The Firmest Bonds: Arab Nationalism and the Left, Part 1
Note: This article mainly deals with the genesis of one major manifestation of organized Arab nationalism, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). A deeper examination of this subject would require a broader reading, of the left wings of Nasserism, Ba’athism, Fateh, and the various Arab Communist Parties–subjects which I certainly hope to come back to. The information on MAN contained herein is drawn from the tireless work of the revolutionaries, scholars, and journalists who made it a priority to preserve the history of the organization: namely, Mohammed Jamal Barout in Harakat al-Qawamiyeen al-‘Arab: al-Nash’a, al-Tatawur; Hani al-Hindi in al-Harakat al-Qawmiyya al-Arabiyya fi’l Qarn al-Eshrin; Basil al-Kubaisi in The Arab Nationalists Movement 1951-1971: From Pressure Group to Socialist Party; Walid Kazziha in Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and His Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism; Mohsen Ibrahim in Limatha Munathamat al-Eshtirakiyyin al-Lubnaniyyin?; and Abdel Razzaq Takriti in Monsoon Revolution: Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 and, co-edited with Karma Nabulsi, the Palestinian Revolution website, an invaluable resource. I would like to add a special thank you to Mahmood Najeeb al-Mahmood, whose own research, insights, and advice played a major role in the writing of this post.
In recent decades, especially over the past decade, Arab nationalism has fallen somewhat into disrepute across wide sectors of the Western left. Often reduced to individuals such as Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, Arab nationalism and its many anti-colonial social struggles, not to mention its crucial intersections with Marxism and left-wing politics more broadly, have received undue attention. Something to consider: without Arab nationalism, there could not have been a widely popular Arab left. It is to the Arab left that the global left and the international community of oppressed nations owe their left-wing critique of Zionism, a critique with worldwide anti-systemic implications.
The importance of militant anti-Zionism to an international movement against capitalism cannot be overstated. Despite the recent efforts to criticize Israel solely on the basis of its post-1967 occupations or for its apartheid legal system, anti-Zionism denotes a more complete theoretical basis that accounts for: the financial ties between imperialism and the international Zionist movement that continue to ensure Israel serves as an imperial colony in the heart of the Arab world; Israel’s crimes not only against the Palestinian people, but against all Arab peoples; and finally, Israel’s crimes against the peoples of the Tricontinental (Africa, Asia, the Americas) as a favor-runner for US imperialism.
In short, Zionism and Israel are not the same thing. Israel is an expression of the international Zionist movement and its racist guiding ideology. The international nature of Zionism has been apparent since the early 20th century, when Theodore Herzl made his pitch to Sultan Abdulhamid, Chaim Weizmann to anti-Semitic British statesmen, and the World Zionist Organization to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. This nature remains apparent today, as just last year Mossad found and assassinated Comrade Omar Nayef Zayad, who had been living fugitive years after escape from colonial imprisonment, in a Palestinian embassy in Bulgaria. Of course, any overemphasis on Zionism alone will result in whitewash of imperialism. For the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), international Zionism formed only one-fourth of the total enemy, which must be understood as a whole to be properly confronted. The other three enemies remain Israel, imperialism, and Arab reactionary regimes.
The relationship between Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism is essential. Although Arab Communist parties punched above their weight and cast influence beyond their cadre proportion due to sharp organization practices, the most successful communist and socialist movements in Arab society arose out of some form of Arab nationalism, whether Nasserism or Ba’athism or the unique nationalism posited by the organization I will deal with primarily in this essay, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). Many Nasserists and Ba’athists (as well as Communists) would go on to make great sacrifices for the Palestinian cause, staffing the cadre ranks of guerrilla factions such as Fateh, Saiqa, and the Palestinian Liberation Army. The reason for this is rather simple: the USSR had during the 1950s discredited (for a time) Marxism and communism with its early recognition of Israel, the creation of which nothing short of disastrous for all of Arab society, a particularly brutal continuation of the colonial processes facing down Arabs since the Sykes-Picot slice-up of their once contiguous homeland.
The pan-Arab vision for the reunification of the Arab homeland has undergone a series of major theoretical changes informed by shifting political contexts since its first articulations, but one constant feature has been acknowledgement of the inextricability of those reunification efforts from the cause for Arab independence from imperialism. Unsurprisingly, imperial powers (the United States, Britain, France) have taken keen note of this development and steadfastly opposed it through a series of measures both overt and covert, economic and military, to ensure the elimination of Arab nationalism and pan-Arab aspirations; those ugly duties have now fallen squarely on the task sheet of Trump as his handlers in the oil monopolies and war industries whisk him from imperial station to station in the Arab world, from one ridiculous pageant show to the next. The knowledge of what Trump is up to, what his sordid visitations signify in the ongoing dialectic of revolution and counterrevolution in the Arab world, remains in the purview pan-Arab proletarians, who so often understand him and the forces moving him a million times more clearly than any think-tank or IR goofball hoarding conference checks in Washington or Doha. It was the Palestinian revolutionary Nayef Hawatmeh who noted in the early 1970s that the United States was pursuing a long-term imperial plan whose completion required the destruction of the “petit-bourgeois nationalist regimes” (meaning Iraq and Syria), a move intended to throw the cause of Arab national liberation into a dark grave.
The attempts of the United States to attack, destabilize, and dethrone independent Arab nationalism date back to the new structural role it took on in the wake of the British empire and French empires’ limited recessions after suffering calamitous blows to their respective economies and militaries during the Second World War. As Britain and France began slowly and reluctantly to vacate their colonies, the United States picked up the repressive slack, at first underwriting British and French control of places like Palestine and Vietnam before eventually taking command of overlord duties altogether. The US’s new strategic plan for West Asia in particular became known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” after the administration that designed its initial phases. As Salim Yaqub put it in Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East, “Two issues… Zionism and imperialism, aroused Arab resentment against the West and created opportunities for Soviet encroachment, raising doubts in American minds about Britain’s long-term ability to hold the region for the West.” Chiefly, the US was concerned with safeguarding what had become the most important resource to the world economy: oil.
The regional developments that might be called exceptions to this general rule between the US and Arab nationalism since 1948 involve Egypt and Iran. Through American economic and diplomatic pressure as well as Anwar Sadat’s open willingness to grant concessions, the US was able to turn Egypt totally into a client state, resulting in some of the most extreme betrayals of Palestine made by Arab states, up to and including General Sisi’s on and off attempts to lock Palestinians in Gaza. Iran provides a case in which an Islamic ideological framework supplements attempts to achieve some degree of relative political and economic sovereignty, although it should be noted that Hezbollah in Lebanon—which maintains a critical relationship to the Islamic Republic, ideologically and militarily—has been able to succeed in large part due to its fusion of “Islamist” and Arab nationalist sentiments. Taken together, the cases of Egypt and Iran demonstrate that the US is not opposed to Arab nationalism per se, but to any and all attempts at independence from its global grip.
Despite this caveat, the historic relationship between Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism continues apace, with the diminished but nonetheless living option of pan-Arabism now anchoring a counter-vision for opposition to Sykes-Picot than that provided by Daesh. For example, both the Arab National Front and Daesh (and even the majority Kurdish YPG for that matter) in theory favor the elimination of national borders in the Arab world and the overturn of Sykes-Picot. Nonetheless, these opposing visions could not be any more different in political content, with Daesh endorsing feudalist forms of social organization while objectively serving the interests of capitalism and imperialism. For any socialist and secular pan-Arab parties, as well as for any solidarity actors seeking to facilitate the defeat of imperialism in the region, there remains an old question, dating back to Marx himself, of how to fuse the national question with socialism, which in any event requires a careful and balanced reading of both objective and subjective factors. First we must turn to some basic history of the Arab liberation struggle and the Palestinian liberation struggle that formed within it.
A Test Case: Arab Nationalism and the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN)
Nayef Hawatmeh, Secretary-General of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), offered a simple formula for understanding the presence of Zionism in the Arab world: “…the conflict with the Zionist movement is historically linked to the relationship obtaining between Zionism and imperialism (British imperialism up to 1948, American imperialism after that date). Thus the struggle for the liberation of Palestine is against Zionism and imperialism.” The secret deal between Britain and France on the close of the First World War in 1916, combined with anti-Semitic British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s infamous 1917 declaration, sounded the tocsin across the region for colonization and partition.
Any glance at the map of modern day West Asia combined with a basic working knowledge of Arab society under the Ottoman Empire leads inexorably to the conclusion that the carved regionalisms of Sykes-Picot in the Levant (Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon) were both crimes and absurdities. People boasting longtime business, familial, and cultural links between, say, Damascus and Mosul found themselves divided from each other over night, belonging to separate states. Today one could theoretically drive the distance from Beirut to Baghdad in the span of ten hours. (Imagine the beauty, the scenery!) In reality, one would be unable to do it, hindered by military checkpoints propped up amid war zones. This is the enduring legacy of what Lenin deemed “the agreement of the colonial thieves” after the Bolsheviks discovered the agreement, made in deep secret by British and French conspirators and approved by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, in government archives before publishing a copy of the agreement in Izvestia newspaper on November 24, 1917 for the peoples of the world to see.
None of this is to say that the imperialists should have simply carved land with sharper attention to local conditions. It is only to convey the seriousness of playing around with people’s lives through partition. In fact, it could not even be said that the partition of the Arab homeland occurred without foreknowledge among world powers about the feelings and attitudes among Arab peoples of diverse religious sects. In 1919, in the wake of the Paris Peace Conference, the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey organized a Commission of Enquiry on the conditions and social relations of the non-Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire; it visited Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Anatolia, led by Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane on an appointment from then President Woodrow Wilson. The two men went on a massive opinion-seeking mission. The outcome, known today as the King-Crane Commission, came to near unanimous consensus among inhabitants in the region across “sectarian” lines: “The Moslem and Christian population was practically unanimous against Zionism, usually expressing themselves with great emphasis.” Tellingly, “This question was closely connected with that of the unity of all Syria under one Government.”
The common Zionist refrain about this record of opinion is that anti-Zionism then was as it is now: anti-Semitism. But we should not forget that Zionism had a violent streak as brutalizing as any form of colonialism well before the establishment of Israel. A good example of this violence hit news presses recently, in a Hebrew-language Ha’aretz interview with General Yitzhak Pundak, who bragged to the newspaper about how, after he moved to Northern Palestine in 1930 to become a farmer in an orange grove, he beat his “first” Arab to death with a stick. His supervisor only told him to kill more Arabs. This was Zionism at its heart, another colonizing mission from Europe with the familiar old racist ideologies perfectly intact. Pundak, and so many other early settlers like him busy creating a settler-fortified dual power in historic Palestine throughout the early 20th century, did indeed kill more Arabs, only in a professional capacity, as an army official, after the State of Israel was founded. A good colonizer, Pundak still never forgot his “first” dead Arab; he even kept the stick with which he accomplished the wretched deed.
For many Arab thinkers, these events represented a profound political and existential crisis. Obviously this crisis became further compounded by the establishment of Israel in the Arab heartland of Palestine, founded through ethnic cleansing and outright massacre, founded atop the ruins of an Arab society deeply embedded within the larger Arab world through trade, family, and culture. It was around that last point, culture, that the earliest manifestations of Arab nationalism sought to rally, to promote the advent of national consciousness transcending borders and regionalism in favor of the idea of a shared Arab language, culture, history, and geographic space. A highly important thinker to turn to in this regard is Constantine Zureiq, a history professor at the American University of Beirut who took the occasion of the Nakba to set down a basic strategy for Arab emancipation. In his seminal work “The Meaning of Disaster,” Zureiq called on Arabs to recognize soberly the “terrifying strength” of their enemy. His program emphasized those traits commonly associated with “modernity”: economic and scientific preparedness, a secular political project rooted in the separation of church and state, and national unity staked on a clearly defined Arab being and “the highest mental and spiritual values.”
The importance of Zureiq lay as much in his practical activities as his intellectual and ideological output. Even while he was occupying a place of high importance at the American University of Beirut, serving dutifully in the daily functioning of one of the bourgeoisie’s most hallowed institutions for the dissemination of its ideas, he was in the 1930s living a double life as part of the Leadership Council of a secret organization of radical pan-Arabists known today (when it is known at all) as Tantheem al-Siri, or “The Secret Organization.” Zureiq’s practical activities were inspired by popular unrest, first of all in Palestine, from 1936 to 1939 the site of an intense revolution against British and Zionist colonization efforts and the headquarters of revolt for key Arab leaders such as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and Amin al-Husseini. Just as formatively for Zureiq, Iraq developed in the 1930s into a veritable test lab for Arab nationalist organizations and movements, culminating in a failed 1941 coup attempt led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani to depose the British-backed government of Nuri Said and King Faisal.
It was there in Iraq that Tantheem al-Siri made its greatest impact. Within its ranks lurked Yusef al-Sabawi, who served as Iraqi Minister of Economics under the short-lived nationalist government of Ghazi bin Faisal, a close associate of Zureiq’s until Ghazi’s untimely death in 1939. The secret society maintained close ties with the revolutionaries in Palestine, where it was initially formed in 1935, delivering one the earliest statements of pan-Arabism. According to Aziz al-Azmeh’s account in his book on Zureiq, titled Constantine Zureiq: ‘Arabi lil Qarn al-‘Ashreen, many of the organizations at the forefront of the struggle in Iraq during World War II maintained strict codes of discipline that ultimately came to influence Zureiq’s manner and style as an educator and thinker. Notably, some of these organizations had ties to German fascism, such as al-Qamadan al-Hadeeda al-Damashqee, or the Damascene Iron Shirts, some of whose members did train with the Hitler Youth and learn German as a third language as part of delegations to Germany. In the streets and underground, the organization emphasized strict personal virtue as the highest principle, along with placing strong emphasis on physical training and gym routines as the substance of necessary manhood. Behind their activities, persistently mobilizing them, was Sami Shawkat, who ended up becoming Prime Minister of Education in Iraq in 1940, using his post to glorify martyrdom and the blood spilled for the sake of national liberation.
Inevitably this history brings discussion back to old Zionist canards about the supposedly organic relationship between Arabism and fascism. It is best to resist any such impulse, and much better to place this iteration of Arabism (subjectively rightist) in context as one moment in a complex evolution of social ideas of an ongoing anti-colonial revolt that eventually ends up firmly entrenched in the subjectivities of the political left. This is the best course for several reasons. First, the Arab revolts of the 1930s and 1940s, like the Irish and Indian national causes, generally lacked contact with the COMINTERN and its descendants, and like those causes, sought aid and succor where it was geopolitically possible, namely from Germany. Again like the Irish and Indian national causes, the Arab cause was nonetheless just, on its own terms, as a rebellion against ruthless, bloodthirsty, and racist authority; none of these causes materially aided and abetted Nazi Germany’s extermination campaigns against European Jews, but were in fact preoccupied with the liberation of their own homelands.
Second, Zureiq himself did not at all subscribe to fascist ideas. A deep believer in freedom of expression and thought, his pan-Arabism functioned as a kind of regional internationalism, a sense inculcated within him at AUB, the campus itself visual evidence of greater possibilities with its cross-section of Arab students coming from Arab lands as distant from Lebanon as Sudan and the Maghreb. Mainly Zureiq maintained from those early organizations the rigid belief in personal discipline. One anecdotal story relayed by al-Azmeh is when he reprimanded his students in the AUB library for desecrating books, which he regarded as borderline sacrosanct objects. He believed in a code, one defined by austerity and sacrifice, twin virtues that would prove important for the historic task of confronting the Zionists after the Nakba. And he believed in two kinds of people, as quoted in an interview book between him and Mahmood Suwayd titled Al-‘uruba wa Falasteen: Hiwar Shamil ma’ Constantine Zureiq: rajal al-fikr, or men of thought, and ‘ahl al-mumarasa, or men of action. As he receded from practical activity, he came to regard himself as a man of thought; his students, of the so-called “Nakba generation,” would be men of action, tutored and encouraged and trained by him.
The practical mobilization of Zureiq’s ideas—the breathing of life into this pan-Arab idea for its material realization—took shape not so much with him personally, but with his students at AUB, among whom were two young aspiring medical practitioners, both Palestinian, named George Habash and Wadi’ Haddad. Habash and Haddad formed with Zureiq a reading group, studying texts by Zureiq and another important early Arab nationalist, Sati’ al-Husri, in which they discussed fervently the problems posed by Zionism and the need for Arab reunification. These discussions led to on-campus organizational efforts from the students. Haddad, with the young Syrian Hani’ al-Hindi, formed in 1948 an organization under the name “al-Urwa al-Wuthqa,” or “the Firmest Bond,” under which they organized demonstrations against the Zionist takeover of Palestine and even called for hunger strikes.
Between 1951 and 1952, Habash and al-Hindi founded “Kata’ib al-Fada’ al-Arabi,” or the Self-Sacrifice Brigades, an outfit dedicated in theory to assassinating Arab leaders the young men deemed responsible for the Nakba. In 1951, they founded the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), along with a Kuwaiti medical student, Ahmed al-Khatib, and an Iraqi student, Hamid Jabouri. Every step of the way, these young men expressed deep compassion and concern for their specifically Arab history and context—a fact often lost when the history of Palestinian liberation is discussed in the West. For one example, “al-Urwa al-Wuthqa” was taken after the name of Mohammed ‘Abdouh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s newspaper published in Paris against the British occupation of Egypt, the title of which was itself a Qu’ranic reference. The name of one of MAN’s newspapers, al-Tha’ar, was also highly contextual. Technically translating to “revenge,” al-tha’ar differs from intiqam, also revenge, insofar as the latter describes a general process of retribution, while the former takes a more localized meaning: to carry out tha’ar is to carry out revenge for something personally stripped from you—a personal vendetta. Such was Palestine for these men after the Nakba, after many of them personally witnessed the ethnic cleansing of their villages as their families were disinherited and banished from their homeland.
A few things stand out about early MAN efforts. First, there was its diverse Arab makeup: two Palestinians, a Syrian, a Kuwaiti, and an Iraqi. This would inform the organization’s basic working strategy, for its members to return to their respective countries and establish cells that could coordinate throughout the entire region. Second, there was the overpowering impact, the personal closeness, of the Nakba to them all—one early instance of the central role Palestine and its liberation would play for all Arab nationalist tendencies. For these men, Palestine was sacred, synonymous with politics itself. Habash and Haddad had been among those who personally experienced material loss during the Nakba and had witnessed ethnic cleansing; Hindi had fought in the 1948 war. Finally, there was the importance of the university to MAN’s existence. AUB, founded by American missionaries and to this day run by a board of rich Americans in New York City, serves as a case study of the imperial university becoming weaponized against its funders. For the founding cadre of MAN, AUB provided a space for them—from diverse reaches of the Arab world, deeply affected by the loss of Palestine—to meet each other, become introduced to new ideas, exchange analyses. The same code applied for a young Leila Khaled when she attended at a later date. In her autobiography “My People Shall Live,” Khaled described her hatred for one arrogant American teacher in particular, whom she condemned as a CIA agent in an especially incisive diatribe. She also describes her organizational efforts as part of a MAN cell. Early in the AM hours, when it was relatively safe to do so, she found herself putting up flyers for MAN until a night watchman came across her—no matter, as he soon revealed himself as a member and assisted her efforts.
In steadfast determination to break Arab peoples free from the colonial yoke, that wide-cast matrix of division and control set down by the Sykes-Picot regime, MAN raised a slogan: unity, liberty, vengeance. This was a hardline nationalist movement, largely anticommunist indeed on account of the Soviet Union’s historic complicity in Zionism and drawing inspiration at the time from the 19th century reunification efforts of Germany (one of Marx and Engel’s great political obsessions, it should be remembered) and Italy, in particular following the methods of the Carbonari. That model would not last forever. Nonetheless, MAN’s experiments throughout the 1950s would push the boundaries of the possible. Their cell network was informed by a tightly knit structure and a highly centralized command structure, a solder’s constitution in which members were given orders and expected to follow them. Their tactics were not at all limited to mere confrontation with authorities. Habash and Haddad ran a clinic in Jordan serving refugees. In 1957 Habash ran for parliament in Jordan and failed, but gained considerable confidence among the populace, spending extensive time talking to ordinary people through his campaign.
By the mid-1950s MAN was strategically advancing its propaganda efforts, with Habash publishing in 1954 the magazine al-Rai’ (The Opinion) in Lebanon as well as al-Tha’r. In an attempt to bridge gaps between campus and larger communities, particularly the poor in Arab society, they pitched their message to refugee camps. Their message was provocative, radical; in 1954, Habash was forced to go underground when the Jordanian authorities pursued him. The output of al-Rai’ was initially broadly Arab nationalist, like MAN itself, which attempted (and unsurprisingly failed) to contain threats of eclecticism and internal disputes by ruling against all ideological debates. The character of MAN’s nationalism would change with the titanic ascent of Gamal Abdel Nasser. At first, MAN’s publications were highly critical and skeptical of Nasser’s sincerity—they had after all heard plenty hot anti-Zionist rhetoric from Arab leaders before. Their view became more positive in 1956, when Nasser’s successful seizure of the Suez Canal boosted popular prospects for an anti-colonial Arab nationalism.
The Nasserist Turn
Nasser’s decisive action is sometimes reduced to a phrase or sentence: he nationalized the canal. It cannot be overemphasized just how spectacular and dangerous was the decision and act. On July 26th, Nasser proceeded to give a long, winding speech highlighting the history of British colonialism in Egypt, the continued denial to Egypt to pursue a self-determined path, and the pressing need for liberation. Unbeknownst to the crowd as well as the world powers, Nasser had beforehand privately convened a meeting with the Command Council of the Revolution. These men were Nasser’s trusted cadre, several of whom had been hardened through the experience of the 1948 war and had developed their collective tactical edge through participation in the Free Officers’ Movement against King Farouk in 1952. As Nasser repeatedly uttered his code phrase in his Alexandria address—“Ferdinand des Lesseps,” the name of the French builder of the canal—the Command Council stormed the offices Suez Canal Company as gunmen. The employees were taken hostage. The company’s assets were frozen. The canal was closed to Israeli ships. The people of the region glimpsed a new model of Arab leadership, emphasizing dignity.
Nasser’s actions led directly to popular interest in his ideas, his unique formulations of Arab nationalism, distinct from competing ideologies such as Ba’athism. At the same time, the rise of Nasser represented the mass culmination of Arab nationalists working from below, yet to achieve power themselves, including Ba’athists. Still anti-Zionism, the paramount emphasis on the loss of Palestine and the crime of the Nakba, remained at the forefront of Nasser’s program, at least as a symbol (it would become apparent later on that he lacked an actual strategy to regain the whole of Palestine), as Nasser had fought as a volunteer in the 1948 war for Palestine. In his memoirs about the experience, Nasser wrote eloquently about a shared consensus between him and his comrades that their battalion was severely under-equipped to fight a serious war against a newly coalescing Zionist entity. Here was a moment of clarity at which seismic realizations crystallized into view, mainly that the fate of the Arabs was outside their control, that the scarcity of weapons in Arab soldiers’ hands, the shoddiness of the attempts to deliver those weapons seeming almost deliberate, spelled alarmingly the influence of outside powers over the lives of Nasser, his comrades, and those for whom they intended to fight. Nasser pinpointed the United Nations Security Council, suit-and-tie-clad men ruminating in New York City boardrooms, as one point of power pulling strings, (mis)directing the Arab destiny.
Nasser’s ideas received some formal elaboration in his landmark work Philosophy of the Revolution. This call to action elaborated a historic critique, a review of foreign domination of Egypt dating back to the Mamlouks. In search of a new solution and direction, in consideration of the rich diverse history and the complex cross-societal links that had defined Egypt culturally through the centuries, Nasser drew out his infamous three circles of influence, thus supplying the fertile ground for a new kind of political awakening: the Arab; the Islamic; the African. It is not difficult to imagine in reviewing these spheres the draw of Egypt and Nasser for the Bandung Generation, or why Malcolm X should have made it a point to visit him during his trip to the Arab world, when he discovered for himself the horrors of Zionism and elaborated them to an international audience. With the rise of Nasser, MAN began to recede into the political background, with some elements of the organization convinced that Nasser would deliver the necessary program to liberate Palestine. His “solution” to the “Palestinian question” came in 1964 with the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jerusalem, with Ahmed Shuqeiry of the old Palestinian bourgeoisie sitting as its chairman.
Other quarters of the Palestinian movement were not so convinced by Nasser’s gesture. A cadre formed by Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar, who led the General Union of Palestinian Students, or GUPS, in Cairo), Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), inspired by the Algerian model of liberation through armed struggle, began to run commando operations against the Zionist entity in the 1950s under the name Fateh. In 1969, Fateh would take over the PLO set by Nasser; their political makeup was particularly diverse, and they represented the largest but only a single component of the PLO as a political structure. More important for my purposes here, however, were the transformations of MAN from the years 1964 to 1967, when the organization broke up: its development into regional Marxist offshoots came with its increased exposure to the rest of the colonized world and its creative application of Arab nationalism in the Leninist tradition, combined at last with a class analysis extending from the internal affairs of Arab societies to the entire web of imperialist domination. It is an evolution that attests to the ongoing importance of Arab liberation for any project aiming for imperialism’s downfall.
“The Map of the Entire Arab World”: Mao, Nationalism and the Arab Left
The first event to open up cracks within MAN was the breakup of the union between Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (UAR), in 1961. Many members had previously held that the creation of the union in 1958 marked a turning point in history that would provide the cure to all maladies afflicting the Arab nation. Within these cracks, the debates that transpired over what exactly went wrong in the short-lived union, entered Mohsen Ibrahim, member of MAN’s Committee of Thought, a figure too often forgotten or ignored in English-language examinations of 20th century Arab history. Ibrahim came out of South Lebanon, what would become a major communist resistance milieu to which even present-day Hezbollah owes a great deal. The core of Ibrahim’s arguments was that the Arab struggle should not fall into “stage-ism” and should instead combine national liberation with a socialist program. As Walid Kazziha quoted Ibrahim in his book Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and His Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism: “The Arab question has come to mean an overall revolutionary concept which is the melting pot of the national, economic, and social ambitions of the progressive Arab masses.” Ibrahim’s emphasis on the centrality of class analysis, along with his comrade Mohammed Kishli, played an important role in defeating anti-Jewish explanations for Zionism that had earlier held some purchase in Arab nationalist circles.
Ibrahim argued for a class-based analysis of inter-Arab relations across the entire region, positing a bourgeois right-wing currents of Arab leadership against petit-bourgeois nationalists. In this survey of inter-Arab affairs, Ibrahim sketched the basic analytical skeleton of which Arab nationalists-turned-communists would later make such extensive use: Arab society, Ibrahim argued, faced a lethal alliance of imperialism (particularly US imperialism), Zionism, and the feudal Arab bourgeoisie, each of them bound essentially together through common class interests. The introduction of Marxist ideas into MAN pitted Ibrahim on one side of an emerging debate with Hawatmeh, who in 1963 had recently been booted from Iraq where he had worked extensively with the Iraqi Communist Party and absorbed their analytical frameworks and knack for organizing. They were in this stage pitted against the “old guard” of MAN, consisting of figures such as al-Khatib and al-Hindi.
According to Kazziha’s account of the open debate that broke out, Habash took the initial stage to defend MAN’s status quo organization model, but (at least to my knowledge) the scattered accounts of MAN leave some ambiguity about what Habash was up to between 1963 and 1967. His main interest lay with forming specifically Palestinian action cells out of the general MAN network; he named the outfits, dedicated mainly to military operations, Youth for Revenge and Heroes of Return. These units, along with Ahmed Jibril’s Palestine Liberation Front, would eventually form the basic foundations of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a party of the Palestinian revolutionary proletariat and peasantry. In its 1969 document “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine,” the PFLP laid out its vision as an ideological and organizational extension of the Palestinian divisions of the MAN, incorporating a “complete leftist political view of the liberation battle proceeding from and based on scientific socialist theory.” In the early stages of the formation of the PFLP, it was “understood was that the Front would for some time continue to consist of a group of organizations, each of which would maintain its independent existence,” while these varied strands would eventually become united through the same set of educational political materials. The PFLP nonetheless dated its distinction from the MAN to a Central Committee meeting during the “July 1967 session” that declared a socialist vision for liberation. To maintain a sense of continuity as well as break from the MAN, the PFLP called for “the Movement in the service of the Front, and not the Front in the service of the Movement.”
The merits of Arab nationalism in the long-developing establishment of a viable and strong Arab left, in the development of a class-based critique of Zionism and its relationship to US imperialism, in the forging of an actual material challenge to those powers, should be entirely clear from this picture. The first merit of the project has been its scope—Leninist offshoots of MAN cropped up not only in Palestine, but also across the occupied (by British imperialism) Arabian Peninsula. The second merit was popular participation, the organizational efforts towards forwarding the position of women in military and party ranks, not to mention the creation of a durable critic of and (later on) alternative to the main component (Fateh) of the PLO—it is not actually without coincidence that the organizations most sympathetic to the Syrian Arab Republic while it is under siege from imperialism are also most openly hostile to the Oslo negotiations and the farcical “peace process.” Third, as previously mentioned, these organizations’ analytical triumphs, borne through anti-imperialist experience and practice, have been absorbed by the wider global left whenever anti-Zionism is combined to anti-imperialism, as well it should and must be.
The particularities of Arab nationalism served during the MAN period as a safeguard ideology against imperialism until the objective conditions could bridge Arab nationalism to a broader—universalist, even—movement. The conditions that provided such a bridge arose in China, where Mao, not unlike the Arab nationalists of MAN, began to express skepticism of the global role of the USSR, allegedly for its backdoor promises to the United States to curb China’s nuclear capabilities. Publicly, Mao denounced the USSR for its “revisionist” leadership, heralded in his analysis by Khrushchev when denouncing the leadership of Comrade Stalin in the “Secret Speech” of 1956, and condemned it as “social imperialist.” Domestically, China confronted unique problems in its journey from an anti-colonial revolution against Japanese occupation to its construction of socialism: how to build socialism while warding off the threat of imperialist war, i.e., forced de-development?
For Mao, the answer lay in arming the communes of China. As William Hinton put it, “the Americans used all their financial and military might to support, inspire, foster, and preserve… feudal survivals and their comprador offspring” as means to subdue independent capitalist development in China, leading Mao to conclude that only socialist development, directly secured and defended by the bottom layers of society, could be successful against imperialist predations. A necessary part of that process of security and defense would be to foment a mass movement against any elements in the Party seeking to procure future privileged status that the United States could utilize for its own anti-development ends. (The appearance recently of a similar contradiction in Venezuela proves the lasting accuracy and relevance of Mao’s analysis, even if the contradiction has yet to be fully resolved in practice.) In the emergence of explosive conflict in China, between the proletariat and peasantry and the “capitalist-roaders” of the Party bureaucracy, the rejection of revisionism circulated as a twin rejection of the USSR and Liu Shaoqi’s faction of the Chinese Communist Party. These were the politics of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which despite whatever errors did succeed in keeping the flame of global revolution alive at a time when Mao’s faction of the CPC had decided the USSR had opted for an unforgivable “peaceful co-existence” with US imperialism, deemed by them to be China’s greatest threat at the time.
Many of the results of the GPCR were tragic, as both the Chinese side and the USSR side made at least partially valid arguments. The USSR really did, in the period leading up to 1970, assume a relatively conservative foreign policy and thereby betray certain national liberation movements that could not wait, the Arab revolution among them. It cannot be forgotten, especially when studying and honoring the history of Arab revolutionary movements, that it was the GCPR that made the Marxism of the Palestinian Revolution possible. At the same time, Mao’s faction underestimated the importance of the USSR as a global counterweight to the US, containing its unilateral expansionism, both by way of diplomatic power and nuclear capabilities. When China began to treat the USSR as the primary contradiction, a left-opportunist error developed into an objective alliance with US imperialism. This error revealed itself in a number of locales, from Chile to Angola to, indeed, the Arab world. By the mid-1970s, official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maneuvers especially punctured the Marxist-Leninists of the ongoing revolution in Dhufar against Sultanic absolutism and British colonialism, as the PRC strengthened links with Oman for improved oil deals.
Beginning in 1963, as documented in John K. Cooley’s important article “China and the Palestinians,” Zhou Enlai began making trips to Arab countries, carrying a promise: “We are ready to help the Arab nations to regain Palestine. Whenever you are ready, say the word. You will find us ready. We are willing to give you anything and everything; arms and volunteers.” A year later, in 1964, the CCP began delivering weapons to Fateh. Abu Iyad of Fateh described in his memoirs the two visits Yassir Arafat made to Beijing in the years 1964 and 1966. Their visits were not simply limited to practical matters of logistics; the interests of the Palestinian delegation extended all the way to the process of socialist construction, the creation of a new society on the ruins of the old. Abu Iyad thus discussed how on one of their visits they had “asked to visit a commune”; their wish was granted as they descended upon the Chinese inland and ended up “convinced…of the positive role communes played in the country’s development.” Above all, Abu Iyad was “extremely impressed by the Chinese people’s dedication,” whom he deemed the real subjects and agents of the ongoing revolution. On the leadership of the Chinese revolution, he went so far as to remark to Yassir Arafat that “the Prophet Muhammad couldn’t have done better than Mao Zedong.” The Palestinian delegation saw signs of the Sino-Soviet split all over Beijing, including “slogans and posters” denouncing Soviet “social-imperialism.”
Through delegations with the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), Palestinians could visit China with specific pleas and demands. For example, as also related by Cooley, in March 1964, two Palestinians with the AAPSO named Mohammed Khalil and Mohammed Rif’at attended a mass rally for Palestine at which the Chinese leadership blamed the United Nations and the Soviet Union for the loss of the Palestinian homeland and the mass exodus of refugees. The points of emphasis demonstrated as one example the central space that Palestine—as headquarters and fault line of Arab revolution in West Asia—occupied for the Chinese leadership in their tense dispute with Soviet authorities. In March 1965, Mao delivered an address to a visiting PLO delegation, led by then-chairman Ahmed Shuqairy, which put down the basis for Chinese support for the Palestinian cause. Mao determined that both the Chinese and the Palestinian peoples were together Asian peoples, despised by the West, and that “the Arab battle against the West is the battle against Israel.” Mao called on all Arab peoples to boycott the United States. He declared May 15—the date of the establishment of Israel, the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” for Palestinians who remember the occasion as one of ethnic cleansing—“Palestine Solidarity Day.” He further stated that when “when [Arabs] discuss Israel [they must] keep the map of the entire Arab world before [their] eyes,” implying that the Palestinian source of strategic strength is none other than the Arab masses. His words stood as confirmation of the continued utility of at least the pan-Arabist aspirations of MAN and kindred movements that had preceded the arrival of an explicitly Palestinian revolution.
In 1971, as chief Chinese delegate to the United Nations, Chiao Kuan-hua made in New York City a deep and searing critique of the very existence of the State of Israel that echoed the sentiments of the most radical wings of the Palestinian revolution. He declared bluntly that “the intrinsic nature of the Middle East question lies in the aggression against the Palestinian people and the other Arab peoples committed by Israeli Zionism, with the support and connivance of the superpowers.” Significantly, he took the position that no state, and certainly no superpower, had the right to procure a political settlement behind the backs of the Palestinians themselves. The position was especially notable for its staunch opposition to the position of the Soviet Union, which had come to accept UN Resolution 242, within which there lay an acknowledgement of Israel’s existence through proposed respect of its borders.
As George Habash himself said, his real commitment to Marxism developed after he discovered Mao (among others) in Syrian prison. The revolution that the GPCR help gift to the Arab homeland in that period was a beautiful thing. We need not look further for evidence than the pamphlets of the DPFLP, posted and waved throughout the refugee camps of Jordan in 1970: “Long Live the Masses of Jordan! Long Live the Workers and the Students and the Peasants and the Tradesmen and the Women and Men!” To say these calls were made from the camps is to say that they were made from the base of the Palestinian Revolution, in which the revolutionaries successfully established izdwaj al-sulta, their own version of “dual power.”
The Lasting Importance of “Marxism with Asian Characteristics”
My point in returning to the history of MAN is two-fold. First, this history shows the extent to which Marxism, in its most influential incarnations (“Marxism with Asian characteristics,” as Habash called it), was arrived at through anti-Zionist and Arab nationalist frameworks. Second, the Marxist parties into which MAN developed spearheaded revolutions that threatened the very foundations of global capital. In Palestine in particular, the PFLP and DPFLP played major roles in revolts that led to the establishment of revolutionary sovereignties, in Jordan in 1970 and in Lebanon in 1974. We might deem this phenomenon “destabilization,” but as far the international communist movement is concerned, the good kind of destabilization–our kind, inflicted on our terms. In light of those significant advances, we may well ask: How can we evaluate the historic utility of Arab nationalism to organizations like Fateh, the DPFLP, and of course the PFLP? For many of these organizations’ cadres, its ideological value became apparent on the ground, in the day-to-day struggles of mass work, the inglorious and grueling processes of speaking with workers and peasants and attempting to turn them towards the revolution.
Let us return to the example of Jordan in 1970—a site of revolution, then civil war, and eventually regime massacres. In the aftermath of those massacres, the DPFLP put out a summation document titled “September: Counter-Revolution in Jordan” that addressed a range of errors of the revolutionary movement. It also spoke to tactical successes, even if those successes were only partial. Weighing heavy in the minds of the revolutionaries were memories of Nasser and the Free Officers, in Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. In each of those experiences there lay the strength of an idea so powerful it could assist in the splitting of armies and the remaking of states. Their estimation was that in Jordan, “Royal reaction did its best—in every possible way—to isolate the army from nationalist and progressive ideological and political currents.” The pamphlet furthermore added, “Nationalist ideas are taboo, political affiliations are banned, and the nationalist elements inside the army are continually chased and purged.” To chase and purge the nationalist idea, the Jordanian King promoted the cult of the “Divine Right of Kings,” raised the slogan of “God, King and Country,” and other similar superstitions. As many revolutionaries saw it, there existed an ideological counter-weight: “…conscription will expose the army to nationalist currents, multiply nationalist cadres within its ranks and train the people in the use of arms.”
As during the French Revolution, nationalism in this context offered grounds for a ferocious rebuke to the superstitions of monarchy. When we survey the situation confronting Arab societies today, where revolutionary advances have been rolled back so dramatically as imperialism marches onward, we can see set against recolonization the potential power of the return of nationalism, particularly pan-nationalism, as a useful component of a ferocious rebuke to the endless schemes of the imperialists to divide the Arab masses, providing breathing space to those parties upholding the centrality of class analysis. And the threat of superstition has not gone away: the takfiris operating throughout Syria and Iraq employ Wahhabism, the creed of Saudi Arabia, described by Ali Kadri as bestowing “holy powers on commerce and the free market resurrected on the basis of a fabricated history of Islam.” As imperialist schemes proliferate, it becomes necessary for today’s revolutionaries—now in a defensive position—to hold on to an anchor, a defining slogan.
What relevance does this history hold for anti-imperialist and internationalist movements in the imperial core? The very question itself suggests that neither simple criticism nor simple glorification are sufficient. Rather, assuming we are genuinely interested in learning from the struggles with which we wish to link, we must decide what continues to be strategically useful from this history in order to build the necessary alliances for our present moment. For those revolutionaries who maintained their opposition to imperialism and Zionism after the Oslo so-called “Peace Process” from the platform of the Rejectionist Front, that anchor is the common defense of the Arab nation from imperialist machinations, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, and Yemen. I will explore the enduring importance of this slogan at our present conjuncture in extended detail in Part II.