the fire these times

14. Revolution, disenchantment and the Lebanese New Left (with Fadi Bardawil)

This is a conversation with Dr Fadi Bardawil, Assistant Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and the author of the book “Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation“.

I wanted to have this conversation with Dr Bardawil because his study of the 1960s Arab New Left, and especially the Lebanese New Left of that period, evoked curious comparisons to what protesters in Lebanon are having to face today as well.

The experience of the Lebanese New Left offers insights into how intellectuals struggled with the questions of theory and practice and of how to transform societies despite all their contradictions.

As you’ll hear in the conversation, Dr Bardawil, who is of the civil war generation, is very much in conversation with the generation that came before his. At the same time, and for different reasons, I, as someone from the postwar generation, am in conversation with the war generation. As such we managed, hopefully succesfully, to have three generations of Lebanese briefly conversing with one another.

I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Here’s the abstract:

“The Arab Revolutions that began in 2011 reignited interest in the question of theory and practice, imbuing it with a burning political urgency. In Revolution and Disenchantment Fadi A. Bardawil redescribes for our present how an earlier generation of revolutionaries, the 1960s Arab New Left, addressed this question. Bardawil excavates the long-lost archive of the Marxist organization Socialist Lebanon and its main theorist, Waddah Charara, who articulated answers in their political practice to fundamental issues confronting revolutionaries worldwide: intellectuals as vectors of revolutionary theory; political organizations as mediators of theory and praxis; and nonemancipatory attachments as impediments to revolutionary practice. Drawing on historical and ethnographic methods and moving beyond familiar reception narratives of Marxist thought in the postcolony, Bardawil engages in “fieldwork in theory” that analyzes how theory seduces intellectuals, cultivates sensibilities, and authorizes political practice. Throughout, Bardawil underscores the resonances and tensions between Arab intellectual traditions and Western critical theory and postcolonial theory, deftly placing intellectuals from those traditions into a much-needed conversation.”

You can follow the podcast on Twitter @FireTheseTimes.

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Transcription

A big thanks to Thomas Cugini for this.

0:00:01.6 S1: This is a conversation with Dr. Fadi Bardawil, he’s an assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and he’s the author of the book Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation. I wanted to have this conversation with Dr. Bardawil because his study of the 1960s Arab New Left, and especially the Lebanese New Left of that period evoked curious comparisons to what protesters in Lebanon are having to face today as well. The experience of the Lebanese New Left offers insights into how intellectual struggle through the questions of theory and practice, and of how to transform societies despite all their contradictions. As you’ll hear in this conversation Dr Bardawil, who is of the civil war generation, is very much in conversation himself with the generation that came before his. At the same time, and for different reasons, I, as someone from the post-war generation, am in conversation with the war generation through Dr. Bardawil. As such, we managed, hopefully successfully, to have three generations of Lebanese briefly conversing with one another. As usual, you can follow the podcast on Twitter at @FireTheseTimes and on Instagram at @thefirethesetimes and you can also support it on Patreon or on BuyMeACoffee.com, the links of which are in the description. Thank you for your time.

0:01:27.2 S2: Thank you, Joey, for your interest in my work, and thank you for taking the time to read it in these turbulent times. I’m trained on the PhD level as a cultural anthropologist, before that, I had an MA in Sociology. For a long time now, around two decades, I’ve been interested in one main theme, which is basically the relationship of cultural production to political practice and political engagement. Around 20 years ago, I started this research project, and it ended up in an MA thesis in the sociology department of the American University of Beirut, which traced the trajectory of the communist Lebanese musician and playwright Ziad Rahbani and his relationship to the Rahbanis’ inheritance as a heir to Fairuz and Assi El Rahbani and his relationship to the other politically committed leftist musicians who were around at the time, the most well-known ones that you recognise, people like Khaled El Haber, Marcel Khalife, Ahmad Kaboud and some other people who were big then, but no longer now, like Al-Thawra Al-Shabia etc… And the idea then, which I pursued later on was to try and think of the different mediations and relationships, between, again, as I mentioned, political engagement and practice and fields of cultural production. My PhD is in Cultural Anthropology, I continued pursuing this idea, but I moved from an understanding of culture and its relationship to aesthetics, which is what was my project in the MA thesis, focusing on plays and music and radio shows, and move towards interrogating the relationship of theoretical production to political practice. Roughly speaking, since my PhD work, I have been working in a triangle which consists of intellectual history, political anthropology, and critical theory. So my work is located in the parameter of these three traditions, because part of my interest is literally in how can we really rethink contemporary Arab thought, but also how can we think of contemporary Arab thought, and I would say more about that later, in its relationship to being embedded in certain political parties and political practices, and the question of critical theory comes into the foreground because I’m interested in how can we develop a critical theory of power in our societies, one that takes the specificity of the multiplicity of logics of power into being.

0:04:55.0 S2: And what I mean by critical theory is not only the strand of theory that was produced by the Frankfurt schools, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, and people in there or Walter Benjamin, I include in that, the traditional post-colonial theory, namely, the tradition I sort of work with and think about is mainly the Indian Subaltern studies tradition, as well as the tremendous work inaugurated by the work of Talal Asad and in Talal Asad’s wake, Edward Said.

0:05:27 S1: Thanks for that introduction. So to start with a contextualisation of the topic of our discussion, would you mind explaining a bit why you felt it important to go back to the 1960s to excavate the lost archives of what is called the Lebanese New Left?

0:05:46 S2: Sure! This project, like all other projects, takes shape as you stumble through different pieces of material and the product does not basically resemble what you started with. I started with an interest in thinking about the ideological, what I then called the ideological movement of former 1960s leftists, into more liberal positions, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the Arab press was talking about using a catch-all categories to refer to some journalists, thinkers, public intellectuals, as Arab liberals, “al-liberaliun al-arab.”

0:06:49.4 S2: So, a lot of these Arab liberals, so to speak, that were basically part of the sort of conversations [back] then, had leftist backgrounds, but then as I met some of the militant intellectuals I was interested in meeting, hearing their stories about their life trajectories and also stumbling upon an archive that I did not know existed when I had started the research project, which is basically the archive of the underground bulletins of The Lubnan Ishtiraki, the socialist liberals, which is the Marxist group I ended up focusing on mostly in this work, and the archives were… As is the case in a lot of cases in the Arab world, was preserved by individuals. It was a, basically a private archive. In that case, it was preserved by Ahmad Baidoun, who was a distinguished Lebanese historiographer, amongst other things, but he was also a member of socialist Lebanon. So he was the former comrades, so to speak, who had preserved most of the bulletins and he gave me access to all of his personal archives that I read and was interpellated with directly and sort of decided to think through it seriously.

0:08:21.8 S2: Now, why excavate this archive for our present? I think there are three major themes that, for me, structure, if you want, the critical need of bringing that archive and analyzing it in and for our present, and roughly speaking, you could say that these three themes are: One is historical, the second is political, and the third is theoretical. So I’d say a few words about each. Historically, I think that the 1960s generation is a fascinating generation in it’s own right, particularly in the Arab world. We’re thinking about people who are roughly born between the late 30s and the mid-40s, so they were around six, seven, 10 years old when the Palestinian Nakba took place in 1948. They were in their early teens, around 10 years old when the Egyptian revolution happened, and when Nasser basically took power in its wake. So it’s a story of a generation that really lived through successive transformations of our modern Arab history in a time which was very very much ideologically saturated. So you can think about the dialectic of political hope and disenchantment as defeats they lived through, so think about, sort of opening up your eyes to the world. And we’re not talking about sort of- ideas, but we’re talking about experiences so many of these intellectuals that I have interviewed say that their first childhood memories are of Palestinian refugees arriving in Beirut in 1948 when they were eight years old, 10 years old and seeing the refugees, and sort of basically going from neighborhood to neighborhood with bags and collecting some donations for them such as food, batteries, blankets, et cetera. So we’re talking really about the somatic experiential memory that’s embodied in these people’s trajectories. We’re not talking about the attraction just of an anti-imperialist politics on paper, but we’re really talking about… You have to sort of put yourself in that generational perspective of basically shivering from joy when you’re hearing Nasser’s voice, nationalizing the canal in 1956, and you’re 15 years or something like that.

0:11:09.3 S2: And of course, the setbacks as well, such as the huge setback that is not really discussed that often today, which was basically the rupture of the union between Syria and Egypt. The union took place in 1958, and it was the sort of rupture and infisal took place in 1961, so roughly, this was the first very important setback to the project of basically Arab nationalism before the 1967 defeat, which then became a very, very important historiographical marker for trying to think through the history of contemporary Arab thought and the trajectory of these intellectuals. So basically the historical arc of the book, because the book has a critical project, but it also has a historical story, and is trying to do both at the same time. The historical arc of the book is really one of trying to think about the experiences of a generation that moved from nation to class to community, by which I mean, they moved through basically being interpolated by Arab nationalism to becoming basically class Marxist critics of Arab nationalism when they became Marxists in the mid-60s to basically the moment of their disenchantment with the left when they became critics of communal solidarity. What I mean by communal solidarities are sectarian, regional, and kinship solidarities.

0:12:47.8 S2: For some of them, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, became attracted to Khomeini’s politics, which are basically politics of cultural decolonization and authenticity. So what you have really is an arc of people who in their lifetime moved again from nation to class to community and/or religion, and that’s a fascinating story because it encapsulates a lot of our postcolonial predicament. So that’s the historical arc of the book, and that’s why I think it’s important to excavate the experiences, the writings and basically, the archives of this 1960s generation that lived through all of that. For someone like me, who was born in the first month/years of the Lebanese civil war, in the wake of 1975, you can imagine that it was a very, very different time to be born and to be raised into, especially in terms of the political hopes, and thinking about open horizons and revolutionary horizons. So when you’re 10 years old in 1985 or something around that, it’s very different than being 10 years old in the mid-50s in terms of political hope and thinking about how that structures your generation’s education.

0:14:14.9 S2: Politically, I think it’s important on many, many levels. One of them, because I think there are two political readings of this history that I seek to avoid, that I think are problematic in their own way. One is the melancholic reading, which is basically a reading of a history of decline, which [thinks] the 60s was the golden age of the left and of international solidarity, and everything afterwards is a history of decline. That melancholic reading of being attached to… It’s melancholic in the sense that you cannot let go of the object you’re attached to. They’re basically attached to that moment in the 60s, and then everything else becomes insignificant in the present. And the sort of mirror image of this sort of golden age, melancholic reading is a liberal and Islamic triumphalism. And I say liberal and Islamic, because both the liberal reading and Islamic reading, are triumphalists in the sense of saying: ‘Well, why go back to these leftists of the 60s? Obviously, they were defeated. Obviously, they did not produce anything… ‘ From the Islamic perspective, you can say that, obviously, Marxism is a foreign import, and you realize that that foreign graft did not work in our societies…

0:15:56.1 S2: If you’re liberal, you would say ‘look at what happened in the Soviet Bloc and Eastern Union’. So between a complete disparaging of this experience as a full-on failure or defeat, and between a complete fetishization and melancholic attachment to it, I try to carve a path in which we can sort of critically inherit, if you want, the dual legacy of this 1960s generation. The legacy of both revolution and disenchantment, and this became especially important for me after the first wave of Arab revolutions that were ignited in 2011, because as I was writing this book, this question of revolution, disenchantment was no longer a sort of archival story, but it became literally a story of the present as we witnessed the first waves of the Arab revolutions and then the waves of counter revolutions in the wake. And it basically occurred to me that really in and for our political present to think of a previous generation who had gone through this dialect of hope and despair is very, very important as an attitude against public amnesia and as an intergenerational conversation, now that the question of revolution has been opened up again, but in a different form, so this is the political kind of impetus behind the book, and third is the question of theory, which is basically how do you read the archive of critical and evolutionary theory, and how do you read it without over-determining it in its relationship to the West? How do you read beyond that sort of reading that have become very normalized in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is to look at Arab intellectuals and to test their discourse of assumptions to see whether they’re self-orientalizing, whether they’re a Westernized thinker, or they’re adopted as one…

0:18:08.0 S2: Or not. How do you get a sense of the project they were trying to fashion without banishing them or banishing their legitimacy by saying that they sort of like what they’re doing is just reproducing colonial taxonomies or Orientalist assumptions, because I thought that this is another way to sort of have a conversation with the past, and this was not a charitable reading, and this was also a politically problematic reading that sort of looks on from the perspective of the present as having a theoretical superiority to the past without any reflexive position of what makes us in the present, basically sort of superi-, theoretically more enlightened than people in the 70s were there in the 60s, just because we read one or two books more that were published in the meantime. It seems to me that there is something here that in a way is reproducing in practice a historicist logic that it’s criticizing, in theory, i.e. it criticizes some of these thinkers for saying that we are not modern enough.

0:19:23.4 S2: So it’s a historicist critique. Why the critique of them as theoretically unsophisticated or something like that, reproduces-, reproduces this kind of lagging behind critique that they’re doing…

0:19:36.2 S2: Now, why is this important? Because I think it’s important for also attempting to not re-inscribe the colonial divide in dealing with theory, i.e. what I mean by that is very simply trying to think… To not re-inscribe the fact that theory is only produced in the Global North, and the Global South either produces facts or local, native informants for the factories up North that produces theory. So I wanted to also theoretically avoid that and to actually, in a way, show that there is a complexity of the sort of critical tradition, which was a very transversal tradition in the sense, and what I mean by transversal is that it’s not interdisciplinary, it’s transversality… These thinkers were not thinking about ‘How do we put cultural studies in conversation with history?’, but rather they’re thinking, ‘If our present… If this is, these are the questions we’re interested in our present, what should we read?’ So when you could Bourdieu, you could read Ibn Khaldun, you could read Lacan, you could read Fanon, but the question is that the readings were geared towards an intervention in the present, not towards an academic exercise and bringing disciplines together, and I wanted to try and capture, try and capture that and try and move again beyond this colonial divide that sometimes you get…

0:21:05.7 S2: You see this sort of colonial divide in very implicit ways in some of the… Some titles of articles or books, I imagine a title of a book which says something like ‘Reading Althusser in Ras Beirut’… That’s the kind of thing I want to avoid, because that’s sort of reading, what you’re saying implicitly is that, ‘Oh look, there’s something curious about reading this universal global thinker in this particular location,’ which is Ras Beirut Lost Beirut, I was trying to say that there is nothing to be excited about reading Althusser in the Lost Beirut’, because he was… these kinds of texts were always read, written and translated and commented on, so the idea of trying to make an event out of something that I was wanted to show was there, it was also at the heart… At the heart of it, you know, another way of thinking about this, it’s sort of like how I try to sort of include someone like Edward Said as a character and the story I’m telling and not as a theorist that would frame this generation’s basically… lives. Because if you look at your books about contemporary Arab thought that are published in English for the Euro-American academy, Edward Said is never treated as an Arab intellectual, and his trajectory is excavated in that way, but he’s treated as a theorist, whose theories in a way frame other intellectuals.

0:22:36.2 S2: So I wanted to avoid again, this re-inscription of who’s the theorist, who’s the local intellectual, who’s the person you cite to frame other people, who are the people who are framed, so to speak.

0:22:48.4 S2: Especially that historically, this was not accurate, Edward Said was in conversation with… And friends at some point with some of these intellectuals that I sort of discussed in the book such as, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Fawwaz Traboulsi, who ended up being also a good friend of his, and also his translator into Arabic, he translated out of place, he also translated basically I think the late works that Said published, so in a way, there is a particular implicit ideology in deciding who’s the Arab intellectual and who’s not, and who’s the theorist that I wanted to implode from the inside as well, by short of showing that these analytical frames are in a way, in themselves like… If you want [to be] complicit in reproducing this sort of colonial divide, this is particularly… This is politically very important, especially that Arab thought has been for at least 100 years produced from the Arab world and in Arabic and from outside the Arab world, and in languages other than Arabic. You can think of people like Mikhail Naimy and Khalil Gibran, all these early authors that were in the States for a long time, and were producing in Arabic and in English, but you should also say- you could think about the Palestinian diaspora after ‘48 and then the Lebanese diaspora and more recently, the Syrian…

0:24:22.7 S2: diaspora after the Syrian revolution in 2011. So in a way, Arab thought itself is at times exilic, at times diasporic, at times produced from home, so there is a way in which we should… I was trying to think through this question of multiplicity of languages and multiplicity of places without the pitfalls that I tried to describe. That was a very long, I think answer to your question, but that’s… I think these are the headings I’m working with: the question of history, the question of politics, and the question of theory. 

0:24:27 S1: That was an excellent exposé into all of those things, thank you a lot actually, for taking the time. You know, while talking, while listening to you, I couldn’t help but reflect on this notion of this intergenerational conversation, because as you mentioned, you’re excavating the works of a previous generation, and I’m sitting here as the person from the next generation that post-war generation, being born right after the war ended, and I just couldn’t help. That’s why like that is this question I’m gonna ask you now, I just couldn’t help, I think of like… I read the book and I absolutely loved it, genuinely, and it’s one of those books that I feel like I’ll definitely revisit in the near future as well, and… So the question was like, Sharara, who’s one of the co-founders of Socialist Lebanon, and Ahmad Beydoun, both of them saw former comrades of theirs leave left-wing causes to join either sectarian groups or maybe just retreat all together from politics. In other words, from what I understood in some ways, political sectarianism trumped class-based solidarity, which is obviously the underpinning of this whole worldview, and it’s something that I’ve seen in some of these films, like We were Communists, I think, if I remember correctly, mentions that one of the ex-Communists ended up joining Hezbollah, another one…

0:26:28.9 S1: …ended up joining the Lebanese forces or something like that. I forgot the details, but based on your own experience having gone through these archives now for the past decade or so, how would you… What were your reflections based on those readings of the Lebanese New Left’s archives, how would you assess the current dynamics today? Do you see some similarities? Some echoes maybe, or some radical differences or maybe a mix of all of those three?

0:27:03.9 S2: That’s a great question, but I wanna ask you what exactly do you mean by “dynamic” today? And then I think that would give me a clearer, sort of perspective of how to answer your question, that sort of multiple roots one can exit from leftist militancy, because I can talk about the past for sure, because you ended with the question on the dynamic today, so that, Yeah, I wanna try and relate both of my historical work in the past to what you mean by the dynamic…

0:27:36.5 S1: Absolutely, so I’ll give a bit of background to situate it a bit more concretely, I was one of the early organizers of the 2015 You Stink! movement, left it at some point to do my studies abroad, and in the early… Well, the recent uprising, I was just a participant documenting, researching a bit of journalism here and there, and one of the- in between those four years, which I find to be really pivotal to myself, to many of my friends around me, usually activists who are… as experienced as I am, if not more so, and there’s always this dynamic, this tension, that I feel we have this unease when it comes to sectarianism, we don’t fully understand or we don’t fully know, if you want, what to do with it, it’s kind of like the elephant in the room, most of the time with the 2019 uprisings is the first time that I know of that- it did happen before 2015. We did see it even 2011-2012, we did see a bit of it, but 2019 was really… October 2019 was really the point where for me anyway, it’s the first time that I saw so many people so openly and so confidently, chant stuff like Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam or kellon ya3ne kellon, so the people want the downthrow of the regime or all of them means…

0:29:03.6 S1: …all of them, and have explicit anti-sectarian messaging, very, very anti-sectarian messaging, and even with that explicit anti-sectarian messaging, we immediately started seeing within the first month in addition to the attacks obviously by sectarian party supporters or whatever we wanna call them. In addition to all of that, within… After a month or so, by November, I would say- usually started after November 22nd, so Independence Day, we started seeing sort of a… How would I describe it? We became a bit more afraid or a bit more timid when it comes to openly calling these people by name, so the warlords, the sectarian oligarchs and so on, because we felt that… And I’m saying this as an interpretation, other people might have a different interpretation of course, but from where I was standing we sort of started feeling maybe subconsciously that we have… we are alienating too many people now because we are attacking these people, so naming, naming Nasrallah, naming Berih, naming Geagea and so and on and so on. And when I was reading your book, I couldn’t help but see some parallels, and again, very limited, different times, obviously very different contexts, there are certain shocks that are not the same, so the Nakba isn’t the same as the dissolution of the union between Egypt and Syria and isn’t the same as ‘67, isn’t the same as the civil war…

0:30:40.8 S1: And for the same reasons, it isn’t the same as the 2011 uprisings obviously, but the shock for me as someone who is both Lebanese, part Palestinian, and who has more importantly followed Syria much more closer than any of the other counties in the region recently anyway, there was always in the back of my mind is kind of feeling that… How do I describe this? That history is, no that… that’s a wrong way of putting it, that we are being overwhelmed by structures, by ideologies, by ways of being, by ways of interpreting the world, all of these things combined, and we, the new ones, the new generation haven’t really had much time to either learn from the previous generation’s mistakes, because mainly we don’t know them, we haven’t read about them most of the time somehow, but most haven’t… And so on and so forth. So this is a background, a bit of where I’m coming from with this and what my positionality with this would be as someone who grew up in post-war Lebanon, now we’re studying post-war Lebanon, which inevitably obviously includes the war itself, a bit of the pre-war, but not as much.

0:31:53.2 S1: And there’s this sinking feeling in a sense that you’re digging the archives in the 1960s as someone who was of the 1970s and 1980s generation, and here I am of the 1990s and early 2000s generation reading that book, and it just sees like at some point there’s a bit of a circular motion happening, if that makes sense. Did I make sense in terms of the contractualization?

0:32:19.6 S2: Yeah, thank you so much. Thank you so much to… This is very, very, very, very helpful. I mean, I hear exactly what you were trying to get at, as you mentioned it is a huge question that is in a way, an elephant in the room, and one way… Before I say a few words about the historical trajectories of this generation, and then go back to the present, the main really… One of the big questions that has been a question, which is not only a Lebanese or an Arab question, but what has been a question that a lot of Marxists have dealt with across generations, which in Lebanon mostly takes the form of sort of sectarian solidarities. But I would say also regional and kinship and family loyalties, I mean the sort of focus on just sectarianism, I think, occludes in a way, other infranational solidarities and loyalties; is the question of what is the status of attachments that are not considered to be emancipatory attachments in revolutionary projects. I.e. what is the status of the Marxist tradition? This took the form of nationalism, nationalism versus class solidarities, and our sort of Lebanese case, most of the time is the question of sectarianism, and this generation tried to deal with it in very different ways…

0:34:05.7 S2: …tried to deal with it in very, very different ways. The idea is… is it possible to have, for example, a political project that is not predicated on assuming that everyone that is part of this project was gonna be secular. I.e… you see, because there is, as you mentioned, from an activist perspective, the dilemma is very, very trenchant, which is if you want to interpolate the largest number of people possible into the political program that you’re advocating, where are the lines you draw between accommodating certain subjectivities and certain attachments and certain solidarities… And where did you say, I can no longer accommodate these attachment subjectivities, solidarities, because if I do, they’re gonna overtake my project. Do you get what I’m trying to say?

0:35:22 S1: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. 

0:35:25 S2: So it’s always a very… Which is why the… The last part of this book is really about thinking about Ibn Khaldun and Gramsci because it is really a question that’s sort of like you can think with through the question of Gramsci, how can you create a hegemony to the hegemony that’s basically, the system is putting forward. And how can you in doing that, not come across as being someone who’s disrespectful of particular forms of attachments that people have, because…

0:36:10.2 S2: What do we mean by sectarianism is a very, very fraught question. Do we mean as some kind of belonging into a community that sort of like fashions people’s subjectivities, do we mean by a certain political identity, do we mean by participating in a clientelist system, these are not all the same, sometimes they map onto each other, but sometimes they don’t, and the question of subjectivity is mostly thought- should be thought through like, not as an on-off switch i.e. like on secular or on sectarian switch, but rather as a question of a spectrum and potentialities that are basically can be activated in one way or another, like the question of hegemony, and this is something that we saw very, very clearly in October, in the sort of in the trajectory that unfolded starting October 17th, 2019, the fact that you can have people change, and then you can also have people regress if you wanna think about in the other direction, so the question is, is very, very difficult to deal with that, the generation I dealt with, in order to become part of these Marxist groups, these militant intellectuals and militants had to leave the initial communities, i.e. had to leave…

0:37:35.0 S2: …the political parties that were hegemonic in their own political communities, so they had to say… Let’s say if they are a Christian from Mount Lebanon, they would have to say, Okay, I am not joining the Phalangists, I’m not joining the Ahrar, I’m not joining any of these parties, I’m joining, let’s say the Communist, the Lebanese Communist Party, or the Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon, now after, some of these militants ended up joining their communities back, some of them ended up sort of like… Which is not the same thing, ended up converting ideologically to an Islamist position, for some of, some of these people, it entailed a personal religious conversion, people Roger Assaf for example, the famous basically playwright. So in a way, there are different trajectories that people have, sometimes people, they move back to the folds of the communities that they had left for a secular ideological project, sometimes they move from one ideological project to another, but the question, the question of basically… The question, I mean, the fascinating- the fascinating sort of, I think insight of this 1960s generation is that’s when dealing sectarian loyalties is that you see, they were dealing with sectarian loyalties in the very, very crucial space of organizing in factories, i.e. at the point of production.

0:39:16.0 S2: And there, the crucial insight they developed is that these form of solidarities are very malleable, that basically you could sort of marshal them for the workers’ interests, but also they could be marshalled against the workers’ interest, so in a way there’s a particular… So there’s a particular resilience to these forms of sectarian attachment, and there’s also a form of non-teleology that’s inscribed into them, i.e. the only thing you can be sure of is that when you’re dealing with them, their force is gonna be sort of reproduced, whether you take them, you push them towards an emancipatory project or not, I’ll give you a very small example… The way, for example, they can enter into relations of production, let’s say, by having workers in a factory from a particular sect, but then having the foreman, let’s say that’s responsible for them for a different sect, or basically, the owner of the factory is of- giving different wages to people from different villages or different sects or something like that. So in a way, then you can have, let’s say workers mobilise for their own rights, but that mobilization for their own rights could be sometimes articulated on these sort of forms of sectarian solidarities, so in a way if you’re thinking about workers getting their own rights, that could be…

0:41:01.7 S2: quote-unquote “a good thing,” yet what’s happening is that it’s the form itself that’s reinscribed. So the idea that I’m trying to basically just… There’s two ideas I’m trying to push. One is that we have to be clear about, what do we mean when we talk about sectarianism? And how is this different from basically being someone who’s secular or being someone who’s religious, not to conflate sectarianism with a certain religious subjectivity, because I don’t think they’re the same, but also how to think about the question of sectarianism as, again, as I said, as a personal attachment, to a particular way of life or a political identity that sees in furthering the interest of the sect it’s main goal and see other sects quote-unquote as threatening that, and sectarianism as part of a patronage and clientelistic- clientelistic system. In thinking about these three things, the main question is, is there a possibility to develop a political language that will interpolate people from different, say, sects and bring them together without necessarily- without necessarily having the grievances that this political project is pushing forward, seem by another sect to be a sectarian project. And that’s a… that’s a tall order.

0:43:19.0 S2: You see, it’s tricky. It’s very tricky, and it’s also… The only thing, I mean, the pessimistic side of the equation is that you see that these sectarian forms are very resilient across history, you can fill them with different content, you can be a sectarian politically and you know, arguing for a welfare state, you can be a neoliberal and basically be articulating your neoliberal agenda, but also articulating it with some kind of sectarian formation, you know, there is a resilience to it, which you call, which I think is what you meant by “structure.” And in that way, if you want to do a very sort of an analogy, which is from a very different register, you can think, for example, about Orientalism as a structure of racialization and inferiority as having a very similar kind of resilience that can take on board anything and digest it. So for example, you can have a Darwinian Orientalism, you can have a Freudian Orientalism, you can have a Liberal Orientalism, and you can have an Orientalism that’s basically doing things like pink washing or basically green imperialism or something like that. But you see that there is a structure there that could reproduce itself and take on board different positions, so in a way, but sectarianism has that…

0:45:10.7 S2: …has the sectarian attachment, if you, so to speak. Have this resilience, but I do not think… I think that to succumb to a culturalist position in which basically to say that we are doomed to repetition because of our culture is the utmost, is the negation of politics. And it’s basically a metaphysical position that’s not warranted, even though historically these forms have been very resilient, it’s just basically saying that there is no end in sight to try and think of a political project that is no longer… that would basically not be divided according to these lines, and that would not lead into the kind of forms of violence that sometimes these divisions lead to in terms of communal and civil strife.

0:46:12.7 S2: So it’s… Again, it’s a long answer, but it’s basically… I think the answer is in trying to think through… Trying to think through different forms of political practice, by which I mean that I don’t think a better theory will save us, but I think maybe a theory that sort of comes out of thinking about political practice and trying things out, in a very dialectical way would be something which would be helpful. But I do, I mean, what you said about, again, your activist years and how that rings true to you… rings true to me as well as someone from a different generation who in the 90s were as part of generations of students, and universities were interested in thinking the question of the Left and thinking about having a conversation with different generations, but also people from different sects and from different regions.

0:47:28.7 S2: So that you do not end up reproducing the ideological sectarian contraption, where you could say something like the majority of the right would be Christian and the majority of the left would be Muslim, or something of that sort, so that that the ideological and the communal in a way, so to speak would not be… Because this is the problem, when the ideological agenda becomes articulated on a communal constituency, it’s the communal constituency at the end of the day, that’s gonna overcome the ideological agenda. Yeah, I think we talked about a lot. 

0:48:11 S1: No, I’m gathering my thoughts. You gave me a lot to think here… Is there anything that you wanted to say that I didn’t ask? Or we didn’t have time to talk about…

0:48:24.1 S2: No, we had… In our exchange, we had… You mentioned something to me about like, why do I say… And we can end with this, it’s a very sort of- answer. Why do I say that for these thinkers, it’s… Why do I think it’s important to say that they moved away from this language game of comparing Arab and Islamic values with Western ones? 

0:48:54 S1:Absolutely. 

0:48:55 S2: And let me say a few things about that. But what I mean by that is that, if you look at a lot of work that is done by postcolonial thinkers or ideologists or the Arab ones are not an exclusion, you always have this sort of question of the West as an ideological question, whether it is basically, thinkers who are modernization thinkers who really want to get rid of whatever they think is quote-unquote “backwards” culture or the opposite, whether you have nativists who think that basically, we need to go back and recapture our authenticity against basically Modernity, which is a project of westernization in disguise and the thinkers I’m working with, I think we’re not operating on this ideological register of Us versus Them, authenticity versus modernity, our values, their values, foreign thought versus authentic, non-foreign though, what we’re interested in is developing, I think I’m interested in thinking about, which is basically a people in the South Asian concept, in the South Asian context, people like Partha Chatterjee has thought about, which is how do you move away from the discourse of ideological values into trying to develop, if you want a critical social or political theory of the operations of power in the post-colony, because you can stop…

0:50:40.5 S2: You can either play the ideological game and say our values, their values, etc., or you can basically play the kind of epistemological critique of our Orientalist discourses game, whereby you say, Well, this theory is Eurocentric and it cannot understand… Basically, our society’s politics, etc., but I think that’s very… Thinks it’s a very boring game, and second, it’s not me because it’s been done and it’s very easy, it doesn’t take much sort of critical thought to come up, or you just put this sort of thing into the machine and it comes out directly. I think the more interesting question is, after you do this negative critical labor of saying Western so-to-speak, or whatever, universalist, social or political theory is not one that adequately can sort of conceptually apprehend the realities we’re living through… Fine, okay, that’s the negative. Then the positive one is, can we- what are- what are- can we develop a critical idiom of the operations of power in our societies, and why do I say power? Because I want to move away from basically culture, and I want to basically get a sense of, can we develop conceptual tools that adequately diagnose the multiplicity of the operations of power in our societies? And this is why I say, they’re trying to think about the look, for example, in Waddah Charara’s attempt to think the logics of subjugation that are at the heart of communal sort of like civil wars, which are at the opposite of Gramsci and hegemony, because you do not seek to win over your enemy ideologically, you just seek to either subjugate them or destroy them, you don’t want to convert them, you’re not interested, you’re not interested in reforming their subjectivity, you’re just interested in having their leader, whoever their leader is, be subjugated to you, but how…

0:52:55.3 S2: …how the leader himself deals with his or her subjects, it’s up to them. So in a way, it’s trying to think with these thinkers, it’s not necessarily to adopt their theories and to say, “This is the theory now,” but is to actually try and move away from these two registers I outlined in the beginning. One is the register of ideology and value, the West and us, and the second one is the register of basically another register of the West and us, which is basically how Western theory does not work. The question is, yes, if it does not work, then what works or can we try and develop something that works? And I think, yeah, that’s one thing I wanted to mention.

0:53:55.3 S1: Thank you really very much, this has been a very, very interesting conversation. I’m going to re-read the book very soon after this conversation, and I definitely urge everyone to do so and I would link it and the description and in the show notes as well. Thank you so much for your time. 

0:54:15 S2: Thank you, thank you, Joey. Thanks again, for your interest and for reading the book and for thinking about these questions intergenerationally, that makes three generations that will be thinking about them. Thanks so much.

3 replies to “14. Revolution, disenchantment and the Lebanese New Left (with Fadi Bardawil)

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