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Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a “marginal man”

Fred Halliday
8 September 2005

The role of French writers and intellectuals in shaping modern international debate on the middle east and the Arab and Islamic worlds has been enormous. The concern of figures like Albert Camus, Pierre Bourdieu, Hélène Cixous, Olivier Roy, and Michel Foucault has stretched from Algeria to Iran, and from political and ideological “grand narratives” (colonialism, nationalism, revolution, and Islam) to relationships of power and subjection (violence, torture, women).

Algeria, France’s major Arab colony from 1830 to 1962, generated some of the sharpest commentaries and controversies among French writers; indeed the first three writers mentioned above (as well as Jacques Derrida) grew up there in the colonial period and were profoundly shaped by its conflicts. It was revelations of torture by French troops in counter-insurgency during the 1954-62 war that brought out the best of the French left – and the worst, as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s dramatic and ill-judged support of the incitements to murder in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

(Sartre’s characteristic opportunism and extreme callousness here significantly banalises the work of Fanon himself whom David Macey’s excellent biography reveals to be a much more subtle and important thinker than Sartre’s endorsement indicates.)

Iran in revolution was another field of French argument, exemplified in Michel Foucault’s indulgent reports of 1978-79. Foucault knew nothing about Iran and so made a fool of himself – whereas he had showed great courage and good judgment in his defence of human rights violations in Tunisia, where he had worked as a visiting academic.

(While the postmodern philosopher did get Iran wrong, the feminist Kate Millett got it absolutely right: the combination of solidarity and critique in her 1979 book Going to Iran was exemplary, and denounced as a result by eastern Islamists and western “anti-imperialists” alike.)

French discourse continues to produce some of the liveliest work of scholarship on the modern middle east, backed by institutions that (so much in contrast to Britain and the United States) make it possible to study the languages and politics of the region and engage in public debate. The depth of understanding of journalist-diplomat Eric Rouleau and social historian André Raymond, and the research of the two most influential European commentators on political Islam, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, make France’s intellectual life – in contrast to its stagnant politics – still one of the liveliest in Europe.

Here’s to you, Mr Rodinson

The greatest of all French writers on the middle east (and arguably the greatest tout court) is however less renowned today than he deserves to be. Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004) was certainly the formative influence on my own work.

Rodinson’s life-story fused scholarship and political commitment. He was born in Paris to a radical, Jewish, working-class family, and worked his way to the Sorbonne where he studied Semitic languages, ethnography and sociology, before teaching for seven years in a Muslim school in Lebanon. He returned to Paris to work in the Bibliotheque Nationale (in charge of oriental printed books) and later in the Sorbonne as professor of middle-eastern ethnology and old south Arabian languages.

Throughout, his political engagement was consistent and profound. He spent two decades (1937-58) in the French Communist Party (PCF), but remained devoted to independence of mind and accuracy in research, traits that flowered in the decades he spent as a Marxist writer after he broke with the party. Alongside many articles in journals and encyclopedias, he wrote several seminal books: among them Mohammed (1961), Islam and Capitalism (1966), and Marxism and the Muslim World (1972).

I first met Rodinson in London in 1968, when he came over to discuss the translation of Islam and Capitalism – a learned and engaged rebuttal of the cultural reductionism of Max Weber and those other writers who tried to explain the middle east by reference to some unchanging entity called “Islam” (he was awarded the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize for this book in 1974). Against the stereotype of Islamic hostility to modern capitalism, Rodinson – using textual criticism, economic history and common sense – demonstrated that Muslims had never had any trouble in making money.

Rodinson was in a somewhat shaky state on that occasion: he had cut his head badly falling down the steps of 7 Carlisle Street, a dilapidated building in the Soho district whose old lino staircases led to the offices of the leading journal of the intellectual left, New Left Review. His head swathed in bandages, Rodinson recalled the working-class, leftwing Jewish milieu of his Paris childhood (an experience recounted in his autobiography, Souvenirs d’un marginal, Fayard, 2005).

Maxime’s father Moise came from Vitebsk, the same town as the painter Marc Chagall, and had played chess with Trotsky; a close family friend had played an important role, later much regretted, in persuading Nikolai Bukharin to return to Russia, where he was tried and shot by Stalin. Rodinson recalled going on a demonstration in 1927 to protest the execution in the US of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

He never lost the somewhat uneasy “bad conscience of the ex-communist”, and referred to the way he had both joined and left the PCF “in the worst year” (during the Stalinist purges and after the Hungarian uprising respectively). But his years in the communist movement, and the relentlessly curious and measured Marxism he acquired, provided a perspective on the middle east denied to many other observers.

At the same time, his opposition to Stalinism and to intellectual labelling made him especially sensitive to the dangers of unbalanced western academic criticism. This was just one reason for his rather limited respect for Edward Said and his book Orientalism. Rodinson would not himself say what any comparison of the two works would demonstrate: that Rodinson’s The Fascination of Islam is incomparably superior – in its learning, regional depth and theoretical sophistication – to Said’s overvalued jeremiad.

(Rodinson had no problem being described as an “orientalist”, and remained a lifelong friend of Bernard Lewis, who – in Maxime’s telling – had himself been a communist in his working-class, Jewish, east London youth.)

Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher

Maxime Rodinson wrote a number of recondite works – among them Magic, Medicine and Possession in Gondar, and a contributions to Medieval Arab Cookery – but his analytical reputation rests on his best-known works, Islam and Capitalism and Mohammed. The latter was for years a standard book in Arab countries but is now banned, following Islamic pressure, in Egypt and other Arab states.

His work on the Arab-Israeli question after the 1967 war is also seminal. The “six-day war” produced upheaval among the European and American left as well as across the middle east. Before 1967, leftist and socialist opinion had hitherto been solidly favourable to Israel, a reflection of two things: support for the socialist elements in the original Zionist project (then still evident in Israeli society), and the legacy of the second world war and the genocide of the Jews (particularly potent in France).

It was in this context that two Marxist writers of Jewish origin, whose relatives (in Rodinson’s case, both his parents) died in the gas chambers, presented a fresh, independent, and resilient analysis of the middle east’s central conflict – one which serves as a benchmark against which to judge later commentary on the left, much of it partisan, short-sighted and lacking in comparative historical or internationalist perspective.

Rodinson’s short, incisive Israel and the Arabs, and Isaac Deutscher’s famous interview with New Left Review (given in summer 1967, a few weeks before his death in Rome) proposed their solution to the question of Israel and the Palestinians. Its essence was an exemplary “internationalism” that recognised the rights of the two national groups, denounced the chauvinism and militarism of both sides, and (most important) rebutted in sharp, secular terms the religious rhetoric emanating from all quarters.

Rodinson and Deutscher strongly criticised both the political culture and the authoritarian politics of the Arab world (something the “solidarity” movements of today seem unable to do) and the rabbinical, militaristic culture of Israel. Their committed, secular stance is far removed from the totemic icons of “identity”, “community”, “tradition”, and “feeling” that came to flourish in discussion of the region. It remains of utmost relevance.

Rodinson and Deutscher were abused for this independent position, sometimes openly, sometimes by having parts of their argument taken out of context and used for partisan purposes. They were accused by supporters of Israel of being “self-hating Jews” (a nonsensical term still enjoying excessive currency) and by Arabs of being apologists for Zionism (because of their support for the existence of Israel).

In 1971, I interviewed Ghassan Kanafani, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), on the group’s involvement in the airplane hijackings that precipitated the “Black September” conflict in Jordan in 1970. (Kanafani, one of Palestine’s finest fiction writers though an unpersuasive politician, was assassinated a year later by an Israeli car bomb in Beirut). When I proposed a “two-state solution” to the Palestine question (as I continue to do) he was indignant: “But that is the Maxime Rodinson solution!” No more, it seemed, needed to be said.

The tone and content of debate on the Palestine question have, if anything, deteriorated since the early 1970s; nearly four decades on, the simplistic and partisan positions of the 1960s have returned to dominance. The position is even worse in that intransigence is reinforced with religious and communalist justification.

European and American supporters of Israel have switched terms, so that Palestinians once denounced as “Nazi” are now stigmatised as “terrorist”; while the Arab and now pan-Muslim side employs retrograde images of Israel and Jews. Meanwhile, “internationalist solidarity” for Palestinians seems weightless and void of political judgment – from the identification of Zionism with racism (as if Arab nationalism itself is free of this) to the shortsighted rejection of the 1993 Oslo agreement (the best chance the Palestinians are every likely to have to secure their own state).

The current debate on Palestine has travelled far from the calm, critical, genuinely internationalist observations of Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher. Yet this too is a vista that they would have recognised more than most. Deutscher’s mordant Yiddish observation on the Israeli victory of 1967, Man kann sich totsiegen (“One can win oneself to death”) may still turn out, tragically, to be vindicated.

At the end of my recent The Middle East in International Relations, I cite Maxime Rodinson’s unceasing belief in universal values, in the need for intellectual aspiration beyond what one is actually capable of, and for an enduring, unyielding, scepticism towards the values and myths of one’s own community. Amid a world scarred by state and terrorist violence and debased public debate (not least on the Palestine question) we need the wisdom and independence of Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher more than ever.

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