Mahdi Amel was born in Lebanon in 1936, where he completed his secondary education. He then moved to France, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy. He worked for a short period in Algeria after the victory of the revolution against French colonialism and was closely acquainted with the revolution in that country. Later, he returned to Lebanon as a full-time lecturer at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Lebanese University. Mahdi Amel joined the Lebanese Communist Party in 1960 and was elected to the party’s Central Committee in 1987. The same year he was assassinated in Beirut.
By: Victorios Bayan Shams
Mahdi wrote several books:
- Theoretical Prolegomena to the Study of the Impact of Socialist Thought on the National Liberation Movement (1973). This work has three sections: “On contradiction”, “On the colonial mode of production”, “On progress in history”.
- A crisis of Arab civilisation or a crisis of the Arab bourgeoisie? (1974).
- Theory in political practice: An inquiry into the causes of the [Lebanese] civil war (1979).
- A Gateway into Refuting Sectarian Thought: The Palestinian Cause in Lebanese Bourgeois Ideology (1980).
- Does the Heart Belong to the East and the Mind to the West? Marx in the Orientalism of Edward Said (1985).
- On the scientific nature of Ibn Khaldun’s school of thought (1985).
- On the sectarian state (1986).
- A critique of everyday thought (1987).
- On Matters of Education and Teaching Policy (1991).
He has some poetic contributions in two books, plus a large selection of articles and interviews.
He was nicknamed the “Arab Gramsci”, for being one of the few Arab thinkers who elaborated in a unique mode the understanding of the Arab reality from Marxist theory, extracting from it the laws to explain the Arab complexities and historical particularities.
The most important issues that occupied Mahdi Amel, and which until then were the focus of the conflict of political life in the Arab world, are:
- The crisis of leadership in the national liberation movement in the Arab world;
- The dominance of the colonial mode of production in the relations of production and the political, social and economic structures of the Arab world;
- The issue of sectarianism to which the peoples of the Arab world are still subjected, and which is considered a complementary gateway to other issues that have a negative impact in holding Arab societies hostage to the control of classes whose interests are linked to the interests of colonialism.
What follows is a brief presentation of his views on these issues.
The leadership crisis of the national liberation movement in the Arab world
The crisis of leadership in the national liberation movement in the Arab world arose with the formation of the Zionist entity (that is, the state of Israel, AN) since the 1930s. The question of Palestinian liberation was one of the central issues that Arab societies had to deal with because of the negative repercussions on their entire environment, and because the liberation of Palestine is considered a matter of general Arab popular consensus, crossing the class divide.
In the first phase, the people’s armies that worked to liberate Palestine were formed according to pan-Arab nationalist and sometimes religious visions. In both cases, the national bourgeoisie led the conflict against the Zionist entity, which is one reason for its permanent failure. Mahdi Amel sees the ideology of the bourgeoisie as having two main phases, the nationalist and the religious, which expresses a more reactionary bourgeoisie.
But the main event that attracted Mahdi Amel’s attention, under which he lived and acted, was the Israeli invasion of Beirut, the first Arab capital to be taken by the Zionist occupation army, which resulted in the formation of an important national alliance: the National Front of Lebanese Resistance, a national alliance that included the democratic forces (by democratic forces the author means the left and Marxist political forces, AN), together with the petty-bourgeois forces (the author refers to the pan-Arab and pan-Arabist nationalist political forces, AN), which took the lead in the struggle against the Zionist enemy in various stages. It is an alliance that was originally justified on several grounds. The most important of these is the entrenchment of these petty-bourgeois forces and the domination of their culture over society, not to mention the small size and limited capacity of the Marxist forces.
However, these justifications ceased at the next stage (the author refers to the resistance against the Israeli invasion of Beirut in September 1982, now under the hegemony of the left forces, AN), since the communists were able to impose their domination particularly on the fronts against the enemy and to make their influence effective in the social structures in which they operated. The advance of the communists was not enough for the bourgeoisie to give up fighting for the leadership because, with its class consciousness, the bourgeoisie knew that the victories of the Marxists on the combat fronts would have an impact on its internal hegemony, affecting its interests, neutralising it.
It was this that led the bourgeoisie to dilute the conflict with the enemy so that the national democratic forces (i.e. the left forces) could not win and unilaterally determine the form and content of the end of the conflict.
In a later phase, the Lebanese bourgeoisie allied itself with other Arab regimes to attack the national liberation movement, of which Lebanon was one of the most important arenas and models, as a prelude to wiping out the national liberation movement and ridding itself of the forces of the Palestinian revolution.
“The almost absolute consensus of the Arabs (Mahdi Amel refers to the Arab regimes, AN) in getting rid of the Lebanese national movement and the Palestinian revolution alone indicates that these “united Arabs” see the Lebanese crisis as an aspect of their crisis, and an Arab solution is a necessity to try to eliminate the ghost of the revolutionary model of the Arab national movement in its cradle.” (Amel, Mahdi. Theory in Political Practice: An Inquiry into the Causes of the Lebanese Civil War, p. 30).
Thus the Arab armies, led by the Syrian army, were sent in from the mid-1960s to carry out the task of liquidating the national movement, to rid it of its “evils”, the flames of which could spread to them.
Thus, the bourgeois leaders turned against the general popular consensus, because they perceived that continuing the struggle against the Zionist enemy was in contradiction with their ability to continue to dominate society.
However, to get out of this difficult situation, the bourgeoisie idealised its solutions. After weakening the national movement to the point that it could no longer influence the course of the conflict, the Islamic forces were forced against the national movement. These were bourgeois formations with Arab and regional patronage to dominate the front against the enemy. Thus, the bourgeoisie was able to ensure the absorption of the resentment of the Arab streets on the one hand and the preservation of its hegemony on the other.
The dominance of the colonial mode of production in Arab social structures
With the beginning of the processes of national independence in the Arab world in the second half of the 1940s, Arab regimes began to form, whose interests the colonial countries sought to link to their own interests by guaranteeing the ruling bourgeois classes their positions in power. The leaders of these regimes came from the emerging bourgeoisie in a distorted and complex historical stage in which the bourgeois landowners (not the old feudal class) were placed in a class position associated with colonialism, i.e. the landowners themselves participated in a transition that violated the logic of history, which presupposes the coming to power of the bourgeois class through a revolution that eliminates the old mode of production to adopt a new one.
The primary role attributed to this class was to maintain a state of political paralysis, one of its first conditions for facilitating the maintenance of Arab societies in a state of backwardness, the maintenance of the unproductive rentier economy at the cost of the liquidation of sectors such as agriculture and industry, which would lead the Arab working class into action after the processes of national independence. The struggle against these regimes was not resolved due to the absence of national democratic forces (the author refers to the left forces, AN) which were slow to appear in the political arena for complex reasons, originally related to the distortion caused by a transition of social structures freeing themselves from colonialism by associating themselves with a new form of colonialism.
Mahdi Amel considered that the stages through which history passed – “primitive communism, slavery, feudalism and capitalism” – cannot be applied to Arab social structures without investigation and scrutiny. After national independence, a new and different mode of production, the colonial mode of production, dominated the development of Arab social structures because of its organic link with the capitalist mode of production.
On this issue, Mahdi Amel wrote in Introduction to the Critique of Sectarian Thought, one of his most important works, about the ideas of one of the most prominent theorists of the bourgeoisie in his country, Michel Chiha, one of the drafters of the Lebanese constitution (1926). Chiha, in his writings, theorised that the country does not need to boost the real sectors of production, such as agriculture and industry. This idea is present in the actions of the forces of the sectarian bourgeoisie in Lebanon to this day. Lebanon’s economy depended mainly on the service sector before the civil war (1975-1990). At the end of the war, the bourgeoisie returned to the same model and revived the service sector.
Mahdi considers that the process of national liberation in the colonial social structure and the process of transition to socialism takes place in a long and complex class struggle due to the complexity of this structure:
“The process of national liberation and the process of transition to socialism is a single historical process, subject to a single historical logic and a single mechanism of class struggle. This single historical process has its stages which differ according to the historical conditions for the development of the class struggle in each particular colonial social structure. The absolute structural symmetry between the two historical processes, which are in truth a single process, is because this process is a process of transformation of the structure of the existing relations of production and that the transformation of that structure is revolutionary. Its destruction takes place through a distinct class struggle which determines its mechanism, and that destruction is itself the transitional road to socialism, i.e., the solution to the national contradiction in the structure of the colonial relations of production determined by the colonial relation is necessarily a socialist solution determined by the logic of the class struggle itself in the colonial social structure. The national struggle can only be, in this structure, a class struggle, even if it does not appear that way, and the class struggle in it can only be a national struggle, even if it does not appear that way” (Theoretical Prolegomena to the Study of the Impact of Socialist Thought on the National Liberation Movement, in On the Colonial Mode of Production, p. 380).
This means that getting rid of the domination of colonialism and imperialism, and consequently getting rid of the tools that depend on it to control society, is an essential aspect of the class struggle, which will necessarily lead to the transition of society to socialism.
In his attempt to simplify the process of understanding the complexity of the transition from one phase to the other in the social structures of colonialism, Mahdi Amel drew on the theory of historical materialism to simplify the five phases of the state according to Ibn Khaldun: the phase of victory, the phase of despotism, the phase of emptiness and meekness, the phase of contentment and peace, the phase of extravagance and waste which leads the state to decay and collapse.
In On Progress in History, the third part of his important reference book, Mahdi Amel summarised these phases in three moments: the time of formation, the time of renewal, the time of rupture or transformation.
In addition, he made it easier for Arab revolutionaries to understand the complex nature of the movement in which one bourgeois class fraction (religious, military, liberal, or other) is replaced in power by another of the same ruling class. All of this is processed in the bowels of the “time of renewal” that Mahdi considered the time of the impossibility of the rule of the colonial bourgeoisie which puts on the shoulders of the revolutionary forces in these societies the task of bringing this process to its natural ends, i.e. to the time of its transformation.
The sectarian question
Mahdi Amel formulated his view on the sectarian question in the light of the Lebanese civil war (19750-1990) which appeared to be a sectarian war deflagrated by the bourgeoisie, after its predicament reached its climax, in the attempt to maintain its regime.
A religious sect has various bourgeois expressions, most of which are brought together as a religious entity, with its own culture and customs, and as an autonomous social unit that develops throughout history, as in these two definitions inspired by the thought of the Lebanese bourgeoisie’s pre-eminent theorist, Michel Chiha:
“The religious sect is a human conglomerate that was historically compiled and has particularities within the Lebanese sectarian structure.“
In a second definition:
“The sect is a very clear multidimensional social identity, deeply rooted in history: together, they constitute a highly complex dynamic whole.“
Many bourgeois expressions revolve around the same meaning, while for Mahdi Amel and from the class point of view, the religious sect is:
“A specific political relation historically defined from the movement of the class struggle in the conditions of the colonial social structure” (Amel, Mahdi, A Gateway into Refuting Sectarian Thought, p. 20), because confessionalism, according to his definition, is “the system which guarantees the colonial bourgeoisie its class control under certain historical conditions” (On the Sectarian State).
Mahdi Amel considers that sectarianism does not exist, except in the state, but not in any state, only in those in which this is the only way to guarantee the conditions for the maintenance of the oligarchy’s financial power. To this end, he presents several examples of democratic bourgeois states such as the United States, France, etc., which have religious sects, twice as many as Lebanon, but actually do not treat religious sects as social units that constitute their political structure, and religious sects are not considered the primary social unit in the relationship of the individual to the state, as is the case in Lebanon. According to the Lebanese model, the individual does not exist, except for his position in his sect, which is considered his gateway to the state.
The Lebanese bourgeoisie built its system of power in this way, which it calls “consensual democracy”, because it is easy to disguise class divisions in society with vertical divisions, dividing the working class into religious sects that are easy to control.
Mahdi Amel worked to explain the complexity of the Lebanese political, social and economic structure, in the light of the remarkable rise of the left forces when they were at the height of their ascendancy in the 1970s and 1980s, and constituted the main force of resistance to Israel and the hegemony of the sectarian junta linked to colonialism.
Therefore, he considered that revolutionary change was inevitable, especially because the working class can then unite and emerge through its Marxist parties and forces, and constitute itself through its alliances, internally with the national forces, and mainly with the Arab and Palestinian resistance, into a real threat to the domination of the bourgeoisie, which could have been liquidated had it not been for the intervention of the forces of bourgeois regimes similar to the Lebanese regime, such as the Syrian, Saudi and Iranian regimes, as well as Israel and the Western powers, to stop the rise of the national liberation forces and interrupt their expansion, which would have threatened bourgeois interests and certainly liquidated their domination.
Some concluding remarks. Mahdi’s definition of sectarianism, as a system that ensures the perpetuation of colonial bourgeois control, applies to other forms of bourgeois domination in other Arab social structures, in which tribalism, clanism, regionalism and other relations (in the Khaldunian sense) are dominant according to the nature of each of those structures.
Was Mahdi Amel exaggerating in his optimism, and what events after his martyrdom problematise what he thought? Perhaps the assassination of Mahdi Amel and other Marxist thinkers at the hands of hidden sectarian forces, with regional and international support, was exactly for this purpose, i.e. to prevent history from reaching its own logic in the transition to socialism, which Mahdi and his comrades saw around the corner, in the light of the gains that had been achieved up to the moment of their physical elimination. Is it possible to bet again on the option of democratic change?
What is happening today in Syria and the “Arab Spring” countries is similar in some respects to what Lebanon achieved after many years of civil war. In other words, capitalism is working to reproduce history in a way that ensures the continuity of its interests. That is why, in Syria and these countries, the question of division along sectarian, tribal and other lines is being urgently fuelled against the backdrop of these brutal capitalist wars with exorbitant human costs as one of the possible solutions that fragment the peoples of the region and prevent their unity and development into political forces that can unbalance the situation and end the existing comprador-colonial regimes.
Victorios Bayan Shams is a Syrian journalist based in Brazil.