In his text on “La pensée révolutionnaire de Frantz Fanon,” published in Révolution africaine in 1964, while paying tribute to the intellectual and political courage of the author of The Wretched of the Earth, Mahdi Amel discusses the pitfalls of national cultures perpetually torn between two different kinds of alienations: “a past that freezes and a Europe that fascinates.”1 Against this double threat, Amel recalls Frantz Fanon's warning to anticolonial revolutionaries that they should not merely “join the people in the past where they are no longer” and instead tarry in that “place of imbalance” where “everything will be questioned.”2 Here, Amel argues, is where the anticolonial cultural struggle can and must be fought.
Relocating Amel in the specific context of the cultural and political struggle he was fighting when writing his critique of Orientalism appears indeed to be the best way to make sense of his own interpretation of Said's reading of Marx. Written in 1985, when the Lebanese Civil War had already been raging for a decade, Amel's reaction to the portrait of Marx sketched by Said is actually a crude rejection. Probably, Amel should be counted among those “dogmatic critics in the Arab world and India” who, according to Said, “upbraided [his work] for not having paid closer attention to Marx.”3 Meditating on “the difference between Arab and other responses to Orientalism” sixteen years after its publication, and wondering why the book did not manage to have an impact in the Middle East as it had elsewhere, Said deploys two main explanations: on the one hand, that his essay has been “correctly perceived as Eurocentric in its texts,” and, on the other hand, that “the battle for cultural survival is too engrossing” in the Arab region, so that critical interventions like Orientalism are likely to be “interpreted less usefully, productively speaking, and more as defensive gestures either for or against the ‘West.’”4
Both Amel and Said thus recognize the importance of the geopolitics of knowledge reception and the burning field of culture as a political battlefield. Yet Amel's polemical response to Said arises precisely in reaction to the very conception of culture underlying Orientalism. Not only does Said assume in the first instance that Orientalism is the dominant culture in the West from Homer to Bernard Lewis, but his apparently sounder conception of “modern Orientalism,” as many Marxist critics noticed, also collapses into an all-encompassing and homogenous entity devoid of class distinctions. By embracing such a monistic understanding of culture as a whole, Said seems to leave no room for the emergence of any oppositional standpoint, while, according to Amel, “culture has never been exclusively one-dimensional.”5 First, for Amel, culture and knowledge are always shaped by class struggle. Second, Amel wonders how from Said's perspective any distinction can ever be traced between the dominant culture and emancipatory or liberating cultural stances.6
Indeed, an undifferentiated notion of culture constitutes the framework in which Said inscribes his analysis of Marx's relation to Orientalism and the East, arguing that ultimately “no thought can escape Orientalist thought, including Marx's thought.”7 In Amel's view, Said's lack of class analysis leads him to conflate Orientalism, understood as the prevailing “style of thought” in the West, with “the one thought through which all Western scholars must think.”8 For Amel, the major problem is that such a thesis implies that “there is no other to this prevailing thought,” hence no possible insurgence of antagonism, only occasional exceptions.9
Amel's objection to Said's idealistic conception of culture raises nonetheless a significant question regarding whether Marx could be listed among such rare exceptions, and if so, on what basis. The mere fact that Marx is a Western intellectual in the nineteenth century does not entail per se that his thought cannot but be Orientalist. However, what Said's commentary on Marx's 1853 article on “The British Rule in India” highlights is not a pure matter of principle. Rather, Said's reading is an attempt to identify the textual evidence of Marx's Orientalist inclinations. Amel's engagement with Said's text consists in undermining the very logic of his general assumption—that is, his assumption of the impossibility of any antagonism that could resist and react to the dominant culture. This logic is what he calls “the logic of the identity of opposites,” premised on the principle of identity that does not allow contradiction and is therefore the expression of formalism qua bad dialectics.10 What follows here, instead, is an analysis of the content and the context of Said's reading of Marx.
Marx in India: Orientalism, Capitalism, and Colonialism
If Amel's argument demonstrates that in principle there is no logical necessity according to which, as Said seems to suggest, “Marx must be Orientalist (i.e., bourgeois) in his view of the East” and his thought must be derived from the dominant bourgeois thought-structure, one could still ask if Marx, in practice, was actually an Orientalist in his depiction of the British rule in India.11
Interestingly, Said only refers to the very end of Marx's famous article, and Amel in turn focuses only on the passages commented on by Said. The whole piece, however, deserves careful reading to answer Amel's question—“What does Marx actually say in his text?”—and to examine whether, as Amel points out, Said is merely playing with the “transposition of Marx into Goethe,” reading the two concluding paragraphs of his article through the prism of the final quote Marx includes from Goethe's West-östlicher Divan.12
Marx's article begins with a peculiar characterization of “Hindostan” as “an Italy of Asiatic dimensions, the Himalayas for the Alps, the Plains of Bengal for the Plains of Lombardy, the Deccan for the Apennines, and the Isle of Ceylon for the Island of Sicily.”13 Indeed, India is for Marx nothing but
this strange combination of Italy and of Ireland, of a world of voluptuousness and of a world of woes, [as] anticipated in the ancient traditions of the religion of Hindostan. That religion is at once a religion of sensualist exuberance, and a religion of self-torturing asceticism; a religion of the Lingam and of the juggernaut; the religion of the Monk, and of the Bayadere.14
Moreover, for Marx, “However changing the political aspect of India's past must appear, its social condition has remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity, until the first decennium of the 19th century.” Later in the text, he highlights that “the Hindoo, . . . leav[es], like all Oriental peoples, to the Central Government the care of the great public works.” After citing “an old official report of the British House of Commons on Indian affairs,” Marx proceeds to describe what he calls India's “small stereotype forms of social organism, [which] have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade.” Finally, Marx observes that “English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.”15
The rest of the article is what is discussed in Said's Orientalism and commented on by Amel. Amel's main argument against Said's allegedly mistaken interpretation of Marx focuses on the dramatic portrait that the author of Orientalism provides of the author of Das Kapital, as an intellectual torn by the inner struggle between “heart” and “reason.” According to Said, in the end “it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx's theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image: England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of the Asiatic society and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”16
According to Amel, this proves Said's fall into the trap of his own Orientalism, or, to borrow from Sadik Jalal al-ʿAzm, that of his “Orientalism in reverse.”17 Indeed, Said's theatrical depiction of Marx could be interpreted through a slightly different understanding of the meaning and aims of his peculiar mise-en-scène. If Orientalism in its most materialist definition is a system of knowledge that is coextensive with the expansion of modern colonialism, then Orientalism is not merely about the (Western) Orientalist's lack of sympathy with the “Orientals”; rather it is a matter of statements (be they laudatory or pejorative) stemming from the set of representations and generalities that compose the hegemonic Orientalist discourse and that could not but influence Marx's thought. Only in this limited sense can Said affirm that Orientalism at that time represented “a formidable library against which no one, not even Marx, [could] rebel and which no one [could] avoid.”18
Marx's case as portrayed by Said attests, on the one hand, to the alleged pervasiveness of Orientalist “science,” an irresistible knowledge that wins out over Marx's clearly stated empathy for the suffering of the colonized. But most importantly, on the other hand, Said's account of Marx points to Marxism's lack of critical engagement, even as a critique of imperialism, with the epistemological premises of its own historicism. In Said's words, “In the methodological assumptions and practice of world history—which is ideologically anti-imperialist—little or no attention is given to those cultural practices like Orientalism or ethnography affiliated with imperialism, which in genealogical fact fathered world history itself.”19 Or, in a more explicit phrasing: “What . . . has never taken place is an epistemological critique at the most fundamental level of the connection between the development of a historicism which has expanded and developed enough to include antithetical attitudes such as ideologies of western imperialism and critiques of imperialism . . . on the one hand, and, on the other, the actual practice of imperialism.”20
While Said is right to raise the issue, he is wrong in affirming that Marxism has never produced an epistemological reflection on the very notion of world history or the limits of historicism. Amel, in fact, stands precisely among those Marxists who contributed to such a critical task.
Marxism against Historicism
As in al-ʿAzm's review of Orientalism, Marxist historicist readings of Marx argue that Marx's inscription of the history of modern India into a progressive and gradual scheme of development cannot be considered per se Orientalist. Rather, by these accounts, it should be seen as realistic, as the thought of “a radically historicist thinker.”21 Along similar lines, Amel appeals to the “objective dialectical movement” that Marx points to in his analysis of the dissolution of Indian social formations by the expansion of capitalism in the hands of British colonialism.22 For Amel, Marx's fundamental question is “the question of revolution and its necessity, as a precondition for humanity's liberation in Asia.”23 Therefore, according to Amel, undermining the “solid foundation of Oriental despotism” is for Marx a “historical necessity for history's liberation and the consequent liberation of humanity,” given that “neither history, nor humankind . . . can escape the fetters of this necessity—the very necessity of revolution in history.”24 If Asian society in Marx's view is “the site of the objective process of history in its necessity and not from a moral or ‘humanist’ position,” this is precisely because Marx mobilizes a materialist conception of history premised on a “dialectical materialist logic.”25
However, as noted earlier, Said's remarks question precisely the implicit Orientalist assumptions of Marx's historicism. It is true, as Achcar suggests, that if Orientalism is responsible for an essentialist conception of the Oriental “cultural nature,” historical materialism should be seen as the best antidote against Orientalist temptations, since it “discounts the very idea of a ‘cultural nature’ in order to explain every cultural form as the historical product of . . . material circumstances.”26 Yet Said takes aim at how history, as the locus of appearance of such material circumstances, is conceived from historicist perspectives that in his view are at stake even in Marx's (and Marxist) critiques of colonialism and imperialism.
What is most striking in Amel's commentary on Said is the way the author all of a sudden embraces a historicist standpoint that seems to collide with his own critique of historicism, which constitutes one of the most significant components of his Marxist thought and a remarkable contribution to the development of Arab Marxism.27 In fact, one can read Amel's notion of the “colonial mode of production” (CMP) as responding to the Fanonian call for “stretching Marxism” to address the colonial world.28 Amel's concept of the CMP forms part of an attempt to counter both Marxist and non-Marxist historicist readings of Marx, by challenging the idea that precapitalist societies remain in the waiting room of capitalist history. From Amel's perspective, colonial formations are not precapitalist as if located along the lines of a progressive unfolding of history, nor are they meant to repeat the same course followed by Western European capitalist formations. Since the CMP must be thought in a synchronous relation with the expansion of Western capitalism in spite of its being articulated by a different logic and temporality—that is, since it must be seen to be in a relation of “structural causality” with the capitalist mode of production—for Amel no bourgeois revolution in the periphery is needed in order to achieve the goal of the socialist revolution (and the colonial bourgeoisie cannot in any case bring about such a revolutionary process). Therefore “overcoming the CMP would have to mean overcoming capitalism itself.”29 One could thus wonder why Amel's argument for rescuing Marx from Said's charges relies on the defense of a historicist understanding of the history of modern capitalism.30
Contemporary Marxist scholarship has taken a quite different path, retracing the shift in Marx's thought from the historicist—and to that extent Eurocentric31—approach of his early writings to the nonhistoricist and nonunilinear world-scale frameworks developed later. The latter testify to the prominence gained by non-Western social formations in Marx's analysis of the global reproduction of capitalism since the 1870s.32 Additionally, as Achcar argues, Ireland—and, in particular, the discovery that British colonialism was impeding Irish development—was for Marx and Engels “key to India and Algeria.”33 Engels radically changed his view on the “civilizing role” of colonialization in Algeria, and Marx his understanding of Indian society. The colonial expansion of capitalism ceases to be considered as a vector of progress; rather, it appears as a hindrance to the development of colonized countries, while anticolonial struggles play a decisive role in destabilizing the grounds of European capitalism.
However, Amel's unabashed attempt to dissolve every trace of Orientalism in Marx by debunking Said's criticism does not allow for any acknowledgment of the fact that Marx perhaps resorted to traditional Orientalist tropes mostly due to his limited and inaccurate knowledge of non-European societies.
If Marx Is for the West, What Is Left for the Rest?
The rationales for Amel's strenuous defense of Marx can be better understood against the background of his strategic theoretical intervention in the Arab—and more specifically in the Lebanese—political and intellectual debates in which he aimed at radicalizing the goals of the national liberation struggle to counter the power of increasing sectarianism.
As has been noted, the battle over Marxism in the Arab world during the specific conjuncture of the late 1970s and 1980s “was reflected in the debate between the ‘national’ and the ‘social’ dimensions of liberation movements.”34 For Marxist intellectuals like Amel, living and fighting in the midst of a civil war that was tearing apart Lebanese society and had plunged the country into a sectarian crisis of hegemony,35 it was crucial to oppose the idea that the Marxian corpus was inappropriate for comprehending and analyzing the sociopolitical structures of non-Western formations. The legacy of Marx and Marxism had to be defended against the anti-Marxist ideologies mobilized by the liberal bourgeoisie, the nationalists, and the growing number of partisans of the Islamic Revolution in the aftermath of 1979. In this respect, Said's gesture of placing Marx within the genealogy of Western Orientalism emerged as a dangerous obstacle to the possibility of theorizing Marxism from the periphery.36 Thus the endeavor to reclaim Marxism as a traveling theory that could be adapted and expanded in order to account for the colonial difference required Arab Marxists to dissipate the suspicion that Marxism was a Western invention incapable of grasping the peculiar fabric of social relations outside of Europe.37 In that sense, Said's reading of Marx represented a threat to the very legitimacy of Arab Marxism.
On the other hand, Said's ruthless denunciation of the dangers of developing Orientalist narratives from the “Orient” shows to what extent, in his view, Orientalism is not to be fought on the grounds of Oriental authenticity, as this would simply create a sort of self-orientalizing discourse or a mirror image of the Western Orientalist original. In his long afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, Said clearly distances himself from “the caricatural permutations of a book that to its author and in its arguments is explicitly anti-essentialist” with no aim to define “what the true Orient or Islam really are.”38 The claim may sound controversial in the light of the many criticisms addressed to Said precisely for his having relied on an essentialist, ahistorical, idealist, or even metaphysical conception of the East and the West,39 or, in al-ʿAzm's words, for his having reproduced the “ontological distinction of Europe vs. Asia, so characteristic of Orientalism” and paved the way for an insidious “Ontological Orientalism in Reverse [that] is, in the end, no less reactionary, mystifying, ahistorical and anti-human than Ontological Orientalism proper.”40 However, actually, Said himself laments that “Orientalism has in fact been read and written about in the Arab world as a systematic defense of Islam and the Arabs” or as a book against the West.41 Yet it seems as if Said's avowed skepticism with regard to the “Orient-versus-Occident opposition” that he considers “both misleading and highly undesirable,” as well as his firm rejection of “hopelessly antithetical [cultural] identities,” could not come to the rescue of Amel's Marxism and its antiessentialist effort to counter nationalists and Islamic partisans in the specific conjuncture in which the Lebanese intellectual was writing.42 Samer Frangie highlights a “disjuncture between the politics of the production and that of the reception of Orientalism” in the Middle East to account for Amel's harsh reaction against Said, as if his work “condoned, with all the weight of the Western academic field, the nativist trend that Amel was trying to resist in the Arab world.”43
To come full circle, it is worth connecting Amel's vigorous battle against nativism and cultural essentialism to the nativist tendencies of our present to be found in many works of decolonial scholarship. Interestingly enough, the contemporary decolonial reception of Orientalism includes Said's work among the examples of a Eurocentered critique of Eurocentrism that allegedly encompasses the entire field of postcolonial studies. Calling for a radical, decolonial epistemic shift, which is in turn premised on a manifestly essentialist epistemic divide between imperial, Western knowledge (where the imperial and the Western are conceived as one and the same thing) and decolonial knowledge, Walter Mignolo—one of the most prominent scholars of the decolonial—argues that decoloniality only “starts from other sources,” namely from those outside locations “created by the rhetoric of modernity (the Arabic language, Islamic religion, the Aymara language, Indigenous concepts of social and economic organization, and so on).”44 Mignolo also clarifies that “de-linking,” or the shift away from Eurocentrism, “could hardly be thought out from a Marxist perspective, because Marxism offers a different content but not a different logic.”45 His criticism clearly goes much further than Said's, as the problem for Mignolo does not simply lie in Marx's Eurocentrism or in his Orientalism but rather in Marxism's being a “European invention responding to European problems” that cannot be applied to non-European societies, as it does not allow one to think outside the logic of colonial modernity.46 Hence “decoloniality couldn't be Cartesian or Marxian.”47 “Marxism in the colonies and in the non-modern world in general,” Mignolo adds, “is limited, for it remains within the colonial matrix of power that creates exteriorities in space and time (barbarians, primitives, and the underdeveloped) . . . [while] to think in exteriority demands border epistemology.”48 Therefore, Mignolo dismisses the very idea of a new global left that would merely amount to “falling back into the old house while just changing the carpet.”49
Such statements seem to overlook the fact that Marxism is not only European and that the origins of a concept, theory, or corpus, as Said crucially suggests, do not make them unsuitable for being displaced and transformed when rethought from different geohistorical as well as sociocultural locations: theories, indeed, originate somewhere but do not intrinsically and authentically belong to any place; rather, they travel, and each time they are relocated, they produce new situated knowledge.50
Mignolo's overall stance culminates in the claim that delinking needs to be epistemically grounded in the geopolitics and body politics of knowledge conceived as proper epistemologies of the exteriority and of the borders.51 As he points out, geopolitics and body politics are fundamental components of decolonial thinking and practice insofar as they account for the heterogeneity of peoples and their sociohistorical belonging.52 “In Munich,” Mignolo writes, “you do not see or feel coloniality. In La Paz, Bolivia, you feel it all the way, all the time, in your bones.”53 Furthermore, the concepts of geopolitics and body politics significantly entail, among other things, “that there is a good chance that Maoris would know what is good or bad for them better than an expert from Harvard or a white anthropologist from New Zealand.”54 Lastly, body politics leads decolonial approaches to find in the lived experience of colonial subjects—distinguished, for Mignolo, from “‘experience in general,’ which will be based on a concept of ‘human being’ conceived within European hegemonic knowledge”—the very foundation of epistemic disobedience.55
Thus, paradoxically, epistemic disobedience ends up obeying the logic of authenticity by embracing everything that is local, indigenous, and autochthonous as valuable. To the modern and colonial cogito ergo sum, decolonial delinking seems to oppose the curiously empiricist credo I am, therefore I sense, therefore I know, which seals the absolute primacy of insiders' knowledge production. By relinking with body politics, decolonial delinking centers around the lived experience of native bodies as epitomized by the experience vécue (du Noir), famously mistranslated in the title of the fifth chapter of Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and reified into the sheer “fact (of Blackness).”56
Yet, if lived experience has been the source of several political and epistemological breaks, especially in feminist, anticolonial, and antiracist theories and praxis, it mostly designates a starting point—a springboard that is supposed to give momentum—rather than the ultimate destination of politics. Politics and political engagement certainly rely on experience, but they cannot stop there: they require disidentification as well as identification; they presuppose belongings and filiations that root us somewhere but also affiliations that uproot and project us toward some place that is not necessarily “ours” and that we can nevertheless choose as a “cause” to which we can feel committed. While experience is incommensurable by definition, the possibility of establishing similitudes and analogies remains the conditio sine qua non for thinking and acting politically. Fanon, raised as a champion of lived experience—Fanon, who in fact reminds us that “every experience, especially if it turns out to be sterile, has to become a component of reality and thus play a part in the restructuring of reality”57—should be considered first and foremost as a partisan of the political art of affiliation—for his chosen struggles, his commitment to the cause of the Algerian Revolution, and his “heretic Marxism”—as much as a prophetic precursor of the limits of colonial bourgeoisie in anticolonial struggles.58
Similarly, Amel's lessons from both the Lebanese and the Algerian contexts warn of the dangers of sectarianism and of what we could call, paraphrasing Fanon, the pitfalls of national culture. Both issues still speak to the present well beyond the borders of the Arab world, and resonate with contemporary decolonial concerns with the “dewesternization” of knowledge and politics and the search for “categories of thought that were not derived from European political theory and economy.”59 From different perspectives, Fanon, Amel, and Said resolutely fought against ideologies of nativism and authenticity by proving them to be at odds with emancipatory aims and by unmasking the insidious threats that they posed to anticolonial struggles, the reactionary and warmongering consequences that resulted from them, and their naive and perilous obscurantism. Unfortunately, though, the battle is not over yet, and it is precisely to that extent that we still need Marxisms like Amel's—Marxisms from the periphery—to engage in the fight.
Said candidly recognizes that “perhaps the most important task of all would be . . . to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective. . . . These are all tasks left embarrassingly incomplete in this study” (Orientalism, 24).
Said, Orientalism, 153; Amel, “Is the Heart,” 483. It should be remembered that Said, precisely because of his idealist conception of the intellectual function, portrays the intellectual as the incarnation of a critical consciousness speaking truth to power in a perpetually oppositional relation to the existing order of things. See Said, Representations of the Intellectual; Said, World.
Marx, Dispatches, 213; emphasis added.
Marx, Dispatches, 215–18; emphasis added.
In 1968, Amel published in al-Tariq, the journal of the Lebanese Communist Party, a text called “Colonialism and Underdevelopment,” where he argues for “a Marxist understanding of Marx” against any historicist drift. He writes in a Fanonian vein: “Marx, in other words, examines colonialism from the perspective of capitalism. We, on the other hand, must treat the problem from an entirely different perspective, namely that of colonialism, not capitalism. Our theoretical progression in this problem is thus the inverse of Marx's theoretical progression” (Arab Marxism, 21). See also Hamdan and Khalil, “Mahdi Amel.”
This is even more striking if, as Bou Ali highlights, “Amel's analysis ultimately leads him to reject the principles of Marx's critique of political economy” precisely because
Amel reads Marx's argument about capitalist subsumption as teleological: “The colonial mode of production in Marx's view is a pre-capitalist mode that must necessarily become capitalist” in its integration into the global economy. Arguing that Marx read the colonial relation from the position of imperialism, Amel wants to show that it is only by overcoming colonization that overcoming capitalism would be possible and that indeed the colonial mode could not become identical to the capitalist one. (“Mahdi Amel's Colonial Mode,” 267)
Achcar speaks in Marx's case of epistemic Eurocentrism as opposed to a supremacist Eurocentrism imbued with imperialist ethnocentrism (Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism, 57).
Samer Frangie remarks that “Said's move was dangerous on three levels: as a critique of Marxism as Orientalism, as a critique of the role of knowledge and its relation to power, and as a potential buttress for culturalist claims against ‘Western theories.’” Frangie, “Theorizing from the Periphery,” 476.
al-ʿAzm, “Orientalism in Reverse,” 237. Said is at the peak of his idealism when he makes the following statement: “What we must reckon with is a long and slow process of appropriation by which Europe, or the European awareness of the Orient, transformed itself from being textual and contemplative into being administrative, economic, and even military” (Orientalism, 210).
Said, Orientalism, 331. Said recalls “in all my works I remained fundamentally critical of a gloating and uncritical nationalism. . . . I regret to say that the Arabic reception of Orientalism . . . still managed to ignore that aspect of my book which diminished the nationalist fervor that some inferred from my critique of Orientalism” (338–39).