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Marxism and Nationalism in Egypt

How two opposing schools of thought were joined together by anti-colonialism.
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Courtesy of Theodor Herzl

The contradiction between traditional Marxism and nationalism is well-known. One emphasises class divisions as the taxonomic units of the modern world, undermining the legitimacy of national identities, while the other downplays class identities, promoting the unity and wholeness of the nation. Yet the latter half of the twentieth century saw attempts to reconcile these two modes of thinking in various regions, from Latin America to Eastern Europe and Africa. Shared anti-colonialism, as well as the rise of revisionist Marxist ideas, encouraged this uneasy alliance between them to take place.

In the Arabic states, however, religion further complicated the joint socialist-nationalist cause. Much has been written on Islam and socialism, by both Islamic thinkers and contemporary academics – a sub-section in Hamid Enayat's study provides a short introduction to the main debates. On the one hand, early Islamic writing promoted the communal over the individual, and the idea of fairness and equality for all, but on the other hand it also enshrined private ownership and the authority of one over many. Nineteenth-century Arabic thought extensively explored the similarities and tensions between Islam and socialism. In particular, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, and his student, Muhammad Abduh, argued that the main tenets of early Islamic society and socialism's focus on equality and liberty were essentially the same, and that the Islamic world must adapt to the modern world through reforms.

It was Egyptian turn-of-century thought that really attempted to tailor socialism to the region. Cairo was the publishing centre of the Arabic world, a comparatively liberal and tolerant city where innovative artists, social critics, and writers could exchange ideas in one of the city's countless publications. Shibli Shumayyil, a Syrian-born scientist and intellectual who spent most of his life in Egypt, was the first Arabic thinker to conceptualise and spread the idea of socialism (ishtirakiyya) as a package of reforms. As Egypt at the time lacked modern industry, Shumayyil's focus was more on the necessity of government's interference in society to engender social welfare, rather than Marx's theories on labour and ownership. While Shumayyil's and Afghani's ideas conflict on several points – the role of religion in a modern Arabic state is one – their writings are united by their disdain for nationalism.

This opposition between nationalistic and reformist intellectuals in turn-of-the-century Egypt took concrete form in the 'Reformers' versus Nationalists dispute in the first half of the 1910s. Both groups were effectively composed of bourgeois elites who viewed the lower classes as ignorant and apathetic – as obstacles to Egypt's progress – and both wanted to 'uplift' the masses through education. The main contention was the method needed. The Reformers essentially embraced British rule, albeit temporarily, seeing it as a civilising force for social progress, a rational society, and mass education. Independence should be deferred, so their argument went, until Egypt was ready for it. The Nationalists wanted immediate and full independence, and believed beneficial reforms would develop naturally once Egyptians had a completely sovereign nation-state.

This conflict in Egypt between social reform and the fight for an independent Egyptian state had older roots, however. Socialism was portrayed as a foreign import, at odds with Egyptian identity and practices. Throughout the 1880s and beyond, the widely-read cultural and scientific monthly al-Muqtataf (The Selection) held a staunchly anti-socialist editorial line: socialism was a European response to a wholly European problem; it could not and must not take hold in Egypt. Its coverage of the two month workers' strike in Cairo in 1899 – the first in Egypt's history – is telling: the strikes are imports, instrumented by radical Greek socialists intent on destroying the country; and they must be seen as abrupt and ill-fitting actions, rather than as an organic development. Most Egyptian intellectuals at the time agreed. Apparently, labour movements had no place in true Egyptian society. Socialism, with its transnational focus, seemed to be the antithesis of nationalism's aims.

How then did Nationalist Party leaders address a group of striking tramway workers barely ten years later with a message that effectively exalted Marxist arguments? “Your cause is not only the cause of tramway workers,” the party's organ, al-Liwa (The Banner), proclaimed in 1911, “but of all workers in Egypt. Your strike [...] is proof that a new power has emerged in Egypt which cannot be ignored – the awakening of the power of the working class”.

Two years prior to this, the Nationalist Party had funded the establishment of the Manual Trades Workers' Union, as well as the 'People's School' (Madarris ash-sha'b), which provided evening classes for workers. The Egyptian nationalist elites were starting to take notice of the growing labour movement in Egypt's cities. The working masses and peasants were redefined: no longer were they imagined as docile, ignorant inconveniences, but as symbols of national authenticity, hard-work, virtue, and heroism – the very soul of the Egyptian nation. The accompanying increasing use of ash-sha'b – which translates as 'the people' but connotes a simple and honest way of life associated with the lower classes – to mean 'the nation', represents the rhetorical integration of workers with nationalism.

This mutual attraction between nationalism and the labour movement can be explained in several ways. The ideas of the nationalists chimed well with the workers' fears and frustrations. Most enterprises were owned by wealthy foreigners but employed poor Egyptians, and profits seemed to end up benefiting solely the colonial elites, rather than improving wages and conditions. Egyptian artisans felt threatened by the rising popularity of foreign mass-produced goods, which were cheaper, quicker to make, and more widely distributed. Closely related to these concerns was the enormous disparity between the lives of the working masses and those of the local imperialists - the exclusivity and grandeur of the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, reserved for the British upper classes, demonstrates this. The Dinshaway Incident in 1906, which saw Egyptian villagers arrested, imprisoned, or killed by British officials, further attracted artisans and workers to the nationalist cause. By the 1910s, Egyptian nationalism was almost synonymous with Egypt's labour movement.

This marriage continued, generally speaking, in a similar fashion until the renaissance of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s. The rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser following Egypt's 1952 revolution gave a platform to the ideas of Arab nationalism, which had been largely rejected by the more exclusive Egyptian nationalists of previous decades. Arab nationalists focussed on the unity of all Arabs, regardless of their locality, and firmly believed in the establishment of a unified Arab state. Socialism held an interesting position within this brand of 'nationalism'. Only through the unity of all Arabs can egalitarianism be achieved: a strong sense of Arab nationalism is essential to ensure unconditional unity; this unity will bring an end to the exploitation of Arabs by imperialists and internal capitalist overlords; and socialism will thus be established. This came to be known as Arab socialism. In complete rejection of a central thesis of Marx's entire thought, Arab socialists asserted the primacy of religious and linguistic identities on the path to, and as the basis of, a successful socialist society.

Arab socialism, however, was not trying to mould itself on traditional Marxist thought. By its very nature, it could not. Reflecting the era's exploration of more fluid Marxist ideas, influenced by Tito's search for a 'third way', and disillusioned with the Soviet Union – particularly after Khrushchev's speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 –  Nasser and his followers proudly acknowledged their status as renegades. “The first step in Arab socialism is justice and sufficiency”, Muhammad Haykal, editor of al-Ahram (The Pyramid) wrote on August 4, 1961. “The first step of communism is punishment and revenge,” he went on to say, “because the bloodiness of the struggle among classes, in communism's view, is an inescapable necessity.” This is only one out seven differences that Haykal highlighted.

The problem remained, however: how can Islam, nationalism, and socialism be reconciled? In other words, does Arab socialism make sense? An interesting answer came in 1964, in a book entitled Fi'l ishtirakiyyat al-arabiya (On Arab Socialism): “Arab socialism stands midway between capitalism and Marxism, but at the same time represents a jump forward. [...] Capitalism gave rise to Marxism, and these two extremes gave rise to Arab socialism.” The authors thus used a Marxian dialectical method to legitimise their movement. Capitalism failed; Marxism failed. It is up to Arab socialism to finally get the balance right, which it will do – it must do – because the dynamics of historical change dictate so.

Yet the ultimate failing of Arab socialism in Egypt, inherent and explicit from the start, was its focus on nation, rather than class. It tried to appeal to all Arabs, whether workers, peasants, financiers, or landowners. Khrushchev himself, while celebrating the idea of Arab unity, dismissed the idea that this unity could include those that true socialist ideas posit as the opposite of the workers: “I want the slogan 'Arabs Unite!' to be defined more precisely: 'Arab workers, peasants, intelligentsia, all working people, unite against the exploiters, your own Arabs and international exploiters!'” Perhaps more problematic was the movement's exclusivity. Copts, who make up a large part of the Egyptian population, Jews, Turks, Berbers, and countless others who identified themselves as non-Arabs, were alienated from the drive to celebrate Arab culture, religion, and solidarity.

As expected, recent events in Egypt have seen a re-emergence of similar notions in the public sphere, though seemingly more relative and inclusive than Nasserism. Whether this year's parliamentary elections gives the majority to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party or to the Coalition of Socialist Forces, Egypt must find a way of engendering social justice, economic security, and greater political freedoms for all its citizens. The role that politicised nationalism or religion can play in this must remain minimal.

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Comments

Nice background you are providing here. The fact that these notions might be reified in the current debate is slightly worrying. Is it not time for a more pragmatic approach maybe more divisive in a way but which could give to all elements of society a feeling of not neing left out?

Thanks. What do you mean by the pragmatic approach which is inclusive though divisive? And what do you think Egypt should do next? I'd like to see a state where religion and politics are separate (though not in conflict with each other) with a strong government, an effective welfare system, and a well-regulated economy. Idealistic perhaps...

What wil b the relations btwn egypt and subsaharan africa after the revolution, wil egypt move away to middle east?
And what lesons shud students,intelectuals n midle clas from subsaharan africa take from ua revolution??