Newsletter #93: Arab Radicalism in the 20th Century w/ Abdel Razzaq Takriti

By Ben Mabie

For most of this calendar year, The Dig has been dedicated to producing “Thawra,” our rolling miniseries with Abdel Razzaq Takriti on the history of Arab radicalism and the making of the modern Middle East. It is our most exhaustive and ambitious project yet and will likely stretch over a dozen episodes, providing a comprehensive overview of the political parties and movements that defined the the twentieth-century Mashriq, including nationalism, Nasserism, Ba’athism, communism, and Islamism — all set in the context of constant imperialist power politics and predation, consistent even as the hegemonic baton is passed from one crowning power to another. 

We believe a thoroughgoing presentation of these ideas and movements is an important educational resource for people around the world, as a crescendo of anti-colonial internationalism grows louder in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. It can reset our historical coordinates, denaturalize the present, and pinpoint how the current order might be undone.    

Over the next few weeks, an encyclopedia’s worth of audio “Thawra” content will be joined by “Thawra” newsletters, supplying archival visuals and audio material, maps and commentary, and recommended reading. These newsletters will provide further texture to Takriti’s synthetic historical analysis while also organizing common thematic arguments as they are presented across the chronological episodes. 

For this first “Thawra” newsletter, before getting into the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, we thought it was important to first establish a few important points of orientation: the first concerns the object of the miniseries, the second turns on its topicality, and the third is about our guide, Abdel Razzaq Takriti.

1. What is the object of the miniseries? What is “Thawra” really about? The series is nominally focused on the sort of radical political currents that have shaped the region and the world through interventions against imperialism, colonialism, and the capitalist world system. But to properly understand these interventions, frequent detours through the changing social conditions have been necessary — how else can we grasp the effectiveness of one or another form of politics, or account for the diverse forms that radicalism takes, without some reference to the social question? 

The first time Takriti’s voice is heard by listeners in the series, he is encouraging Daniel to “go back to the political and social history of the region when exploring” the question of what radicalisms were active in the Ottoman period. This reference to the broader social question is another way of asking about what made a particular current radical at all, divulging what elements of the existing social structure it aspired to and was capable of changing. 

This attention to the social level does not mean that this is a miniseries primarily about the reshuffling of Arab class structure over the course of the 20th century, or that the interviews are focused on the chronicling how the forces of production (as well as destruction) developed, however haltingly, over the same period. It is a series dialed into that old mole of revolution in the Middle East, the thoroughgoing efforts on the part of radicals to bring about mass political alternatives to the status quo, traveling, as these efforts often do, underground, in small groups, through various mediations. 

These are efforts often burrowed, traveling through purgatory. To grasp them, we have to understand both the topsoil of groups and manifestos and the subsoil of the technical organization of production that they are burrowing through.

This is what differentiates Takriti’s approach from some popular assessments of mass movements and politics, both historical and contemporaneous. Frequently, in order for to make the anatomization of a movement more manageable, its aspirations and goals are shrunk down, taken to be identical to that of a leading intellectual, whose popular essays or writing might as well be expressive of the sum aspirations of a motley coalition of social actors. There are many volumes that casually reduce the diverse radical aspirations of turn of the twentieth-century European unionists to those of Karl Kautsky — an exercise that the formula of ‘the workers’ movement’ is especially adept at compressing. What Takriti signals throughout Tharwa is that a proper account of a movement must probe the changing conditions under which ideas are forged and transmitted, of the ways that people grasped their changing material circumstances and the apparatuses they developed to grasp them. In other words, it has to grasp interactions between their theories and the world itself.

2. What is the place of Palestine in this series? “Thawra” is tightly connected to the months of programming that immediately preceded it: the hours of interviews with Noura Erakat, Arielle Angel, Richard Seymour, and Mohammed El-Kurd, our discussion of Hamas with Tareq Baconi, and our survey of nearly two centuries of debate between Zionism and anti-Zionism with Shaul Magid; it is of a piece with the history of the precolonial Mashriq we explored with Ussama Makdisi, our inquiry with Helen Lackner into the Houthi movement, and the conversation we had with Emily Dische-Becker on Germany’s perverse post-Holocaust memory culture and how it aids and abets the genocide in Gaza today. 

“Thawra” is similarly a historical investigation aimed at better understanding the unfolding Palestinian situation — both by exposing the sedimented history that the current crisis is built upon and in underlining the perennial centrality that the Palestinian cause has had for radicalisms in the modern Middle East, at once at the level of program and at the level of personnel. As was discussed early in the series, 

Palestinians in the diaspora are influential in so many ways; the presence of Palestinian refugees quickly becomes extremely politically consequential in places like Lebanon, Jordan, and in the Arabian Gulf; and political theories for Arab liberation typically hinge on defeating Zionism.

The series, moreover, however modestly, is an earnest effort to improve the historical literacy of contemporary movements in North America and the North Atlantic, such that they might themselves improve their connections to the people driving a politics of liberation in the Middle East today.

3. Finally, a note about our guest himself. One of the signal joys of these episodes is the dynamic interplay between the exhaustive, totalizing presentation of history and the singularity of Takriti’s own interventions, personality, and perspective. His viewpoint is a unique one — that of a historian, but also a Palestinian nationalist and Marxist — and his interpretations wade through decades of scholarly debate as well as the accumulated partisan knowledge of the politically engaged: of debates, experiences, and theoretical reflection transmitted by militants. In one moment, he is commenting on trends in the Anglophone history departments. In another, to make a point, he may cite the memoirs of Sahba al-Barbari, an experienced organizer in the Jordanian Communist Party. 

The series is as definitive and impressive as anything else in the English language on this roaming history. But what makes “Thawra” such a unique project is our guest, who embodies not only this particular body of historical interpretation, but also the intersection between the historiographical debates of the American academy — stamped as they are by the last century of social movements and their theoretical insights — and an oft-repressed and scarcely heard tradition of left-wing militants, intellectuals, and organizations from the Mashriq.