I come from a working-class family, and have been a worker throughout my life. Some of my relatives on my father's side of the family were Marxists and from an early age I sympathised with the aims and objects of socialism. Later, my respect for Marxism reduced to regard for certain individual Marxists, most notably Bruce Jesson, and there it has remained. It is worth noting that Bruce himself was critical of the general run of Marxist thought, and occasionally felt compelled to express those criticisms publicly.
More recently I became interested in the the Christchurch Marxist group "redline collective", two of whose leading lights are Don Franks, a cleaner and musician, and Philip Ferguson, a Marxist academic. Franks writes appealing, down to earth and often humorous pieces on the redline website. Ferguson is a more belligerent character who produces trenchant criticisms of other left-wing groups, particularly the New Zealand Labour Party. He is also hostile to religion. Lately redline has been campaigning against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which Ferguson characterises as "murderous, corrupt and repressive". Most of the public, and pretty well all politicians would agree with that assessment, but it is not wholly consistent with my own observations when I was seconded to work with the Jihad-e-Sazandegi in Iran in 1998. Redline declares itself opposed to attempts to bring external influence to bear upon the Iranian regime (either by way of economic sanctions or military strikes) and favours the establishment of a Marxist regime in Iran, but otherwise its campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran parallels that currently being waged by the State of Israel and the "international community" (aka the western powers).
Phil Ferguson gave an Iranian exile in New Zealand, Karim Pourhamzavi, as his authority on events inside Iran, citing Karim's "mass of sources and first hand information". Karim launched a raft of allegations against the regime, one of the most damning being that "Raping the prisoners is permitted if that was for defending the IR" (according to) Ayotollah Mesbahe Yazdi" (IR=Islamic Republic). When asked for a source of information to support this allegation, Karim cited the Zionist website www.aqurette.com in which we read "An influential Shi'a cleric (Ayotollah Mohammed Mesbah-Yazdi) close to (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad informed followers that prisoner coercion by rape, torture and drugs is acceptable in Islam". For the Full text of the Aqurette report click here. Later Ferguson, who is also a strong advocate for homosexual marriage, added to Aqurette's credentials by stating that he was 'a gay man married to another gay man'. That does little to bolster Aqurette's standing as a neutral and reliable source of information on Shia Muslim clerics. More importantly, the claim made against Yazdi lacks verifiable sources. There is no documentary evidence, no independent witness, and despite the claim that the report is a called a "transcript", and is written in the form a transcript, it appears that there is no audio recording of Yazdi's alleged comments from which a transcript could be produced, and the statements Yazdi is alleged to have made are inconsistent with the general tenor of his published works.
Karim answers all these points by saying that Yazdi made his statements in secret, in the form of a fatwa intended for the ears of a select few.
In Islam a fatwa is a judicial ruling, issued under the authority of a leading cleric, with the express intention of influencing the thinking and behaviour of the Muslim community as a whole. A soundly conceived and well-received fatwa will raise the standing and reputation of its originator, whereas a poorly received fatwa would have the reverse effect.
For these reasons the concept of a "secret fatwa" is a contradiction in terms. Muslim clerics believe in their own interpretations of Islam, and are not shy about making their beliefs public. The "secret fatwa" is oxymoronic and Karim himself acknowledges that it is a recent invention.
So who invented the idea of the secret fatwa? Who does it serve? In the case of Yazdi, it is alleged that he made astonishing statements for which there is no admission, no documentary evidence, no audio recording, and no independent witness. A Zionist website and an Iranian exile explain the lack of evidence by saying that fatwa was issued secretly. If we can accept the claim against Yazdi, then using the "same standard of proof" (i.e. no evidence at all is required) we can accept any allegation against anyone.
Ferguson continues to insist that Karim's claims against the IRI must be accepted at face value. He denounced me as an "apologist for repression, murder and corruption" after I questioned the veracity of Karim's allegations. He defends the particular allegation against Yazdi by avowing that Yazdi is "an extremely nasty and reactionary member of the theocracy", which may or may not be the case, but either way does not justify the allegation. Ferguson is a Marxist academic who has not even managed to rise to the level of bourgeois justice, which requires plausible evidence, or bourgeois science, which requires verifiable sources. It is not justifiable to concoct claims against one's opponents just because you deem them to be of a malign political character, and neither is it acceptable to denigrate those seeking verification of facts as "bigots" or "apologists for repression".
No independent court, and no publisher or broadcaster with a reputation to protect could join in the allegation against Yazdi. The presumption of "innocent until proved guilty" must be upheld, because without it society will descend into chaos and the arbitrary abuse of power.
In addition to endorsing Pourhamzavi's allegations, many of which seem to be as baseless as the allegations against Yazdi, Ferguson made slightly off-topic allegations of his own. I say "slightly off-topic", because from Ferguson's perspective the topic is not restricted to the supposed iniquities of the Shia clerical regime in Iran, but covers the iniquities of all branches of Islam and religion in general.
For example he wrote: "I know several young women in Christchurch who chose not to wear any sort of veil and they are continually abused by young Muslim males in shopping malls etc the same devoted young Muslim men who get pissed, do drugs, go to brothels etc etc etc (And I know they're the same guys, coz I work in a place where they study)."
The place where Ferguson works as a lecturer is the University of Canterbury. It appears that Ferguson was not an actual witness to these events and the word "several" may have been an exaggeration. After the redline thread had been closed, Ferguson explained "I had a female student who was from Saudi but wanted to live here... She was an atheist, dressed to please herself, and found that every time she ran into male Saudi students she was hassled by them. She only let on about this towards the end of the course"
In seeming contradiction to his earlier claim that "I know they're the same guys" he now says "I not only didn't teach these students. I didn't even know them or who they were. I heard the stories 'afterwards'" Quite how he knows that they "get pissed, do drugs, go to brothels etc etc etc" is not clear. I do not suppose that Ferguson frequents the same bars and brothels as the University of Canterbury's Saudi students.
One would have thought that the University of Canterbury would have protocols in place to deal with harassment of students. Ferguson received a complaint from a female student, which he considered sufficiently serious and well-founded to justify publication on the redline website. Yet did he take any action to protect his students from such harassment? Did he forward the complaint to the relevant authorities in the University of Canterbury so that it could be properly investigated and the appropriate action taken to prevent any recurrence? Apparently he did neither. Ferguson's allegations against the University's Saudi students sound credible, but because of his unconscionable failure to report the complaint, we cannot be sure that this is not just another case of religious defamation.
Similarly, Karim criticises another Iranian refugee, about whom he knows nothing, as a "fraud", "liar" and "hypocrite" purely on the strength of the fact that this other exile makes occasional trips home to Iran to visit friends and family. One does not have to guess the assumptions on which Karim is basing his judgement. However they remain assumptions, and very questionable assumptions at that, and are not sufficient grounds on which to make such a savage (and as it happens baseless) criticisms of a fellow Iranian and fellow New Zealander.
Some people gain psychological gratification through their judgements of nations, political tendencies, religious persuasions and racial groups as well as individuals. We all possess a natural urge to judge others, and judgement is an essential characteristic of the human being, but we can easily become carried away by the urge to judge. We wrongly come to believe that in judging the world we exercise power over it. With apologies to Richard Dawkins, the real "God delusion" is the belief that we as individuals can judge the world and re-create it in our own image..
We can make judgements in principle, such as "murder is wrong" or "corruption is wrong", although in doing so we are actually internalising a truth that comes from outside our individual consciousness. We can make rhetorical judgements such as "freedom is good" and "repression is wrong" but in doing so we ignore the reality that everyone believes in some kind of freedom and that everyone believes there are some circumstances in which freedom should be restricted or repressed. We can also judge individuals, but in doing so we all too often fail to ask if we ourselves would be happy to be subject to the same standards of judgement.
Judgement should not be used as a means of self-vindication or psychological gratification. Its only real value is as a guide to action, and to judge others in the absence of the power to act is self-indulgent. People who possesses authority to judge and power to coerce or to administer punishment will generally be careful in their judgements, because they know there will be consequences for both the ones judged and those making the judgement. By judging wrongly, they stand to lose both their authority and their power. However those without authority - newspaper columnists, radio talk-back hosts and their guests, political commentators and so on - are free with their judgements and may feel no material obligation to be fair and responsible in the expression of their opinions because they cannot invoke material consequences for others, and thence for themselves..
One salient characteristic of New Zealand Marxism, and the New Zealand left in general, is that it is strong on rhetoric and weak on action. There is a presumption that it is sufficient to point out the failings of others - capitalists, liberals, social democrats, religious believers, dissenting Marxists or whoever - and then to wait upon others - the working class, the students, the Cubans or the Venezuelans - to actually change the world. Ferguson failed to act to in defence of his female Saudi student. He has said he lacked authority to do so. Yet he feels entitled to criticise others in the harshest terms. The truth is that everyone has a natural authority and a natural obligation to "do the right thing". The force of Ferguson's invective against others is directly related to his own self-admitted "lack of authority".
A fundamental problem for Marxism is that it lacks solid moral foundations. As Bruce pointed out, Marxists like to moralise. They point out the iniquities of capitalism. They share the liberal commitment to women's rights, gay rights, indigenous people's rights and so on, which they justify (if any justification is needed) with the usual appeals to the liberal rubrics of "freedom", "equality" and "social justice". In pursuit of freedom, equality and social justice they encourage the proletariat to make social and economic "demands" upon capitalism. Most of those demands remain unmet, which is just as well, because the Marxists' real purpose in making these demands is not to have them granted, but to define a political posture which is perpetually and irreconciliably antagonistic to the capitalism.
Despite their commitment to the universal ideals of freedom and equality, the Marxists have no equivalent to the golden rule of Christianity, or the Kantian moral imperative. If they have a moral code in the true sense, it comes from outside of Marxism. They argue that capitalism is exploitative, but they do not regard it as morally objectionable to collect interest on their bank deposits, profit from rents, or dividends from shares. They urge wage workers to act in a self-interested way, and they do not tell them that it is a sin to profit from capital. Four hundred thousand New Zealanders signed up for shares in privatised power companies. Hundreds of thousands more own rental properties, or speculate in residential property. Millions collect interest off their bank savings. Those hundreds of thousands include many wage workers. The New Zealand proletariat is therefore thoroughly mired in capitalism and Marxism can do nothing to alter that, because it preaches the self-interest of wage-workers, and as things stand capitalism is perceived as the most suitable vehicle for the advancement of individual self-interest.
The ultimate objective of Marxism is to create a society which is free of exploitation and not motivated by personal or class self-interest, yet the way in which they propose to bring about such a major change in human social relations is by encouraging wage-workers to act in their own self-interest. As Ferguson puts it "Some people are not greedy enough". There is a shred of truth in that. Some people do not stand up for themselves when they should do so for the good of all. But a century and a half of Marxist appeals to the self-interest of wage-workers has only created an "aristocracy of labour" in the west, and a privileged class of apparatchiks in the Marxist states of eastern Europe and Asia. The only solution to this problem is a set of moral imperatives such as are provided by religion and which apply to all people, regardless of class, race or gender. However, most Marxists, Ferguson among them, loath religion. They moralise, but they cannot bring themselves to recognise and act in accordance with any absolute moral system. They appeal to self-interest and moral relativism, and they are undone by that same self-interest and moral relativism.
Ferguson and Pourhamzavi cannot even come to a basic understanding of
the need to be truthful. They believe that the allegations
they make against Yazdi and others are justified by their political objective
of establishing governments which meet their own definitions of "free",
"liberal", "democratic", "socialist" and "Marxist". Quite simply,
they believe that the ends justify the means. In other words,
they are guilty of the very mistake which they attribute to Mohammed Mesbah-Yazdi..