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Arab Specters of Marx

Panel 064, 2018 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 16 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arabic political thought, economic theory, and literary criticism intersect with the legacy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and this panel will consider how that legacy can be read across a series of historical junctures. All the papers have a common interest in how Marx’s ideas, especially those most available in Arabic, namely, Capital, The Communist Manifesto, and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, bridged the distance between the European contexts in which they were written, and the Arabic intellectual, political, economic, and literary contexts in which they were read and sometimes put in motion. What relationship did Marx’s London or Berlin or Paris observations have with those lands he deemed as breaking free from the Asiatic Mode of Production? And how does the circulation of Marx’s work over the decades and centuries inform the shape of intellectual, political and cultural projects? Perusing Arab merchant records from the Egyptian National Archive, the writings of Iraqi Marxists, debates within Egyptian economic theory, and third-world literary journals in Arabic, this panel reads across an historical arc spanning from the time when Marx himself was writing and publishing in the mid-nineteenth century, through to reflections on the historical limits of the Iraqi Communist project in the wake of the American occupation. We seek to investigate the relationship between locality, nation, and global circulation and translation in the reception of Marx’s ideas in the Arab Middle East; and to contribute to a growing discussion emerging out of scholarship on the history of capitalism and Marxist thought in the region, connecting the late nineteenth-century Nahdah to the Cold War and in turn our more contemporaneous moment. At each juncture, geography and translation appear as formative questions, reverberating in a reading of the disputes of khedival Cairo merchants; the intellectual works discussed in the corridors of Egyptian academia; the limits of Soviet-style Communism in Iraq; and Marxist, third world visions for resistance literature worked out in early issues of the Afro-Asian Writers Association’s journal Afro-Asian Writings, later Lotus.
  • “Innovation and Stagnation in Contemporary Marxist and Radical Historiography in Egypt” In Egypt as elsewhere, Marx’ Capital is often read as a work legitimating the idea that economists ought to define Marxism, as this is the main work of so-called “Mature Marxism” and it deals with economy. However, others have found in Marx’ writings on literature, politics, history, philosophy and anthropology a foundation for their work and their works have influenced the trajectory of the Marxist worldview as well. This paper takes up historical writings by Egyptian Marxists and progressives focusing on two problems of concern to them, both of which are familiar ones for Western scholars, who work on Egypt as well, hopefully thereby making this presentation more accessible. The first of these is the necessity of the 1952 Revolution and the second is the problem of the Asiatic mode of Production approach or military regime approach to Egypt. Both of these problems appear in Egyptian leftist writings on up until today. An influential figure in the discussion of both of these problems was the historian Raouf `Abbas Hamid. In the book he co-authored with `Asim al-Dasuqi on the large landowning class and the peasantry, a complicated argument for the 1952 Revolution, as opposed to coup, is developed based on an analysis of the class struggle of the preceding 100 years, the class war dominating and the ruling apparatus is simply background. Here one encounters a theoretical problem, one not only dividing the Egyptian left from the liberals but one which divides the left itself. Books which take Egyptian history as the class war differ from those which emphasize the long term unchanging nature of Egypt as Pharaonic as one finds in Ahmad Sadiq Sa`d’ three volume history and later in such works as those of Henry Curiel and Anouar Abd al-Malek. Today, the battleground for and against AMP, the paper will show by way of conclusion, has shifted from contemporary history, which has become a bit stagnant, to early modern history, while today in the memoirs of communists of all sorts, prison is a subject.
  • Marxism has been a popular paradigm for writing the history of political economy in the Middle East. Studies of labor movements, landownership, and the economic backgrounds of twentieth-century-political party leaders and members have come to form a central corpus of scholarship on the region, especially in its colonial and post-colonial phases. However, Karl Marx's evolving critiques of capitalism, and commentaries on current events were formulated roughly between the 1840s and the early 1880s, a time period that coincided with the deepening of the Middle East's integration into the World Economy. While his views of the "Orient" (for example, as popularized in his 1850s-articles on British-ruled India) reflected a limited awareness of nineteenth-century non-European contexts, he understood capitalism as an expanding global phenomenon. Therefore, especially in light of recent intellectual histories and biographies that insist on situating Marx within his nineteenth-century European environment, it seems apt to read his ideas as they evolved in relation to contemporaneous capitalist processes in the Middle East, which, in turn, were inseparable from the political and economic transformations taking place in Europe. This paper will look specifically at a dispute between silk weavers and their guild masters in Cairo in 1872. Its starting point is a close reading of the legal documents generated in relation to the dispute, and currently preserved in the Egyptian National Archives. This reading will shed light on how these historical actors understood their roles and relative power in relation to each other, and in relation to the larger market that they inhabited. The paper will then zoom out in order to contextualize this dispute in light of recent scholarly findings on mid-nineteenth-century legal and economic institutions such as credit enterprises and merchant courts. In conclusion, the paper will question the extent to which Marx's contemporaneous understanding of the process of production in a nineteenth-century capitalist context sheds light on this small-scale dispute that unfolded away from the European metropoles.
  • Dr. Elizabeth Holt
    Edward Said observed in Orientalism that the United States inherited the imperial mantel of the French and British with the slow collapse of European empires after World War II and into the Cold War, when American capitalism pursued increasingly global encounters with Communism. At Bandung in 1955, Afro-Asian peoples came together in solidarity and non-alignment, creating the Afro-Asian Writers Association (AAWA). From 1955, the official languages of the Afro-Asian movement were English, French and Arabic, capitalizing on the expansive linguistic geographies of empires past and passing. Inspired by Marx and Mao, and, by the 1960s, funded by the Soviets, the AAWA sought to tap imperial French and British literary networks, and those that subtended Islamic statecraft, and use them “in the struggle … against imperial oppression and foreign rule.” In 1968, their journal, Afro-Asian Writings (later renamed Lotus) published its first issue, appending a small-print section, set off on light pink paper in the Arabic edition, containing documents and reports of the AAWA meetings and resolutions. We read of the 1967 conference held in Beirut, where the “new imperial infiltration of culture” by the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s covertly founded and funded Congress for Cultural Freedom was at the center of a discussion of “resistance” – in the Arabic edition, muqawamah -- of “imperialist cultural activities.” The AAWA’s work is elaborated in a report on the earlier Cairo and Tashkent meetings in language distinctively embroidered with that of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, such that Afro-Asian Writings offers the Manifesto’s vision of world literature – “intellectual creations of individual nations become common property ... and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature” – a riposte from what became with Bandung “the third world.” The Manifesto’s “remotest zones,” sources of raw material and markets for industrial products, cite Marx and Engels as they plot to distribute Afro-Asian Writings “not only to the Afro-Asian countries, but all over the world,” so that they might be, as Marx and Engels have it, “consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.” The paper ends by considering how this reading of the AAWA’s conception of literature redounds on Ghassan Kanafani’s “Resistance Literature in Occupied Palestine” (an essay version of his book Adab al-muqawamah fi Filastin al-muhtallah) published in Afro-Asian Writings’ widely disseminated second issue.
  • Dr. Muhsin J. Al-Musawi
    The Hold of Marxist Thought in Iraq: How Real? The Iraqi Communist Party made no actual presence in post-occupation years. With only one seat in Parliament, it is difficult to argue a Marxist hold despite a long history of popularity, struggle, and sacrifice. Apart from the miscalculated pragmatic participation in 2003 occupation authority management of the country, and the loss of a large number of sympathizers, the fact that the state sector was dismantled in order to open the door for neo-liberal economy is another blow to a left that was already wreaked since 1963. To put this loss in a historical perspective, this paper takes Mahmud Ahmad al-Sayyid’s and Husayn al-Rahhal’s understanding of capital and Marxism as a starting point to engage with the pitfalls in the communist movement as depicted in Baha al-Din Nuri’s Memoirs. As the Secretary General in the 1950s, Nuri considers subservience to Moscow the most devastating and demoralizing for a large number of members and cadres who were shocked by the growing rigidity that stifled literary and artistic effort and led to an impasse in Iraqi socialist thought. Existentialist thought thrived at the expense of this loss, and so did other trends.