all, essentially an effacement and a transformation into a divine being during natural, material life.
In his conclusion, Shariati affirms that if the Muslim nation embraces Islam in its totality i.e. encompassing all the aforementioned points of view, it shall inevitably lead to their salvation and of humanity at large.
This book is a brave, unapologetic attempt to present the idea of the Islamic weltanschauung in its pure and pristine form, all the while deprecating the parochial and sectarian proclivities that have hitherto plagued it. It should be noted that this book is actually a compilation of Shariati’s speeches delivered at various places, so it is only natural that it gets a bit repetitive at certain places and might sound slightly incoherent to the reader. Nonetheless, it successfully manages to put forth a coherent argument, especially in its critique of Marxism.
It is well known that during colonial times, Marxism in its revolutionary glory was perceived as an effective instrument of resistance against the West by many Muslims across the globe. So much so that many of them had come up with an uncanny narrative proclaiming the objectives of Islam and Marxism to be similar. It is this narrative that Shariati totally debunks. He explains beautifully how Marxism is the product of the same West that the Muslims intended to negate. Moreover, he solves the confusion of apparent similarities between the two by differentiating ‘shared ideals’ from the ideology per se. He lucidly delineates the stark differences in the first principles that lie at the heart of these two traditions. The Marxist cosmology is based on brute materialism and therefore the values it champions (e.g. liberty and equality) do not go beyond the realm of materialism. However, the cosmology of Islam is essentially premised on the unity of the divine authority (i.e tawhid), and unflinching faith in the unseen (ghayb). The values that Islam espouses (eg. justice) are therefore derived from the metaphysics of Tawhid, and not materialism.
By showing how Islam stands apart from the Western discourses, particularly Marxism, Shariati makes a very compelling case for understanding and internalizing what Ismaʻīl Rājī al-Fārūqī calls “Tawhid as a worldview.” Since a formidable number among the Muslims still believe that adopting Marxism or Neo-Marxism to counter the hegemony of the West will not affect their Islam, or even that it is in sync with the Islamic worldview, this book, despite its age and lecture-based format, is still relevant to our times.
- Gheissari, Ali. 1998. Iranian Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Iran, the untold story: an insider’s account of America’s Iranian adventure and its consequences for the future, Pantheon Books (1982), p. 129
- Hamid Algar, a British-American Professor Emeritus of Persian studies at the Faculty of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
- Western Liberalism, Marxism, Existentialism, and Religion.
- The italicised text within quotes throughout the review has been quoted verbatim from the book.
- Abbreviation for dialectical materialism.
- Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre is a French philosopher and one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism.
- Jahanbini, meaning total world-view, was one of the favorite terms of Shariati. (p.8)
- Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach is a German philosopher and anthropologist best known for his book The Essence of Christianity which contains his philosophy and critique of religion.
- Ismaʻīl Rājī al-Fārūqī, The Essence of Islamic Civilization. The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2013. p.2
Photo Credit: alixanasworld
About the Authors: Faizan Akbar is pursuing a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Aligarh Muslim University. His interests include Political Theory, Religion, Philosophy, and Qur’anic Studies. He can be reached at email@example.com or twitter.com/faidhan_wani. Muzamil Ali Alone is pursuing a Masters in Philosophy from Aligarh Muslim University. His interest include Islam, Philosophy, and Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/muzamilalilone.