North Africa, West Asia: Interview

To understand the Middle East, we must look back at the 1960s Arab New Left

In this interview, Fadi A. Bardawil explains why it was so important for him to excavate the lost archive of leftwing intellectuals in Lebanon

Tugrul Mende
24 March 2021, 7.06am
Fadi A. Bardawil was inspired by the 1960s Left
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Photo courtesy of Fadi A. Bardawil

In the 1960s, the Left held a different place in politics than today. In Lebanon, the decade birthed a movement that was to have a lasting impact on generations of activists in the region: the Arab New Left.

Fadi A. Bardawil, assistant professor of Asian and Middle East Studies at Duke University, is one of those influenced by this generation of intellectuals, and in his book, ‘Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation’, he guides the reader through a journey looking back at a group of engaged leftwing intellectuals and their influence on politics today.

Bardawil investigates the main actors in this group, as well as their ideologies and written works, to understand how the movement came to be and what it meant for the political environment in Lebanon and the region.

Intellectuals such as Waddah Charara and Ahmad Beydoun are his main interlocutors. Their work was influenced by the major events that took place in the 1960s, especially the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Bardawil engages with their writings, and the larger political and intellectual environment in which they evolved. In doing so, his book offers a glimpse into an almost forgotten world that can illuminate the causes of today’s struggles from a fresh perspective.

I spoke to him by video call to gain an insight into why he considers this topic to be so important, the challenges he faced in unearthing this archive and the modern relevance of the Arab New Left.

Why is the study of Arab Marxism and the Arab New Left relevant today?

This project was a deeply personal one for me. I grew up during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and my political consciousness developed in the early and mid-1990s. Coming of age during these times, the 1960s Left constituted for me the last great revolutionary generation. Especially when you contrast that era to the years of my childhood, the 1980s, a decade of intense inter- and intra-sectarian civil wars and regional ones, such as the 1982 Israeli invasion. That’s why I started reading some of their works, and meeting some of them in person. The work, in one of its dimensions, was a process of coming to terms with one’s inheritance.

Beyond the personal dimension, there are three main reasons to dig up this archive today. The first is historical. These militant intellectuals, the first generation of post-independence Lebanon (1943), lived through, commented on and shaped many crucial events taking place in ideologically saturated times. I tried to capture the historical arc of a generation whose members started off as Arab nationalists before becoming Marxist critics of pan-Arabism, some of whom later ended up as disenchanted critics of communal and sectarian politics.

Keeping the memory of past struggles alive is an antidote against living in a neoliberal eternal present

The second is theoretical and revolves around how they conceptualised the question of intellectuals, political organisation and non-revolutionary attachments. For instance, do intellectuals constitute a vanguard whose mission is to educate the people or should they learn from the people before reformulating their experiences? Is the organisation the name for the collective agent of emancipation or is it an apparatus that hijacks people’s will while speaking in their names?

And how do you politically approach certain attachments, such as nationalist and sectarian ones, that you don’t consider to be emancipatory ones? What is the most appropriate form of mobilisation? Who is the revolutionary subject?

At least since the last decade, these questions have regained their political urgency, especially with the Arab revolutions, global anti-capitalist mobilisation, and the revolutionary upheavals that began in October 2019 in Lebanon.

The third reason is political: keeping the memory of past struggles alive through an intergenerational dialogue is an antidote against amnesia and against living in a neoliberal eternal present.

Revolution and Disenchantment book cover
Fadi A. Bardawil’s book presents a hidden archive

While working on your research, was it difficult to find sources in Arabic and to conduct field research?

The book draws on multiple sources. It was not hard to find sources published in periodicals, newspapers and books. The ethnographic component of the research consisted of extended interviews with members of the Arab New Left in Lebanon. The archive of the political organisation, on the other hand, was more difficult to find.

I was very lucky though, since Ahmed Beydoun, the distinguished historiographer and public intellectual, had preserved much of that archive and generously granted me full access to his collection. This is a fascinating question because it is not only a practical one. You quickly realise that you are not examining an already curated and preserved archive, like a state’s archive. Instead, you are assembling an archive by enquiring about the pseudonyms that militants used, the periodicals they wrote in, the out-of-print books they wrote and translated, not to mention their underground party bulletins, communiqués and theoretical glosses which are scattered in different homes.

That said, interviews come with their own challenges. You quickly become aware of your own generation’s blindspots when your interlocutors assume that you are familiar with certain events, figures, works and moods. The question of difference is not only cultural. It is also generational. Not everything is transmitted to successive generations.

Class no longer constitutes the universal grammar of inequality – this has expended to gender, race, environment and non-human species

How do you think our understanding of the Left has changed today?

The coordinates of what it meant to be on the Left were much clearer in the past, including the 1960s. This common ground, which encompassed different militants and on which they could agree to disagree, became fractured in the late 1970s.

The militant religious politics that accompanied the Islamic revival are partly responsible for this fracture. The Iranian revolution, and its aftermath, divided those on the Left. Some members of the 1960s Left converted from Marxism to Khomeinist politics, while others opposed the Islamic revival from Leftwing and liberal positions.

The entanglement of the political in the sectarian, regional and ethnic webs of the social fabric, which the Lebanese civil wars clearly revealed, also dealt a severe blow to thick ideological politics, such as those of the Left.

The story of the Left’s trials is not an exclusively Arab one. In addition to religious revivals and communal politics, recent decades have also witnessed an expansion of the concept of the political to many fields – gender, race, environment, non-human species. Class no longer constitutes “the universal grammar of inequality” to borrow Sudipta Kaviraj’s turn of phrase.

What do you think your work adds to the scholarly landscape around this topic?

When I began working on the project, around 15 years ago in the wake of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, it was the personal dimension that propelled the work. This book came after my MA thesis that examined the aesthetics and politics of Ziad Rahbani, the leftwing musician and playwright.

In a way, the book is the second installment of a wider project that examines the many relations that cultural productions, whether artistic or theoretical, entertain with politics. That said, the past few years witnessed an increased interest in revisiting leftwing history, both in academia and in the art world through films and exhibits.

The 1960s leftwing intellectuals thought across disciplines. They were not experts or specialised intellectuals, but revolutionaries who worked with whatever helped them understand their present and intervene in it. So, one thing I emphasise is the necessity of going beyond disciplinary boundaries and thinking across intellectual fields, areas of study and languages, so that we can unlock the richness of their experiences, render them and reflect on them.

I also wanted to tell the story of this generation and engage with their theoretical works, without sacrificing one for the other. I wanted to think about the question of conceptual production via its embodiment in the lives and experiences of these militant intellectuals.

How did events such as the 1948 Palestinian Nakba and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war influence this generation of intellectuals?

Some of these intellectuals saw, as children, the influx of Palestinian refugees to their hometowns in Lebanon. This is very important because for them, the question of Palestine was not an abstract, anti-imperialist or Arab cause. Palestine was very close geographically and the Nakba was a generationally constitutive experience.

During our interviews, some of them recalled how they volunteered with other children from their neighbourhoods to collect donations, goods and blankets for the dispossessed refugees.

The new Left that came into being in the 1960s was catalysed by the ‘defeat of the regimes’, as they called the 1967 Arab defeat. They saw it as their historical chance to take over the mantle of political struggle from the defeated and humiliated post-colonial regimes.

The defeat also catalysed the radicalisation of Arab nationalists into Marxists, which entailed the foundation of new political organisations constituted by former nationalists.

What could future projects based on this topic focus on?

This question brings us back full circle to the first one. I said earlier that part of the challenge was to assemble the archive before proceeding to examine it. With more and more works that both assemble and examine the archive of Arab Marxisms, one can adopt different reading strategies, and subject the archive to different questions.

Two such questions are gender - and patriarchy - and a history of militants from below. I sometimes ask myself what kind of critical work would be produced if one does not focus on intellectual men and their theoretical works like I did. If one focuses instead on the lives and works of women intellectuals, and dwells on the experiences of those who did not leave behind theoretical traces, then what would our account of the Left look like?

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