The Historical Causes of Arab Separatism

by Il Programma Comunista

The Chimaera of Arab Unification From Above
The Historical Causes of Arab Separatism

Introduction: Il Programma Comunista, Arab Unity, and the Myth of the White Race

“A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.”

Aimé Césaire

In the late 1950s, in the midst of the so-called Arab Cold War, the main journal of the Italian communist left, Il Programma Comunista, published a series of articles on Arab nationalism, which we have translated and published below.1 These articles linked attempts to unite Arab-speaking peoples in a new superregional state with the fate of the “rotten, corrupt, lethal bourgeois Europe, infected with reaction and more or less disguised fascism, which for forty years has been the inexhaustible hotbed of imperialist war and counter-revolution.” “Who”, Il Programma asked, “can measure the gigantic revolutionary impact of the collapse of the myth of white race superiority?”

This was the idea of ‘the white man's burden’, an ideological support for the Western imperial order that had to be destroyed before anything like socialism or communism could emerge. Amadeo Bordiga, who anonymously penned many of the articles in Il Programma Comunista, had insisted, in his characteristic oracular style, that “civilisation, whose dawn we have shown, must experience its apocalypse before us. Socialism and communism come after and stand above civilisation, just as civilisation followed barbarism and stood above it.”2 Today, we are witnessing a Palestinian apocalypse in the double sense of the word as a revelation of the truth of Western power and a humanitarian catastrophe on the scale of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.3 But if the atomic bombing of Japan inaugurated the current world order, today we may be reaching its end. As we have argued, our “time is traversed by disorder from above as well as below, and this crisis appears to be undoing the basis of the long peace (the Pax Americana) that interrupted the revolutionary unfolding of an earlier epoch.”4

The Palestinian cause is mobilising hundreds of thousands, probably millions, in demonstrations and protests all over the world and is threatening to unleash a new Arab spring in the Middle East.5 Many, perhaps most, of those in the West who are taking to the streets in protest against the bombing and starvation of Gaza have no deep sympathy with Hamas or the islamist movements that rose to prominence after the defeat of the Arab nationalism analysed by Il Programma Comunista. But just as the Italian internationalists declared in 1958 that they were for the Arab national revolution, since they believed it could destabilise western imperialism (the most potent enemy of the global proletariat), so it is rational for internationalists to support Palestinian liberation today. Not because national liberation can lead to a break with the capitalist system (it cannot since capitalism by necessity is a system of competing firms and nations) but because what is at stake in the Palestinian struggle is precisely the potentially revolutionising effects of the collapse of the myth of white race superiority.

Bordiga’s notorious critique of anti-fascism bears similarities with Aimé Césaire’s insistence from the same period that what the anti-fascist bourgeois “cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man … but the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.”6 Like Césaire, who insisted in 1950 that colonialism “cannot but bring about the ruin of Europe itself, and that Europe, if it is not careful, will perish from the void it has created around itself”, Il Programma predicted that the hubris of Western imperialism would be the undoing of the European and Atlantic powers. In this, they argued, capitalism was creating the conditions for its overcoming, for the defeat of the West would lay the basis for a world revolution. In this sense Arab unity would be a potential step on the path to communism, one in which non-proletarian forces might play an essential role.7

In the articles we translate below, Il Programma argues that Arab unity could take one of two forms. It could be brought about through “military conquest by a hegemonic state that erases the prevailing state partitions in territories inhabited by people of Arab race and language.” Or it could come from “a revolution of the lower classes that, by destroying the established order, lays the foundation of a unitary state.” The first alternative, which would do for the Arab world what “Prussia did for Germany and Piedmont for Italy”, would, according to Il Programma, most likely be defeated by Western military intervention. To demonstrate this they pointed, in 1959, to the presence of the US 6th Fleet in Lebanese waters. Today we could point to Operations Aspides and Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea.

But, according to Il Programma in 1958, the other path to Arab unity — a revolution from below — was “still lacking.” The Nasserist revolution had not been a “mass revolutionary movement” since it had left feudal relations in the Egyptian countryside untouched, nor had it “expressed the powerful will of a bourgeoisie worthy of this name.” The pan-Arabists of Cairo and Damascus had entrusted their political fortunes to the intrigues of states, which is why they would fail. Yet, Il Programma looked forward to future struggles that will “allow the Arabs to free themselves from subjugation to imperialism on the one hand and from the survivals of feudal particularism on the other.”

Are we seeing such a development today? We have argued elsewhere, following Asef Bayat, that ours is an era of global accumulation of non-movements.8 These are the expression of a global economic order in secular stagnation and the crumbling of a geopolitical order that emerged in 1948 with the founding of the Israeli state and the Palestinian Nakba. Today, 76 years later, the Palestinian struggle has become a focal point for what we have called the “subjective expressions of the objective disorder of our times.” In addition to the mobilisation of more classical political and military movements, such as the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah, the Arab world has seen large scale protests against the genocide in Gaza. Thousands have been arrested in Jordan and Egypt, while even the Gulf States have seen modest protests.9 Even if these protests have been limited, they pose a serious threat to Arab governments, which rule over some of the most unequal societies in the world. For, as one analyst stated recently, “[t]he question of Palestine is a question of injustice, and that question of injustice is then interpreted by Arab masses as symbolizing a quest for justice across the board, which also includes criticizing the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world which are monumentally unjust.”10 Or, as an activist in Kuwait expressed it succinctly after a series of sit-ins in support of Palestine: “[w]hat's happening to the Palestinian people clarifies the foundation of the problem for Arabs everywhere.”11 Accordingly, opinion polls in the Middle East indicate not only that most people are deeply opposed to Israel and the Western powers, but that there is a clear awareness of the complicity of Arab leaders in the genocide, which many fear will lead to a third Arab Spring.12

In 2011, during the first Arab Spring, Gaza and the West Bank also saw a series of important protests against increased fuel prices, worsening living standards and unpaid public sector salaries. These protests, which took the form of fierce riots and strikes (even self-immolations), were suppressed by the combined forces of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.13 When a second Arab Spring swept North Africa and the Middle East in 2019, Palestine remained relatively quiet, which some explained by referring to an old saying from Yasser Arafat: “[y]ou shouldn’t wait for revolutions in Palestine. Palestinians will always be angrier at the Israelis than they will at me.”14 Yet today there is a palpable fear among the leaders of the Arab states that the war in Gaza will threaten their power. And the war has meant that the Palestinian cause is becoming a global problem. The call to free Palestine has become a rallying cry that is producing a unity against imperialist interests and regional leaders that Il Programma Comunista would have seen as revolutionary in a historical sense: a “unity from below” that is tearing at the political and economic underpinnings of the capitalist world system.15

While Bordiga’s famous prediction of a global revolution in the 1970s did not come to pass, that decade did confirm his prediction as to the fate of Arab nationalism.16 Before Husayn ibn ‘Ali (1853-1931), the Sharif of Mecca, in the spring of 1916 proclaimed the “Great Arab Revolt”, nationalism had been seen as a deceiving force (a Western import) among Arab intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire. The Turks had dominated the Middle East since the sixteenth century. The caliphate was, at this point in history, not a nation centred around Arabic and Arab customs but an enormous civilisation, including Muslims from different language groups and also prospering Jewish and Christian cultures. The decline of this world was a complicated process but its death was certified in the Sykes-Picot Agreement by the victors or World World I, the Western powers that Bordiga had identified as the most effective defenders of capitalist civilization, due to their capacity to either buy off or kill all enemies.

British gold had made it possible to mobilise Arabic tribes for emancipation from Ottoman rule and, thereby, to secure British colonial interests in the region (T.E. Lawrence was known as “the man with the gold”).17 Arab nationalism was born in the ruins of the caliphate, and may be seen as the result of the violent import of the modern European nation state into the region. The Ottomans retreated from Palestine in 1917, making it possible for the British to move in from Egypt and occupy Jerusalem (British General Edmund Allenby reportedly declared that “the wars of the crusades are now complete”). Soon Aqaba and Damascus were captured by Arabic tribes and as Atatürk seized power in Turkey slowly the dream of a new state, an Arab state, became possible. However, it was the uprisings against the French in Syria and the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936, that laid the ground for what Il Programma called “the Arab revolution.”

Il Programma argued that Arab nationalism would inevitably be defeated in so far as it organised itself along the arbitrary lines laid out in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The client states of the Western powers would have to be replaced by a supra-regional state capable of uniting the Arabic people. For Il Programma it mattered little whether such popular unity came from above or below. What mattered was that in either case it would lead to the collapse of the myth of white racial superiority. Today, with the onslaught on Gaza, this myth is lying in ruins. Now even figures like Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan seem unable to champion the moral superiority of America. The protests on American campuses at a level unseen since the Vietnam war indicate a breakdown of belief among a whole generation. Younger Americans, especially non-white Americans, are today much less likely to view Israel favourably as an outpost of “Western values” in a barbaric land.18 As Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, recently said in a leaked phonecall: “all the polling that I’ve seen, ADL’s polling, ICC’s polling, independent polling suggests this is not a left or right gap folks, the issue in the United States’ support for Israel is not left and right, it is young and old ... we really have a TikTok problem a Gen-Z problem...”19

In the pages of Il Programma Comunista the Bordigists, if we may call them that, insisted that the hoped-for Arab revolution could "mark the end of colonialist domination throughout Africa, not only in Arab Africa, but also in the rest of the continent inhabited by peoples of the black race, through which deep shivers of revolt run.” They wagered that a decolonized world would be more susceptible to communism since it would be a multipolar world and, hence, a world with more weak links that could burst. Of course, they knew that an Arab national uprising would not necessarily be revolutionary in a communist sense (but what struggle is?). Nor did they hold any illusions about the Soviet bloc as an alternative to the supposedly more capitalist West. Their whole raison d’etre as a political project was based on a clear (they would happily say sectarian and dogmatic) refusal to take sides in such inter-imperialist conflicts. However, they believed that it was only through the unfolding of chaos in the modern world system that the question of a new international order could be raised.

They envisaged autonomous and spontaneous struggles (what today we might call non-movements) organising themselves into a force capable of breaking with Western as well as Eastern imperialism. Bordiga had insisted already in 1913 “that political opinions are not the result of abstract ideas or philosophical and scientific knowledge, but of the environment [l’ambiente] in which one lives and the immediate needs of this environment.”20 Political opinions, the young Italian Marxist argued, are more a “matter of ‘feeling’ than a product of philosophical and scientific culture.”21 He urged that the Italian socialists mobilise this “environment of sentiments” into a political and organised force: a revolutionary party. Four years later, in 1917, the experiences of war and famine created truly revolutionary sentiments in Russia that different groups on the left, such as the Social Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks, were able to channel into powerful political movements, but which would soon be brutally repressed with the military and police.

Il Programma hoped in the 1950s that another such organisation of the sentiments of the labouring classes – a party or an “anti-formist organism” as a group of contemporary Bordigists would call it – could unify the Arab world.22 Today such a force, if it were to conform to Bordiga’s far-flung vision, would have to take a defeatist position against war, and hence also against the attempts of states like Russia and Iran to use these conflicts for their own interests.23 It would require forging a new organisation across and against existing nations and political parties. This would be a difficult task. But new organisations along these lines could build upon the sentiments that today express themselves in the Middle East as an open rejection of “postcolonial charisma” and hence as a crisis for traditional political representation.24As Il Programma stated in 1953, the workers cannot wait for a Messiah and will only “triumph when they understand that no-one is coming.”25

Bayat’s term “non-movement” (a term that is useful precisely for its ugliness) captures such sentiments of distrust for charismatic leaders and political messianism. For Bayat the non-movement is “the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors”. He refers to “non-movements of the poor to claim rights to urban space and amenities; the non-movements of youth to reclaim their youthfulness, that is, to realize their desired life styles, and fulfil their individualities; and the non-movements of women to struggle for gender equality—say, in personal status or in active presence in public sphere.”26 These are enacted sentiments that can become massive “social and emotional contagions”27 reshaping existing relations and producing what Bayat, in a recent summary of his work on the Middle East, describes as revolutionary lives.28

Such an “environment of sentiments” may today be discerned in the attempts of proletarians and others to disengage, or as the Palestinian activist and scholar Haidar Eid would say “disparticipate”, from those – including in Palestine both Hamas and the PLO – that seek to channel the current upheavals into existing political movements.29 Neither Bayat nor Eid have argued against organisation per se, but they understand that new and more promising movements can arise on the basis of a widespread sentiment that the existing alternatives on the left and the right have nothing to offer. Moreover, they realise that what Bordiga in 1913 called l’ambiente, namely, the daily practice of the exploited to remould their lives in relation to their hopes and wishes, is not a spontaneous upsurge but a series of enacted practices and lived sentiments.30

Bordiga imagined that the movements of what he called “barbarians” would revive the fruits of the civilization which he, not unlike Césaire, argued had become rotten and hence was dying.31 Their vision of a rotten West seems even more accurate today. The tragedy of Palestine reflects a world system that not only fails to provide a good life for many, perhaps most, but now even tolerates a televisioned genocide. Yet, it also shows the nihilism that easily can emerge from below. The establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, was a clear but fascist expression of the search for Arab unity. Hamas’ attack in October 2023, leading to the slaughtering of more than 300 partying civilians at the Re’im festival, is another testimony that brutality can come from below just as from above. This kind of violence is arguably part of most movements seeking to constitute a state or create a nation. It could be understood as the decadent dimension of state-centred politics. Only masses unlinking themselves from the Western powers, while also disparticipating from the so-called lesser evils of Iran, Russia, and China, can find a way out of a genocidal civilisation that made Israel possible, and for many Jews sadly even necessary, in the first place. The continued existence of Israel as a settler colonial state is an expression of a global capitalist civilisation that can only overcome its tendency towards stagnation through violence and militarisation.32

The Bordigists wagered that the increasing entropy and stagnation of the capitalist system would eventually be decided by either war or revolution.33 Today it is the Palestinian cause that is revealing the nihilism of the West that the Bordigists depicted in chronicling the Arab revolts of the 20th century. The genocide it is conducting in Gaza has made Israel's nature as a racist and apartheid state apparent for the world community and, hence, a political liability for the so-called democratic West.34 As Biden expresses outrage against the International Criminal Court’s request for arrest warrants against Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant, it becomes clear that the “rules based international order” is simply the arbitrary rule of American imperial power.35 The West is “rotten” precisely because, as Césaire would argue in 1950, “at the end of the formal humanism” that legitimises the rule of the West, “there is Hitler.”36 This is why the struggle to liberate Palestine creates conditions for international unity — a social and emotional contagion — not only among the Arab peoples but across continents by generalising the need for a world order where no state can conduct genocide with impunity. Such unity against what Il Programma Comunista saw as the rotting and war-mongering civilisation of senile capitalism – this “corpse that still moves” – would be a way to “measure the gigantic revolutionary impact of the collapse of the myth of white race superiority”.


The Chimaera of Arab Unification From Above

From Il Programma Comunista No. 10, 14-28 maggio 195737

The latest news from Jordan announces the opening of a "purge" phase after the repression carried out by the conservative forces coalition around King Hussein. The special courts have begun to operate with extensive powers, including the ability to issue death sentences; in the Abdali concentration camp, about three hundred personalities from the pro-Nasser and pan-Arab field await the judges' sentences; the army, the police, and the bureaucracy are undergoing extensive purge, said to be under the personal direction of Hussein. Thus, while the VI Fleet keeps an eye on countries bordering the small Hashemite kingdom, and the marines land, albeit in the guise of tourists, on the Lebanese coasts, the court party, supported by the Bedouin hordes and the Circassian mercenaries of the king's bodyguard, gives free rein to long-nurtured vengeance impulses.

In the era of the old colonialism, it was up to the imperialist occupant to personally handle the noose. Nowadays, imperialism can escape such a need by being able, without occupying the disputed territory, to terrorise the rebels and consolidate the power of the local executioners. This is another confirmation of what we have been repeating about the process of substituting “thermonuclear colonialism” for “historical” Anglo-French colonialism, dramatically breached, before the Suez Canal, by Washington's wide-ranging manoeuvre. However, looking back at the events in Jordan, one realises that other factors played in favour of Hussein and the Court party, in addition to the financial and military intervention of the United States. In reality, the Jordanian crisis, which at first seemed to increase the number of Middle Eastern republics, has summed up in itself all the contradictions that torment the so-called Arab world, first of all the conflict among pan-Arabists over the means to realise "the unity of the Arab Nation from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic", as Colonel Nasser likes to express it.

As things stand in the Middle East, Arab unification remains an unattainable utopia as long as it is entrusted, as it is, to the politics of individual states. The insoluble contradiction of pan-Arab demagogy consists in striving for the national unity of the Arabs of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Syria, and of the various principalities of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, while claiming to achieve this through agreements between states; it is clear, on the contrary, that an "Arab nation" constituted as a unitary state is only conceivable through the demolition of existing state structures and the foundation of a new political structure of the modern type.

The fundamental task of any bourgeois revolution is to abolish the state particularism specific to feudalism. While the process of political centralization is already well advanced in Central and East Asia (India, China), it is far more difficult in what Europeans incorrectly call the Middle East, where, despite the unity of race and language, the process is still a long way off, as demonstrated by the deep inter-Arab fractures caused by Jordan's about-face.

The Arab unification that agitators obedient to the Cairo government fill their mouths with, were it to remain entrusted to the constituted governments, would only be achievable on one condition: the appearance of a modern Genghis Khan or Tamerlane of Arab race, capable of crushing particularist resistance to pan-Arabism by force of arms. But this would presuppose the existence of economic and therefore military power, which is totally lacking, as the headlong flight of the Egyptian army in the Sinai campaign proves. Aware of his economic and military weakness, Nasser has tried in recent months to form a federation of Egypt with Syria and Jordan, within the framework of the existing alliance between these states, in which Saudi Arabia also participates. We know that this kind of Arab NATO has gone so far as to unify the command of the member states' armed forces. But events in Jordan have sufficiently demonstrated that Syria and Egypt, the two centres of the pan-Arabist movement, can only rely on their own forces; while the Saudi and Hashemite monarchies, clinging to feudal preservation on the one hand and friendship with the United States on the other, have joined the Cairo initiative for the purpose of either neutralising the action of pro-Egyptian currents fueled by Palestinian refugees, as in Jordan, or to be paid higher royalties by US oil companies, as in Saudi Arabia.

Until the defeat of the extreme forces of pan-Arabism in Jordan, Western imperialism could, in its manoeuvres to divide the Arabs and neutralise the Cairo alliance, only rely on Iraq. Today, however, not only has the opposing military alignment, the Baghdad Pact (coalescing Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, and to which Britain also adheres) been strengthened by the entry of the United States after the Anglo-American conference in Bermuda last March; but its strengthening has corresponded to the serious weakening of the Arab alliance following the political conflict that has now broken out between the Cairo-Damascus axis and Jordan. Taking an open position in favour of King Hussein, just as he was hunting down the local exponents of pan-Arabism, King Saud of Arabia threw into isolation his own allies in Egypt and Syria. In the final analysis, the great contest that broke out in the winter of 1955 between the camp opposed to anti-Western pan-Arabism led by Iraq (in line with the interests of imperialism) and the camp advocating Arab unification under the banner of nationalism and anti-colonialism, which accepted the political direction of Egypt, ends, at least for the moment, in a burning defeat of the latter. The government of Nasser finds itself back at the starting point, that is, in isolation. Worse still: it handles blunted propagandistic weapons, since the accusations made against Western imperialism and Israel presuppose, to exert an effective grip, the existence of real inter-Arab cooperation; and this has proven to be just a phrase.

Thus the interference of the United States, like other imperialist powers, in the Middle East, plays on the deep divisions that divide the Arab “world”. The Arabs are divided: this truth escapes no one. But is the cause of these persistent and acute political divisions due solely to the "intrigues" of the imperialist powers' diplomacy, as the pan-Arabist press unanimously declares, echoed by the national-communist press? Or is the opposite true, namely that imperialism is happy to pit Arabs against Arabs precisely because the divisions between them are part and parcel of the situation in the Middle East?

The organisation of the "Arab Nation" into a unitary state stretching from Iraq to Morocco is certainly – within the bourgeois framework – a revolutionary aspiration; in the absence of proletarian communist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, Arab unification cannot go beyond bourgeois society. But industrial progress and the decomposition of the pre-bourgeois strata among the ruling classes are revolutionary facts as long as we remain within the framework of semi-feudal structures. On the other hand, the ideology and politics of Nasser-type Pan-Arabism, far from being revolutionary, whatever the Kremlin-affiliated parties may say, are conservative utopias. Whether it likes to admit it or not, Nasser’s pan-Arabism dreams of bringing to the Arabs of Africa and Asia what the North American Confederation brought to the Americans, the Soviet Union to the Russians and the Indian Union to the Indians; but it fails to understand, for class reasons, that the origins of these state organisations have always been grandiose revolutions that introduced, or are in the process of introducing, new modes of production and new forms of social organisation. The enraged pan-Arabists in Cairo and Damascus, who dream of a modern edition of the Caliphate, are revolutionary as long as the object of their hatred lies beyond the borders of their respective countries; but they are no longer so when it comes to the internal affairs of their own country.

The political unification of the Arab world is only possible if it goes hand in hand with a movement for economic and social unification, which can only be a revolutionary movement. Only a revolution that sweeps away feudal or even pre-feudal structures (how else to define the nomadic Bedouin tribes that saved Hussein's faltering throne?) can kick-start the elimination of the divisions that condemn the "Arab Nation" to impotence. Just think of the formidable force of inertia faced by societies such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the principalities of the Persian Gulf, "petrified" in archaic social structures. On the other hand, consider the extraordinary political and social evolution of a non-Arab state in the Middle East, the state of Israel, where a veritable "transplant" of modern industrialism is taking place. But the Nasser-style pan-Arabists want to reap the benefits of the revolution by destroying its seeds. It's no secret that Egypt's Napoleon uses the iron fists and the hard prison against anyone who threatens, or seems to threaten, Egypt's internal social stability.


To conclude: two modes of unification of the Arab world are conceivable in theory: military conquest by a hegemonic state that erases the prevailing state partitions in the territory inhabited by people of Arab race and language; or a revolution of the lower classes that, by destroying the established order, lays the premises for the foundation of a unitary state.

The first alternative is hampered by the absence of a militarily strong and politically influential Arab State, capable of performing the same functions that, under other historical conditions, Prussia did for Germany and Piedmont for Italy. On the other hand, the existence of the large imperialist blocks led by the United States and Russia makes it easy to foresee that a war between Arab states would be transformed, by the latter's open or concealed adherence to one or other bloc, into a war involving non-Arab states. Who could doubt this after the arrival of the US 6th Fleet in Lebanese waters?

The question of Arab unification is inextricably linked to the global struggle for oil resources and military bases. U.S. imperialism cannot relinquish its position of strength, which enables it to deal with the Arab states individually, if not in competition with each other. The proclamation of the Eisenhower Doctrine was no accident; its stated aim is to maintain the "status quo" in the Middle East. Declaring itself hostile to any measure likely to "threaten the independence and integrity" of the Arab states, the State Department dispatched the 6th Fleet to the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Having now inherited supremacy in the Middle East, American imperialism sought above all to block the path of the pan-Arabist movement. As long as the overwhelming military power of the United States ensures the preservation of a political equilibrium characterized by the division of Arabs into various sovereign states jealous of their independence and the economic privileges derived from their relations with imperialism; as long as any attempt at unification (such as that planned between Egypt, Jordan and Syria) comes up against the insurmountable opposition of American imperialism, the pan-Arabist movement will stagnate in the impotent voluntarism it demonstrates today.

As for the second solution, that of a social revolution, it is still lacking. The Nasserite movement, despite the fiery demagoguery of its leaders, can in no way be defined as a revolutionary mass movement. It was not accompanied by any social upheaval, but was merely grafted onto the same social structure on which the monarchy had been based, a political regime that differed from it only in terms of a changed foreign policy (and even on this point there are many reservations to be made), changes in turn made possible only by the new balance of power between the world's major powers. In other words, it was not a revolutionary upsurge by the Egyptian masses that gave rise to the "new foreign policy" that Nasser inaugurated with the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Colonel Nasser and his supporters, echoed by the Russian-Communist press, presented the expropriation of the Canal's shareholders as part of their so-called social revolution. In reality, the latter has not even touched the deep strata of Egyptian society that continue to live within the iron mesh of archaic productive relations, and has not even expressed the desire for renewal of any bourgeoisie worthy of the name.

Only social revolution, when its premises are ripe, will be able, by demolishing the old structures, to do away with the series of states, large and small, that derive life from them. It is this path that the pan-Arabists in Cairo and Damascus turn their backs on, entrusting their political fortunes to intrigues between states.

But it is safe to predict that future historical conditions, determined by the resumption of revolutionary struggle by the proletariat of the capitalist countries, by placing imperialism on the defensive, will at the same time enable the Arabs to free themselves from imperialist domination on the one hand, and from the survival of feudal particularism on the other.


The Historical Causes of Arab Separatism

From Il Programma Comunista, No. 6, 27 marzo - 6 aprile 195838

This is not the first time we have dealt with the causes of Arab division. Above all, we must remind the reader of the article “The chimera of Arab unification through agreements between States”, which we published in this paper last year, in issue 10. The anti-monarchist uprising in Jordan had just ended in bloodshed a few days prior. We all remember the unfolding of those events. The success achieved by the despot of Amman, supported by the 6th US Fleet and the desert tribes, against the pan-Arab movement supported by Egypt, not only marked a turning point in the internal politics of Jordan, but sparked open rupture between the Arab monarchies (Jordan and, with it, Iraq and Saudi Arabia) and the republics leading the Nasserist agitation in Islam (Egypt and Syria).

The latest split

The split caused by the Jordanian crisis has been fully manifested in recent days with the proclamation of the United Arab Republic, federating Egypt and Syria. In response, another Arab Federation was immediately proclaimed between Iraq and Jordan. For those who follow the situation in the Middle East, there's nothing unexpected here: these new constitutional inventions confirm that the Arab division is more bitter and ruthless than ever, and that unification through existing states is a vain chimera. To be realized, it must follow different paths, which are not modifications of the existing established order, but its complete overthrow. That is, it must follow the revolutionary path.

The important question is which political movement is capable of taking on the terrible task of guiding the Arab revolution. But we cannot at least for now deal with this question, as it is necessary first and foremost to study the historical causes preventing the realization of state unification among the Arabic-speaking peoples of Asia and Africa. We do not claim to exhaust in these few lines such an imposing work, nor even to draw its complete plan, but only to deal with – and not even definitively – the great problems connected with it.

First and foremost, how should the question be posed? We believe that it can only be put in these terms: what are the historical factors which prevent the formation of an Arab national state, and which favour the perpetuation of the disastrous sub-nationalism of the present artificial Arab states, and which act in the opposite direction to the unifying tendencies that arise from the community of language, racial origin and traditions which distinguish the populations who inhabit North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, and Western Asia, from Sinai to the Persian Gulf?

Anyone who thinks they can answer such a question by attributing all the causes of the division that tears apart the so-called Arab world to capitalist imperialism gives an incomplete vision of the phenomenon. And it is perfectly clear why, if we consider that the division and “balkanization” of the Arab nation occurred long before imperialism arose. In fact, the ancient tribes who rushed from Arabia in the wake of Mohammed's religious and social revolution and conquered neighbouring countries, thereby establishing their current positions in Asia and Africa, did not succeed, despite their ties of blood and culture, in constituting a nation. It was only for a brief period that the Caliphate managed to impose the authority of a central power over the vast Islamic empire. Thus it’s not true to say that the division of the Arabs is the consequence of imperialist domination. It is true, however, that imperialist domination has been able to pursue its aims precisely by exploiting the powerful historical factors which, since the tenth century, have prevented the Arabs from uniting.

In other words, to explain the immediate cause of the Arabs' subjection to capitalist imperialism, we must refer to the internal struggles that manifest themselves in the existence of numerous states of varying sizes, but all equally powerless to escape the stranglehold of imperialist exploitation and oppression. But to explain disunity solely in terms of imperialist intervention would be to fall into a tautology. In reality, the causes of Arab division are intimately linked to the very epic of the Muslim conquest.

The past cycle

Mohammedanism, codified in the Quran, was the ideology of the social revolution of the nomadic desert populations, dedicated to cattle breeding in normal times as well as to raiding, who rose against the powerful mercantile oligarchy prevailing in Mecca. At the time of Mohammed's preaching, herdsmen – the Bedouins – and small-scale farmers made up the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula. Above them stood the class domination of the merchants of Mecca, who monopolised maritime trade across the Red Sea and the caravan transports that linked the hinterland to the ports on the coast, and even operated overland trade routes from Europe and Asia along the Sinai. All wealth was concentrated in their hands, including foodstuffs, which the nomadic tribes were forced to buy at exorbitant prices when drought decimated their herds. Mohammed was a "defector" from the ruling class who crossed over to the revolutionary camp, having been – until the Hegira – a rich merchant of the powerful Quraysh tribe.

Given the particular historical conditions of the period in which it took place, the Mohammedan revolution could only be an application, on a collective scale, of Bedouin plunder, i.e. an inferior form of the expropriation of wealth. The Islamic "holy war" was originally a social war against usury and the oppression of wealth. But the revolution that emerged victoriously from the social war could only achieve its goal if it was transformed into agrarian feudalism, as happened when the barbarian conquerors overthrew the Roman Empire. The natural conditions of the country, which was largely desert, were a major obstacle. In the history of Islam, the desert plays a role of prime importance, and this proves how much material conditions "determine the destinies" of peoples, as some people like to say.

The revolution that ignited the Arab civil war could not be halted once the Islamic armies, under the leadership of the "Prophet", had conquered and pacified their original homeland: Arabia. Unable to achieve its aims at home, given that most of the early revolutionary fighters and new converts had found themselves excluded from the spoils, it became necessary to force the borders of neighboring countries. Under his successors - the Caliphs - the Mohammedan "holy war" took the form of a barbaric invasion, which was tumultuous and irresistible because on its way it was joined by all the oppressed and exploited. They enthusiastically converted to the new religion, which with its fiery ideology called to itself the humble and the poor, and repelled with apocalyptic curses the rich and the usurers. In a short space of time, the terrible social eruption invaded and submerged the two great empires that had traditionally perpetuated against the "barbarians" in the East the function already performed by Rome in the West: the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire of the Sassanids. Veritable "prisons of the peoples" and seats of the most refined class domination, they opposed the Muslim conquest in vain. This is a wonderful example of how powerful, ancient but conservative states can be subjugated by other recently-formed or even newly-formed states, rendered invincible by the revolutionary fury that drives them!

In just a few years, from 632 (the date of Mohammed's death) to 720, the Muslim conquest extended over an immense territory. It stretched from Sind (in the south-east of present-day Pakistan) to beyond the Pyrenees. The Persian Sassanid Empire had been destroyed, and the Byzantine Empire greatly mutilated. Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Roman Egypt and the Maghreb were lost to Byzantium. The Visigoth monarchy of Spain was swept away and disappeared into nothingness. The centuries-old Sassanid empire, comprising present-day Iraq and Iran as far as the Amu Darya, collapsed thunderously and its ancient cities, like Baghdad, became the centers of the new civilization of the Quran. An immense revolution was transforming the world. Considering this, the inability of the Arabs, magnificent conquerors, to create a national state is all the more surprising.

In this respect, the Arabs are perhaps unique among conquering peoples. The Mongols, for example, succeeded in founding empires much larger than the Muslim empire, but they occupied the conquered territories for only a short time, eventually withdrawing to their homelands or being ethnically absorbed by the native populations. The Arabs, on the other hand, succeeded in superimposing themselves on the subjugated populations and even transforming the conquered territories into their own; but they completely failed in the attempt to overcome their barbaric particularism and give themselves a unitary political government, a national state. This, as we see today, set back the development of Africa and the Middle East enormously.

In fact, there was a time when it seemed that the unitary tendency would prevail in the incandescent Islamic world, when the Caliphate passed into the hands of the Umayyad dynasty (600-750). Under the Umayyads, Islam reached its maximum territorial extension, and then began its inevitable decline. The Umayyads, diverging somewhat from Quranic political orthodoxy, tried to liquidate separatism, which was deeply linked to the traditions of a people who had wandered for centuries in the desert, knowing no other form of social life than the nomadic tribe, rebellious to any form of constraint other than that exerted by nature. It was an experiment that barely scratched the surface. The grand political design of a national monarchy, absolute and hereditary, supported by a military and civil bureaucracy that would have ensured the central power regular control over the immense empire, was to fail miserably. The forces of Bedouin anarchic atavism were to prevail over centralising and nationalising tendencies. Primitive tribal communism, collectivist internally and anarchic externally, had enabled desert nomads who raised sheep and camels to overthrow the mercantile aristocracy of Mecca. It had nourished the Mohammedan revolution with fanatical faith and extraordinary courage. But it had a negative impact when, the armies having left Arabia and having conquered a gigantic empire, it was time to give it a political footing that would ensure its continuity.

It may come as a surprise to some that we attribute a certain negative influence to primitive Bedouin communism. But for Marxists, communism is not an idol to be praised only. There is a primitive communism that marks the emergence of the human species from the animal stage of its existence, and as such represents a revolution of immeasurable scope, perhaps the greatest of all revolutions. By associating, the anthropoid became a man. What greater tribute can Marxism pay to primitive communism? All that exists and will exist between primitive and modern communism is, for Marxism, an infamous but necessary parenthesis in the existence of the species.

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The disastrous split between Shiites and Sunnis, i.e. between the old guard of Mohammedanism who had accompanied the Prophet on his emigration (the Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina, and the innovators, was to forever shatter the still fragile structures of the Arab national state. The Abbasid dynasty that seized the Caliphate in 749, ousting the Umayyads, was soon reduced to the rank of those feudal monarchies whose excessive power and remoteness from their vassals emptied them of all effective authority. The Caliph was reduced to the rank of mere head of the Islamic religion, almost devoid of temporal power. The dismemberment of the empire was swift and irreversible. A few years after their overthrow, the Umayyad exiles who had escaped the vengeance of the victorious party took refuge in Spain, where they founded an independent emirate. Later, even the Maghreb and Egypt became practically independent of the Baghdad government. By the turn of the century, the involution was complete. The Caliphate has been reduced to governing, and not even directly, only Iraq; Islam was divided into numerous dynasties, more or less independent, and the national state was less than a dream.

The absence of such a state, modelled on the national monarchies that were being formed in Europe, had historical consequences of colossal importance. It's easy to imagine that a solidly built Arab national state could have prevented the victories won by the Crusades. Wasn't it at this time that Europe acquired supremacy over Africa and set itself against it? If we then consider that the blows inflicted on Arab power by the armies of the Crusaders laid the foundations for the ruinous invasion of the Mongols and, later, the conquest of the Ottomans, we have a complete picture of the negative repercussions that the lack of Arab unification had on the history of three continents.

If we leave the realm of conjecture and remain on the terrain of history, a clear conclusion emerges from the study of the Arab historical cycle, one that may seem obvious. Due to their inability to found a national state, the Arabs went from being conquerors to being conquered, and were cut off from historical progress, i.e. condemned to remain in the depths of feudalism, while the states of Europe were preparing to emerge from it forever and acquire world supremacy in the process.

Now we can easily explain the historical causes of the fall of the Arabs under the yoke of imperialist domination. We know, that is, that two sets of causes conspire to maintain the current state of Arab disunity and powerlessness (which is the condition of the perpetuation of imperialist exploitation): age-old conservative traditions at home, and foreign interference from abroad. What does this mean, politically? It means that the Arab world will have to shoulder the terrible task of a dual struggle: the social revolution and the national revolution, the revolt against the reactionary classes that carry on outdated traditions, and against foreign occupiers. Only victory on these two fronts can ensure the triumph of Arab unity, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.

The game of imperialism

If we continue along the same path, the "balkanization" of the Arabs will reach its extreme consequences. The Arabs will be increasingly confined to prefabricated states, i.e. states manufactured by imperialism and its agents. States infested with depressing misery, discouraged by insurmountable impotence, which will wear out their futile existence in internal strife. At present, there are countless inter-Arab blocs. The two rival federations vying for the membership of other states (the Syro-Egyptians have succeeded in obtaining the vote of Yemen, the Iraqi-Jordanians are still courting the sultanates of the Persian Gulf) are now threatened by the addition and opposition of the Maghreb Federation, supported by Mohamed V and Bourguiba, which should include Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria once the latter has won its independence. But we already know, from Bourguiba's anti-Nasserite rhetoric, that the planned Federation is oriented in favor of the West and against pan-Arabism. We must also take into account those states playing a double game, such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Libya, which have one smile for the Arab League (why the hell does it still exist?) and two for the US State Department.

But imperialism does not sleep soundly. The alarmed invocations of the "Russian danger", the fables about "Russian infiltrations" in the Middle East and Maghreb serve to hide the glaring reality. What the European bourgeoisies, and with them American imperialism, really fear is real progress of the Arab unification movement. Has anyone ever thought of the enormous consequences that the formation of a unitary Arab state would entail? It would mark the end of colonialist domination throughout Africa, not only in Arab Africa, but also in the rest of the continent inhabited by peoples of the black race, through which deep shivers of revolt run. The myths fabricated by the ruling class tend to instil in the minds of the oppressed classes the prejudice of the futility of fighting against the prevailing order. In that case, who can measure the gigantic revolutionary impact of the collapse of the myth of white race superiority?

Broken up into various small states, divided by ignoble dynastic issues, devoured alive by the henchmen of foreign capitalist monopolies who happily cede large portions of their oil profits, mired in the deadly military alliances of imperialism, the Arab states not only inspire no fear in imperialism, but serve as pawns in their diabolical game. But what would happen if the Arabs, having overcome their suicidal divisions, were able to found a national state encompassing all the African and Asian territories inhabited by Arab populations? Would we only have the awakening of all of Africa? No, those of us in the communist revolutionary camp would achieve much more. We would get to witness the final and irrevocable death of old Europe, of this rotten, corrupt, lethal bourgeois Europe, infected with reaction and more or less disguised fascism, which for forty years has been the inexhaustible hotbed of imperialist war and counter-revolution.

That's why we support the Arab national revolution. That's why we're against the governments of Arab states that openly pursue separatist and reactionary aims (the Middle Eastern monarchies) or tend to establish a superficial reformism and collaborate with the West (Bourguiba, Mohamed V). Nor can we, like the communists in Moscow, unconditionally support Nasser's pan-Arab movement, because in it there's too much reactionary ballast, vainly masked by a clever demagogic game. The national state will not be founded by them. Each of them likes to pose as a champion of Islam. But their Islamism is to Muhammad's companions as Catholic Christianity is to the agitators of the catacombs.