The Anti-Colonial Marxism of Mahdi Amel

The Lebanese Marxist thinker Mahdi Amel was assassinated on this day in 1987. Amel developed a version of Marxism that was grounded in the experience of colonized societies, showing how class struggle converges with the fight for national liberation.

Lebanese Marxist Mahdi Amel. (Archives of Assafir Newspaper)

With rare exceptions, non-Western theorists of Marxism receive short intellectual shrift. When they register on the radar of ideological debates at all, such debates summarily present their work as proof of Marxism’s universalism rather than a means of transforming Marxism itself.

This has largely been the case with the Arab Marxist Mahdi Amel, who was assassinated on this day, May 18, in 1987. Born in 1936, Hassan Hamdan, who later adopted the pen name Mahdi Amel, was a member of the Lebanese Communist Party and had joined the party’s national leadership by the time he was killed.

Amel’s legacy did experience a revival during the Arab uprisings that broke out a decade ago. His work garnered further attention after a volume of his selected writings was translated into English in 2021. But interest in his philosophy of Marxism and its implications for how we understand colonialism in relation to capitalism remains rudimentary.

A historical materialist reading of Amel would integrate his conceptual contribution and praxis into the ideological canon of twentieth-century Marxism. This requires a sustained and critical analysis of his philosophy’s assumptions, arguments, and conclusions in comparison and contrast to European Marxism as well as heterodox or radical schools of Marxism that emerged after World War II, such as dependency theory and racial capitalism.

We can take a modest step in that direction by briefly examining his methodology and its application to major themes of post-WWII national liberation, including the ongoing struggle for a free Palestine.

Marxism, Colonialism, and Methodology

Amel called for a “methodological revolution” in Marxist philosophy in order to understand and overcome the historical reality of colonialism. He opposed the application of preformed Marxist thought to the colonial social structure, but not in the name of some supposedly authentic precapitalist thought. He equally rejected forms of postcolonial analysis that threw the historical materialist baby out with its Euro-centric bathwater. Instead, Amel labored in a dialectical fashion to construct a theory of Marxism born out of colonial social reality and employed for its socialist liberation, which he argued, is also the liberation of all humanity.

Amel laid out the logic of his methodology, first in brief and later in detail, across a series of essays and book-length treatises. He then applied it to a wide range of historical phenomena and forces including sectarianism, Islam, education, and revolutionary culture. These writings were engaged in direct conversation with ideological debates that emerged during his age and remain relevant to ours.

While Amel’s texts may be dense and at times repetitive, his reasoning was straightforward. Karl Marx’s discussion of colonialism was incidental to his general analysis of capitalism. Given Marx’s own historical context in a capitalist Europe and his ignorance of the socioeconomic conditions of colonized countries, he was incapable of taking full stock of colonialism and incorporating it into his theory of capitalism.

The historical reality of colonized peoples is the inverse of that experienced by Marx. Their encounter with capitalism was incidental to, or mediated via, colonialism. Colonization, in the words of Amel, “cut the thread of continuity” in their history and “sent through it violent tremors.”

He believed these tremors reached all the way to the strata of the relations of production, as the material basis for precapitalist production was destroyed while the material basis for industrialization was denied. To put it another way, the difference between capitalist and colonial social formations does not merely concern the level or scale of production, but the entire structure of production.

For Amel, it follows from this point that the colonial relation, which is all-encompassing rather than purely economic, is the fundamental contradiction in colonized societies and that colonialism is the “objective basis for the colonized country’s social structure.” Consequently, colonialism does not end with the end of military occupation or by gaining political independence, but with the total severance of this relation in a process of violent and revolutionary transition to socialism.

Amel’s inquiry along these lines yielded the concept of the colonial mode of production (CMOP), which he defined as “the form of capitalism structurally dependent on imperialism in its historical formation and contemporary development.” Marx’s distilled observations on colonialism furnished Amel with a sound theoretical basis to develop his model. In each step, Amel drew on Marx’s relevant commentary and identified first principles.

For instance, Amel relied on Marx’s reference to the “fusion” of modes of production and on Vladimir Lenin’s description of different modes coexisting in a single social space to support the idea of a colonial mode of production as a fusion of capitalist and precapitalist modes of production under the rubric of colonial conquest, and thereby distinct from either. This methodology retained Marxian logic and concepts like class formation, class struggle, capitalization, and class consciousness, but tried to elucidate their specific historical form in a colonial setting.

Colonialism and Class Struggle

Amel’s theorization led him to conclude that the process of class formation under a CMOP is characterized by a lack of class differentiation. Thanks to the structural inhibition of large-scale industry, the colonial bourgeoisie is necessarily a mercantile rather than an industrial bourgeoisie.

Small-scale manufacturers in this context are a faction of the petty bourgeoisie, whose members occasionally engage in finance on a similar scale. This apparent diversity in economic activity is not due to some “excess energy” of this social class, but rather stems from the limitations upon concentrating production.

These constrained economic relations of production had political implications. Tied in its own class existence to its colonialist or capitalist counterpart, the colonial bourgeoise is incapable of carrying out a political revolution and establishing a liberal democracy in its European bourgeois form. The instability of rule in colonized countries is therefore a result of the stability of the colonial social structure, not a reflection of orientalist proclivities for military rule or dictatorship.

An extreme case of the lack of class differentiation is the fusion of the two social factions, urban merchants tied to foreign trade and landowners who direct their agricultural production toward colonial trade. This fusion negates the existence of either a national bourgeoisie, usually associated with industrialists, or a feudal class, usually associated with a colonial alliance.

Similarly, the process of proletarianization of the colony’s toiling masses — prominently peasants — is never complete at the economic or social level. Given the centrality of land in colonial agricultural production, which is concentrated around cash crops and extractive labor, peasants are the overexploited class under the CMOP.

When peasants migrate to urban centers seeking employment relief, they rarely, according to Amel, experience a radical transformation in terms of class existence and consciousness. Although embedded in a new class position that involves small-scale consumer industry, they preserve their previous class connections and retain much of their past class consciousness, transitioning between the two positions with ease.

Amel described the pattern in Lebanon:

The worker returns to his village at every opportunity, for holidays, vacations, and funerals. In this way, his village becomes his centre of gravity and exerts a pull over him stronger than that of the city. Ultimately, he longs for the land he left and demands to be buried there, home to his ancestors.

Amel warned that the lack of class differentiation does not mean that class struggle is absent in the colonial setting, as nationalist forces would have it. Nor does it mean the national question is insignificant, as some anti-imperialist or internationalist Marxists would have it. Given the indirect relation of exploitation under a CMOP that is governed by the colonial relation, class struggle is directed against a structure of dependency and domination, not another social class. This means that socialist revolution in colonized societies is synonymous with national liberation:

The struggle for national liberation is the sole historical form that distinguishes class struggle in the colonial formation. Whoever misses this essential point in the movement of our modern history and attempts to substitute class struggle with “nationalist struggle” or reduces the national struggle to a purely economic struggle loses the ability to understand our historical reality and thus also to control its transformation.

Amel prevented his philosophy from lapsing into determinism or economism by placing his structural analysis in a historical perspective as he theorized class struggle.

He emphasized the nature of class consciousness as a historical force of class becoming and resistance. He argued that before World War II, sectoral and economic forms of struggle by different factions of the toiling masses independent of each other precluded their very formation as a class. The period after 1945 saw these struggles converging in a broader political struggle for liberation from colonialism.

At that moment, the colonial relation became mutually constitutive of colonizing and colonized societies. It is necessary to sever this relation in order to transcend, and thereby destroy, both capitalist and colonial social structures.

The global ascendance of neoliberalism in the 1970s precipitated a conservative, culturalist turn across the Arab region. Amel’s intellectual labor focused on pertinent questions of culture and the growing role of religion, namely Islam, in politics.

In contrast with other Arab leftists or secularists such as Sadiq Jalal al-Azm and Adonis, Amel’s thought did not lapse into orientalist tropes. He countered the ideology of defeat that ascribed the Arab loss in the 1967 war with Israel to cultural rather than military factors and lambasted the Arab bourgeoisie for portraying their own political failings as universal failings of Arab civilization and cultural heritage.

For Amel, turath, or cultural heritage, was itself a problem of the interpretation of the past by a colonial present rather than a precolonial problem that persisted in the contemporary world. At the same time, Amel avoided absolutist perspectives toward Islam of the kind to be found in secular or communist polemics that saw Islam as being inherently reactionary.

Islam and Revolutionary Thought

By the 1980s, the culturalist turn led to the emergence of what Amel called “everyday” thought. He warned against this new discourse that depoliticized social struggle by ignoring the role of geopolitics, structural forces of history, and class interests as motivations in sectarian or regional conflicts.

Amel developed critiques of different manifestations of this new trend, some of which he categorized as nihilist, obscurantist, or Islamized bourgeois currents. His denunciation of the latter current did not lead him to dismiss Islam as an ontologically regressive force at all stages of history. Unlike many scholars of Islamic intellectual history who saw the primary contradiction in Islam — or any other religion — as being that between faith and atheism, or between religious and rational thought, Amel identified a dividing line between those who defer to power and those who defy it.

The traditional classification of precapitalist Islamic scholars is one example. Conventional scholarship associated progressive thought with reason, exemplified in the figure of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), while ascribing conservatism to philosophies that elevated religion or belief over reason, exemplified in the figure of al-Ghazali. Amel argued that such a classification was simplistic and rested on the assumption that reason was a monolith.

He pointed out that one could find a single scholar, such as Ibn Khaldun, invoking scientific reasoning as well as Salafi legal reasoning. These contradictory forms of reason remained within a religious logic or paradigm, which meant that they were never fully antithetical to each other. As a result, subversive thought, as expressed in illuminationist Sufi Islam, took the form of rejecting reason in toto.

For Amel, the primary contradiction was not between religion and earthly life, but between two concepts of religion: spiritual (Sufi) and temporal (juridical). Spiritual Islam, however, was not atemporal in a metaphysical sense. Islam, by force of historical becoming, was temporal and by extension political. Sufism, or certain strands of it, negates the institutionalization of Islam, which turned it into an authoritarian apparatus.

The different manifestations of Islam demonstrate, according to Amel, that Islam was never a singular force. It was Islam’s material rather than otherworldly existence that determined its reactionary or revolutionary character, even if, in Amel’s estimation, it had mostly served the interests of the ruling classes.

He identified notable exceptions to this rule in precapitalist Islamic societies that included the revolt against the third “Rightly Guided” Caliph, ‘Uthman Ibn Affan, in the period following the death of Muhammed, as well as a certain phase of Qarmatian rule in Arabia. Modern examples that Amel cited of Islam forming part of a revolutionary struggle in the age of national liberation included the Algerian War of Independence and armed resistance against Israel.

Revolution, Liberation, and the Palestinian Cause

Amel’s treatment of the Algerian revolution and resistance to Israel shed light on the particularities of class struggle under colonialism, which included the role of noneconomic factors such as racism and cultural identity. In the case of Algeria, Amel noted that the overwhelming majority of European settlers, whether they were artisans, farmers, bourgeois, or workers, opposed the revolution for national liberation.

The politicized working class was no exception. The working-class Algiers district of Bab el-Oued had been nicknamed the “red neighbourhood” for serving as a popular base of the Algerian Communist Party. Yet it became “a haven of European racism” and “centre of fascist European terrorism against the revolution” after the outbreak of the war of independence.

The same anti-colonial logic applies to theorizing class struggle in Palestine. So-called labor Zionism was a racialized ideology complicit in the oppression of Palestinian workers and peasants and as such cannot be characterized as socialist. By contrast, Amel saw the Palestinian struggle for liberation from colonialism as a force of revolutionary class struggle.

The failure of Arab communist parties to recognize this distinction and their willingness to blindly follow Moscow’s directive led the leadership of these parties to support the 1948 partition of Palestine. They rationalized this decision by a simplistic depiction of the conflict as a struggle between workers, both Arab and Jew, and a mercantile and landed bourgeoise, both Arab and Jew. It caused the communist movement to suffer a loss of popular support in Arab societies.

In the case of Lebanon, the Communist Party’s revision of its pro-partition stance in the late 1960s and its alliance with the Palestinian liberation movement was a radicalizing force that had an impact on class struggle in Lebanon itself. Following the Israeli invasion of 1982, Amel ridiculed left-wing pundits who minimized the significance of successful armed resistance against Israeli occupation in the name of focusing on strengthening the central Lebanese state at a time of right-wing Phalangist hegemony.

Israel’s own attitude toward Lebanese and Palestinian political factions was and remains determined in the last instance by the decision of those movements to adopt or reject national liberation strategies, including armed resistance, regardless of whether their ideology is secular or religious. For Amel, the significance of armed resistance to Israel and its allies derives from the objective centrality of the colonial relation in determining the character of class struggle in a colonial context.

Unlike many leftists of his time, Amel was careful to assess Islamist resistance forces in relation to this structural contradiction without ignoring the role of political (and therefore subjective) consciousness in swaying this struggle toward a socialist or progressive horizon. In 1984, when sectarian Islamist forces rebelled against pro-Israeli sectarian Christian forces in Beirut, Amel identified the objective revolutionary significance of the military victory, while stressing that it was uncertain whether this victory would point toward the end of sectarianism or its reproduction:

Either they go against the reactionary sectarian form of their ideological consciousness, i.e. in the direction of radically changing the sectarian political system of rule by the dominant bourgeoisie, or they align with this same reactionary sectarian consciousness — (but against the class interests of their toiling factions) — and lean towards sectarian reform of this system. In the latter case, the system would catch its breath in a movement that would renew its crisis, and subsequently the conditions for civil war.

There is no sectarian crisis in Palestine similar to that of Lebanon. But the leading armed resistance forces today in Palestine and across the region are Islamist in their ideology. Analyzing this resistance without centering the colonial relation, as Amel showed elsewhere, is a methodological error that mischaracterizes its revolutionary role as the latest stage in the war of national liberation.

The twentieth-century global conjuncture of national liberation may have passed in relation to other regions of the world. The colonial social reality of Palestinians, however, remains unchanged, as does their right to resist by all means necessary. A Marxist analysis that ignores this primary contradiction is bound to repeat the mistake of early Arab communists, and, in this case, contrary to Marxist tradition, the second version will be as tragic as the first.