From the Archive | The decidedly Marxist Abraham Serfaty

In 1992, Moroccan Marxist Abraham Serfaty reflected on the path to revolution, theories of communism and how they emerge in different global contexts.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from an interview published inViewpoint Magazine.

Translators’ introduction by Roberto Mozzachiodi and Joe Hayns

As an 18-year-old member of the Jeunesses Communistes, the youth wing of the Parti Communiste du Maroc (PCM), Abraham Serfaty was imprisoned first by the Vichy regime in Rabat, Morocco, in 1944. He left for France a year after to study at the country’s pre-eminent engineering school.

Serfaty returned to Morocco in 1949. As a member of the Moroccanised, anti-colonial PCM, Serfaty, along with his sister Evelyn, aroused the attention of authorities by distributing copies of Hayat al-Shʿab (The Life of the People), the party’s Arabic language paper, sliding issues under entrances and in doorways wherever possible. Serfaty kept up his political activities, and in December 1952 he was expelled by the colonial protectorate for his role in the Casablanca dockers’ strike. He returned in 1956 with the country’s independence, and found work with the state-owned Office chérifien des phosphates (OCP).

Almost immediately, the independent state showed itself as unable to resolve social antinomies in the popular classes’ favour, with the war against the Rif (1958-1959) and – to an even greater extent, for the largely urban communists – the murderous response to the March 23, 1965 student protests each crucial junctures. As both repression and “anti-colonial” hegemony brought the PCM and post-PCM tendencies closer in-step with the state through the later 1960s, the “left of the left” came into an increasingly oppositional relationship with the regime – and it is Serfaty’s view of the proper relationship between revolutionaries and what he would call, in 1972, the “classe makhzan” (the urban bourgeoisie and rural landowners, as commanded by the royal state, al-Makhzan) that constitutes the first major theme of the interview.

The anti-systemic politics of the later 1960s and early 1970s in Morocco were most enduringly expressed through Souffles (Breaths; figuratively, “Inspirations”), the cultural and political review founded in 1965 by the cohort surrounding the poet and activist Abdellatif Laâbi. Souffles’s initial, nationally focused avant-gardism transformed through the later 1960s into a militant internationalism – whose dilemmas are the interview’s second theme – with numerous essays on Indochina, Palestine and the Arabic-speaking world, African liberation struggles and global radicalism generally (including an essay by Serfaty himself on the Black Panthers in Algiers – “Salut aux afro-américains!,” paired with a translation of the Panthers’ 10-point programme).

With contradictions sharpening, Serfaty resigned from his job with OCP in 1968, in solidarity with phosphate miners striking in Khourigba, near Casablanca. In August 1970, Serfaty, Laâbi and others founded the clandestine Marxist-Leninist group Ilā al-Amām (literally, To The Front); correspondingly, Anfās, the Arabphone successor to Souffles, “became the de facto mouthpieces for the radical Moroccan left.” Less than two years later, in January 1972, the leadership of Ilā al-Amām were arrested. Despite having been “savagely tortured”, Abraham was released following “loud protests by the Union Nationale des Étudiants” – tragically though, his sister and comrade Evelyn would die due to her injuries. Living underground in the aftermath, Abraham was sentenced in absentia in July 1973. He was arrested for the final time in November 1974.

On politics and faith, Serfaty’s lifelong anti-Zionism was rooted partly in his Jewishness (“Je né suis pas en exil,” as he wrote on Palestine) and, indeed, the relationship between Judaism and political radicalism that Serfaty embodied has been of particular interest to much of recent writing on him. On Islam, while Serfaty’s biography itself shows that, to paraphrase Aziz al-Azmeh, “Islamism is not the Arab destiny” (and that the Middle East and North Africa is not simply “Arab”), he was in his own writing clear about role that Islamic belief might played and might play in progressive politics.

Serfaty was released only in 1991, and immediately exiled to France (before stepping onto French territory, he said “I have two protests to raise!” concerning political prisoners in Morocco). He returned finally to Morocco in 1999, as the current King Mohammed VI assumed rule.

Serfaty died in 2010, in Morocco, and is buried in the Ben M’Sik cemetery, Casablanca.

The following interview was conducted in 1991 by François Salvaing and Myriam Barbera, amid the fall of the Eastern Bloc, and appears in the 1992 collection Dans les prisons du roi: écrits de Kenitra sur le Maroc.

The translators would like to dedicate their effort to all political prisoners across the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly to the activists of the Popular Movement of the Rif, currently held in Oukacha prison.

Related article:

François Salvaing and Myriam Barbera: You continue to affirm yourself Marxist, at a time when many augurs believe they are able to read the death of Marx in the ruins of the systems that claimed his name in Eastern Europe. What has allowed you to remain decidedly Marxist?

Abraham Serfaty: It was in the 1960s that I began to ask myself a number of questions on the paths leading to socialism, and about existing socialism.

At the beginning of the 1960s, I realised that, from the point of view of the Moroccan situation, we were at a dead end. The Moroccan Communist Party (Parti communiste marocain, PCM) had no strategy whatsoever – and not only did it have no strategy, it showed a total and blind conformity towards the bourgeois parties, most of all the Istiqlal Party (Independence Party), as well as the monarchy. At the international level, we lived through what has rightly been called the crisis of the international communist movement, and we already wondered whether the Soviet Union had taken, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, a path leading down a blind alley.

All this led me to reflect deeply, not only on what the revolution in Morocco might be, but also on what socialism could be across the world. Since that time I’ve been very closely interested in the Chinese experience. I considered then – I’ve always considered – that it constitutes an important experience for the third world. It was from the beginning a very different path from that followed by the USSR. But, I went deeper than this, when I reacquainted myself with the philosophical foundations of Marxism.

FS and MB: In what way?

AS: It was in those years that the first texts of Althusser appeared in France. I sorted through them immediately: what was important to me in them was his writing on materialist dialectics. In the same period I read other philosophical texts, above all Jean Piaget’s, Ernst Bloch’s and those of Karel Kosík. The foundation of all these texts was what I call the dynamics of structures: the very opposite of structuralism, but also very different from the classical dynamics used by Marxism, which is, in some way, a linear dynamic. I believe these texts brought something essential and, moreover, returned to the sources of Marx and Lenin’s approach. With the latter, it was to The Philosophical Notebooks that these individuals turned, not to Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. It is there that I rediscovered the concept, which for me is fundamental, of praxis. I had apprehended it for the first time over the course of a masterful lecture by Laurent Casanova to the communist students in Paris, in March 1948. The term remained in me, but not conceptualised.

These texts, and the first writings of Gramsci translated into French, allowed me to approach all these problems. For me, they take for their axes two fundamentally related concepts: praxis and the dynamics of structures. By thus invigorating myself through a deepened understanding of Marxism, I gradually freed myself from all models, first of all from that of the Soviet Union, in a trajectory that lasted seven years.

FS and MB: If the period in the late 1960s was enough to shake you, is the one we are living in 20 or so years later not even more likely to inspire doubts?

AS: How did I restore myself? – it was my encounter with the research of the young intellectuals of the journal Souffles, led by Abdellatif Laâbi, and on the basis of journal’s independence, our founding of Ilā al-Amām. All this helped us avoid feeling as if the world was ending, as we witnessed what was happening in the socialist countries.

FS and MB: For you, their failure was not the failure of socialism itself?

AS: Let us be clear: the society that was built in the Soviet Union was a caricature of socialism. I am not talking about the first years, marked by the civil war and superhuman efforts that finally led to the stalemate that has been called Stalinism. I continue to hold that the October Revolution was a major event in the history of humanity.

Precisely because it was a pioneer – there had previously been the Paris Commune, but its existence was too brief – it undermined the structures of world capitalism, and thus opened the door to allow other revolutions – especially the Chinese revolution, as Mao said clearly, but also the Cuban revolution – to conceive of and then to advance along the path of socialism.

On the other hand, the socialism of the countries of Eastern Europe was, since it had been implanted, imported and bureaucratic; since it followed a bureaucratic model, it could not succeed. The Czech part of Czechoslovakia, which had a very strong working class and had a powerful communist party, could, if it had followed its own path, have built socialism. It was underway before the 1948 coup and was reborn in 1968, but was blocked in both cases. The coup of August 1968 completely destroyed the extraordinary potential that existed at the time. Understandably, the people of Czechoslovakia today no longer have confidence in socialism.

In other countries, it represented an artificial implantation, so its failure was predictable. The case of Yugoslavia was quite different. Very important experiments have been attempted, but unfortunately, everything is floundering on the major question of nationalism.

I am confident that the workers – the working class of Russia and of Ukraine – who have the experience of a century of struggle as the working class, will be able, each and every one in their respective country, return to the path of socialism and make it triumph in these countries.

FS and MB: You said you were very interested in the Chinese experience?

AS: Yes. My point of view, in light of the studies I have read on the subject – and the most serious ones seem to me to be in English – is that in the Chinese countryside, socialism is taking root. It is an extraordinary phenomenon that this advance is taking place in a country where the working class is very weak. It could only be realised on the basis of the ideas of Mao Zedong, which must be assessed above all on their own strengths. For all the third world, there is here matter for reflection.

FS and MB: According to you, then, a phase has just ended, but that does not put an end to the need to build socialist societies?

AS: We must see the events in their historical perspective. Capitalism is the culmination of more than four centuries of transition from feudalism, and four further centuries have since passed. In fact, as early as the 14th century, Portugal made a bourgeois revolution that lasted a few decades, before failing. So, that the first socialist revolution failed after 60 years, after being misled so quickly, is tragic, but it is only a moment on the scale of centuries that the transition from capitalism to communism will demand. You know this, when you live the reality of capitalism in a third world country.

FS and MB: Among the received ideas that, in France, have endured [ont en France le vie dure]: that Marxism will not find root in the Muslim countries. You have registered your strong objection to this idea. Why?

AS: We should recognise that the notion of a “model” is now in tatters. The communist parties born in the Arab countries have not known how to integrate themselves with the realities of the Arab world. There has been some important cases, like the Iraqi Communist Party, which was the only large revolutionary party in the country but, in its servility towards the Soviet Union, it blocked two uprisings, in 1948 and 1959. On this point, we return to an idea already formulated in this book [ie Dans les Prisons du Roi]: in the countries of the third world – and this is especially true in the Arab countries – one cannot dissociate the problem of the class struggle from the question of identity.

FS and MB: How is the problem of Marxism and Islamic belief posed in Morocco?

AS: The old idea that communism is opposed to belief has taken root in Morocco. Not speaking of religion, and ignoring Islam, has been adopted as a tactic by the parties speaking in the name of Marxism. This is not a serious position. In 1967, after the shock of the Six-Day War, I began to reflect on this.

In 1983, I wrote Marxisme et religion, in which I showed the possible tactical convergences between Marxists and believers, and even more than that – that there is not between us a strategic antagonism. Nothing stops those believers participating in the construction of communism, and there’s no reason why religion wouldn’t exist in a communist society.

In 1989, the journal Ilā al-Amām published a text, even more precise than that. In our revolutionary programme, we integrate Islam as a cultural – rather than political – component of the future republic. Islam, for the Morocco people, is summarised by one word, one concept: “al-Ḥaq”, which is to say, Justice and Rights. We propose a society that responds to this; the dominant Islamist movements currently lag far behind on this. We hope that a “liberation theology” emerges from within Islam, as with the Catholics in Latin America. But we are unable to accept either shari’ah, or any fettering of the liberation of women.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.