Maxime Rodinson: What Marxism Can Teach Us About the History of Islam

Between the nineteen fifties and nineties, Maxime Rodinson (1915–2004) was one of France’s most famous Arabists. Gifted with an admirable encyclopedic culture, author of thousands of recensions, he was also an influential member of the left-wing intelligentsia, often called upon by the media for his views on current happenings in Islamic countries.

Maxime Rodinson at the ASVA Congress in Krasnapolsky, Amsterdam, May 1970
Rob Mieremet (1947-2015)/National Archives of the Netherlands

Maxime Rodinson was born in 1915. His parents were secularised Jews from Eastern Europe who had emigrated to Paris at the turn of the century and in 1920 joined the French Section of the Communist International. He grew up in the nineteen twenties imbued with the ‘revolutionary faith’inspired at the time by the Communist project embodied in France by the ‘counter-society’ composed of the Party, a trade union, la Confédération générale du travail unitaire (CGTU) and their youth and popular education organisations. Once he had earned his primary school certificate, Rodinson had to take a job as errands boy, but thanks to the people’s libraries of the workers’ movement, he was able to pursue his intellectual development on his own so that in 1932 he could enrol in the École des langues orientales1, the only French institution of higher learning which did not require a baccalauréat (i.e., a secondary school degree). After the Front Populaire came to power he joined, in 1937, la Caisse nationale de la recherche scientifique, forerunner of the present-day CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique).

The Lebanese experience

Conscripted for his military service in November 1939, Rodinson managed to be assigned to the Levant just before the fall of France in 1940. He spent the war there, during which time he became acquainted with the leaders of the Syro-Lebanese Communist movement. His wife and son managed to join him, but both his parents, regarded by the Vichy regime as foreign Jews were turned over to the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz where they died in 1943.

On his return to France, Rodinson obtained a position with the department of printed matter in Eastern languages at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF). The early fifties saw the high point of his involvement with the PCF and its publications such as the journal Moyen-Orient (11950-1921). In the mid-fifties, he began to move away from the Party, in the wake of De-Stalinisation but mostly as a reaction to the vagaries of the Party’s colonial policies. After a series of conflicts in connection with his articles, he was the object of a year-long exclusion decided by the Central Commission of Political Control. Rodinson never asked to be reinstated. In the meantime, he had succeeded Marcel Cohen as professor of Ethiopian and Southern-Arabic at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE), a position he held until his retirement in 1983.

The revelation of ‘The German Ideology’

Despite his being ousted from the FCP in 1958, Maxime Rodinson never repudiated Marxism. He retained its materialism and his critiques of ideologies undertaken by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology which provided the governing principle of his thinking and his life.

In an interview given to Gérard Khury at the turn of the twenty-first century, Rodinson explains his break with institutional communism because he felt he had been taken in by an irrational, religious language:

It was a cross to bear for many of us – who had joined the party vomiting religion – to discover that we were in another religion! We had decided to join the communists out of hatred for the irrational and the mythical, and we found ourselves trapped in the mythical and the irrational.

Already in the thirties, comparisons between communism and religion were commonplace. During the cold war, they played a role as important as the notion of totalitarianism in the battle of ideas between the two blocks. We need only think of the French philosopher Raymond Aron’s “secular religion,” or, in the United States Éric Voegelin’s’ political religions.’ What is original with Maxime Rodinson is not his comparison of communism with religion. What is decisive is their subsumption under the concept of ideology: Marx provided Rodinson with the concept that enabled him to understand what communism and religion have in common differently from either Aron or Voegelin, and in so doing to sublimate the feeling of bittercress and humiliation at having been taken in by the Party – a feeling so powerful that he never stopped writing and re-rewriting his self-criticism as a former communist.

The relative autonomy of religions

We must remember that The German Ideology was written by Marx and Engels in 1845-I846 and left unfinished. It was published for the first time in Moscow in 1932. And it was not until after WW2 that Marxist intellectuals began referring to it as a matter of course. Without going into the many debates sparked by the interpretations of this difficult text, we may say that Maxime Rodinson drew from it two main ideas. The first is the impossibility of writing the history of a religion as an autonomous entity without considering the economic, social and political dynamics at work. In the works he produced in the fifties on the life of the Prophet, culminating in 1961 with his famous biography Mahomet, translated into some fifteen languages), Rodinson interprets thus the evolution of the Orientalist approach to the beginnings of Islam: ‘One begins to wonder whether religion is not rather the ideological coating, the spiritual mask, the superficial decor of deeper necessities?’

This might appear very close to the reflection theories developed by certain Marxist sociologists of literature had Rodinson not immediately added that Islam must be understood as ‘a religious reaction to an overall social situation.’

The second important idea, as can be seen, is indeed the relative autonomy of religion vis-à-vis social issues. In other words, ideology translates into its own language the contradictions that run through society.

In the case of Islam, the rapid economic development of Mecca and Hejaz at the end of the sixth century had emphasised inequalities of wealth and social status and established close relations between that region and the Middle East and Southern Arabia. This is probably what caused the appearance of individualistic tendencies in Meccan society, out of phase with the dominant ideology of nomadic society and its egalitarian values of honour and conspicuous generosity, the famed mourouwwa of the pre-Islamic poets. For Rodinson, taking his cue from sociologist Emile Durkheim, the first message of Islam can be understood as a new ideology, drawing on the social and economic tendencies already at work to renovate a disintegrating social structure: Mahomet drew on the individualistic tendencies already present but which, until then had only acted to destroy the ancient structures. He sanctified them while at the same time maintaining the communitarian structures and, in the end, created a new system.

Thus, Islam was born as a possible solution for the tension between the social-economic structures of a Meccan society which had developed quickly during the sixth century and mentalities which were still dependent on the previous state of that society. The new ideology brought a solution for both the psychological tensions (Islam as religion of individual salvation) and social tensions (Islam as ideology of the Arab State).

The left faced with the challenge of decolonisation

While Rodinson was writing about Mahomet, the Middle East and the Maghreb were experiencing the great moments of decolonisation and anti-imperialism. And the French left had to deal with the challenge of Arab nationalism while the newly independent Arab countries, once the unanimous phase of the struggles for independence was over, had to define concrete development policies. Maxime Rodinson tackled the national issue (which he called the nationality issue) on two levels. First of all, he underscored in several publications, the colonial nature of the State of Israel, and played an important role, during the June 1967 war, in changing the attitude of the French left-wing intelligentsia, up to then favourable to Israel, in favour of the Palestinians. In an important book dating from 1966, Islam and Capitalism, Rodinson deals head on with the relations between religion and economic development. He shows that there is not one Islam, transcendent, ahistorical, but several very different Islams, transformed by the historical conditions in which they flourished; these Islams are ideologies it would therefore be methodologically erroneous and politically ineffectual or even dangerous to regard it as the main motor of economic phenomena. Neither the Koran’s generous calls for charity nor its prohibition of usury could prevent the development in Islam of a commercial capitalism and credit practices.

Consequently, Islam’s compatibility with capitalism (any more than with social property) should not be evaluated in terms of an essentialist approach to that religion which characterised the first Muslim reformists, then the Muslim Brotherhood and its imitators, but in the light of the concrete economic history of the Islamic countries, namely those that had known the colonial yoke which had incorporated de facto the Muslim world into capitalism. Some months earlier, Rodinson had been to Algiers to lecture on the ideas developed in Islam and Capitalism, and to warn his listeners against the dangers of the ambiguity fostered under Arab socialism and in the Algerian Front de libération nationale (FLN) concerning the relations between nationalism and Islam. Islam and Capitalism ends with a warning: ‘The secular theorisation of the workings of an egalitarian society cannot be achieved by resorting to religious and moral precepts alone, even if these do legitimate that society.’

Iran, the role of the Shiite clerics

At the end of the seventies, the Islamic counties were confronted with the failure of the strategies of development introduced in the wake of their independence and with the gradual re-Islamisation of public space and national legislations. Rodinson produced several texts dealing with these two correlated phenomena, further deepening the analyses contained in Islam and Capitalism. In December 1978 he published in Le Monde a series of three articles entitled ‘La résurgence de l’Islam’ in which he displayed keener insight than most French intellectuals of the day, showing how the Iranian clergy was playing its own tune and turning to its advantage the tide of the Iranian revolution.

Rodinson attempted to specify the nature of the bond of affinity between Islam and fundamentalism. He pointed out two factors which differentiated Islam and Christianity in their relations to fundamentalism, which he defines as the ‘the hope to resolve through religion all political and social problems and at the same time to completely restore belief in the dogma and rituals. In a scientific article published in 1984, entitled “Muslim fundamentalism and timeless fundamentalism. Attempt at an explanation,” he begins by drawing a distinction between Jesus, who was nothing but a Jewish preacher, and Mahomet who was obliged, given the historical situation of the Arabic Peninsula in his day, to also act as a legislator:

In Islam the basic factor in favour of the recourse to political fundamentalism was the formation of the community of the faithful [Umma], as a consequence of the historical conditions of its origin, as a political-religious structure.

Here we must distinguish more clearly between the sacralisation of the law during the first centuries of Islam, which made Mahomet what Rodinson calls a legislating prophet, and the oath of allegiance to the umma, the power and effectiveness of which were greatly increased from the middle of the nineteenth century by the networking of the Muslim world, firstly through the telegraph, the printed press and the steamship, and today through the telephone, television and the Internet.

Besides which, the Islamic world never knew a secularisation like that of modern Europe, not because Islam by nature prevented it, but because of the belated industrialisation of the Muslim Third World and of the presence of many non-Muslim minorities among the Muslims who contributed for a long time to making religious affiliation a marker of community affiliation. For all these reasons, the masses continue to blame the misfortunes of the time on unbelief or on the moral corruption of their leaders: they remain incapable of providing a systemic explication of their situation (for example, one based on production relationships or imperialism). And so Rodinson defends the idea that Islamic fundamentalism might move forward along lines different from those chosen by Catholic or Protestant fundamentalism, both of which experienced a major renewal during the Cold War.

The responsibility of the modernising elites

He also felt that the modernising elites of Islamic countries, far from advocating a secularised vision of the world resorted on the contrary to the pietistic moralism which they ascribed to the masses as a vehicle for their nationalist or socialist ideologies. The Arab liberals and socialists, discredited by their economic failures, were hoisted with their own petard, and paved the way for Muslim fundamentalism:

It became more convincing to fight for these ideals under one’s own flag than to tie oneself ideologically to foreigners with suspicious motives as was advocated by both the Marxist-leaning nationalists and the socialists.

Nor did Rodinson predict greater success for these fundamentalists, since religion remained, in his view, an ideology which could not suffice to determine the workings of the economy or the society. The Islamic parties would thus have to deal with the same dilemma as their predecessors: either adapt to globalised capitalism under the guise of ‘Muslim gesticulations’ or slip into ‘an archaic fascism’ where religion boils down to a moral order. The first path was that taken by the Turkish Democratic Party (which ruled from 1950 to 1960 (Today we would think of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party [AKP]); the second is that of the Muslim Botherhood (the Afghan Talibans). As Rodinson wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur in February 1979 after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran:

Religions are not dangerous because they preach belief in God, but because they have no other cure for the ills that beset society than moral exhortation. The more they believe they do possess such cures the more they sacralise the social statu quo which best suits their cadres. When they take power, they will not resist the temptation to impose, in the name of moral reform, an order of the same name.

Starting with the notion of ideology in the Marxist sense, Maxime Robinson gradually enriched his understanding of sociology as a concept. Following The German Ideology, Rodinson began by defining ideology as a set of relationships which a society believes it maintains with the world of experience. He adds that ideologies are harboured by social groups, some of which will end up by forming ‘universalist party churches’. Capitalist modernity gradually transforms these movements into purely ideological parties, with a programme which no loonier refers mainly to the hereafter: it is in this world that the promises of the unseen are to be fulfilled. The ideological movement becomes militant and adopts a worldly, socio-political program. Now, the vanishing point of any universalist ideology, its utopian character, is to be found in the co-extensiveness of Church and society, in other words, in its totalitarian designs. Just when the utopia is about to be achieved it mutates into an ideology (in the usual, pejorative sense), ceases to be militant, swaps its worldly socio-political program for moral exhortation or a respectable idealism. The one-time utopia having become and ideology, it may in turn be challenged by another utopia championed by a rising social group (intellectuals, a social class, believers who take their religion seriously). For Rodinson, the politicisation of Islam and the development of Islamic fundamentalism are the fateful results of the subjugation of Muslim countries by the capitalist powers of Europe. This subjugation impeded secularisation and favoured the instrumentation of religion by the modernising elites, convinced as they were of the need to appropriate the language of religion in dealing with the ignorant masses, or by the religious parties, convinced of the efficacy of religion as a tool for the transformation of society.

Idealistic explanations

Now that there is a powerful revival of idealistic explanations of Islamic history – or explications of History in the light of Islam, which amounts to the same thing – it is a good idea to reread Rodinson. In his view, explications by religion are a Band-Aid solution which is resorted to when historical knowledge is lacking; only Western history, better known than the history of other parts of the world, has to a large extent avoided the crippling monocausality of ideological explanations. Conversely it ii is important not to neglect the religious and cultural factors whose importance, in the case of Islam, is to be understood by the decisive instrumental role it has played ever since the nineteenth century, not only among the fundamentalists but also their liberal and socialist adversaries. Rodinson’s thesis is that the roots of the ideologisation of Islam are not so much to be found within Islam itself – though he has no problem designating the specific properties of Islam which have facilitated the development of such ideologisation – as in the totality of transformations in those Islamic countries tightly incorporated, and in a subordinate position, into the world economy dominated by the West.

Maxime Rodinson never renounced his attachment to the rationalist Enlightenment heritage, a trait which he has in common with other left-wing or former communist historians, like Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930–2006) or Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914–2007). In fact, it was Vernant who bestowed on Rodinson, in 1991, the annual award of the Union rationaliste, a venerable association founded in 1930 by physicist Paul Langevin, long dominated by the Communist Party and who later served in the fifties and sixties as a rallying point for anti-Stalinist communists concerned with establishing a dialogue between Marxism and the social sciences. For Rodinson Islam had to (and would indeed) follow the example of Western secularisation: limiting expressions of faith to the private domain and reserving public space for democratic deliberation based on secular rationality. The vicissitudes of recent decades have shown that this development was anything but foreordained and that what was at stake was the very definition of Islam.

The future remains uncertain, and secularisation can no longer be considered inevitable. Which is why, as Lebanese Marxist, Gilbert Ashcar, a grand connoisseur of the work of Rodinson whom he knew personally, has written, ‘the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism – against its social, moral and political ideas, and not against the spiritual principles at the basis of Islam as a religion – should remain for progressive one of their priorities at the heart of every Muslim community.’ A struggle which implies not only the battle of ideas but also, to the same degree of intensity, the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, those harbingers of fundamentalism.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: Predecessor of the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (Inalco).