Hicham Safieddine (ed.), Angela Giordani (trans.), Arab Marxism and National Liberation: Selected Writings of Mahdi Amel (Brill, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Hicham Safieddine (HS): When the Beirut-based Mahdi Amel Cultural Center approached me to oversee the translation and editing of selected works by Mahdi Amel, I immediately accepted. It was a unique opportunity to bring to light the intellectual contribution of a prominent Arab Marxist so he may reclaim his rightful place in the twentieth canon of political thought.

I also recognized the epistemological significance of translating theory from Arabic to English, rather than vice versa. Intellectual influence must not be unidirectional, and works like those of Amel defy persistent stereotypes that Arab intellectual production is derivative at best. It is my hope that this translation incentivizes a broader effort at translating Arabic thought to English.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HS: Amel (1936–87) was a long-time Lebanese Communist Party member and a prominent theoretician of colonialism and “underdevelopment” in an Arab context during the era of national liberation. In addition to his theorization of the colonial relation, he wrote on a range of subjects of relevance to ongoing debates about the Arab region. He applied class analysis to themes like sectarianism, political Islam, orientalism, culture and revolution, and the relationship of cultural heritage to modernity. Throughout his writings, he sought to produce a theory of Marxism that took colonial rather than capitalist social reality as the objective basis of analysis. He explained underdevelopment according to colonial reality’s own terms.

The first part of this book includes an introduction summing up Amel’s anti-colonial thought, and a brief biographical note of Amel as a martyr intellectual. The second part brings to an English audience, and for the first time, lengthy excerpts from six major pieces of writing by Amel. The first two are founding texts on colonialism and underdevelopment in which Amel began to grapple with the question of dependency. The third and fourth texts are excerpts from his treatise on sectarianism and the state and his critique of Edward Said’s analysis of Marx. The last two texts are his exposé on an emerging Islamised bourgeois trend of thought as part of a broader critique of everyday thought, and his reflection on the supposed problem of cultural heritage as a problem of contemporary Arab bourgeois thought, not Arab civilization.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

HS: My two fields of study are political economy and intellectual history, and I have been a translator and translation editor for years. My previous book was a monograph on Lebanon’s financial history and my first was a study and translation of Butrus al-Bustani’s The Clarion of Syria (with Jens Hanssen). In my monograph, I drew, ever so briefly, on Amel’s notion of structural versus class dependence to better theorize my understanding of financial dependency. But this book is about theory not history, and ultimately, I see myself in this case playing the role of mediator and interpreter, rather than author, of a corpus of knowledge produced by someone else.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

HS: The Arab uprisings saw a revival of interest in Amel among a new generation of leftists. Murals celebrated his legacy and social media was abuzz with quotations attributed to him. This in turn triggered an interest in the Anglophone world about his work. But much of this interest, as significant as it is, remained highly symbolic. Amel’s in-depth arguments were lost in the heat of the political moment or unattained due to the language barrier. A small number of articles fell short of giving him his due, or skewed his philosophy through postmodern interpretations. By making Amel available in his own words, and in English, I hope that activists, academics, students of colonial studies and Marxism, as well as the general public curious about his philosophy, can now explore his contribution firsthand and judge for themselves the validity, or lack thereof, or his theses and arguments.

In terms of impact, I hope that Amel’s writings will have both a theoretical and historical significance. Theoretically, his Marxism undermines persistent post-colonial polemics that reduce Marxism to a provincial theory of mere European relevance as well as challenge Marxist dogma steeped in Western thought. Amel called for a methodological revolution by insisting on developing new Marxist methods and categories of analysis to understand new realities. Developing these theoretical tools, Amel argued, required a constant back and forth between theory and concrete reality. Furthermore, Amel’s Marxism overlaps with dependency theory, but departs from it in productive and creative ways. This will enrich, not undermine, anti-colonial approaches to Marxism. Historically, his work is a reminder that Marxism was a major current of political action and intellectual activity in the Arab world. Reviving this thought is crucial to understanding the historical conjuncture of national liberation in Arab history that is often dismissed as a passing moment of progressive reformation or derided as a failed project of modernisation.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HS: I recently published a journal article (Middle East Critique, 2021) that lays out my own interpretation of Amel’s articulation of hegemony in a colonial and sectarian context. I am also co-authoring a book chapter (with Abdel Razzak Takriti) on Arab Socialism to be published in the upcoming Cambridge History of Socialism. On a parallel track, I continue to develop two other projects of political economy. The first is a study of Arab economic thought in the mid-twentieth century, and the second, dauntingly ambitious, is a critical history of financial colonization of the Arab world and possibly beyond.

J: What is the relevance of Mahdi Amel today?

HS: Non-European Marxist thought like Amel’s remains relevant as a reminder of the need to renew Marxist thought based on the concrete and particular social realities of today and the demands of existing political struggles. Amel emphasised the unifying nature of political struggle. For him, transformative rather than speculative theoretical activity, including the production of a theory of underdevelopment, was part and parcel of his political struggle. His lived experience and assassination were equally an expression of anti-colonial struggle. They, in turn, are a reminder of what it means to be an organic intellectual vested in the trials and tribulations of one’s society or people beyond the strict confines of the classroom or, even in our days, the world of virtual activism.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 7: The Islamised Bourgeois Trend, pp. 111-114)

Book Title: A Critique of Everyday Thought

Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2011. (First published in 1988).

Part IV The Islamised Bourgeois Trend

The contradiction in Islam is between those who defer to power and those who defy it

The use of the charge of atheism as a weapon against those opposed to power does not mean, as power’s faithful servants – including [Islamic] jurists – love to claim, that the primary contradiction in Islam is between belief and atheism. It also does not mean that belief or religion is for those in power while atheism is for those who defy it. Reality disproves such a simplification, which might be held true only by those in power and among its ruling classes. Perhaps because of its simplicity, some scholars of Islamic intellectual history have taken to this idea, or have at least been tempted by it. They have asserted that the defining contradiction in Islamic thought is that between religion and reason. Where religion was given primacy over reason, such as in the thought of al-Ghazali, they saw reactionism. Where reason prevailed, by contrast, they saw progressivism. They thus treated reason as a monolithic category, indivisible by the contradiction between, for example, the following two modes of reasoning: that of dominant reason in a despotic regime – best expressed in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), i.e. the reason of religious law – and a reason antithetical to it. Perhaps we cannot speak of a distinctly antithetical reason in a despotic system in the same sense that proletarian reason is distinct from bourgeois reason in a capitalist system. [In the case of Islamic thought], we may very well find this contradiction between two opposing forms of reason in the thought of a single thinker, as is true for Averroes. It is even clearer in the thought of Ibn Khaldun, specifically in the contradiction therein between a novel form of reason in Islamic thought, namely scientific reason [introduced by Ibn Khaldun], and another form of reason prevalent in the politics of Salafi legal reasoning [that Ibn Khaldun also practiced].

One cause that prevented this exceptional, independent antithetical reason to form might have been the fact that the contradictory forms of reasoning we find in Islamic thought remained part of a single logical paradigm, that of religious thought. Another related cause is the fact that the direct antithesis of dominant reason [in despotic regimes in Islamic history] was not another form of reason. Rather, it was illuminationist Sufi thought, which is a refutation and absolute rejection of reason that does not distinguish between dominant reason and the reason which opposed it. The material conditions for refuting the former are none other than the conditions for revolution against and transformation of the system of despotism [that this reason supports]. These conditions may not have ripened [during the historical period under study]. As a result, rejecting and refuting the despotic order was embodied in thought opposed to reason in toto rather than in thought capable of producing another form of reason opposed to dominant reason. In light of the complicated nature of the contradiction [in Islamic thought], we must take a closer look at Sufi thought and its critique.

The primary contradiction in Islam was not between belief and atheism, but between a spiritual Islam and a temporal Islam.

It is not, therefore, between religion and earthly life, but between two different concepts of religion itself: one in which the spiritual prevails over the temporal, and another in which the temporal totally prevails over the spiritual. The first is illuminationist, Sufi Islam, while the second is juridical, legal Islam. We have already alluded to this and analysed some of its aspects. What we mean to emphasise here is how Islam, in the course of time, sided – overall – with the ruling classes by furnishing them with a weapon against whoever called into question the legitimacy of their rule and revolted against their power, aspiring to demolish its foundations and change it. This is social rather than a religious claim and thereby affords exceptions. Laws governing society or history are generalisations. Actual events, phenomena, or realities that contradict this law actually affirm it. They delineate the limits of historical material conditions under which the law is expressed, always as a contradiction. We must therefore be precise with regards to the formulations of such laws so that they do not say one thing and its opposite. It is possible to cite examples from recent events or distant history which indicate the opposite of what we just argued and suggest instead that Islam, in the course of time, has not in fact served the ruling classes and their [political] system, but, conversely, has worked in favour of those who revolted against the ruling classes. One could cite [the role of Islam] in Algeria’s war for national liberation, for example, or in Lebanon under the Israeli occupation. These two and other examples, however, do not negate what we have said. Indeed, these examples affirm that the exception proves the rule. Simply put, they also affirm that Islam – and religion in general – is not in and of itself ‘reactionary’ or ‘progressive’, just as it is not revolutionary or anti-revolutionary. This is not to say that these categorisations or definitions, given their political character, do not apply to Islam. Nor is it to say that they do not apply because Islam inhabits an otherworldly or absolute position that rises above each and every conflict. Rather, such claims are only possible in relation to how Islam unfolds in time, in accordance with this or that opposing force of the social struggle. The unfolding of Islam in time situates it in the political class struggle that is raging within an actual and specific [political] order during a specific time and under [specific] historical conditions. At any given time, Islam’s character reflects both the position it occupies in this struggle and the particular social force that appropriates it. Islam’s actualisation in time is precisely its material historical existence, in which it, i.e. Islam, exists as a field of the class struggle that is renewed so long as the conditions for its regeneration exist. Islam’s material existence rather than its otherworldly existence is what determines its revolutionary or anti-revolutionary character, which is none other than its class character. Just as Islam’s temporalisation is inescapable, so is its occupation of a position in the class struggle, where its class character is determined. It is natural and indeed necessary that Islam’s position would be multiple rather than singular – even as it is singular on an otherworldly level – due to the multiplicity of the conflicting social forces that put Islam to use. It is also natural that it would occupy contradictory positions, as per the contradiction between these forces. Never in history have these forces [of Islam] been singular, even when they constituted a nation (umma). Moreover, Islam was an umma only according to one, among many, particular interpretations, namely that of its dominant juridical interpretation. It was also an umma only in Islamic Jurisprudence – not in material social reality. According to the latter, the umma was divided into different, conflicting factions and parties (classes). It is unscientific and an annulment of knowledge to analyse reality, and by extension the umma, through the lens of fiqh (i.e. as this jurisprudence had shaped and adopted it) rather than through the lens of material history. It is equally unscientific and an annulment of knowledge to project the theological concept of the umma onto actual history. As such, history and fiqh become synonymous, and history in its material reality must conform to Islamic jurisprudence. The jurists see it this way, as do their Islamist protégés who are engaged in today’s class struggle.