‘From what present are we historicizing the left?’ Arab Lefts: Histories and Silences — Alina Sajed

Reviewed: Laure Guirguis (ed) Arab Lefts: Histories and Legacies, 1950s–1970s. Edinburgh University Press, 2020, 312 pp.

There has been renewed interest in the long 1960s over the last few years, not least spurred by the anniversary, in 2018, of the 1968 global uprisings.1 What is remarkable about this interest is not simply the attempt to re-visit one of the most politically effervescent and revolutionary decades of the twentieth century, but the shift in focus from Western universities’ campuses and protests to the far more violent and entangled space of decolonization/anticolonial struggles in the Third World. Decolonization was the complex background against which students’ protests and labour movements in the West (and beyond) unfolded. Moreover, the overtly militant leftist groups in the West/industrialized world who engaged in violent action (such as the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Group in West Germany, and the Japanese Red Army in Japan) drew direct tactical and theoretical inspiration from the ongoing anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Algeria, Vietnam, Palestine, Cuba and China. Kristin Ross (2002: 84) calls the 1960s ‘the era of gauchiste reversal’ since

“[in the late 1960s] … theory itself was being generated not from Europe but from the third world. Not only was the figure of action, the militant peasant freedom-fighter a third world phenomenon—this, after all, was to be expected according to a standard international division of labour in which Europe and the West are the thinkers and the rest of the world the doers, the men of action. But the “wretched of the earth”—Mao, Guevara, Fanon, Cabral and others—had become, in this era of gauchiste reversal, the thinkers as well.”

Indeed, this is the era in which Third Worldism2 was at its zenith, generated not only by the fervour of anticolonial struggles, but also by landmark events such as the Bandung Conference (1955), the Tricontinental Conference in Havana (1966), the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement and of the New International Economic Order in the 1970s (see Sajed 2020). At its core, lay the quest for political and economic sovereignty, and the desire to forge alternative paths of political and economic autonomy. Kristin Ross’ quote takes this even further by indicating that the long 19683 drew theoretical impetus from decolonization and anti-imperialist struggles. Varieties of Marxist doctrines and interpretations (especially Marxist-Leninism) were foundational in many ways to decolonization. And while decolonization and Third Worldism are not exclusively leftist phenomena,4 one cannot undertake an intellectual history of decolonization without taking seriously the varieties of leftist movements and thought that were at the core of many anticolonial projects.5 A new volume edited by Laure Guirguis, Arab Lefts, is precisely such an attempt to sketch the contours of the varieties of leftist thought, movements and figures in the Arab world between the 1950s and the 1970s. In that sense, the volume is a wonderful contribution not only to the general history of the long 1960s, but also to recent literature on leftist histories in the Arab world.6

The volume undertakes a political sociology of notable moments, movements, figures and ideas in the Arab left in a tumultuous period that saw, among others, the tremendous impact of the 1948 Nakba, the 1952 coup of the Free Officers in Egypt, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the rise of Baathism in the 1940s–1950s in tandem with the rise of Nasserism, the Six-Day War of 1967 (whose short and long term consequences cannot be overstated), the July 14 Revolution in 1958 in Iraq led by Abd al-Karim Qasim, and the July 17 Revolution in 1968 that saw the establishment of Baathism in Iraq. Samer Frangie (2020: 256), in the volume, discussing the assassination of Husayn Muruwwa, poses the following question: ‘[f]rom what present are we historicizing the left and for what stakes?’ This is a question that reverberates throughout the volume. Laure Guirguis (2020: 3) starts the introduction to the volume with a variation of this question: ‘[w]hy have the long-eclipsed histories of the Left become enunciable and valuable, and why now?’ The answer she provides highlights the importance of the 2011 uprisings as a reference point from which to connect the hopes and struggles of the present with revolutionary ideas of the past. While the 2011 uprisings have become a significant turning point for contemporary leftist struggles in the Arab world, reducing the present to 2011 offers the reader an incomplete and insufficient answer to a much larger question that ultimately remains unanswered (or only partially engaged) in the volume.7 On that note, this essay seeks to not only map out the main themes and contributions offered by this collection, but also to provide a critical engagement with what I see as two significant lacunae in the volume: the absence of women’s voices and participation, and the lack of a more serious consideration of the impact of political Islam on Arab leftist movements and theorizations (and vice versa).

The volume highlights moments, solidarities and alliances that are not usually given scholarly attention. For instance, both Orit Bashkin’s and Hana Morgenstern’s chapters in the volume seek to examine a fragile but significant alliance between Jewish and Arab Marxists. Building on Maha Nassar’s work, Brothers Apart, in which she examined the enduring links (political, cultural and social) between the Palestinians left in Israel and those exiled (and the larger Arab world), Bashkin and Morgenstern undertake a study of the political links between Jewish and Arab Marxists within Israel. Bashkin’s chapter examines the development of anti-Zionism among Iraqi Jewish communists, and the alliance forged between Iraqi Jewish communists and Palestinians via MAKI (Israeli Communist Party). Similarly, Morgenstern (2020: 41) explores what she calls ‘a shared Palestinian-Jewish Arabic-language literature’, which was very much part of wider regional/international networks of Marxism, communism, pan-Arabism and anticolonialism. Both Bashkin and Morgenstern focus on two major communist publications of that period, Al-Ittihad (The Union) and Al-Jadid. Al-Ittihad was founded in 1944 by a number of Palestinian communists and linked the issue of Palestinian national liberation with communist internationalism and anticolonial struggles. Al-Jadid (established in 1951 by Al-Ittihad) sought to develop ‘an anti-colonial Arabic alternative to the prevailing culture and literature of Zionism and ethnic separatism during the 1950s and 1960s’ (Morgenstern 2020: 41). An equally valuable contribution to understanding these linkages is Maha Nassar’s chapter in the volume, where she surveys the critical engagements of Palestinians outside the Green Line with various groups from the Israeli Left (1967–1973), such as Rakah, Matzpen, and the Red Front.

A welcome focus in the volume is that on individual figures and intellectuals, whether on those figures who have not yet received meaningful scholarly engagement, or with a view to complicating and clarifying the intellectual and political contributions of well-known figures. Nate George’s chapter that engages the figure of Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka as a travelling theorist highlights not only Ben Barka’s crucial position in building the tricontinental coalition, but also his role in the development and institutionalization of the concept of neocolonialism. Sune Haugbolle’s chapter re-visits the work and legacy of Khalid Bakdash, the long-time leader of the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party. The fateful decision by the party to support Moscow’s endorsement of the international partition plan of Palestine in 1947 is read via the rich contestation that took place inside the party around the Moscow line. Philipp Winkler’s chapter attempts to sketch a portrait of Iraqi revolutionary Khalid Ahmad Zaki, who led a (failed) Maoist uprising in Iraq’s Southern Marshes. Laure Guirguis explores in the volume the Lebanese New Left experiments by focusing on the militant and intellectual trajectory of sociologist Waddah Charara. Samer Frangie’s chapter undertakes a political sociology of the assassination of Lebanese communist intellectual Husayn Muruwwa and its political and intellectual afterlives.

I would like to turn now to a more critical assessment of the volume—in doing so, I focus my intervention on three issues, which I see as unaddressed in the collection: an insufficient analytical framing of the collection (including a more rigorous and compelling justification for the selection of cases, figures, and foci); the complete absence of women voices/figures; and the incomplete theorization of the stakes involved by historicizing the left from our contemporary neoliberal present.

While the collection provides a wealth of information about and engagement with various individual leftist intellectuals/activists, groups and movements, or historical moments, it is largely unclear what holds the various chapters together apart from their being part of a general leftist history of the Arab world. The introduction to the volume is rather underwhelming in that regard, and is a missed opportunity in doing the kind of survey/mapping work one would expect for such a collection. The introduction could have provided a better and more rigorous framing of the collection; while it does identify a number of key leftist trends within the Arab world (for instance, Arab communism, Arab socialism—especially in the Nasserist and Baathist guises, and the Arab New Left as major leftist orientations), it does not have much to say about the major influences (both external and internal) that have shaped such orientations both theoretically and as forms of praxis, or about the many linkages among them. In that sense, the reader has disparate glimpses throughout the volume of some important theoretical and organizational influences: several chapters mention the impact of Maoism on various figures and movements in the Arab world; Laure Guirguis’ own chapter discusses the influence of operaismo on the Lebanese New Left experiments; Nate George’s chapter discusses the confluence (so specific to the 1960s) between general socialist traditions of thought and movement, on the one hand, and the ongoing anticolonial struggles, on the other; an orientation towards armed struggle as inspired by the Algerian War, the Cuban revolution, and the Vietnam War, as well as theorizations of it by Fanon and Amilcar Cabral; not least the constant engagement with trends in political Islam (as mentioned in the chapters by Gennaro Gervasio, Samer Frangie and Jens Janssen), which have had tremendous consequences for leftist movements throughout the Arab world.

Gervasio (2020: 162), in his chapter on The New Left in Egypt in the 1970s, laments ‘the absence of the Arab Left’s analytical reflection on the rise of political Islam after 1967, and especially after 1979.’ Indeed, this lacuna is reflected in the volume. It would be hard to overstate the impact of political Islam (in its various forms and varieties) on leftist movements:8 anticolonial Islamic movements emerged almost concomitantly with leftist/nationalist ones and this is one of the major tensions that structured anticolonial politics in the Muslim world (a tension that precedes the 1967 moment usually seen as the landmark moment for the rise to prominence of political Islam).9 In that sense, while the collection provides rich information about certain moments and individual figures, it is also a missed opportunity to map out (however broadly) both the general trends in leftist thought and forms of organization in the Arab world, but also—equally importantly—the major theoretical and organizational influences coming both from within and outside the Arab world. The introduction could (and should) have played precisely this role of providing a theoretical map for the collection.

In Revolution and Disenchantment, discussing the militant intellectuals of the Lebanese New Left, Fadi Bardawil (2020: 4–5) remarks that they ‘inaugurated a sophisticated minoritarian tradition of revolutionary and critical Arab theory, characterized by a “transversality of knowledges”,’ that involved the engagement of a large spectrum of thinkers, from Marx, Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg, to Mao, Trotsky, Gramsci, Althusser, Vo Nguyen Giap, Ibn Khaldun, Che Guevara, Michel Foucault, Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti, and others. As discussed in the introduction to this essay, mapping out these influences is important not least because it illustrates that the circulation of knowledges in the 1960s was not linear and unidirectional (from North to South), but rather the Third World/Global South became a source of revolutionary theory. What is missing, then, in the collection is precisely a historical/theoretical/political mapping of the decades in question. As a side note, Abdel Razzaq Takriti’s ‘Afterword’ makes a more conscious and rigorous attempt towards contextualizing the decades covered by the collection, and the larger geopolitical dynamics in which histories of the Arab lefts are inserted.

A striking absence from the collection are women’s voices or any recognition of women’s participation in histories of Arab lefts. Arwa Salih is only briefly mentioned in the introduction as a ‘fascinating and tragic figure.’ The afterword written by Abdel Razzaq Takriti does flag the volume’s lack of engagement with women’s leftist organizations and feminist thought. Takriti mentions the crucial role of women’s mobilization in the Dhofar revolution, or figures such as Naziha al-Dulaimi, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party and ‘the Arab world’s first female cabinet minister’, and Palestinian feminist and poet Mai Sayigh, member of Fateh, secretary general of the PLO’s Women’s Union and member of the Palestine National Council. As Takriti (2020: 277) aptly remarks in the Afterword, ‘[a]lthough it does not feature prominently in this volume, the intersection between the left and feminist movements is a historical phenomenon that is worthy of far more serious study than has hitherto been attempted.’ Indeed, there is a startling lack of engagement with feminist thought and women’s involvement in anticolonial struggles not only in this collection, but also generally in histories of the left. And while there has been a burgeoning scholarship on Arab/Muslim women’s political mobilization which explicitly engages feminist thought and praxis as part of the anticolonial/national liberation context,10 it is usually treated as pertaining almost exclusively to women’s studies/feminist literature, and not particularly belonging to anticolonial histories or to a political sociology of the left. And it is important to ask why that might be the case, and what might be the reasons for this stubborn absence of women’s voices. On that note, Fadi Bardawil (2021) poignantly muses: ‘I sometimes ask myself what kind of critical work would be produced if one does not focus on intellectual men and their theoretical works like I did. If one focuses instead on the lives and works of women intellectuals, and dwells on the experiences of those who did not leave behind theoretical traces, then what would our account of the Left look like?’

The question posed by Samer Frangie in his chapter on Husayn Muruwwa, ‘from what present are we historicising the left and for what stakes,’ speaks directly to Bardawil’s musing on the kinds of silences we are enacting in past and current histories of the left. Frangie does provide an answer to the question by identifying the current context of Lebanon’s sectarian politics and post-civil war terrain as the background against which Muruwwa’s intellectual legacy can be assessed. Moreover, he reflects on the tremendous consequences (both for the Lebanese left but even generally for the Arab Left) of the rise to power of political Islam post-1967 and especially after 1979. On the other hand, Guirguis’ answer in the introduction provides insufficient engagement with the larger stakes involved by the question. As mentioned earlier, while the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world have become a landmark political moment, they are perhaps better understood as a symptom of larger processes that have been shaping our contemporary present for the last several decades—one such process is neoliberalism. What does it mean to historicize the Arab Left of the long 1960s from our neoliberal present? More specifically, what does it mean to historicize the 1960s left (with its stubborn emphasis on class) from a neoliberal present where class seems to no longer hold the same purchase as a category as it once did?

The 2011 uprisings also prompt us to reflect on the question of the state, namely the fraught relationship between the Left and the state, made even more complex in a neoliberal present. The introduction glosses over a much-needed re-visiting of the question of the state by shifting the focus to transnational/international/regional terrain of the Left. I found it unhelpful that the introduction uses these terms interchangeably—and this is not a matter of analytical pedantry. It is important to understand there is a significant tension between the internationalist orientation of much of the left in the Arab world (and beyond) (not least because internationalism was a zeitgeist of the long 1960s), its local instantiations, and the transnational terrain it navigated. The first term makes specific reference to the privileging of the nation-state (and state consolidation) as a political project, the latter to a more fluid political terrain that cannot be reduced to nation-building or nationalism. Of course, as Fanon (2004: 179) highlighted, the specificity of anticolonial nationalism is its internationalist ethos. However, it also speaks to a political aporia of postcolonial modernity: while the goal of anticolonial struggles was national independence (by virtue of the nation-state being part of the universal grammar of modernity), the terrain—whether logistic, ideological and even strategic—was decidedly transnational/translocal. This paradox means that the Left at times succumbed to what Sudipta Kaviraj (2005) called ‘the enchantment of the state,’ while at other times desperately tried to escape it. The question of the state continues to be a crucial question for the Left.

As mentioned earlier, the collection is a rich ensemble of analyses on various moments in the Arab left, and there is much to learn from reading them. However, without a more rigorous framing of the decade surveyed and of the types of theoretical and political stakes involved, it is not clear what holds these diverse perspectives together. Precisely because of the broad and ambitious scope of the collection—to examine the varieties of Arab Left over two decades—a more careful attention to influences, trends, linkages and broader questions would have helped the reader understand better the specific choices made by this volume.

Alina Sajed (@AlinaSajed) is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. She researches and teaches on decolonization, anticolonial thought and praxis, and Third Worldism and its reverberations, with a focus on North Africa and Middle East.


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1 There is, of course, Ross (2002), which has become a classic in the literature. More recently, see, for instance, Christiansen and Scarlett (2015); Chen Jian et al. (2018); Mokhtefi (2018); Kamola (2019).

2 Scholarly consensus sees Third Worldism as ‘an anti-imperialist ideology of national self-determination’ (Malley 1996: 18), prominent between 1950s and 1970s, active in the context of decolonization and ongoing anticolonial struggles. For a perspective that questions and expands the boundaries of this definition, see Sajed (2019).

3 The term ‘the long sixties’ designates up to three decades (1950s-1970s) of global political, social, and cultural upheavals. This essay focuses on the political aspects of it.

4 There were strong liberal and/or Western-oriented currents in the colonized world that advocated from reform to greater autonomy to independence. Additionally, there were anticolonial movements that drew on religious/traditionalist worldviews, and thus not leftist in their orientation. See, for instance, Goebel 2015 (especially chapter 8), McDougall (2017) or earlier, Chatterjee (1986). McDougall (2017) examines the rise of anticolonial and/or nationalist movements in Algeria in a variety of orientations (from liberal to socialist to Islamic). More recently, for a re-visiting of the impact of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles on the creation of independent states in the Levant, see Arsan (2021).

5 The introduction to the volume by Laure Guirguis uses ‘leftist’, ‘left-wing,’ ‘(global) Left’ interchangeably. The definitions provided by Guirguis are quite fuzzy and vague: ‘‘the Left’ characterises a stance adopted in a specific situation, as well as the principles and values considered socialist or Marxist, to which the involved protagonists referred at that time. […] What is the Left, then, if not a transregional and even transnational, though diversified, universe of meaning and values, a dynamically constructed universe of shared references?’ (Guirguis 2020: 7). I suspect the author intended to convey a sense of the ideological elasticity of the term ‘left/leftist’ when applied to movements as diverse as Baathism, Nasserism, nationalism (whether in its watani or qawmi iterations), the Arab New Left, etc. While the intent is understandable, a much more careful and attentive mapping of the varieties of left-wing orientations, influences, and movements would have allowed for a more precise understanding of the differences but also of the linkages and mutual influences among them.

6 See, for instance, Khuri-Makdisi 2010, Di-Capua 2018, Bardawil 2020, Salem 2020.

7 One might add here that some of the leading ideologues of the 2011 Arab uprisings (insofar as they had ideologues) were explicitly hostile to Marxism and to theories of imperialism. I am grateful to Zeyad El Nabolsy for this insight.

8 Some of the most influential contemporary Islamist theorists such as Egyptian intellectual Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri were lapsed Marxists. They sometimes used seemingly Marxist discourse to justify an Islamist agenda. I thank Zeyad El Nabolsy for this observation. For more on El-Messiri’s intellectual thought, see Haggag Ali (2018).

9 A recent excellent study of this is Hicham Safieddine’s collection of translated texts from Mahdi Amel’s work: Hicham Safieddine (ed.), Angela Giordani (trans.), Arab Marxism and National Liberation: Selected Writings of Mahdi Amel (Leiden: Brill, 2020). See also Gerges (2018). For an overview of the temporary strategic alliance between the Bolsheviks and political Islam immediately after the Russian Revolution (1917), see Fowkes and Gökay (2009).

10 For some excellent examples of recent scholarship, see Bier, 2011, Salem 2017, Ali 2018, Pratt 2020.