Tunisia and the Left

From the May-June 2013 issue of News & Letters:

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

Tunisia and the Left

The Feb. 26 assassination of Tunisian Marxist Chokri Belaid is a tragedy, not least because it denies this serious and courageous activist a chance to help work out the contradictions in his own movement. His funeral—perhaps a million people took to the streets—became a massive demonstration in favor of continuing the Tunisian Revolution.

The popular theory that the “moderate” Ennahda Party has used the Salafists to its far right as threats to the Left is credible. The historic demonstrations in memory of Belaid may help defeat reactionary Islamism in Tunisia.

Belaid, a 1980s student activist and lawyer, led the Unified Party of Democratic Patriots, a small organization in the Popular Front. But his call for social justice and critique of reactionary religion spoke to millions.


At the World Social Forum in Tunisia in March, some tried to use that critique of religion for their own purposes, for example, trying to justify support for Assad in Syria, claiming the revolution there was motivated solely by religion. A group styling itself “Shabiha Forever” actually beat up a group of supporters of the Syrian Revolution and vandalized their display booth.

Others attempted to counterpose the Syrian and Palestinian struggles—falsely, since most Palestinians support the Syrians, and vice versa. When some Leftists shouted, “Jihad is in Palestine, you religious clerks!” the sentiment was as misplaced as it was senseless.


Marx’s critique of religion never stopped at this kind of first negation. His critique was based on revolution. It led him to recognize the greater personal freedom of North Africa’s Muslims, the greater intelligence of Australian animists, and “the heart of a heartless world.”

Marx began his search for revolution in permanence with second negativity:

“We do not assert that [the masses] must overcome their religious narrowness in order to get rid of their secular restrictions, we assert that they will overcome their religious narrowness once they get rid of their secular restrictions…The question of the relation of political emancipation to religion becomes for us the question of the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation” (“On the Jewish Question,” 1843).

In his 1844 Manuscripts, Marx equally criticizes religious alienation and abstract atheism that fails to grasp history. Out of respect to Belaid’s memory, the Left in Tunisia and elsewhere might want to grasp that principle of second negativity. It will bring them much closer to the thought and activity of the Tunisian and Syrian masses.

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