Anouar Abdel Malek, the Social Democratic Left, and the Advance of Anti-Imperialism
The work of Anouar Abdel Malek is underread and underappreciated in the Marxist Left of the United States and Western Europe.
…there persists a tradition, a habit of thinking out problems on other people's behalf*
-Anouar Abdel Malek
The work of Anouar Abdel Malek is underread and underappreciated in the Marxist Left of the United States and Western Europe. I myself did not discover the work of Abdel Malek until I one day perused the library of the University of Glasgow while completing my master’s degree. I found volume two of his Social Dialectics titled Nation and Revolution and it changed how I view a great many aspects of the analysis required to change the world for the better.
I believe that one of the most important inroads made by Abdel Malek is his conception of the various levels in which surplus-value is acquired across different contexts. Not only is surplus value extracted from laborers in both the central capitalist formations and peripheral state formations to varying degrees, but a historical surplus value is extracted and accumulated by the central capitalist states. This historical surplus value is the accumulation of the ability to claim a superior civilizational mantle through which the world is analyzed within and outwith the central capitalist states.
Here, I want to analyze the effects of this historical surplus value as it relates to certain sectors of the Western Left, namely the Democratic Socialists of America and other elements of the broadly social democratic Left. Abdel Malek points out the generalized analysis within the Euro-American socialist Left as one of its main problems, as a result of this accumulation of historical surplus value. I will systematically refer to three problems which Abdel Malek ascribes to this segment of the Left. Firstly, as mentioned, it is the tendency for a generalized analysis not suited for understanding geopolitics and imperialism. Second is a tendency toward moral and ethical considerations prior to those which might be viewed as realpolitik or as Abdel Malek calls it ‘socialist political realism’. Thirdly, Abdel Malek mentions the ‘tradition’ and ‘habit’ of this segment of the Left to consider their opinion on a certain struggle to carry a heavy burden.
The first problem is the tendency towards a generalized and theoretical analysis of geopolitics and imperialism; “socialist thought can only develop on the basis of a national position on the problem, and not from any a priori cosmopolitan vision under the mask of internationalism”. The issue of ‘a priori cosmopolitanism’ is one which bubbles under the surface of many social democratic and liberal movements in the capitalist core.
Max Ajl talks about this in his book A People’s Green New Deal when referencing the technological fixes suggested to combat climate change. Some suggestions include carbon capture machines, blasting aerosols to dim the sun, and other technological doodads. In short, these social democratic groups are“…claiming that human-made tools can simply be repurposed by those in rebellion against the owners of the means of production”**. What is missed is that technology, namely the technology of warfare that has one purpose and cannot simply be repurposed. Ajl does a good job showing that solutions to problems – political, economic, and social – must be based on realistic conditions. In identifying the Palestinian national liberation as integral to defeating climate change, Ajl also points out that the national question has not been resolved all over the world. This dovetails with the next problem.
The second issue at hand is the issue of moral and ethical considerations which preempt politico-military and material considerations, which are of course, based on the morality and ethics of the capitalist core. According to Abdel Malek:
The basic approach towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century was, and remains to a very large extent, an ethical approach. Violence, armaments were viewed as an 'evil' pursuit, and peace, disarmament were considered as a moral, humanistic endeavor. Any attempt at a content analysis of speeches, resolutions, writings and expositions on war, violence, peace or disarmament would reveal a very heavy load of moral considerations and a much lower percentage of power-political analysis.
Abdel Malek’s point can be illustrated by the stance of some groups like CodePink and one of their cofounders, Ariel Gold that expressed their condemnation against Hamas’ military retaliation towards ‘Israeli’ settlements.
Any attempts to deter ‘Israeli’ aggression are considered as attempts on civilian life rather than attempts to prevent colonization. Yet, even this proposition contains within it a serious problematic. As the Axis of Resistance gains access to better weaponry and acquires the ability to domestically produce rockets and drones of higher quality, that the main source of this aid (the Islamic Republic of Iran) becomes the focus which does two things:
Firstly it denies or limits the agency of groups like Hamas, PIJ, and PFLP who critically support Iran due to this support, and secondly, it makes the internal contradictions and antagonisms of Iran the focus, rather than the expulsion of American imperialism and the Zionist usurpers which the Islamic Republic helps to make a realistic agenda item for the region.
This hyperfocus on the internal contradictions of a country like Iran, or a group like Hamas stems from both previous problems: a priori cosmopolitanism and moral and ethical considerations guiding the geopolitical analysis of the social democratic Left.
These two problems introduce our third problem: the overvaluation of the opinions of groups like DSA. The Jamaal Bowman/DSA/BDS crisis of late 2021/early 2022 provides a perfect example of this self-absorbed politic. DSA leadership tried to defend Jamaal Bowman, a New York elected official, after he went on a JStreet propaganda trip and met with the likes of Naftali Bennet and Benny Gantz. Important to note is that the rank-and-file were mostly calling for expulsion from their local branches. The defense provided by the DSA was that the Left in the USA cannot afford to be ‘purist’ because the Palestine movement is still ‘in its infancy’.
Some of the main defenders of Bowman were the editors and contributors of Palestine: A Socialist Introduction released by Haymarket Books. Samar Al Saleh and comrade L.K. wrote a brilliant critique of this book and the political trends using some of Abdel Malek’s work as a reference. This generalized Trotskyite theory of permanent revolution provides us with nothing but hollow slogans, because this segment of the Left condemns the resistance to ‘Israel’ almost as vociferously as they condemn the Zionists themselves.
The conditions of war are examined through an American civilizational lens. According to Abdel Malek, these “ideological, ethical dissertations on the evils of power - the state, bureaucracy, the military culture - must be considered an infantile pursuit: “Evil can only be tamed by the objective reality; in the realm of power”***. The inflated sense of importance manifests itself as a chauvinist critique of all forces of resistance, while the imaginary and long-awaited permanent revolution continues to brew in the idealist soup.
While the social democratic groups in the capitalist core contain internal fractions and fissures (such as the DSA International Committee which regularly defends actually existing socialist states), their political line is one that stems from their civilizational location and the accumulated historical surplus value. The work of Anouar Abdel Malek can provide us with a diagnosis of the problems within the Left in the capitalist core precisely, because he focuses on the material conditions under which such movements sprout. This civilizational approach gives us the tools by means of which we can understand that the struggle against imperialism is an aspect of “a theoretical debate governed by calculations of immediate gains and loss”**** that drives our struggle.
*Abdel Malek, Anouar Nation and Revolution: Volume II of Social Dialectics. Macmillan Publishers. London. 1981.
**Ajl, Max A People’s Green New Deal. Pluto Press. London. 2021.
***Abdel Malek, Anouar Nation and Revolution: Volume II of Social Dialectics. Macmillan Publishers. London. 1981.
****Al-Shiqaqi, Fathi, The Centrality of Palestine and the Contemporary Islamic Project. 1989. Bayt al Maqdis. Beirut. Quoted in Skare, Erik, Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Islamist Writings on Resistance and Religion. 2021. I.B Tauris. London.