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Some thoughts on the death of ’anti-Marxist’ Maxime Rodinson

by : Michael Young
Friday May 28, 2004 - 22:59

By Michael Young

Special to The Daily Star

With the death of Maxime Rodinson on Monday, the world of Middle Eastern studies has lost a French Marxist scholar who rarely succumbed to dogma, and who always enriched his works through the intricacies inherent in his own person - those of a working-class French Jew whose parents were killed at Auschwitz, and who devoted his life to learning about the Arabs and Islam.

For many outside the academy (where Marx lives on, beyond extradition) Rodinson’s Marxist approach to Middle Eastern history may now seem dated. Yet his biography of the Prophet Mohammed, written in 1961, remains an essential text today for its ambition to situate the rise of Islam primarily in its social and economic context, from whence a Muslim empire sprang.

For Rodinson, embryonic Islam triumphed because it met the sociological needs of the Arabian Peninsula, and Mohammed (the political actor rather than the envoy of God) was its essential handmaiden. Rodinson’s ambition was "to make understandable, how and why this mystic, intoxicated with the Divine, was able to become a head of state, a military commander and an ideological leader."

Read today, the book provokes two thoughts: that Rodinson’s approach remains as useful as any to understand a modern rendering of political Islam that can only really be grasped by delving into the "materialistic" roots of its proponents; but also that militant Muslims have increasingly embraced the image of the Prophet armed as their ideal.

Nor was Rodinson a suffocating determinist. As he wrote in his 1981 book "Marxism and the Muslim World," there was indeed "an underlying core, a constant, an inspiration, an initial elan which, whether it comes from Allah or Mohammed, was encouraged if not determined, by social, historical, political, cultural and other conditions." But it was also true that "from the beginning this elan was embodied in ideologies and active organizations (so that these and) the actions decided on ... necessitated practical revisions."

What does Rodinson offer the Middle Eastern liberal? When he criticized Edward Said’s "Orientalism," he was slandered by the vindictive author as "an ex-Stalinist incapable of understanding the nature of criticism, and more generally the critical method." Yet what Said had written of Rodinson earlier was more on the mark, namely that he "made a constant attempt to keep (his) work responsive to the material (he was studying) and not to a doctrinal preconception."

Rodinson’s variegated career echoed his dislike for straightjackets. The son of Russian immigrants, he spent seven years in Lebanon during the 1940s - six of them as a French civil servant and six months as a teacher at a Maqasid high school in Sidon. He returned to France in 1947 and remained in the French Communist Party until 1958, when he left following Nikita Khruchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress.

He later described himself as an "independent Marxist" who refused to advise a course of militant action, particularly in the Arab world. This, he admitted, opened him up to charges of being "anti-Marxist," and he would later write that he had often been "a source of irritation and despair" to his former comrades. However, Rodinson never recycled himself into a neo-conservative. On Israel he always remained critical, admitting to "a repugnance (for) Jewish nationalism" (though he did later say Israel had legitimacy as "a new nationality").

This repugnance he expressed most fiercely in a pamphlet published in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal "Les Temps Modernes" in 1967, at the end of the Arab-Israeli war. It was later translated into English under the title "Israel: A Colonial Settler State?" Rodinson, in dissecting Zionism, wrote of it that the "belief in the infallibility of one’s own ’ethnic’ group is a frequent phenomenon in the history of human groups. It is called racism." Though the passage conditioned racism on a sense of faultlessness (which not all Jews, or indeed Zionists, necessarily possessed), it surely nourished many an argument equating Zionism with racism.

But Rodinson was more subtle than that, and in the closing lines of his pamphlet he wrote of the Palestinians, in a passage that, regrettably, has as much relevance today as it did then: "It is not easy to get a conquered person to resign himself to defeat, and it is not made any easier by loudly proclaiming how right it was that he was soundly beaten. It is generally wiser to offer him compensation. And those who have not suffered from the fight can (and, I believe, even must) recommend forgiveness for the injuries inflicted. They are hardly entitled to demand it."

What has been written of Rodinson has focused on his work as an "Orientalist." As my colleague Samir Kassir wrote in Al-Nahar, "he was not an ordinary Orientalist ... he transcended classical Orientalism to engage in critical analysis." The description is revealing in that it makes Rodinson more palatable to those weaned on the milk of anti-colonial academics that have regarded classic Orientalism as an implement in European domination of the Middle East.

Rodinson would never have denied his anti-colonial antipathies. But he also embodied the erudition that could come out of that colonial experience, without feeling self-conscious about it. There was much common sense in his writings, and therefore an alluring universality - whether one bought into his arguments or not. His successors in academe could learn much from that - but will they?

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article...



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