Part I: General considerations
“every language contains the elements of a conception of the world.” Antonio Gramsci (p. 325, Selections from the Prison Notebooks)
Some time ago, there was a little debate engaged on the blogosphere (here and here) on what it means to be a leftist in the context of Lebanon, and on what are the choices Lebanese leftists are faced with in the Lebanese or Middle Eastern context. I was hoping to post something on this but I guess I just needed time to think about the main issues. I’m not saying maturity has been reached, but the time taken has delivered certain conclusions. So in the hope of keeping with this tradition of being labeled as leftist, here are a few preliminary thoughts.
To start with being a leftist is a human condition unbounded by ‘nations’ or other internalized political narratives. When I say in the Lebanese context I mean that I will propose practical applications in the case of this geographic area, this power cluster that came to be known as Lebanon. So the first notion the Lebanese leftist must think of is bringing back the Lebanese entity to its colonial root and recognize that there is nothing inherently “Lebanese” about any of the Lebanese.
Moreover, a leftist perspective would concentrate on demystifying all the various “Lebanese” narratives that are present in the various social fields of the country in so far as they block a genuine awareness of the general public interest. In so doing, any discursive endeavor to conceptualize a people is always geared towards creating new power structures, new dominant actors that use these idioms to better tame constituencies. So being nationalist especially in the reactive sense (against a perceived ‘other’) cannot be leftism. I have in mind all the pseudo-leftist turned anti-Syrian for example. For me, a leftist is someone who resist such labeling because he knows that it ultimately serves specific exploitative structures.
Being a leftist, is engaging above all in cultural issues. It is through the creation of meaning that oppression manifest itself. Paradoxically enough, although being a leftist is often equated with being a materialist and being concerned with the modes of production, social inequalities, etc. I think nothing of that can be understood without taking a close look at what bars some people to rise up and change the status quo, or to just follow different identification processes to arrive at new social realities. What better example to take here than Confessional Lebanon where specific ways of defining one’s self along a sect has tamed a truly popular uprising. Of course, sectarian divisions exists because it pays to be sectarian, meaning that clientelistic ties makes it easy for various players to keep constituencies happy (by bribing them). And vice versa, any individual who needs something is much better going to the local sectarian leader in order for it to be done.
But a truely leftist view should not forget that these ‘modes of production’ (the base as Marx would have it) projects specific forms of conceptualizing one’s self through the use of language. Our discursive practices solidifies, crystallizes our differences that are imposed on us by the coercive nature of power fields, and this is the power of ideology: When one starts thinking of himself as a Sunni, Christian, etc. without a direct conscious awareness of the base (economic and social modes of production).
In effect, being a materialist is an analytic device. It does not mean anything to BE a materialist. Creating sense or representation of reality already distances you from a totally materialist outlook. Moreover, having the “idea” of being a materialist has something spiritual to it. Being a leftist has something even religious to it. Misunderstanding this dimension has been the biggest blunder of the XX century. It unavoidably rendered “Leftism” as a purely European or ‘Westocentric’ phenomenon that emerged from a parochial struggle against the Christian Church over political prerogatives, and it has secluded all other forms of popular uprising as regressive. (In the latter case “Leftism” is a bourgeois phenomenon, but more on that in Part II).
So a genuine leftist view must reckon the religious in the rise of liberalism and the nation-state. A genuine leftist view must demystify the whole ‘enlightenment’ period, and understand it through its political angle, it must destroy words like ‘modernism’, especially when it comes to perceive the Middle East as at a cross road between ‘modernism’ and ‘obscurantism’ (something a ‘leftist’ like Samir Kassir never quite understood, and I will write more on Kassir in Part II). The leftist animosity against ‘religion’ should not be understood as a general reluctance to accept anything religious. On the contrary the left must understand that it is in itself a religious phenomenon and that the real leftist struggle is against those who use religion as an oppressive tool. This goes from certain types of religious institutions (I would call them social institutions) like Church etc. to the modern state.
But there is another point I’m trying to make here: Above all, “Liberalism” is as religious as “Islamism” or “Communism” in the sense that it engages social, political, economic, and cultural practices that disciplines individuals in their knowledge of themselves through ritualistic behavior. I don’t want to elaborate too much on that here, but it must be clear that there is nothing fundamentally specific (in a religious sense) about Islamic movements for example. A genuine leftist view must do away with dichotomies such as secular/religious, and must understand how religion was internalized in the secular.
A genuine leftist view must keep in mind that what it is after, is understanding all forms of oppression inflicted on societies, individuals and their bodies. It is partly why a leftist can understand that in certain parts of Latin America you had what were called “Marxist priests” fighting for native population’s rights and in the Middle East, people like sheikhs sayyeds and the likes who studied radical forms of Islamic thought in Najaf, Qom, etc and installed wealth-redistributive social institutions, or at least institutions that mobilized resources in a new and more effective way. Now what happens to these people across time is another question, and this is why a leftist view must always be concerned with how actors emerge as dominant and the possible oppressive tools they start having at their disposal.
Compare this with traditional ‘religious’ authorities such as the Maronite church (did you know that this church owns most of Christian populated lands in Mount Lebanon?) or Sunni Sheikhs (the type of dudes that were opposed to civil marriage because it would have taken out some of their privileges), or even some traditional Shi’a religious authorities that were vehemently opposed to the new comers. What is really funny is when some Lebanese ‘leftists’ or ‘critical thinkers’ like Wadah Charara (دولة حزب الله، مجتمعاً اسلامياً) writes on Hizbullah as a diabolic force of religious men that came to displace traditional forms of authority. In this sense some Lebanese ‘leftists’ perpetuated classical forms of domination through their bourgeois practices. But more on the Lebanese particularity in Part II.