Nationalist ideology of one form or another has been the central expression of Arab politics in the twentieth century. In its Nasserite, Ba’athist, Palestinian, Lebanese, Algerian, and pan-Arab varieties, it has moulded and shaped the consciousness of generation after generation of Arabs.
Working class political traditions ‒ as opposed to economic trade unionism ‒ have on the whole been of a stalinist variety. Historically such traditions have developed on a mass scale in only a few Arab countries, where mass communist parties managed to occupy the local political scene for short periods (Sudan or Iraq between 1958 and 1959). However even in the case of the Arab CPs, the influence of stalinism and the ‘socialism in one country’ thesis has meant that the CPs have either counterposed themselves to Arab nationalism because of their subservience to Moscow rather than out of a more profound understanding of the national question (as happened on the question of recognition of Israel in 1948); or else they simply adapted to local nationalist pressure (example: the Egyptian CP dissolving into Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union, or the Iraqi CP supporting Qassem in Iraq). Such trajectories invariably ended in the same result: the Arab CPs were outflanked by nationalist formations and became marginalised. This has created a situation in which the process of radicalisation in the Arab countries, especially after 1948 has generally bypassed the traditional CPs and been channelled through fundamentally nationalist organizations like the Arab Nationalist Movement, the FLN in Algeria, the Ba’ath, and more recently the organizations of the Palestinian resistance. This is quite different from the situation in Southeast Asia, for example, where mass CPs in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand were at the forefront of both the victories and defeats of the post-World War II struggles in that part of the world.
Perhaps not surprisingly, an important victim of this hegemony of nationalism on the political and cultural formation of the Arab left is objectivity in understanding the phenomenon itself. The study of nationalism in the Arab world is immediately confronted with: (a) its deeprooted and almost ‘instinctive’ insertion into everyday life; and (b) the absence of marxist/internationalist analytical traditions of any substance. Certainly many books and countless articles have been ‘written on the subject by Arab left-wing intellectuals of all varieties. In recent years, coinciding with the rise and decline of the Palestinian resistance movement, the subject of Palestinian nationalism has come to the forefront in journals like Shu’un Filistiniya, Dirasat ‘Arabiya and Palestine Studies. Unfortunately, this literature, while dealing with the history, origins and evolution of nationalist movements or political formations, is inadequate at a most fundamental level: it generally evades and mystifies the marxist distinction between nationalism (understood as an ideological and political phenomenon) on the one hand, and national formation (in the sense of the development of the objective socio-economic foundations for the nationalist phenomenon) on the other.
If we look at pan-Arabism, for example, a number of important questions are immediately posed. How is it that the Arab world is distinguished from regions like Southeast Asia or Latin America by the fact that pan-Arab nationalism played such a prominent role in more than one Arab country, in the form of Nasserism or, to a lesser extent, Ba’athism? Nowhere in Latin America, Southeast Asia, or even Africa, have regional or supra-country nationalisms played as far-reaching a role as in the Arab world. Peronism, unlike Nasserism, was above all else an Argentinian phenomenon. Its repercussions on Chile or Brazil were of a wholly different order of magnitude than, for example, Nasserism’s impact on other Arab countries. What, then, is the basis in the actual history of the modern formation of social classes in the Arab region that explains this phenomenon? Or, to put the question more bluntly, is there a single Arab nation, or are there a multitude of different nations in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. . . etc.?
A similar problem is posed in the case of a much more recent development: Palestinian nationalism. What are its roots in the social reality of the Arab region? How is it that this nationalism is strongest outside Palestine, where a Palestinian class structure and in particular bourgeoisie does not exist? Certainly there are Lebanese, Kuwaiti, and Egyptian bourgeois of Palestinian origin. But in no sense are they economically constituted as Palestinians. To what extent, therefore, is Palestinian nationalism something more basic, fundamental and lasting than simply the wishes and aspirations of intellectuals and about one and a half million refugees scattered in several Arab countries?
The scientific study of nationalism in the Arab world requires, as a methodological point of departure, research into the actual history of social formations. We must, in contrast with the nationalist standpoint, turn the problem right side up. It then becomes one of tracing and following through the mediations from the objective structures of Arabic-speaking countries to their reflections at the superstructural or ideological and political levels. It is only in this way that some of the great problems facing Arab revolutionaries on both a theoretical and practical organisational plane can even begin to be resolved.
It is to the credit of Samir Amin that he has at least tried to tackle the problem of national formation in the Arab region from a marxist viewpoint. His book La Nation Arabe: Nationalisme et Luttes de Classes poses a number of stimulating and provocative problems and hypotheses1. It is in this sense an important first contribution to the debate on nationalism that sooner or later will have to take place amongst Arab revolutionaries.
However, we shall argue that Amin’s central thesis regarding the historical foundations of national formation in the Arab region are in our opinion misleading because: (a) they rely on a partial and one-sided factual basis on matters to do with the pre-capitalist history of the Arab world; and (b) they separate national formation from its real roots in the development of capitalism.
We shall summarise Samir Amin’s main ideas in the order in which they will be taken up in the following two sections:
(a) Amin argues that the social formations of the Arab world have been, with the exception of Egypt, ‘trading formations’, for more or less the entire stretch of its history.
‘In order to understand the Arab world, it is necessary to see it in its context, as a great zone of passage, a sort of turntable between the major areas of civilisation in the Old World. This semi-arid zone separates the three zones of agrarian civilisation: Europe, Black Africa, Monsoon Asia. It has therefore always fulfilled a commercial function, bringing into contact, through its role as the only middleman, agricultural communities that had no direct awareness of each other. The social formations on the basis of which the Arab world’s civilisations were erected were always commercial in character. This means that the surplus on which the cities lived was drawn in the main not from exploitation of the area’s own rural inhabitants but from the profits of the long-distance trading activity that its monopoly role as intermediary ensured to it ‒ that is, an income derived in the last analysis from the surpluses extracted from their peasantries by the ruling classes of the other civilisations.’ 2
The Arab region was unified according to this viewpoint by a class of merchant warriors in the first two centuries of Islam. The Islamic conquests allowed the Arabs to recapture long-distance trade routes which had shifted away from the Arabian peninsula, enabling them to revive once again a civilisation based on the profits of long-distance trade. The region was ‘profoundly unified’ by this merchant ruling class. Unlike feudal Europe, in which the ruling classes tended to diversify because of their dependence on a variety of local peasant populations, in the Arab world unity was preserved ‘because the peasants did not play this role’.3 Naturally, the vicissitudes of this externally generated surplus ‘proved to be those also of Arab civilisation’. The decline of the Islamic Caliphate is thus attributed to a series of external catastrophes like the Crusades, the fall of Bagh- dad, and the shifting of trade routes.4 national regression: the Crusades and the transfer of the centre of gravity of trade from the Arab cities to those of Italy; the fall of Baghdad under the blows of the Mongols in the 13th Century; then the Ottoman conquest in the 16th Century, with the transfer of trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in the same period and correlatively, the direct contact established by Europe with Monsoon Asia and Black Africa, which deprived the Arabs of their role as middlemen.’ S. Amin, Unequal Development p28. Exactly the same point is argued in his introduction to K. Vergoupoulos, Le Capitalisme Difformé, p 8 and in La Nation Arabe p 109.] Egypt was always the ‘great peasant exception’ whose Arabisation remained superficial.5The disappearance of the ‘Arab nation’ in the classical age of Islam ‘gave back life to the nation that was able to live exclusively by the internal generation of a substantial surplus, namely, the eternal Egyptian nation’.6
(b) It can be seen from the previous quote that Amin postulates the existence of an ‘eternal’ Egyptian nation, and an Arab nation which he believes came into existence under the tutelage of a ruling class of merchant warriors in the first centuries of Islam.
‘Nations founded in this way upon the merchant classes are unstable. . . This is why it can be said that if the nation is a social phenomenon that can appear at any stage in history and is not necessarily associated with the capitalist mode of production, the national phenomenon is reversible; it can flourish or it can disappear, depending on whether the unifying class strengthens its power or loses it.7
A nation is understood by Samir Amin to appear when, over and above a shared geography and community of language and culture, ‘a social class, controlling the central state machinery, ensures economic unity of the community’s life ‒ that is, when the organisation by this dominant class of the generation, the circulation, and distribution of the surplus, welds together into one the fates of the various provinces.’ The classical marxist formulation that national formation begins with the very earliest stages of capitalism is ‘unacceptable’, ‘for it is clear that imperial China or ancient Egypt were not mere conglomerations of peoples . . .’8
The pre-history of national formation
There is little doubt among historians of the Arab region that the original impetus behind the growth and development of many important pre-Islamic cities, in the Arabian peninsula (Mecca and Medina) and on the fringes of the Arabian desert and the Fertile Crescent (Petra and Palmyra), was the intermediary role played by central and northern Bedouin Arab tribes in long-distance commerce. The rise of Mecca epitomised this process. This is how Henri Lammens has described this city of merchants, brokers, and middlemen on the eve of Islam:
‘It would be difficult to imagine a society in which capital enjoyed a more active circulation. The tajir, business man, was not engaged in 63 Nationalformation in the Arab region: a critique of Samir Amin hoarding, in gathering wealth into his strong boxes. He had a blind faith in the unlimited productivity of capital, in the virtue of credit. Brokers and agents, the bulk of the population lived on credit. . .’9
For pre-Islamic Arabia, then, Amin’s thesis accurately sums up an important aspect of Arab society. However, the surplus-producing civilisations whose existence nurtured early Bedouin society were neither Europe, Black Africa, or Monsoon Asia.10 They were in fact primarily the agrarianate, most ancient civilisations of Southwestern Arabia (Yemen), Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean coastal regions of Syria.11 The historical sequence seems to have gone something like this. Some time before the second millenium BC, semitic peoples, who might have been traders from the Eastern Mediterranean, filtered down the Red Sea coastline to settle in southwestern Arabia. They eventually established hydraulic agrarianate city-states, based on the ingenious qanat system of water collection and distribution. The most prominent of these was the kingdom of Saba. The establishment of these civilisations in the Yemen is thought to have preceded by several centuries the domestication of the camel and its use in long-distance commerce. Camel pastoralism ‒ i.e. tribes living off the meat, milk and hides of their herds of camels ‒ seems to have arisen at first on the fringes of these agrarianate civilisations and only after camels had been used in long-distance commerce. This was undoubtedly the great invention that made possible the colonisation of the desert interior and the formation of a highly specialised mode of life based on communities of camel users and breeders in the Arabian peninsula. It is quite firmly established today that pre-Islamic cities like Petra, Hira and Mecca were first established by sedentarised Bedouin nomads or people who had been arabised by them.
It appears to be the case that the rise of a flouishing and quite unique form of Bedouin society was closely associated with what can best be described as a commercial revolution in the Near East. Control of commerce going through the peninsula was at first in the hands of the ancient Yemenites, whose agrarianate civilisation gradually began to adapt itself to this long-distance trade. The agricultural produce and natural flora of the Yemen was anyway quite suitable for commerce, in particular the luxury spices, aromatics and perfumes, of which frankincense and myrrh are probably the most famous.
The introduction of the riding horse into the Arabian peninsula some time between 500 and 400 BC, seems to have stimulated the first truly independent evolution of northern and central Arabian nomadism. The horse-camel combination meant that the Bedouin Arab had to be reckoned with as an extremely efficient fighter who could cross long distances by camel and launch swift attacks on horseback. The hegemonic position of the ancient Yemenites over the peninsula began to weaken as their military superiority was increasingly challenged. Control of the trade routes gradually slipped into the hands of their northern neighbours. This seems to have been how cities like Hira and later on Mecca established themselves.
The significance of the historic north-south divide between the Arabs of the Hijaz, Najd and Yamama on the one hand, and the ancient agrarianate Yemenites on the other, should not be underestimated. It persisted in Arab mythology and even Muslim genealogical systems, according to which the Arabs constitute a single race whose metnbers descend from one of two founding ancestors ‒ Kahtan (who fathered the southern agrarian branch) and Adnan (who fathered the northern nomadic/urban branch). This duality in legends and mythology reflects, we would argue, a real duality inscribed in the original formation of the Arabs. The first Arabs were not some pre-historic community of primitive nomads or peasants, who somehow developed a remarkably expressive and flexible language and a unifying ideology that allowed them ,to conquer within a century all major centres of civilisation south and east of the Mediterranean. On the contrary, the original Arabs were products of the entire previous history of the semitic peoples, and their most ancient surplus-producing agricultural civilisations: In particular we would argue that the formation of northern Arab Bedouin society was the expression of the emergence of a geographical division of labour between agriculture and commerce within the environmental conditions of the Arabian peninsula. This division of labour, in the context of the entire Near East, is of the same historic significance as, say, the town-country division of classical agrarian regions. From this point of view, therefore, the formation of northern Arab society only became possible because of an upsurge in the social productivity of labour, through agricultural specialisation, in the Yemen for example, and important new ‘technological’ breakthroughs like the domestication of that remarkable ‘ship of the desert’, the camel. These developments both stimulated commerce and were stimulated by it, thereby allowing a completely new mode of life to branch off from hydraulic agriculture into the desert surroundings.
Very soon, however, this particular stage in the history of Arab social formation reached its limits. On the eve of Islam, Arab society was politically fragmented and riddled with conflict. It had come to maturity in a social vacuum ‒ in the vast leftover desert spaces between the surplus-producing civilisations. Its coming into existence had been shaped by this ‘world’ context. At the end of the sixth century, or the beginning of the seventh, internal gradual development based purely on long-distance commerce was reaching a climax. No further expansion could reasonably be expected. It is not improbable in fact that a noticeable decline in the volume of commercial activity was just beginning to set in, either as a consequence of shifts in trade routes, as Amin argues, or more probably as a result of saturation and cutback of demand in the surrounding empires. The last exhausting war between Byzantium and the Sassanisans in the first quarter of the seventh century must have made the situation very bad.
At the same time, the accumulation of financial reserves in the shape of money capital in the cities of the desert hinterland, at first an end in itself, had now reached a point that called for new outlets. These could not exist in the peninsula where agriculture, the main source of actual surplus product, was barely adequate to feed the growing population. The peninsula was certainly over-populated and pressures for large-scale population movements outside its boundaries were building up, only to be periodically released in little trickles to Syria and Iraq.
Of all the cities of the peninsula, Mecca was by far the most important. It had succeeded in developing an economic role for itself that held most of the fragmented pieces of the peninsula together in a finely tuned system of military, commercial, and diplomatic alliances. But the system was under attack. Its very success in the poverty-ridden conditions of the then Arab world, hinted at much greater things.
The ruling class of big businessmen, merchants, bankers, usurers, landowners (in Ta’if), brokers and agents of all sorts, who ruled through the mala’ (assembly of urban notables), had no vision. They were by their very nature conciliators and appeasers, concerned with the purely administrative, moneymaking side of affairs. Their ideological formation was primitive, not to be compared with the merchant classes of Egypt, Iraq, or Persia. Their gods were spirits Ginn) that populated the peninsula and were either invisible or dwelt in oddly shaped stones or trees. The statesmen amongst the ruling classes were renowned for their skills as arbitrators of disputes and negotiators of alliances. They worked within the framework of kinship relations and tribal rivalries and conflicts. The vast sums which had been amassed through trade in a few generations were creating a monopoly of big business in the hands of only a few of the Qurayshite clans, like the Umayyads and Makhzümis.
The influential Hãshimïs, (Mohammed’s tribe), although highly respected for their role in the establishment of Mecca, had lost the upper hand in the control of the city’s commercial affairs to the Umayyads in particular. They numbered amongst their tribesmen many disgruntled and poor members. The lot of small brokers, retailers, small traders, craftsmen, artisans, and what few peasants there were, had never been very good. But it was threatening to get worse. These were former Bedouin with deep ties to the values of the desert. Consequently, their own conception of themselves bore little relation to the objective conditions of their poverty. Although the gap widened between the citizenry of Mecca, the mode of government remained the same. There was ample opportunity to vent grievances, much room for discontent to snowball, and yet not much of a chance that it would amount to anything.
Finally, there were the super-exploited, declassed social layers of the city ‒ the lumpen elements including the slaves, both freed and un-freed, the so-called sa’ãlïk (the scroungers, thieves and members of certain ostracised tribes), and former tribesmen who had been disowned by their tribe and no longer enjoyed its protection. They formed a mass of seething and unorganised discontent. In short, all the conditions were ripe in the city of Mecca, on the eve of Islam, for a social revolution.
The significance of the rise of Islam lies in the revolutionary transformations it wrought on the social and economic structures of the region. It is with Islam that the social content of the word’ Arab’ first underwent its most concentrated and accelerated change. The meaning of the word’ Arab’ has been revolutionised from one epoch to the next. It neither has, or ever will have, a constant social content which in some mysterious fashion stands above the historical process. It is only in the heads of nationalists and misguided theoreticians that such static shemas can survive. In a certain very important sense the changing meaning of the word ‘Arab’ ‒ its etymology ‒ captures all the essential landmarks in the history of the Arabs. The first such landmark coincided with the original formation of the Arab tribes in the Arabian peninsual which has been discussed above. The second coincided with the formation of the ‘Islamic Umma’ ‒ the community of Muslims ‒ in the first few centuries of Islam.
Marshall Hodgson has touched on this essence of the revolution introduced by Islam when he posed the hypothetical possibility that either the Roman or the Sassanian empires in, say, the fifth or sixth centuries AD, might have succeeded in capturing Syria and Egypt, thereby growing at the expense of its adversary.12 In such an eventuality, the whole of Bedouin Arabia could have been bypassed historically and a not unlikely variant would have been the assimilation of the Arabs into the culture of the victorious and already established civilisation. The very special features of Islam, and the reason why the emergence of the community of Muslims marks a watershed in the history of the Arabs in particular, springs from the fact that this did not happen.
The formation of the Islamic Umma has its roots in its founder’s move from Mecca to Medina ‒ the Hegira. It was in Medina that Mohammed was. given the first practical opportunity to structure social life in a new fashion. Medina was economically split between the Jewish Arab tribes who had developed it, and the more recently settled pagan Bedouin tribes (the Aws and the Khazraj). Mohammed was welcomed by the pagan tribes prolmbly because they saw in his teachings an alternative form of monotheism capable of holding its own against Judaism, the adoption of which would strengthen them against their Judaised Arab competitors. The Muhãjirun were the other component of the first Muslim community. They were all those Meccan tribesmen who were recruited to Islam and who by leaving Mecca had irrevocably broken their ties and social obligations to their own clans. The combination of these two groupings represented in essence the initial formation of a new ‘tribe’, which now had to forge an economic livelihood for itself. Almost immediately, Mohammed organised raids from Medina on Meccan caravans. These played a very important role in deepening the breach between the community of Muslims and the Meccan system as a whole.
The earliest document of Islam, which for lack of a better name has been called ‘the constitution of Medina’, defines all believers in Islam and their dependents, regardless of their tribal affiliations, to be members of a single community (umma). According to this document these members are to show complete solidarity against non-believers both in peace and war. It is interesting to note that according to Watt, in pre-Islamic Arabia there was ‘little difference between the two words “qawm” and “umma”. Both represented a natural group or community.’13 It is with Islam that the word ‘umma’ is first revolutionised giving it the meaning of that greater tribe based not on tribal loyalties and blood relations, but on the acceptance of an idea ‒ the prophecy of Mohammed and the existence of a single god ‒ which was soon to be developed into a whole world view. The new shaikh of the umma, Mohammed, no longer ruled by conditional tribal consensus, but by an absolute religious prerogative.14 A new system had been born which representated a historically more ad- vanced and ‘higher’ stage of social organisation and consciousness.
The Arab/Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries essentially represented the mass migration of Islamicised Arab tribes, driven by the pressure of over-population in the peninsula, into the Fertile Crescent and North Africa ‒ ie into the very same surplus- producing civilisations they had previously only traded with. These migrants formed – in the first period of Islam, when it was still an Arab religion and the Caliphate an Arab kingdom – the ethnically differentiated rulers of the mass of Syrians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Persians and other surplus-producing peoples. The whole economic basis behind the original constitution of the northern and central Arabian tribes was now being radically altered. Instead of an existence and mode of life as intermediaries straddling the vast unproductive deserts between other civilisations, the Arabs were now reaching out for those very same surplus-producing regions they had previously only traded with. It is this aspect of the history of the Arabs that Amin ignores.
With the Arab conquests, the social content of the word ‘Arab’ ‒ that which defined the quality of being an Arab ‒ began to change. The mass of Arab rulers originating from the Arabian peninsula began to assìmilate with the indigenous conquered populations.15 The new cities founded by the conquering Arab armies ‒ the Amsãr ‒ had started originally as garrison towns on the edge of the desert and cultivated areas. They became important stepping stones in the process of arabisation.
The Amsar originated in the nomadic Bedouin tradition of founding cities along flourishing trade routes. However, their presence in the Fertile Crescent and North Africa made it possible for a minority of conquerors to maintain a certain independence from the peoples they were subjugating, who enjoyed a more advanced indigenous civilisation. It was through the Amsar, in which the Arabs at first formed a majority, that the Arabic language spread out to the countryside. Markets for agricultural produce and crafts quickly developed around the original garrison. Artisans, shopkeepers, clerks and peasants were attracted from nearby cities or the countryside. The concentration of booty in the Amsar attracted the indigenous population to the Muslim cities and thus made possible a combined process of assimilation. The Arabs were assimilated to the peoples they had conquered and gradually adopted many of their customs and ways. But at the same time the indigenous population were learning Arabic and becoming Muslim.
The generalisation of the Arabic language and Islamic ideology were very important factors in arabisation in the sense in which we are trying to define it. Of course the physical intermingling of different peoples, in the shape of population movements and intermarriage, was a necessary condition for arabisation. But the Arabs were too small a minority for this to have been the decisive factor. It was the establishment of a common cultural and ideological medium that broke down most of the barriers. Marx has put the matter most profoundly:
‘Language itself is just as much the product of a community, as in another respect it is the existence of the community: it is, as it were, the communal being speaking for itself.’16
The Mawali were the non-Arab converts to Islam. Their problems are very revealing of the nature of the arabisation process and the sorts of tensions it generated. In the first century of Islam, the Mawãli had to be attached to a tribe of Arab origin. Under the Umayyad Caliphate their numbers grew tremendously. Soon they even began to outnumber the Arabs in the Amsãr. Theoretically the Mawãli were the equals of the Arabs. In practice they were discriminated against both socially and in taxation. During the governorship of Hajjãj in Iraq, for example, it was decreed that conversion to Islam would no longer release the indigenous population from paying the higher rate of tax on land known as Kharãj. The problem Hajjãj was addressing himself to was the decline in state revenue caused by mass conversions to Islam. It was fundamentally the problem of an economy transforming itself from one based on a minority of privileged Arab rulers, into that of an arabised majority of Muslims. This important and very revealing change is also shown by the fact that Hajjãj even took measures against Arabs by decreeing that henceforth when an Arab bought Kharãj land, he would have to continue paying this higher tax and could no longer reduce the tax obligation to the much sought-after tithe called ‘ushr. 17 Eventually the Mawãli became the social base of the opposition to the Umayyad Caliphate which culminated in the Abbasid revolution.
This period of Islamic history, following through to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, therefore witnessed mass migrations of populations accompanied by arabisation and islamisation within the confines of the region currently occupied by the different Arabic-speaking countries. These population movements took many diverse forms. They included: the settlement of nomads in cities or rural areas (especially in the early stages); the accelerated growth of new cities and a general increase in the level of urbanisation of the region; the conquest by town dwellers of far-off agricultural civilisations, starting from their conquered cities and working through to their rural and nomadic hinterlands; and the thrust of entire conquering populations into new regions and their assimilation amongs those they conquered.
With this background in mind, let us take a closer look at Samir Amin’s conception of the Arab region under Islam as basically a ‘trading formation’ in which Egypt constitutes the ‘sole peasant exception’. There are two problems with this idea. The first is that it is questionable on a purely factual basis. In the tenth century the cultivated area of the Mashreq was immensely more extensive than it is today.18 Apart from the Mesopotamian river valleys, the whole of the northern Syrian steppe curving round to the Mediterranean coastline, the fertile plains of Hama, Horns, the Bekaa, and Palestine ‒ all this was fertile agricultural land. These are the regions, according to archaeologists, in which agriculture itself was invented, inaugurating the first food-producing epoch in human pre-history.19 To consider that ‘these rural areas were too poor ‒ despite the epithet “fertile” ‒ to supply the surplus needed to sypport a brilliant civilisation’ , as Amin does in Unequal Development (p 39) may be the result of an anachronistic reading back into history of a much later period of decline.
There is also no reason to believe that Egypt was in any way excluded from the social convulsions, upheavals and intermingling of populations which has already been described ‒ and for which there was actually precedents before the seventh century AD. Syria, for example, began to be arabised earlier, as the infiltration of Arab tribes from the peninsula started on a small scale in the century or two before Islam. Yemen was certainly the first surplus-producing agrarianate civilisation to be thoroughly and irreversibly arabised long before the unification of the Arab tribes and following the collapse of the famous dam of Ma’rib in the third century AD. The collapse of this dam, built in approximately 750 BC, is symbolically associated with the fall of the kingdom of Saba and the northward migration of its people and their assimilation into northern Arab/Bedouin society at its height.20
The second problem with Amin’s formulations has been alluded to earlier; it is his failure to grasp the qualitative change ‒ the revolution ‒ brought about in the life of the region as a result of the Arab conquests. This leads to Amin pinning on Arabs and especially Egyptians ‘eternal’, unchanging and therefore mystified qualities. The Arab/Islamic conquests seem to be for Amin purely military and political achievements that allowed the Arabs to continue with the same mode of economic existence that they had before Islam. The defeat of classical Arab/Islamic civilisation is thus logically attributable to a series of external events, related to wars and trade fluctuations, which are not structurally derived from the dominant mode of production prevailing in that epoch. In fact, in reference to ‘trading formations’ we can hardly talk of a mode of production of use values and surplus. Social classes presumably would have to arise from their relation to each other in the sphere of cir- culation of a surplus produced elsewhere. The Arab ‘merchant-warrior ruling class’ would be exercising hegemony over classes they were not exploiting in the sense of robbing them of their surplus. The result, according to Amin, is that in the classical period of Islamic civilisation ‘an Arab nation did indeed come into existence’ as a consequence of ‘ethnic homegeneity… reinforced by economic unity… under the leadership of the ruling class of merchants and the military castes’.21
Apart from its only partial contact with reality, Amin’s whole approach unwittingly panders to the prevailing Arab nationalist prejudice that ascribes to the quality of ‘being an Arab’ an ahistorical content. It sets up a schema in which Arabs do not exploit each other, and in which Arab-Islamic civilisation is made ‘not responsible’ for its own decline. The one-sidedness of this method, relying as it does on only the commercial function of the Arab/Islamic world, is revealed as soon as the actual history of the region is examined.
The notion that ethnic homogeneity, reinforced by an economic unity that originates in long-distance trade between far-off surplus-producing and consuming formations, can provide, under the leadership of a merchant ruling class, a sufficiently advanced social fabric for Arab national formation is contrary to both reason and the most elementary facts of Arab history in the first centuries of Islam. From a logical point of view, there is nothing particularly unifying in mere entrepôt commerce. Merchants simply buy and sell the products of completely separated producers. From a more factual point of view, however, Amin is apparently ignorant of the fact that the very extensive growth of commercial capital took place within the confines of the Arab/Islamic Caliphate, and on the basis of internally produced commodities. In its classical epoch, the cities of the Islamic world were great producers of commodities and they specialised in marketing agricultural products that were extensively traded between regions of the Islamic empire. In fact the onset of Europe’s ‘dark ages’, and the relapse into self-sufficient feudalism, cut off the Muslim world from the whole of the northern hemisphere. Maxime Rodinson in discussing this period notes that:
‘It may be observed that despite all the uncertainty of our knowledge a level [of commerce] does seem to have been reached in the Muslim world which is not to be found either elsewhere at the same time, or earlier. The density of commercial relations within the Muslim world constituted a sort of world market… of unprecedented dimensions. The development of exchange had made possible regional specialisation in industry as well as in agriculture, bringing about relations of economic interdependence that sometimes extended over great distances. A world market of the same type was formed in the Roman empire, but the Muslim “common market” was very much bigger… Not only did the Muslim world know a capitalistic sector, but this sector was apparently the most extensive and highly developed in history before the establishment of the world market created by the western European bourgeoisie, and this did not outstrip it in importance until the sixteenth century.’ 22
The extensive growth of petty commodity production based on artisans and craftsmen in the cities and agricultural specialisation during the first centuries of Islam is a subject worth dealing with at much greater length than is possible in a brief survey like this. It appears to us that, alongside food production, it represented the fundamental economic motor force of the Islamic world during its apogee.
For the present, however, we would note that the commercial integration of the Arab/Islamic world did not lead to two developments which are confusingly lumped together by Amin:
(1) It did not result in the political ascendancy of a ruling class of merchants. This is what the noted Islamic historian, Goitein, has to say on the matter:
‘This class [the merchants] developed slowly during the first 150 years of the Muslim era, emerged into the full light of history at the end of the second century, became socially “admitted” during the third, and asserted itself as a most powerful socio-economic factor during the fourth. However, it never became an organised body and, as a class, never obtained political power, although many of its members occupied positions as high and highest executives of the state. The turn from the tenth to the eleventh centuries (the Muslim fourth and fifth) which witnessed the apogee of the Near Eastern bourgeoisie, also marks the complete ascendancy of castes of slave soldiers, mostly of Turkish extraction, which dominated the history of that part of the world for the next 800 years.’ 23
(2) It did not lead to national formation in either the Mashreq, the Maghreb or Egypt. This point we shall take up in our critique of Amin’s whole methodological approach to the problem of nations and how they come into existence.
Nation formation and capitalism
In a number of his writings Samir Amin has forcefully posed the question: What is a nation? His answer is categorical: a nation is not necessarily a social derivative of the capitalist mode of production. It arises when any dominant social class (bourgeois, feudal, merchant. . .) ensures, through its control of the state apparatus, the economic unity of any ethnic group (cf the final paragraph of our introduction). When these conditions do not exist, the national phenomenon is ‘reversible’, as in the case of the’ Arab nation’ in the. first centuries of Islam. It is always dependent on how strongly political power is wielded by the ruling class. Thus the decline of the ‘Arab nation’ coincided with its political and economic fragmentation as the source ofthe external surplus dried up.
The first thing to be said is that this idea confuses a social category ‒ national formation ‒ with a political one the control of state power. Undoubtedly there is a very powerful relationship between the sociological processes behind the development of the various economically integrated classes whose totality comprise the nation or nationality in question, and the political struggles tending towards the establishment of a national state. A prerequisite for the maturation of the national process is the eventual establishment of a national state, the existence of which guarantees within its geographical boundaries the necessary conditions for the establishment of a truly national economy. But it is misleading and false to define something that can only be understood as a process ‒ national formation ‒ in terms of a specific political condition ‒ control of state power. On the contrary, it is the nature of political power that has to be derived from the stage of social formation, and not the other way around.
The example of European national formation illustrates this point. Is it conceivable to argue that the Italian nation as such only came into being following the Garibaldian revolution of 1860? What about the centuries of social upheavals, class formation and political struggles which were the necessary social precursors for the success of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Italy? The breakup of the feudal order in Europe was a long drawn out affair, spreading over several centuries which were combined with the growth of the capitalist mode of production. In agriculture the peasants were forced off their lands. In England this took the form of the enclosure movement, which came in a number of long drawn out waves. The medieval corporations and guilds which protected the artisans and craftsmen of medieval cities were slowly dismantled, throwing their hitherto protected members onto the ‘free’ market in which all they had to sell was their labour power. The ability to do work was thus transformed into a commodity, and a necessary condition for this was the separation of the producers (peasants and craftsmen) from their means of production. These social processes in the context of rising capitalism moulded and shaped over many centuries the human ‘raw material’ that was forming nations in Britain, France, Italy, Germany and other places.
There is also the problem of oppressed nationalities. How does Amin handle the fact that a Kurdish nationality exists, and has been fighting for independence from its Arab, Iranian and Turkish oppressors for over half a century? There has never been a Kurdish state. Surely, this cannot be taken to deny the fact that a Kurdish nationality has been in the process of formation for the better part of the twentieth century. How do we explain from a materialist viewpoint the persistence of a Kurdish nationalist movement, if not by relating it to real social and economic transformations in the Kurdish regions?
One could also take the example of the ruling classes of fully developed and industrialised nations who lose political power through war, for example, as happened in Europe in the second world war. What would have been the status of the French nation under Nazi occupation in Amin’s terms? All of these examples demonstrate that there is a fundamental distinction between the political and super-structural ramifications of national formation, and its objective socio-economic basis.
It should also be pointed out that there is rarely a direct relationship between the economically dominant class and its political representation. In fact quite frequently there are completely different groups of people involved. In its whole history, the bourgeoisie has never once ruled politically as the identifiable sum of all its members occupying positions in the state appparatus. For this there are professional politicians or military men, who may not even be capitalists themselves, and who thrash out, in parliament for example, the differences and conflicts between various fractions of the economically dominant class. The merchants in the first four centuries of Islam were not in political control of the Islamic Caliphate, although their economic function and social position in petty commodity production was very important. In the case of all the more advanced social and economic formations the ruling class will generally tend to separate out the political function of exercising power from the economic function of extracting and distributing the surplus. This sets up a relative autonomy between the political sphere and the economic sphere which has very important implicatÌons for understanding the processes of revolution and change in social and economic formations.
This touches on what constitutes our most fundamental objection to Amin’s thesis: namely his ahistorical conception of the nation. This, we shall argue in the remainder of this section, is linked to his ahistorical notion of a mode of production. It results in the pre-Islamic history of the Arabs being rendered indistinguishable from the upheavals introduced by Islam. Nations come and go at all stages of history without reference to the processes of their formation. Frozen, formalistic definitions are introduced for complex and changing categories (like mode of production, nation, social formation etc) on a flimsy factual basis and stemming from a fixation with a single slice out of the historical process. The element of permanent historical transformation ‒ as quantitative changes acquire a qualitative character ‒ is absent. In short the whole approach utilises the language of marxism, while throwing away its method. It is to these aspects that we shall now direct our attention.
In many respects it was Marx’s greatest achievement to have identified a progressive thread in the historical process. This progress occurs not only as the cumulative or chronological succession of events in technology, science, society or politics. Rather it affects the whole of society, and especially its innermost and ‘hidden’ structures ‒ its modes of production, property forms, and social relations. For Marx each mode of production presupposed either one or more of its predecessors, but it did not (with the exception of capitalism) automatically negate them. Historical development, therefore, was expressed through the accumulation, coexistence and branching off of many different modes of production.24 K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.] The ancient mode, for example, presupposed both primitive communalism and the invention and diffusion of slavery from the ancient Near East. Feudalism, on the other hand, arose in Western Europe out of a particular kind of synthesis of both the Germanic mode of production – a variant of the primitive communal mode – and the mode of production prevailing in the Roman empire until the north European tribal incursions and the fall of Rome in the fifth century. In contrast, independently generated capitalism grew out of the uniquely feudal town-country conflict that developed in Europe. Following the establishment of a world capitalist system – imperialism – the generalisation of commodity production forced the capitalist mode onto the various social for- mations of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
It has become fashionable amongst some marxists to deny the implicit historical order and trajectory that is of necessity tied up with the concept of a mode of production. This is what Samir Amin has to say on the subject:
‘The concept of a “mode of production” is an abstract one, implying no historical order of sequence with respect to the entire period of history of civilisations that stretches from the first differentiated formations right down to capitalism.’ 25
The debate with Amin on national formation and its relation to capitalism requires a rejection of this ahistorical treatment of modes of production as so many ‘models’ of economic organisation. For it is only possible to understand national formation as the social counterpart of the capitalist mode of economic production by situating the latter historically, the very thing which Amin rejects.
Of course, it is also necessary to reject the notion of a unique unilinear sequence of modes of production, through which all societies must pass in the same order. Similar to the evolution of biological forms, different paths diverge from the same junction, branch off and sometimes converge again. But ‒ just as in biological evolution ‒ the various stages along each path, the sequence in which they occur, and the junctions at which different paths diverge or converge, are by no means arbitrary. Quite the reverse: they obey an inner logic of historical necessity. To deny a historical order among modes of production is just as erroneous as to deny order and direction in biological evolution.
‘Human beings become individuals only through the process of history’, Marx said in the Grundrisse. At the same time modes of production and property relations, while never existing in neat, packageable and universally applicable sequences, nevertheless represent moments in a historical process fundamentally shaped by the increasing control of human society over the ‘objective conditions of its labour’. These are ‘natural’ conditions in human pre-history. With the advent of class society and private property, they become social conditions which, however, society itself is still not conscious of as such, and which appear ,’objectively’ in the various forms that property relations assume. But these are always subject to revolutionary change. The development of the productive forces is forever bringing into conflict the increased and more efficient production of more wealth on the one hand, and the inherited class relations of the old mode of production, which become obstacles to the expansion of production, on the other. The revolutionary moment which now becomes objectively possible hinges on the subjective manner in which society as a whole (with each class viewing the matter from its particular vantage point) conceives of itself in relation to this conflict.
Under capitalism the transformation of labour power itself into a commodity which is bought and sold on the market, and the permeation of exchange relations into all aspects of everyday life (food, lodging, clothes, necessities and leisure) has a twofold effect. The first is on the individuation of human beings. Not only their labour, but also the very core of their personality is transformed. The effects of the latter specifically can be seen in literature. A good example is the role of the ‘hero’ of the classic bourgeois novels of the nineteenth century, and the emphasis of writers like Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy on the formation of the individualised human personality in the crucible of both great events and everyday life. This is in complete contrast with say the classic epics of ancient civilisations, viewing individuals as so many different cogs in a great pre-ordained panoramic scheme of events (the Iliad and Odyssey; the epic of Gilgamesh etc). Individuation is reflected also in legal institutions and the perfection of laws for the ‘protection’ of individual rights over property and in civil society. The character of this process has been most profoundly stated by Marx:
‘Exchange itself is a chief means of this individuation. It makes the herd-like existence superfluous and dissolves it. Soon the matter has turned in such a way that as an individual he relates himself only to himself, while the means with which he posits himself as [an] individual have become the making of his generality and commonness.’ 26
Another effect of capitalism on society is present in Marx’s formulation. Parallel with individuation is the unprecedented level of socialisation of production. In no previous historical epoch have human beings become so utterly dependent on each other for their maintenance and the continual raising of their standard of life. Wage labour and the separation of the producers from their means of production transforms the value of every necessity and almost every product of human labour into a quantity determined by the functioning of the whole economic system. There is no precedent for this before capitalism.
These two social and ideological correlatives of capitalism are thoroughly irreversible. The triumph of socialism, from the vantage point adopted in this article, represents the arrival of the working class at a complete awareness of its own position in the historical process. Private ownership of the means of production, which is ‘objectively’ given by capitalism, has to be seen as a constraint, not only on production, but on the further cultural and individual formation of the working class. Individuation under capitalism is thus also expressed in the growing alienation and continuous psychological degradation of the producers. At the moment that this awareness is reached, the socialist revolution becomes a possibility, and its problems acquire a technical or military character, the final outcome of which can of course in no way be predetermined.
Socialisation of production and individuation of the human being are reflections of capitalism on society and consciousness. They are cornerstones of the national phenomenon, which make it possible to understand why national formation in the Arab region, for example, can only be a historically specific stage in the process of Arab social and ideological formation. The formation of nations presupposes that the disruption and tearing apart of the ‘vegetative existence’ of the production process through exchange has already commenced. This ‘herd-like’ existence, which arises from what Marx analyses in the Grundrisse as a ‘self-sustaining unity’ between the producer (peasant or artisan) and his/her means of production, is a central characteristic of all precapitalist modes of production and sharply differentiates them from capitalism. It is only after this rude awakening of the labouring population that the individuation of human beings through the permeation of their everyday life by exchange relations of production, will dissolve the ‘herd-like’ existence and confront them with the reality of their insertion in a truly individualised and irreversibly socialised national economic framework, defined ultimately by ownership or exclusion from ownership of the means of production.
We would further argue that national consciousness is, in its original sense, a more primitive form of class consciousness, that first arose historically in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at a time when the bourgeoisie was still playing a progressive role. During this epoch of the growth of capitalism out of the petty commodity mode of production, the bourgeoisie was sociologically still quite close to the petty commodity producers in the post-medieval cities of the Renaissance. There was therefore a material basis for the ability of the bourgeoisie to speak in the name of all the labouring classes, against the parasitic feudal nobility. By the nineteenth century this was beginning to change, as was reflected in the European-wide revolutions of 1848 when, despite the bourgeois democratic content of these revolutions, the bourgeoisie sided with the most antiquated social layers in society and the state apparatus to crush the revolution primarily fuelled by the now thoroughly differentiated European working class. The clearly formulated conception of oneself as a member of, or associated with, the fate of the working class in counter-position to the bourgeoisie is therefore the later, historically more advanced, form of proletarian class consciousness.
It goes without saying that the development of petty commodity production, on no matter how extended a scale, did not accomplish such a historic transformation of consciousness in the classical centuries of Islam. In fact it could not do so ‒ because the peasant and urban craft producers remained tied, either communally or individually, to their means of production. Exchange was limited to the sphere of circulation and did not permeate the productive process itself. Capital, in the sense of ‘self expanding value’, and not in the sense of usurer or money wealth, did not generalise itself (although interestingly enough there were isolated instances of wage labour). An economic unity based on the polarisation of classes from within the productive process – as distinct from commercial integration and partial regional specialisation – could not therefore develop.
Samir Amin, in his references to the development of an Arab nation in the first centuries of Islam, is in fact mixing up two very different things. He is confusing the formation of a pan-Arab merchant class (which most certainly took place, as the passage we have quoted from Goitein shows) with nation formation. The former emerged as an important distinguishing feature of the greater Community of Islam ‒ the Islamic Umma ‒ whereas the latter emerges in the nineteenth century, parallel with the growth of capitalist economic penetration and trade with the advanced capitalist countries. In the twentieth century, the consciousness of having a national, social and economic fate historically superseded the consciousness of relating to one’s fellow human beìngs through their relation to god and Islam, in much the same manner as Islam had superseded the individual, particularist tribal consciousness based on kinship relations that had dominated pre-Islamic Arab society. The centrepiece of Amin’s whole analytical muddle ‒ that which allows him to release nation formation from its firmly anchored roots in capitalism – is in our opinion the non-marxist notion of an abstract ahistorical mode of production. For once a mode of production loses its place in an ordered historical trajectory (which nevertheless may be much more complex than either Marx or Engels had thought), then those moments, or stages in the ‘process of human individuation through exchange’ ‒ as they are captured in the social evolution of tribal, religious, communal and national formation ‒ are forever lost. The modern secular bourgeois citizen has been reduced to a pious Moslem, or worse, to a pharaoh’s subject. Even socialism and revolutionary internationalism become utopian shibboleths, and not fundamentally counterposed alternatives to nationalism in the epoch of imperialism.
Concluding Notes 27
1. National formation and nationalism are the social and ideological complements to the generalisation of the capitalist mode of production. They work through human ‘raw material’ inherited from previous historical epochs, whose own formation lies in the manner in which the social product was produced and consumed.
2. The new capitalist epoch, characterised by the new mode of production and consumption, is not only imposed from the outside ‒ as was the case in the Arab world ‒ but at the same time must structurally grow out of the preceding epoch despite the stilted framework provided by the capitalist impetus.
3. This staging ground for capitalism ‒ the preparatory epoch immediately preceding the introduction of capitalism – captures in itself to a certain degree, the whole of the previous history of development of a given region, because it is in itself the product of a formative process intimately associated with its own past and the epoch from which it was structurally derived.
In the Arab region the pre-history of national formation, especially the epoch of classical Islamic civilisation, is of special importance. This results from the manner in which the formation of the community of Islam, based on adherence to a religious idea, combined with arabisation, completely overhauled the pre-Islamic tribal structures of Arabia. With Islam the Arab region was definitively wrenched out of its past, and a new petty commodity mode of production flourished in the cities, as in no previous epoch in the history of the ancient world.
4. A rising new epoch ‒ as the rise of capitalism in the Arab world ‒ can also reappropriate its distant past in a new way. Thus, for example, the rise of capitalism in Western Europe, while growing out of the contradictions of the feudal mode of production, at the same time reappropriated during the Renaissance the heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. In a similar manner, we think it can be shown that Arab nationalism represents a form (albeit less dramatic) of reappropriation of a past associated with the arabisation and islamisation of the region in the classical epoch of Islam.
5. National formation in the Arab region is a highly uneven process that started in Egypt and on the Mediterranean coastline very early in the nineteenth century. It started under the Ottoman empire, and long before the political fragmentation of the Arab world by imperialism in the twentieth century.
6. The scale of the economic, social and cultural decline of the Arab region between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries puts into historical perspective the enormous transformations wrought on the region by the development of capitalism. For example, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the cu1t~ated area of the Fertile Crescent had shrunk to a fraction of what it was in the tenth century. The estimated population of the present territory of Iraq in 1867 was 1.28 million, whereas it has been suggested that between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries it supported a population of some 20 million!28 Greater Syria under the Romans is estimated by some orientalists to have had a population of ten million. By the end of the eighteenth century this had shrunk to two million. Egypt’s population, estimated at eight million in Roman times, collapsed to four million by the fourteenth century, and to 2.5 million in the early nineteenth century.29
7. Capitalism revolutionised the social structure of the Arab region, but not its productive capacities. At first population levels remained either very low, or declined significantly, but temporarily, as in the case of the brutal French colonisation of Algeria in 1830. The impact of manufactured products from Europe on artisan employment also led to an absolute and relative decline of population in some Arab cities like Fez, Damascus, and Marrakesh. Later, however, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, one of the most pronounced expressions of the development of capitalism became the reversal of the historic decline in population previously noted. Iraq’s population today is just under ten times what it was in 1867. Egypt’s 80 Nationalformation in the Arab region: a critique of Samir Amin population, which beg’an to increase much earlier in tbe nineteenth century, is 13-14 times what it was in 1800. In Syria and Iraq, a steady rate of increase really only began to take hold in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
8. In the nineteenth century other great social transformations were taking place alongside the increase in population:
(a) The settlement of what had once been very large and politically important nomadic populations, so that by the first world war the phenom6l10n’ of the Bedouin way of life was for all practical purposes eliminated.30
(b) The breakup of traditional agrarian relations in the countryside and the emergence of private land ownership, including the formation of a very important class of large landowners, and landless peasants whose produce was now being exchanged on the world market.31
(c) Urbanisation-without-industrialisation, which began in the late nineteenth century, but accelerated tremendously in the twentieth.
(d) Finally, the incipient formation of modern social classes, including an urban proletariat, in infrastructure and services (ports, railways etc).
9. It is very important to realise that it was out of these social upheavals that there began to emerge the basic human material which was to forge and shape national development and nationalist ideology in all its varieties. The nineteenth century can therefore be called the critical first century of national formation in the Arab region. The development of capitalism and its social ramifications were taking place under the common political, military, administrative and economic structures of the Ottoman empire, which had held sway for several hundred years over all the Arabic-speaking countries. They were terminated in 1830 in the Maghreb with the French invasion, and in 1882 in Egypt with the British occupation. Otherwise, direct Ottoman control was maintained over the rest of the Mashreq until the first world war. The strength and vitality of pan-arabism, which was not only sustained in the twentieth century, but also flourished after the second world war with nasserism, should be viewed in relation to this more or less unfied transformation of the Arab region in the nineteenth century. Arab nationalism therefore has its beginnings in these social and economic convulsions which gripped the region until the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century.
10. From as early as the nineteenth century, capitalism was developing in a highly uneven fashion in the Arab region. There was therefore from the very beginning a tendency to national differentiation within the Arab world (ie a tendency to the formation of separate nations in Egypt, Syria, Iraq etc) which was combined with the tendency to Arab national formation. In the twentieth century, following the Sykes-Picot agreement and the establishment by imperialism of what were completely artificial political entities, the countervailing tendency to the formation of a single Arab nation was reinforced. The development of separate bourgeoisies and working classes, linked independently of each other to imperialism, was fostered. However, the artificiality of imperialism’s economic and political creations remained very pronounced until at least the 1960s in most Arab countries. It can be concluded, therefore, that local nationalisms in the Arab countries (Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese etc) are rooted objectively in the unevenness of development of capitalism in the nineteenth century and more importantly in the twentieth century history of class formation in the politically fragmented and economically unintegrated modern economies of the Arab countries.
11. In the imperialist epoch, capitalism in the underdeveloped countries breaks up the old’ social order and introduces a new one, without, however, revolutionising the forces ,of production. In the nin~teenth century, industrialisation in the Arab region was virtually limited to Egypt. The formation of pan-Arab bourgeoisies and working classes did not take place. However, national formation begins long before the actual physical formation of the two main classes of capitalism ‒ the bourgeoisie and the proletariat ‒ has been completed. It began in Europe several centuries before the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also began in the Arab world in the nineteenth century, whereas until today, the social structure of the Arab countries is characterised by a dependent bourgeoisie, a growing working class, and a large petty-bourgeois mass.
If it is correct to call the nineteenth century’ the critical first century of national formation’, then it is even more true to say that the twentieth century is the century of permanent revolution in the Arab region. The Arab ruling classes, which were composed of comprador bourgeoisies and big landowners up to the first half of the twentieth century, are today in the process of transforming themselves. The accumulation of vast financial reserves in the oil-producing countries is now creating a bourgeoisie of a cosmopolitan character whose arena for investment is the world capitalist market. At the same time, powerful local bourgeoisies have been or are being greatly strengthened by the experiences of state capitalism that countries like Egypt, Algeria and Iraq have been going through. One thing, however, remains as true for the new Arab bourgeoisies as it was for the old: their utter and increasing dependence on the world capitalist system and on the imperialist bourgeoisie in particular, and their inability to solve the democratic tasks facing Arab society ‒ including, in particular, the problem of unification and struggle against zionism. From this point of view the significance of the change from Nasser to Sadat in Egypt becomes the extent to which it holds up a mirror into the future of all the nationalist regimes in the Middle East.
12. The pivot around which the national phenomenon is crystallised, reflecting not only the actual course of historical development but also how society itself conceives of this development, is the establishment of the nationalist movement. The weakness of the bourgeoisies of the colonial and semi-colonial countries meant that at their origin, most third-world nationalisms generally appeared to express nothing more than a reaction of the masses to imperialism and to their brutalisation by capitalism. Arab nationalism and the formation of pan-Arab organisations (Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-‘Arab, and the Ba’ath) was based on such a mass reaction to the conscious policy of imperialism to fragment the Arab region. Similarly Palestinian nationalism, along with Arab nationalism, crystallised around the zionist colonisation process and the suffering it wreaked on the Arab population of Palestine and the surrounding region.
13. But with or without the physical economic presence of a bourgeoisie to actually lead them, all purely nationalist movements in the imperialist epoch are saddled with the limitations of their own viewpoint. It is in their very nature to appear to adopt the interests of all classes of the oppressed nation or nationality as a priority over the interests of all classes of other national formations. Given the weakness or absence of the bourgeoisie, this can impart great revolutionary impetus to the nationalist struggle. This has been the central feature of the post-World War II struggles in the Arab region, including the experience of the Palestinian resistance movement. Very soon, however, as the struggle for national demands itself necessitates a struggle against the local bourgeoisie or its petty-bourgeois ideologues, and the active assistance of other exploited classes outside the national entity in question, the inherent limits of a nationalist point of departure make themselves felt.
14. It is only the exploiting classes under capitalism that have a stake in presenting the interests of their own class as if they were those of the nation ‒ the sum of all classes. It is only the exploited classes who have an interest in rejecting thi8 identification. Nationalism therefore, in the capitalist colonial and semi-colonial countries, as much as in the advanced countries, represents in its essence a bourgeois ideology. It is either the ideology of a bourgeoisie which is very powerful (as in the imperialist countries), or a bourgeoisie which is in process of formation (the various Arab bourgeoisies), or even a bourgeoisie which may not yet exist as such (a pan-Arab bourgeoisie), but which could in principle emerge if a pan-Arab nationalist movement were capable of uniting the Arab countries.
15. Proletarian internationalism is the highest expression of working-class consciousness. In a most fundamental sense it is counterposed to and transcends all forms of nationalism and particularism. In the Arab region the proletarian internationalist viewpoint is that which takes as its point of departure the fact of capitalist exploitation, imperialist fragmentation and zionist colonisation. If, as we have argued, there are two opposing tendencies in the process of national formation in the Arab region, then this does not obviate the need for marxists to choose between them. This choice is expressed in the struggle for the unification of the Arab countries, and in the combined interest that the Arab workers have in the overthrow of all their own ruling classes and the zionist state.
- Samir Amin, La Nation Arabe: Nationalisme et Luttes de Classes, Editions de Minuit, 1976. This book will soon be available in English from Zed Press. Another book in which Amin develops the same theme is Unequal Development, Monthly Review Press, 1976. The same ideas were also present in an article in Monthly Review, July/August 1970, called ‘Nationalism and Class Struggles in the Arab W orid’ by Ahmed Al Qodsy. ↩
- S. Amin, La Nation Arabe p.14. The identical formulation can be found also in Unequal Development p 38. ↩
- S. Amin, Unequal Development, pp 47-48. ↩
- ‘A series of major historical events marked the stages in this [Arab ↩
- ‘In becoming Arabised, however, the Egyptian people kept a very firm sense of their distinctiveness. They never called themselves” Arabs”, a word that remained for them synonymous with “barbarians”, but always “ßgyptians”. And Egypt has retained its originality, not on the linguistic plane but on that of culture and values, which in Egypt are peasant values.’ S. Amin, Unequal Development p46. ↩
- ibid. p 29. ↩
- ibid. p28. ↩
- ibid. pp 27, 28. ↩
- Encyclopedia of Islam, first ed. p 439. ↩
- Refer to our first quote from Amin. ↩
- We refer the reader to the excellent essay on ‘Pre-Islamic Arabia’ by Irfan Shahid in the Cambridge History of Islam. ↩
- Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, The University of Chicago Press, 1974, vol. 1, p 146. ↩
- M. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Islamic Surveys vol. 6, Edinburgh University Press 1968, p11. ↩
- ‘Among the nomadic tribes of Arabia there was as great a degree of communal solidarity as anywhere else in the world. In Mecca before the preaching of Muhammed, commercial prosperity was breaking down the solidarity of tribe and clan. Islam may be said to have restored communal solidarity but to have attached it to the total community of Muslims rather than to any smaller unit… It is indeed the solidarity of the umma or community which is the chief contribution of the Islamic religion in the political sphere.’ W. M. Watt, Islamic Political Thought p 29. ↩
- ‘… the ethnic content of the word “Arab” itself was also changing. The spread of Islam among the conquered peoples was accompanied by the spread of Arabic. This process was accelerated by the settlement of numbers of Arabians in the provinces, and from the 10th Century onwards by the arrival of a new ruling race, the Turks, in common subjection to whom the distinc- tion between the descendants of the Arab conquerors and the Arabised natives ceased to be significant. In almost all the provinces west of Persia the old native languages diçd out and Arabic became the chief spoken language.’ Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History Hutchinson and Co 1970, pp 14-15. ↩
- Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations Lawrence & Wishart 1964, p88. ↩
- We refer the reader to the essay by D. C. Dennett on ‘Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam’ in Islamic Taxation, Arno Press, 1973; and the first chapter of Ann Lambton’s book Landlord and Peasant in Persia, Oxford University Press 1953. ↩
- See Charles Issawi, The Economic History of the Middle East 1800-1914, Part I, ‘Decline and Revival of the Middle Eastern Economy’. ↩
- We refer the reader to the excellent books by Gordon Childe, in particular What Happened in History, Man Makes Himself and New Light on the Most Ancient Near East. ↩
- A famous Pre-Islamic poet, al-A’sha from the Yamãma, is said to have sung:
Let this warn whoever a warning will take:
And Ma’rib withal, which the Dam fortified.
Of Marble did Himyar construct it so high,
The waters recoiled when to reach it they tried.
It watered their acres and vineyards, and hour
By hour, did a portion among them divide.
So lived they in fortune and plenty until
Therefrom turned away by a ravaging tide.
Then wandered their princes and noblemen through
Mirage-shrouded deserts that baffle the guide.
R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, London 1941, p 17. ↩
- S. Amin, Unequal Development p 28. ↩
- Maxime Rodinson, Islam and Capitalism, Allen Lane 1974, p 56. ↩
- G. D. Goitein, ‘The Rise of the Near Eastern Bourgeoisie in Early Islamic Times’ Cahiers d’Histoire Mondiale, 3, 1956-1957, pp 583-604. ↩
- ‘In broad outline we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois methods of production as so many epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society’ [emphasis added ↩
- S. Amin, Unequal Development p13. ↩
- K. Marx, Grundrisse Pelican edition 1975, p 496. ↩
- The purpose of these notes is to sum up the main arguments of this article and to put forward some hypotheses and possible lines of investigation for further research into the problem. ↩
- M. S. Hasan, ‘Growth and Structure of Iraqi Population 1867-1947’, 85 Nationaljormation in the Arab region: a critique of Samir Amin Bulletin of Oxford University Institute of Statistics, XX, 1958; and J. I. Clarke and W. B. Fisher (editors) Population of the Middle East and North Africa, University of London Press 1972, p97. ↩
- C. Issawi, op cit pp 3-4. ↩
- For Egypt see the excellent study by G. Baer, ‘The Settlement of the Bedouins’ in Studies in the social History of Modern Egypt, University of Chicago Press 1969. ↩
- For references see G. Baer, Population and Society in the Arab East, F. A. Praeger 1966, chapter IV. ↩