• Yusuf Ibrahim Yazbek, Hikayat awwal nuwwar fi al-‘alam wa  fi lubnan (The Story of May Day in the World and in Lebanon), Dar al-Farabi, Beirut 1974.
  • Muhammad Dakrub, Judhur al-sindiyana al-hamra’; hikayat nushu’ al-hizb al-shuyu’i al-lubnani 1924-1931 (The Roots of the Red Holm Oak; the Story of the Rise of the Lebanese Communist Party), Dar al-Farabi, Beirut 1974.
  • Khalil al-Dibs (Introduction), Sawt al-sha’b aqwa: safahat min al-sihafa al-shuyu’iyya wa al-‘ummaliyya wa al-dimuqratiyya fi 50 ‘am (The People’s Voice is Stronger: Pages from the Communist, Workers’ and Democratic Press in 50 Years), Dar al-Farabi, Beirut 1974.
  • Dahir al-‘Akkari (ed.), Al-sihafa al-thawriyya fi lubnan 1925-1975 (The Revolutionary Press in Lebanon 1925-1975), Dar al-Farabi, Beirut 1975.

In dealing with the problems facing any socialist endeavour in the Arab East, we have to study the history of the socialist movement in this part of the world, beginning with the emergence of a socialist trend within the modern ‘Arab awakening’. Why did such a trend evolve at all? What were its origins and motive forces? How did it come into being? What were the reasons for the slow pace of its development and for the difficulties that it encountered?

Early beginnings

More than in other national liberation movements, in the national awakening movement of the Arab East there was ‒ and to a certain extent there still is ‒ a dissociation between two principal elements of national awareness and emancipation: the conservative element of defence against foreign aggression and domination, which is rooted in a domestic tradition; and an innovative element, which questions this very tradition and adopts foreign methods when this seems necessary for enhancing its own fighting capability.

In the Arab East the conservative-defensive element was largely confined to the Sunni Muslim majority of the population. It was based on a Muslim, rather than Arab, identity which before the first world war was accompanied by a degree of loyalty to the Ottoman Empire. This led to a rejection of virually all European values and achievements. The innovative trend, on the other hand, was carried largely by religious and ethnic minorities. These groups ‒ Oriental Christians, Jews or various ethnic minorities under European ‘protection’, as well as expatriate Europeans such as the Italians and Greeks in Egypt ‒ naturally had a closer affinity to Europe than their Muslim compatriots. This, as well as their social status as minorities which drove them to seek for ways to emancipation and secularisation, accounted for their readiness to accept European values. The striving for emancipation led some of these European-oriented intellectuals of the minorities to look for egalitarian or even socialist remedies for the evils of their own societies. Generally speaking they did not give much thought to the feasibility of transferring European models into a different social context. But the majority of the population shunned these ideas just because they were adopted by members of a despised minority linked with Europe, at the very moment when the European threat began to be felt throughout the Arab East. This applied also to the socialist endeavour of certain intellectuals. Before the first world war, all indigenous socialist thinkers in the Arab world were Christians. (In Palestine ‒ even worse ‒ socialism was represented by left-wing zionist settlers.) Socialism was therefore perceived by the majority as associated with the minorities and as part of the foreign threat.

In Lebanon too the early socialists were isolated; or rather they were not even living in the country. Given the meagre opportunities for political expression in Ottoman-ruled Syria, the pre-first world war Lebanese-Syrian socialists (Shibli Shumayyil, Farah Antun and Niqula Haddad) lived and worked in Egypt. Their teaching ‒ for they did not engage in any socialist practice ‒ was not purely socialist but a mixture of socialist ideas of a reformist character together with the great ideals of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, conceived in a romanticist manner. This brand of socialist ideology is perhaps most typically expressed in the writings of Farah Antun.

After the first world war, the still few and dispersed Lebanese socialists adhered to a similar romantic socialism mixed with liberalism. But if we consider the beginnings of the Lebanese communist party,1 we find that it was not, as in all other Arab countries, set up by minority groups but was nearly purely Arab (with the exception of the Armenian communist group Spartak, which merged with the CP only after the first of May 1925). The Lebanese Christians, a minority in the Ottoman Empire, had become a majority in the Greater Lebanon created by the French mandatory administration for this very purpose. So the pioneers of Lebanese communism brought with them the ‘Christian’ heritage of enlightenment and social rebellion, but could now work in a mainly Christian environment regardless of confessional strife. (By ‘Christian’ we do not of course mean anything to do with the religious essence of Christianity, but are merely referring to the situation described above.) The beginnings of the Lebanese CP were thus Arab.

The early history of the Lebanese CP remained until recently a rather inaccessible subject, since the sources were not readily available; despite promises and decisions to this purpose, the CP so far has not produced an official history of the party. Yet in commemoration of its 50th anniversary (October 1974), the party reprinted some some of the original sources of that early period, as well as two semi-official books drawing heavily on documents and eye-witness accounts.

Yusuf Yazbek is one of the founders of the Lebanese CP. His book, Hikayat awwal nuwwar, contains a historical survey of May Day celebrations around the world and personal recollections of the founding of the Lebanese People’s Party. It also has a useful documentary appendix. Since most of the contents of Yazbek’s book concerning Lebanon is repeated by Dakrub, we shall not deal here specifically with the former.

Muhammad Dakrub’s Roots of the Red Holm Oak does not pretend to be a scientific history of the rise of the Lebanese CP. It is rather a narrative aimed at readers unfamiliar with the history of the party and its origins. This explains its somewhat naive style; but this in fact is an advantage, insofar as the contents are less filtered than is usual in scientific history.

Dakrub starts with the first public demonstration of the party, the celebration of May Day 1925 in the Crystal cinema in Beirut. Then, in a series of flashbacks, he tells the story of each of the speakers at that meeting, thus tracing the party’s history up to that date. One of the speakers, Khairallah Khairallah, not belonging to the party, represented nevertheless one of the traditions on which it relied: The Lebanese liberal intellectuals inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution who developed a strong anti-Turkish nationalism (and some of whom were actually hanged by the Turks during the first world war) but who had also some illusions about the post-war French rule in Syria. Khairallah himself had taken part in the first celebration of May Day in Lebanon which took place in a half-clandestine way near Raoushe at Ras Beirut in 1907, and he had also taken part in the First Arab Congress 1913 in Paris where he used to live and work as a journalist. His participation in the 1925 meeting did in fact nothing more than remind the audience of this tradition.

Yusuf Ibrahim Yazbek, another speaker, while inspired by the same intellectual tradition, belonged to another generation and played a far more active role in the founding of the party. With Fu’ad Shimali, he must be considered one of its two founders. Born in 1901, he was impressed by the wartime misery and cruel Ottoman tyranny in Syria, but was disappointed to see the Ottoman rule merely replaced by a French one after the war. In this he ‒ and some other radicals ‒ differed from the pre-war liberals whose illusions of the French ‘democratic mission’ did not fade immediately after the war and in some cases did not fade at all. (This was another result of the creation of the Greater Lebanon: the loyalty of a considerable part of the Christian population to the French mandate out of fear of Muslim supremacy in a Greater Syrian or Arab framework.) The conspicuous misery of the population accounted for some of the more radical of the liberals turning in a socialist direction. Their ideas were at first less elaborated than those of the pre-war Arab socialists (Dakrub, p 83f). Yet they resembled the latter in their romantic outlook. Yazbek was the leading voice expressing this tendency and slowly clarifying its socialist character and the need for action. This he did in a series of letters and articles which appeared during 1922-24 mainly in the Zahle newspaper Al-sihafi al-ta’ih (The Wandering Journalist). He signed his contributions as follows: The Weeping Ghost; from the Red Hut; in the City of the Rich; 8th October of the Sixth Year of the Third International. Although this date was not correct (he counted from 1917), it indicates Yazbek’s bolshevik sympathies ‒ in this period a mere confession of faith.

Role of Jewish communists from Palestine

Further crystallisation of bolshevik thought and an orientation towards organisational practice came in 1923 when Yazbek met Fu’ad Shimali and began to collaborate with him. Shimali was a Lebanese tobacco worker who had worked in Egypt and had gathered experience in the trade-union movement already developed there. Having become a communist and as such an ‘undesirable’, he was expelled from Egypt and deported to Beirut in August 1923, where he met Yazbek. In Bikfayya, a tobacco manufacturing centre, he began to organise the workers for trade-union activities. Some of them soon began to share his communist sympathies.

At first this small nucleus of communist sympathisers had no connection with the Communist International, despite their efforts. The connection was finally made via the Palestinian CP, which was then exclusively Jewish and had a rather close contact with Moscow. Joseph Berger, one of its leaders, charged with the task of observing the Arab countries and politics, noticed a socialist undertone in an article by Yazbek on Anatole France’s death. He went to Beirut, met Yazbek and got in contact with Shimali and several communist workers from the Bikfayya region. In a meeting on 24 October 1924 at Hadeth near Beirut, these men decided to form a legal party, the Lebanese People’s Party with some communists, among them Yazbek and Shimali, as its leading circle. Yazbek was elected its first president, soon to be replaced by Shimali. This date is now rightly considered the birthday of the Lebanese communist party.

It is highly symbolic that the three men who prepared this meeting represented three important components in the formation of the party: Yusuf Yazbek, the romantic Lebanese liberal with a radical socialist streak; Fu’ad Shimali, the worker who had gathered his trade-union experience in Egypt, by this time the only Middle Eastern country with a sizeable working class and Joseph Berger, the Palestinian Jewish communist of Polish origin who provided the relations with the Comintern.

It should be noted here that the origins of Palestinian communism were indeed very different from those of the Lebanese. We have seen that the early Lebanese communists ‒ deeply influenced by the French Revolution ‒ understood bolshevism as a more radical brand of the West European humanistic socialism of, say, Jaures. They had very little marxist culture, let alone knowledge of Lenin (as confessed by Yazbek, pp 68-70); the October Revolution meant to them a moral stimulus rather than a meaningful teaching. With the exception of Fu’ad Shimali, they had no experience in organising the working class. Yet they were Arabs in an Arab environment and their intellectual outlook had its genuine Lebanese tradition.

The early Palestinian communists were all Jewish; they had been among those Russian and Polish Jewish socialists who came to Palestine under the impact of zionism. Only a small minority of those remained faithful to their socialist conviction, lost their zionist illusions when confronted with the Palestinian reality, and broke away from zionism. They formed the CP. Largely isolated from the zionist-dominated Jewish population, and mistrusted by the Arabs who continued to regard them as Jews who had come to deprive them of their homeland, the Palestinian communists had great difficulties in fulfilling their revolutionary projects. On the other hand, they had brought with them from the fertile revolutionary soil of Russia and Poland a rich experience of working-class politics. They were versed in marxism and had a knowledge of the principles of the Comintern unmatched by any other revolutionaries in the Middle East.

Since Palestine offered much less fertile ground than the other countries of the region for the application of these talents, there was, as it were, a ‘surplus revolutionary capability’ ready to be deployed elsewhere. The Palestinian communists willingly helped in setting up and developing CPs in the neighbouring countries. They felt a regional responsibility for the communist movement, and out of this there developed the idea of establishing a communist federation of the whole Middle East. For a long time this policy had the approval of the Comintem. Whether this noble striving was linked, in the mind of some Palestinian leaders, to ambitions of domination, is a moot question. After the Comintern had rejected the Palestinians’ claim to regional responsibility (about 1930), Arab communists often made such accusations, which in turn are also hinted at by Yazbek and Dakrub, but without substantial evidence and without providing any insight into the situation of the PCP itself.

We have already mentioned that in most Arab countries, and especially in Palestine the origins of the CPs were not purely Arab but rooted in the minorities. This was through no personal error on the part of the leaders, but an inevitable consequence of the prevailing political and social conditions. To overcome the adverse effects of this fact, it is necessary at least to analyse thoroughly its historical causes. But such analysis is lacking in Dakrub’s book. Yazbek goes even so far as to say that the Jewish leaders of the PCP ‘slipped out of your hands like eels’, but then abandons the reader with ‘but this is another story’ (P 71). This is not to say that Yazbet is antisemitic, but that he seems to lack any understanding of the Palestinian communists’ national problems.

The aid given by the Palestinians to the Lebanese CP in the early days was considerable: they delegated a leading member, Ya’aqov Tepper (Eliahu Teper) to its first central committee; they helped to support the Syrian revolt; and in 1929-30 another leading member, Nahum Leshchinski (Nadav) was placed at the disposal of the Lebanese-Syrian CP.

From the Third Period to the Popular Front

After founding the party in October 1924, the leading Lebanese communists tried to recruit new members, mainly through Shimali’s trade-union activities and by attracting liberal intellectual sympathisers. This process and the preparations for May Day 1925 are described in detail in the two books, especially by Dakrub. Only after May 1925 did the party reach a level of real organised activity. It gave support to a bloodily suppressed demonstration in July 1925 and to the Syrian revolt of 1925-27. As a result, nearly all leading cadres were arrested and sentenced to prison, which meant a serious decline and even interruption of party work for two years. Activities were resumed only in 1928 and then in a very cautious and clandestine way. The party came again into the open with a widely distributed manifesto on July 1st, 1930.

The following year brought a very serious attempt by the CP (which by now had assumed an all-Syrian dimension) to gain adherents by all means of activity. Again some leading cadres were arrested and jailed. Yet these measures did not have such a devastating effect as the first blow; the party was able from time to time to print legal and illegal newspapers (Saut al-‘Ummal, Al-‘Ummal, Al-Fajr al-Ahmar). But still more important was the elaboration of the first party programme (the records of the first party congress in December 1925 had been destroyed, see Dakrub, pp 373-376). The new document was not officially called a programme but a programmatic document. It was issued precisely one year after the public manifesto, that is, in July 1931. This document is republished in the annex of Dakrub’s book, together with a call for May Day 1925, a protest by the central committee of the ‘Communist Party in Syria and Palestine’ against repression by the French authorities (August 1926, taken from ‘Inprecorr‘), and the famous joint declaration of the Syrian and Palestinian CPs on the ‘Tasks of the Communists in the Arab National Movement’, also from 1931.

The programmatic document is a very ambitious and detailed text in the mood of the Comintern ‘third period’ , i.e. it stresses the role of the working class without taking into consideration its ability to fulfil this role, and it condemns the ‘reformism’ of the national bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the text gives a clear picture of the party’s aims: in principle, overthrow of the capitalist system and building up a socialist one; but, as the first goal ‒ liberation of Syria (including Lebanon) from the French yoke and a number of measures to improve the lot of the workers, peasants, women, youth etc. To fulfil this programme a workers’ and peasants’ government must be set up. The national question is seen on its different levels ‒ ending of the interconfessional and intercommunal strife in Syria, attaining Syrian independence, anti-imperialist solidarity of the oppressed peoples on an Arab and world-wide level. The national question is not artificially counterposed to social emancipation in a scheme putting the solution of the former as a pre-condition for the latter.

Today, the communists criticise this program for concentrating on the slogan of a workers’ and peasants’ government, which allegedly watered down the emphasis on the immediate demands ‒ independence, Syrian unity, evacuation of foreign armies (Dakrub, p 447f).

In my opinion, the shortcoming of this programme is not an underestimation of the purely national issue or the criticism of the bourgeois nationalist leadership but the overestimation of the real weight of the working class and of its capacity to implement the role assigned to it. In a situation like the one we are dealing with, it is important not to restrict the fight to its national ‒ as opposed to social ‒ dimensions. This in any case can be done better by a bourgeois leadership, which by the way was not lacking in the Arab case. Rather, the fight for national liberation must be linked to a thorough social mobilisation. This link is certainly not excluded by the text in question but it was not conceived in a consistent manner and even less was it put into practice.2

Yet it is important to note that the communists ‒ in that period ‒ did not underestimate the fight for complete independence, out of regard to their French or Soviet brother-parties; nor did they sacrifice their eagerness to fight for social improvements and to stress their socialist goal on the altar of ‘national unity’. This can clearly be seen from the heavily documented narrative by Dakrub and from the texts he cites in full. Moreover, he gives a striking picture of the intellectual background and the different fields of experience which contributed to the formation of the Lebanese CP. But however valuable the book may be from this point of view, it does not prevent the reader unfamiliar with the events ‒ and it is precisely to this sort of reader that the book is addressed ‒ from forming a somewhat erroneous view of the party’s history. This history is treated as if it took a more or less straight path from modest beginnings to ever greater successes. In such a rendering, sharp turns in the political line of the party or critical points of its history are either omitted from the picture or glossed over. Thus an innocence is shown or pretended that is no longer credible after so many turns and setbacks. This way of thinking and writing is quite usual in communist parties, and Dakrub’s book is one of the better examples of its products; but it is clearly not a case of ‘marxism applied to itself’. Analysis is lacking for the most part.

True, the book deals with a period that by its very character lends itself to such a treatment: as a founding period, it was full of great hopes for the future; the gap between the far-reaching aims and the difficult circumstances could only be bridged with a considerable dose of heroism; the radicalisation from above, with the ‘third period’, seemed to coincide with the party’s own experience (namely the weak performance of the bourgeois-national leadership); the sacrifices of the ‘popular front line’ were still ahead. So the historical faithfulness of the book is not marred too seriously by its character.

The following period, which begins with the turn of the communist movement from the hard line of the third period to the popular front policy, has been the subject of a much more lively controversy. The Syrian-Lebanese CP has had to face grave accusations by Arab nationalists because of its position in this period. It is accused of not having pursued the aim of Arab unity any longer (or not having professed its dogma any longer), of having sabotaged the fight for Syrian and Lebanese independence out of loyalty to the French popular front government, it is accused of silence over the French cession of the (formerly Syrian) district of Iskenderun to the Turks, and of alleged neglect of the Palestine question; in one word: it is accused of national treason. These accusations are put forward either from a purely nationalist point of view, as in Darwaza’s book Regional Communism (see the “Selected bibliography“), or by leftist Arab nationalists like Naji ‘Allush and llyas Murqus (see ibid). Sometimes they are linked to a criticism concerning the insufficient emphasis given to socialist aims by the CP. These accusations are sometimes ‘proven’ by short quotations from original communist sources. And there is a great deal of material which can be cited to suggest a certain ‘unreliability’ of the communists regarding national questions. But the fact is that most of the critics render the quotations and relate the deeds of the communists in such an incomplete and disjointed manner that the uninformed reader must believe the underlying assumption that those attitudes are the result of sheer treason. Yet the attempt to explain this or that deed or attitude of a political group by ‘treason’ is usually made by those who are either unable or unwilling to give a more satisfactory explanation. In any case, we must first see to what extent the accusations are true, and get a correct picture of the party’s policy at the time concerned, and we must then try to understand the background which led to this policy. By this method alone shall we be able to assess this policy in accordance with the historical reality.

Now, in addition to the two books we have mentioned already, the Lebanese CP has recently published two documentary volumes which offer us glimpses into the real attitude of the party at different periods from 1925 to 1946. One is a sample of reproductions of Lebanese communist or sympathising newspapers and journals from 1925 to 1974 with a stress on the early period. It is called ‘The People’s Voice Is Stronger’. The other volume, edited by Dahir al-‘Akkari, is a documentation of the contents of that press for the period 1925-46, arranged by themes. Some of the chapters of this latter volume are headed as if to reject the afore mentioned accusations: ‘In the heart of the fight for independence and national sovereignty’; ‘Saut al-sha’b (the party organ) leads the fight for the evacuation (of the foreign armies)’; ‘For an Arab unity on a democratic basis’; ‘In defence of Arab Palestine against British imperialism and the zionist conspiracy’. Even if the items in these chapters have most probably been selected according to the national mood prevailing today, one can draw from them abundant evidence to the effect that the accusations of national treason are, at least in their crude form, false. Not only does this documentation correct the exaggerated picture given by the critics’ short quotations, but it provides also the context and argumentation leading to this or that position of the party, at least as far as they are given in the original texts.

Indeed, from 1934 onward the communists spoke less about Arab unity than before, but they did not drop the subject altogether. They did not oppose Syrian independence but advocated it vigorously, if in a form open to criticism. They did not acquiesce in the ceding of Iskenderun but protested sharply against it. They did not neglect the Palestine problem but until 1947 advocated a unitary democratic solution to it. The book edited by ‘Akkari shows this in a very consistent way, as it shows how the communists treated many other questions, like the liberation of women, the defence of the USSR, the anti-fascist struggle, cultural questions, and so on.

National liberation and social emancipation

Yet if we have defended the Syrian-Lebanese CP against a purely nationalist, inexact or even totally false criticism, there is still a great deal in its politics that may rightly be criticised. Some of Murqus’s criticism in the conclusion of his book History of the CPs in the Arab World, for instance, is fundamentally just, although he tries to support it ‒ for the period concerned ‒ by the distorted evidence we mentioned earlier.3 He is right in reproaching the communists for the schematism of their political conceptions, for their disregard for the domestic realities, for their changing political lines without any substantial discussion, for their oscillation in the definition of the Arab nation, for their postponing of socialist aims, and so on. Yet these phenomena, taken in isolation, cannot explain the ups and downs of the Lebanese CP in a satisfactory way.

Therefore it may be useful to recall the evolution of the political line of this party from its inception up to the second world war, and look at the two main themes around which it centred, namely national liberation and the struggle for social progress and the final socialist goal. As we have seen, the party developed ideologically out of the radical wing of socialist-liberal circles which, by virtue of a humanistic universalist outlook, gave priority to social progress ‒ perhaps influenced by the cruel sufferings of the people of Syria in the famine during the first world war. This, together with Shimali’s purely proletarian experience in Egypt and ensuing practice in Lebanon, as well as the endeavour to work legally under the French mandate, account for the early communists’ stress on the social issue and their relative neglect of the national one, as laid down e.g. in the Principles of the Lebanese People’s Party, written in 1925 (text in Yazbek, pp 103-l05, and in ‘Akkari, p 410). These principles are conceived more in a spirit of domocratic social reform than of revolution.

The founders of the party knew of course that even those moderate aims could not be attained under the mandate. Therefore they hinted at their enmity towards the French administration, at first very cautiously, then more forcefully (as shown by ‘Akkari, p 31ff). The banning of Al-Insaniyya, the first legal party organ, in June 1925, and the arrest of the communist leaders later in that same year showed that the French authorities would not tolerate even such cautious nationalist propaganda, especially when infused with socialist principles. So the communists saw themselves free to take a more radical stand on both social and national issues, which they did in the following years, in accordance with the radicalisation of the Comintern line. When they came again into the open after the imprisonment of their leaders and two years of voluntary clandestinity, they expressed a view of the two issues much more consistent than before. This view contained a more radical conception of the national and of the social issue (namely, agrarian revolution) and was aware of the necessity of linking the two issues without neglecting the realities of each country. We have already mentioned the texts expressing this view (the manifesto of 1 July 1930, the 1931 Syrian ‘programme’, the joint resolution of the Syrian and Palestinian parties). The error of this conception was an unrealistic, over-optimistic evaluation of the capacity of the workers and poor peasants to fulfil the tasks assigned to them by the communists. Those tasks were indeed given by the objective situation, and there was no other social force capable of tackling them, but the programmes envisaged too short a time for this process. Nevertheless, this orientation might have contributed to a solid entrenchment of the CP had it been put into practice and corrected by experience for a sufficently long time; because the orientation was basically sound.

But there was no opportunity to do so, for this was also the period when the CP came under closer control of the Comintern. This control had already accounted for the application of the ‘hard line’, against domestic reluctance;4 and in the following, ‘popular front’ period was to have far graver consequences. The Comintern advised the CPs of the colonial countries to have a certain regard to the interests of their respective colonial powers whose governments were seen as possible allies against the fascist powers. At the same time they were given a free hand to set up alliances with other political forces in their own countries. So the Syrian-Lebanese communists advocated moderation in the fight for national liberation, especially after the popular front assumed power in France, and at the same time tried to be accepted as allies by the Syrian bourgeois nationalist leadership, the kutla wataniyya (national bloc), which they had so vigorously denounced a few years earlier for not pursuing the national emancipation struggle at all. On this issue they now took nearly the same stand as the kutla wataniyya, and in addition they put off their socialist aim, so that a de facto alliance became indeed possible.

Under these circumstances, the communists played the role of a mediator between the French popular front government and the Syrian leadership. In this they were indeed helping to achieve independence (a process that was completed only in 1946 but in every stage of which the communists played a considerable role). The accusations of national treason are therefore unfounded. But they failed to assume in this process the specifically communist task that they themselves had envisaged a few years earlier: that of profoundly mobilising the masses, that of linking the anti-imperialist struggle with an agrarian revolution (as demanded by the 1931 joint declaration) or at least a social mobilisation guaranteeing the countinuation of the struggle. Their actual conduct allowed them to work publicly through their organ Saut al-sha’b and gave them a certain respectability. This respectability, among other things, accounted for their gaining a large audience during and immediately after the war. (The political turn during the Hitler-Stalin pact went largely unnoticed because of the illegality and harsh repression under the drole de guerre and Vichy administrations. In June 1941, Syria was occupied by British and Free French forces who restored the legality of the CP). The unreliability of this audience appeared when the next grave blow came after the partition of Palestine: it crumbled away.

Through the documents reprinted in the two volumes, one can of course perceive the general orientation of that period ‒ expressed most outspokenly and officially in the National Charter of the party approved by the party congress of December 1943/January 1944 (text in ‘Akkari, p 425). Quite naturally, although deplorably, the most compromising documents have not been chosen for re-publication.5

On the other hand, there is ample material concerning two other fields of communist literary activity: cultural work and the anti-fascist struggle. The former was done mainly through the journals Al-Duhur (1943), Al-Tali’a (1935-1939), and Al-Tariq (started 1941, still appearing). Non-communists (among them Amin al-Rihani and Michel ‘Aflaq) contributed a great deal to these journals that were indeed conceived as a means to influencing broad circles of intellectuals. Their purpose was to revive the progressive heritage of Arab history and to spread knowledge of scientific socialism and ‘other outstanding achievements of modern world culture’; that is, they tried to provide two necessary elements of a modern and progressive Arab culture. This was surely an important step in the attempt to overcome the deep alienation of modern Arab culture.

The other activity, anti-fascist propaganda, in spite of the questionable political conduct sometimes ensuing from it, was in itself a highly meritorious undertaking. Many Arab nationalists at the time had sympathies for the fascist powers out of enmity against France and Britain, the colonising powers in the Levant, and against the zionist project in Palestine, an enmity that often took an anti-semitic form. These people harboured illusions on an eventual German or Italian domination which they preferred to the actual French or British one. Under these conditions, the uncompromising anti-fascist stand of the communists6 was at first ‒ until the allied powers gained the upper hand in the war ‒ rather unpopular. So much the more praise to the communists for this attitude. However, it is doubtful whether anti-fascist considerations really necessitated such a great measure of restraint in the fight for independence. But this question must be discussed in the context of the general political outlook of the CP during this period.

A bad old tradition

There remains the question of the responsibility for the political conduct of the CP that led to its defeats and setbacks. We maintain that the main reasons lie in the traditional structure and functioning of the international communist movement:

  1. The political freedom or action of every single party was ‒ and in many cases still is ‒ considerably restricted by the existence of a leading centre entitled to give instructions to the parties.
  2. The internal structure of the parties, their ideological obligation towards the centre, and the sincere emotional loyalty of all communists towards the USSR, the ‘bulwark of world revolution’, rendered difficult any resistance of a party against instructions from above.
  3. The instructions from the centre were insufficiently, if at all, oriented towards the situation of the country in question, but were too often dicated by gobal conceptions formulated in a European context or, more precisely, according to what were considered the state interests of the USSR.
  4. There was the custom of changing political lines ‒ sometimes by 180 degrees ‒ from one day to the next, without any broad discussion, without any explanation other than accusing a scapegoat of having committed all the mistakes of the previous period. A change of line which might have been fruitful for one part of the world, was applied indiscriminately on a global scale.

All this accounts partly for the lack of success of communist parties, especially in the colonial world. Only those parties that managed to gain de facto independence from the leading centre and its schemes and models succeeded in assuming a revolutionary role in their respective countries. We have outlined the grave consequences of these factors for the Syrian-Lebanese CP. They were perhaps the inevitable result of the then prevailing conditions of the communist movement. One cannot reduce all this, in the final analysis, to the responsibility of one person. Yet the lion’s share of such personal responsibility as can really be found on a global level has justly been put on Stalin’s shoulders. In a similar way, perhaps any communist leadership in Syria and Lebanon would have been forced to apply this policy. But the man who actually did it ‒ and in a particularly machiavellistic way ‒ was Khalid Bakdash, Syrian party leader from 1934 until now (1980). Although one cannot hold him responsible for all that happened, he has become a symbol for the party traditions as a whole, and especially for the adverse conditions we have described. He was always ‘Moscow’s eye in the Arab world’.7

In the Lebanese CP, there has been a discussion on these and other critical points of party history. As far as we know, this discussion has not ended yet. It has led to a critical (and for that matter self-critical) account of party history.8 Naturally, one cannot expect a very deep public discussion at a time when the party is heavily dependent on Soviet support, for the relations with the CPSU are closely connected with all the crucial issues. On the other hand, since the late fifties or early sixties, the Lebanese CP is independent of the Syrian, so that it can criticise Bakdash, at least implicitly.

This is not the case with the Syrian party, of which Bakdash is still leader. Here the discussion led to a serious clash in the leadership and after prolonged debates ended with the splitting up of the party.9

Central to these recent discussions are subjects subsequent to the period we have dealt with here. Nevertheless, this early period is still full of lessons for contemporary revolutionary socialists in the Arab East. Therefore we can only welcome the fact that the Lebanese CP has published some books which give much useful source material concerning its own early history. The questions we have raised here are by way of plea for further research and discussion on the history of Arab communism and its lessons for the present.

  1. The beginnings of the party discussed here were Lebanese, under the name ‘Lebanese People’s Party’. When, after a period of repressions, it re-emerged into the open, it assumed an all-Syrian dimension under the name ‘Syrian CP’. From then on it called itself according to circumstances either Syrian or Lebanese CP. At its congress of winter 1943/44 it took the name ‘CP of Syria and Lebanon’, consisting of a Lebanese and a Syrian CP. After the second world war, when Syria and Lebanon became separate independent states, it was decided that the two regional branches of the CP should also separate and set themselves up as two parties. However, this decision remained on paper until the early 1960s.
  2. The joint declaration of the Palestinian and Syrian CPs mentioned above does indeed lay great stress on the need for this link. This declaration is rightly regarded by Dakrub (p 449) as complementing the Syrian programmatic document. Below we shall try to explain why this conception was not put into practice.
  3. llyas Murqus, Tarikh al-ahzab al-shuyu’iyya fi al-watan al-‘arabi, Dar al-Tali’a, Beirut 1964, pp 141-175. This does not mean that we agree with all his views. For a rejection of these see Maxime Rodinson, Marxisme et monde musulman, Seuil, Paris, 1972, pp 412-425.
  4. See Jacques Couland, Le mouvement syndical au Liban, Editions Sociales, Paris 1970, p 149f. This line seems to have been enforced by Nahum Leshchinski whom we mentioned earlier. See Couland, ibid.
  5. Some of these documents can be found in Murqus, op cit, pp 195-229; and in Ahmad Fayez Fawwaz’ contribution to the extraordinary conference of the Syrian CP held in late 1971 to discuss the differences in the party, in Qadaya al-khilaf fi al-hizb al-shuyu’i al-suri (Questions of the difference in the Syrian CP), Dar Ibn Khaldun, Beirut 1972, pp 374-404.
  6. In principle of course this anti-fascist stand was suspended during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, but as explained above this interruption had no great consequences in the Syrian context.
  7. See Rodinson, op cit.
  8. See ‘Report of the CC before the second congress of the Lebanese CP, July 1968, in Nidal al-hizb al-shuyu’i al-lubnani min khilali watha’aqihi (The struggle of the Lebanese CP, through its documents), Part I, Lebanese CP Publications, Beirut, pp 105-234. This report covers the period from 1944 (when the first congress was held!) to 1968.
  9. For all this see the book on the differences in the Syrian CP cited in note 5, and the article on the Arab CPs’ position on the Palestine problem in the present issue of Khamsin.