Gilbert Achcar: Mahdi Amel and Arab Marxism
Arab Marxism and National Liberation: Selected Writings of Mahdi Amel is now available in paperback as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series. For the first time in English, this collection makes available lengthy excerpts from six major works by Mahdi Amel (1936–87), a prominent Arab Marxist thinker and Lebanese Communist Party member.
Here, we reproduce scholar Gilbert Achcar’s foreword to the volume:
Ask anyone familiar with Marxism in the Arab world to mention one major Arab Marxist thinker and they will most likely – say, eight or nine times out of ten – mention one of two names: Samir Amin or Mahdi Amel. Narrow down your question to Marxist authors who have written the bulk of their work in Arabic, and Mahdi Amel will probably come first in a similar proportion. Mahdi Amel, Hassan Hamdan’s pen name, was one of those intellectuals for whom revolutionary theory could not be disconnected from revolutionary practice and who remained undeterred from their effective commitment to their political convictions to the point of being murdered.
Assassination by right-wing thugs is certainly the ultimate badge of honour for figures of the workers’ movement – think of Jean Jaurès or Rosa Luxemburg – but its reverberation is naturally proportional to the fame they achieved prior to their killing. Long before his assassination on 18 May 1987, aged 51, Mahdi Amel had stood as a towering figure in the Arab intellectual field and its Marxist subfield. He became the most prestigious intellectual figure of the renaissance of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) – a renaissance that started in 1968, after years of decline and ossification. During 15 years thereafter – a period that included the first half of Lebanon’s long civil war (1975–90), and the Party’s key role in the fight against Syrian troops’ intervention in 1976 on behalf of the Lebanese right-wing forces, as well as against Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982, the LCP reached a peak in membership, with over 15,000 members in a country of four million inhabitants at that time.
Shedding its Stalinist straitjacket, the LCP shifted after 1968 into one of the most open and liveliest of the Communist parties that maintained close links with the Soviet Union. This enabled it to acquire a new social and political dynamism and insert itself in the regional struggle of which the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had become the spearhead following the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The LCP played a major role within the Lebanese National Movement, a key protagonist of the first years of the civil war in alliance with the PLO. After the invasion by the Israeli army of one half of Lebanon in 1982, the Party was the first to wage and organise an underground armed resistance to the occupation.
It was during the LCP’s heyday, starting from 1973 when his first major work came out, that Mahdi Amel became the Party’s intellectual star. Reviving a tradition of revolutionary Marxism long stifled by the prevalence of mummified Soviet Marxism, his original and innovative Marxist thinking befitted the LCP’s aggiornamento and illustrated its new intellectual pluralism. However, his thinking remained on the whole qualitatively more radical than the official line of his Party, to whose central committee he was elected only shortly prior to his death.
The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon represented a crucial turning point in the LCP’s history. Whereas the Palestinian movement was the primary target of the occupation, the Party was its main Lebanese target. In all the areas that fell under their control, Israeli occupation forces searched the Party’s offices, seized its weapons, and sought to arrest its prominent members. Another consequence of the invasion that was to heavily affect the LCP was the emergence of a religious Shiite current backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which led to the official proclamation of Hezbollah in 1985.
Hezbollah set up an Islamic Resistance as a competitor to the National Resistance Front founded by the LCP. It sought to impose its monopoly on the resistance and infuse it with a Shiite sectarian identity in order to expand its hegemony among Lebanese Shiite populations. Hezbollah had two main competitors in this regard. The first was another sectarian Shiite organisation, Amal, from which its initial nucleus had originally split. A modus vivendi was eventually reached between the two movements under the aegis of the Syrian regime, Amal’s key sponsor. The second competitor was the LCP: the Party had indeed a major presence among Southern Lebanon’s Shiites, who constituted an important proportion of its membership.
The two most prestigious and best-known LCP members originating from Southern Lebanon were better known as intellectuals than as Party leaders. The first, Hussein Mroueh, born in 1910 according to the official record, had been sent by his family as a teenager to Najaf, in Iraq, to be schooled in Islamic theology. This religious background enabled him decades later, in 1978, to publish a voluminous study of the materialist currents in Arabic Islamic philosophy, which has not been translated yet into a European language. Mroueh was assassinated on 17 February 1987.
The second high-profile LCP member from Southern Lebanon was Hassan Hamdan. Born in a communist environment, Hamdan was no less attached to his provincial roots, as revealed by his choice of pen name in which Amel refers both to his home region of Southern Lebanon (traditionally called Mount Amel) and to the figure of the ‘worker’ (Amel in Arabic) that is naturally dear to a Marxist. Mahdi refers to an eschatological figure in Islamic theology with a particular significance in Shiism (Mahdi means ‘the guided one’ in Arabic). Mahdi Amel was assassinated on 18 May 1987, three months after delivering the eulogy at Mroueh’s funeral.
Hamdan’s companion for close to thirty years, Evelyne Brun, whom he first met in Lyon, in France, where they were both students, passed away in Beirut on 11 May 2020. Two years earlier, she had published a poignant memoir of her husband titled L’ Homme aux sandales de feu (Beirut: Al-Farabi, 2018). The book, whose title means The Man with Sandals of Fire, came out in a bilingual edition intertwining the French original text and its Arabic translation in a symbolic reference to the close intertwining of Hassan’s and Evelyne’s lives and cultures. It alternates sections directly addressing Hassan in the second person with sections speaking of him in the third person.
Evelyne’s depiction of the immediate background to Mahdi Amel’s assassination gives a powerful idea of our thinker’s outstanding personality:
You get back home on this April evening with a periodical in your hand. You hand it to me: ‘Here is my death sentence!’. And you laugh, you laugh, of a laughter that is at once feverish, electric, but also full of delight. It is Al Ahed, Hezbollah’s weekly publication. You point your finger at the conclusion of a specific article: ‘The man who pronounced the eulogy at Hussein Mroueh’s funeral in Damascus, this man will soon see that his turn has come’ …
[18 May] It is one of Beirut streets: Algiers Street. The death machine of fanatical hatred is getting ready. A car has been stationed every day opposite our house for a few days. Noticed by everyone in the neighbourhood, the white BMW is waiting. Algiers Street: you are now getting close. It is 10.05 am. It is here at this very moment that the tragic murder will be perpetrated … A man wearing a balaclava emerges and approaches you: ‘Dr Hassan Hamdan?’. You turn around, see the pistol in his raised hand, and seize the hand brutally. Another man jumps out of the BMW and shoots you with a silenced gun in the head, chest, and belly. You fall on the ground in an effusion of blood. The car, with its three masked occupants, races away. You, the undefeated, have seen with your wide-open eyes the death come to take you. In a last act of struggle, you countered it with the resistance of life.
Evelyne Brun Hamdan had been waiting eagerly for this book to come out. She was so glad at the prospect that, at long last, English-language readers would be able to acquaint themselves with a selection of Mahdi Amel’s writings. She did everything she could to speed up its publication. Sadly, she did not live long enough to hold this book in her hands. This foreword is therefore dedicated to her, for she will remain forever associated with the memory of ‘the man with sandals of fire’.