Sadik J. al-`Azm. Self-Criticism After the Defeat. Translated by George Stergios. London: Saqi Books, 2011.
On 5 June 1967, the Syrian philosopher Sadik al-`Azm received a call from his friend the poet Adonis. The war had begun, Adonis informed him, and the Arabs appeared to be on their way to victory. The two men “spoke about the war with confidence and without anxiety,” al-`Azm recalled some years later. “The thought of defeat did not cross the mind of anyone.” But defeat it was, and on a staggering scale. Within hours of Israel`s surprise attack on the morning of 5 June, more than three quarters of Egypt`s planes had been destroyed; by evening, Israeli forces were deep in the Sinai, and six days later the Golan Heights and the West Bank had been captured. The Arabs had been fed a diet of lies, and among those who had lied to them was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had been considered not just a hero but a rare truth-teller. After the war, Nasser tendered his resignation, but withdrew it after crowds in Cairo begged him to stay. He remained in power until 1970, but the era that bore his name was over.
What had gone wrong? Some Arab intellectuals said that Israel had won by virtue of “deceit and surprise,” others that the Soviets had provided the Arabs with shabby equipment, still others that god had punished the Arabs for straying from Islam. Everyone, it seemed, was to blame except the Arabs themselves. Al-`Azm took a different view. In Self-Criticism After the Defeat, a scathing book-length essay published a year after the war by Vanguard Press, a left-wing publishing house in Beirut, he argued that the war had exposed the deeply entrenched flaws of Arab society, and that only a far-reaching social and political transformation could correct them. It would be another four decades before that transformation took place, in the Arab awakening that began in Tunisia last year, before spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.
Was al-`Azm a prophet of the Arab awakening? The London-based Saqi Books, which has just published al-`Azm`s book for the first time in English (in a translation by George Stergios), would clearly like us to think so. A number of the themes in his bracing pamphlet have, indeed, been echoed in recent days. Like al-`Azm, today`s revolutionaries aim to sweep away the rot, corruption, and futility anatomized in his 1968 indictment of a political class that could neither satisfy the aspirations of its people, nor challenge the designs of its adversaries. Yet the awakening hasn`t been quite the revolution he was hoping for. It is a leaderless popular uprising, a raucously inclusive street fair of ideologies rather a disciplined socialist revolution. And, for all the Palestinian flags on display in Cairo and Tunis, the revolutionaries` principal aim has been to overthrow their own regimes, rather than to prepare for the next battle with Israel or the United States. To read al-`Azm today, therefore, is to be struck not only by his prescience, but also by the ways in which his political and intellectual framework has been eclipsed by recent developments.
A Yale-educated academic, a man of wide historical learning, al-`Azm began his book by reminding his readers of another war: Japan`s astonishing defeat of Russia in 1904-1905, the first victory of an Asian power over a European nation. Japan, like Israel, was a small country that had turned itself into a mighty power—and defeated a much larger enemy—by undertaking a program of thoroughgoing modernization. Russia, like Egypt and the other Arab states, “remained, in essence, an underdeveloped country, secure in its past and heritage until the war exposed its real position in this domain in comparison to what another smaller, aggressive country achieved.” The parallels were too striking to ignore, but there was also an important distinction. After being humiliated on the battlefield, Russia engaged in relentless and unsparing self-examination, whereas “we persistently attempt in what we say, think, write, and declare to save face, protect appearances, defer to emotions, and concern ourselves with proprieties, morale, flattery and sensitivities, instead of...calling things by their name and fixing responsibilities where they belong.” While the Russians excoriated their own failings, the Arabs disguised them, describing their enormous defeat in 1967 as a mere “setback” or as a “disaster,” like an earthquake or hurricane. By fully coming to terms with their defeat, the Russians were able to launch a revolution in 1905, and another twelve years later. The Arabs, by contrast, were sliding deeper into political stagnation, grumbling ineffectually about Israeli “treachery” (“as if we had expected from it good neighborliness and fair dealings,” al-`Azm sarcastically remarks), and finding consolation in ancient religious wisdom.
Al-`Azm was at the time an orthodox Marxist who believed the Arab world needed a strong dose of “scientific socialism,” and an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause. He praised Stalin as a modernizer, and wrote Self-Criticism After the Defeat partly in the hope that the Arab states neighboring Israel might put themselves at the service of the Palestinian revolution, transforming themselves into “North Vietnam on every level” and absorbing Israel`s harsh retaliatory blows. The “Vietnamese paradigm” was then much in vogue among Arab radicals, and al-`Azm, writing during the Tet Offensive, was impressed by how the Vietnamese had “perfected...the war of constant, uninterrupted movement, the war of flexibility, initiative, and quick, bold, direct decisions.” Still, he warned that “popular wars of liberation...do not come instantly and on the basis of a hasty call to pursue them.” Before attempting to emulate the Vietnamese, he argued, the Arabs had to build proper institutions and political parties. In the absence of national institutions, “the Arab citizen falls, at the time of sudden danger, under the sway of the tribal...and thus feels that his ties to his family or group are stronger than his ties to the ‘land.`” Tribes with flags could never hope to confront a country as disciplined and determined as Israel. National cohesion and pride would also be nourished by achievements in the fields of culture, education, and the sciences, where, as much as on the battlefield, Arabs were falling dangerously behind: “The emergence of one first-class Arab mind in the realm of the natural sciences, or the flourishing of one Arab scientific institution at the level of the Israeli Weizman Institute, or...the emergence of one Arab military mind at the level of General [Võ Nguyên] Giáp...would save us an enormous fund of money that is being spent in the name of a propaganda that does not rest on any real foundations or achievements.”
To al-`Azm, the struggle against colonialism went hand in hand with the creation of a modern socialist society. Yet the task of social transformation did not end with the creation of institutions, or even with the establishment of socialism. Progress in the Arab world, in his view, depended on a subtler, more profound revolution: a revolution in mores, even in “mentality, psychology, cultural background.” He noticed that whenever he spoke to young Arab radicals about matters other than politics, their brashness suddenly disappeared: they sounded like their parents, even their grandparents. Arab modernity, in his pitiless formulation, barely went beyond “the refrigerator, television, oil well, MIG, radar and so on...The mentality that uses these imported achievements is still a traditional mentality.” That traditionalism was particularly flagrant in the treatment of women, the “greatest example of entirely wasted Arab human resources.” All too many of his male comrades, he lamented, still looked at women through “romantic ideals of motherhood” and patriarchal notions of “dignity, sexual honor, and obedience to the husband.”
The persistence of the old ways, al-`Azm argued, had serious consequences in war. The Arab armies went into the battlefield in June 1967 “with a chivalric understanding of war,” an understanding that proved not just irrelevant but a grave liability in a “mobile and fluid war” defined by air power rather than face-to-face confrontations. Officers who had grown up in a traditional society that revolved around deference to the father were unable to make swift decisions on the basis of “choice and individual initiative.” These patterns of obedience were so deeply ingrained that when Israeli planes began bombing defense batteries, Egyptian soldiers waited for orders to open anti-aircraft fire. In a modern air war, individual bravery amounted to little.
To read Self-Criticism After the Defeat today is, in some ways, to be transported back to a vanished world of cafes in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo, where Marxist intellectuals debated the finer points of revolutionary theory over strong cups of coffee, confident that the future belonged to them. It has not turned out that way. The prospects of socialist transformation in the Middle East—or of Israel`s neighbors becoming an Arab North Vietnam, providing weapons and shelter for Palestinian guerillas in the occupied territories—are even more distant now than they were in 1968. The only Arab army that has challenged Israel with any degree of effectiveness is the Lebanese Shi’a militant organization Hizballah. The soldiers in Hizballah are as skilled in the ways of flexible, nomadic warfare as the Vietnamese, but, with their implacable religious convictions and commitment to Iran`s Supreme Leader, they defy al-`Azm`s modernist belief that religion is a necessary obstacle to Arab success on the battlefield. (Al-`Azm, a secularist thinker who views religion primarily as a symptom of backwardness, could scarcely have imagined that the Arab world`s Giáp would be a Muslim cleric, Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah of Hizballah.) Nor has religion always impeded the creation of modern institutions. Egypt`s Muslim Brotherhood is a party of engineers, doctors, and engineers, the most effective provider of social and medical services in poor neighborhoods—and, as the recent elections have demonstrated, the most efficient vote-getter. In the non-Arab state of Turkey, an Islamist government has presided over 7.5 percent growth rates and pursued an ambitious foreign policy that has made Prime Minister Erdoğan a folk hero in the Arab world. Al-`Azm`s prescience did not extend to the Islamist wave: he mentions Islamists only in order to mock them. Like most secular nationalists, he viewed Arab politics as a struggle between left-wing radicals and “reactionary” oil-producing regimes. Today, however, the reactionary monarchies remain in place, thanks to petrodollars and Western sponsorship, while secular nationalism of all stripes—from the Ba’athist right to the Marxist left—has been in terminal decline since the defeat.
Another striking lacuna in Self-Criticism After the Defeat is the word “democracy.” Al-`Azm`s top-down vision of politics remains wedded to the very authoritarian model he attacks: a Leninist vision in which self-appointed vanguards—and charismatic leaders—raise the consciousness, and direct the energies, of “the masses.” The Arab awakening, however, has been a break with this heritage, which Marxists like al-`Azm shared with their Ba’athist and Nasserist rivals. Today`s young revolutionaries have demonstrated a capacity for self-organization, collective action, and sacrifice which al-`Azm could not have fathomed, and they have done so without the help of political parties, much less vanguards. This leaderlessness was a beguiling feature of the revolutions, and, for a moment, a strategic asset: the struggle against the old regimes acquired a mass following partly because it was cast as a collective aim that transcended partisan political agendas. But once the regimes were overthrown, parties stepped in to exploit the post-revolutionary vacuum. In a development that has driven many secularists to despair, the most successful of these have been the Islamists. They arrived late to the party in the streets, but they were uniquely equipped to lead. Shrewdly styling themselves as conservative reformers, they are now coming to power in elections throughout the region. Their appeal lies in large part in their promise to rebuild Arab societies while remaining faithful to traditions that al-`Azm—like many secularists today—believed had outworn their use. Perhaps they have; but they cannot simply be wished away, or purged by revolutionary fiats, as al-`Azm might have wished. The Arab revolutions have been an exhilarating leap into the future. The post-revolutions will be a slow and difficult effort to reconcile revolutionary change and respect for tradition, with all the uncertainties—and potential reversals—that popular sovereignty and democracy entail.