A Marxist Critique of Ali Shariati

With the coming of Muharam, the new Islamic year, an article written by Dr. Ali Shariati under the title “Red Shi’ism vs. Black Shi’ism” resurfaces and is shared in Marxist circles almost everywhere. Having read the article fully, one comes across lots of Marxist jargon like exploiter, exploited, oppressor, oppressed, without finding any Marxist (dialectical) analysis of history. It is interesting to note how someone, with his trenchant criticism of Marxism and claims that Marxism as an ideology is devoid of humanity and cannot provide the third world with ideological weapons for its liberation, ended up being a Marxist for most Marxists.

I am not going to discuss the article, which appears to be the communal history of Islam; instead, what interests me here is Ali Shariati’s understanding of Marxism. His privately given lectures—which were serialized and published under the titles “Man, Marxism, and Islam” and later “Marxism and Other Western Fallacies”—juxtapose Western philosophies and ideologies with the religion. The main idea of his work is the assertion that Marxism and other western thoughts have damaged the sanctity of religion and pushed man towards naked materialism. 

The fifteenth century in Europe was a tumultuous period, and it ushered in an era of religious reformation that paved the way for the Renaissance—the rediscovery of Greek ancient literature, art, and philosophy—and culminated in the formation of the modern West, where religion lost its primacy in the face of rationalist philosophies—expounded by enlightenment thinkers—and was relegated to the private spheres of individuals. For Ali Shariati, this history appears to be the history of competition between “the world of God and the world of men”. According to Ali Shariati, the rationalist thinkers from Diderot and Voltaire to Feuerbach and Marx have confused two realms: the mythical world of ancient Greece, which is materialist in nature, and the spiritual world of ancient religion. 

For Shariati, modern, secular, and rationalist thought stems from the mythical world of ancient Greece, in which Gods are cruel, tyrants, and reluctant to pass on the light to humanity. And when Prometheus, who is referred to as the God of Fire, passes on the fire to humanity in the form of technology, culture, and civilization, he is subjected to harsh punishment by Zeus. It is this manifestation of Gods in the mythologies of ancient Greece that, for Ali Shariati, is responsible for an anthropocentric understanding of the world in which the existence of God is not only challenged but utterly rejected. What further gave authenticity to this fallacy was, according to Ali Shariati, the attitude of the Catholic Church, which intensified the class antagonism by neglecting the working class and giving privileges to the clergy class. Ali Shariati here compares these myths with the eastern religions—especially Islam—and argues that the ancient mythical God denied light to humanity, but in Islam it was God who handed over light to Adam. 

It is interesting to note that throughout these lectures, Ali Shariati completely relies on myths and ignores the first attempts made by philosophers in ancient Greece to rationally observe the world. Hericlitus’ philosophy of change, Zeno’s philosophy of multiplicity and motion, Plato’s dialectic of ideas, his philosophy of the soul, and the Aristotelian metaphysics, to name but a few, which laid the foundation of modern thought, are not mentioned anywhere.

He says, “Now the situation becomes clearer. Both these divergent streams of today have their fountain in Greek humanism. Bourgeois liberalism and Marxism alike share, in theory and in practice, this human materialism; Voltaire and Marx both closed their eyes to the spiritual dimensions of the human essence. Bourgeois liberal society and organized communist society ultimately converge in a single view of humanity, human life, and human society. The bourgeois tendencies of the advanced communist societies-which can no longer be simply dismissed-are no accident, no aberration, no revisionist deviation, because everything culminates in man, and it is only natural that those philosophies that have a similar conception of man, no matter what their starting point, should finally enter upon the same road and have the same final destination”. 

Ali Shariati’s criticism of Marxism becomes reductionist, for he sees the philosophies and ideologies in the light of religion, and their acceptance and rejection, for him, are premised on their compatibility with the religion. Discussing Marx’s theory of alienation, he criticizes Marx on two grounds: When Marx says that the logic of capitalism is built on a system that alienates man from nature and when Marx emphasizes the importance of production. Ali Shariati argues that Marxism is devoid of moral values, but when Marx claims that capitalism alienates man from nature, his arguments, according to Ali Shariati, rely on moral values. In other words, Marx resorts to moral values to show that capitalism alienates man from nature. He says, “Thus, when he [Marx] speaks of the capitalist system and bourgeois psychology as appraising human existential values in terms of money, drawing humanity into moral depravity, and building a corrupt society, he bases his thought on moral values. Thus, all the values that Marx bestows upon him in the context of society, he takes back from him with the hand of dialectical materialism”. 

For Ali Shariati, the problem lies in Marx’s dialectical materialism. Marx considers moral values as part of the ideological superstructure and groups them with things like patriotism and religion. It is for this reason that Ali Shariati discredits the idea of dialectical materialism. He says that the basis of capitalism and communism is the same: they are both contingent on the production of commodities. One is committed to distributing the resources equally, and the other creates class distinction, but inherently, both of these tendencies are materialist at their core. Thus he argues, “Communism is no different from capitalism, for the human values and philosophy of life are rooted in materialism”.  

It is not that Ali Shariati is criticizing the aberration and deviation in Marxism in the form of Stalinism in the 20th century. In these lectures, he is attacking the basic Marxist principle. He says, “When the intention is to deny the West, to resist it, Marxism is considered the most effective weapon against it; whereas it is seldom realized that Marxism itself is utterly a product of the history, social organization, and cultural outlook of this same West”. 

The position taken by Ali Shariati is interesting: he sees Marxism as the opposite, or other,” of religion. His basic argument is the same: that the religions of the East—Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, Islam, and Zorostoraniansim—are religions that are not like the ancient religion of Greece. According to him, these religions are inherently peaceful. But he totally ignores the caste system and patriarchy inherent in these religions. 

Munirrudin is a student of History at Government College University, Lahore.