Selections from Theoretical Preliminaries to the Study of the Impact of Social Thought on the National Liberation Movement (1973)


Mahdi Amel, the pseudonym of Dr. Hassan Abdallah Hamdan, was born in Lebanon in 1936. He moved to Lyon, France in 1956 to study philosophy, which he eventually completed with a PhD in 1967. In that time, Amel joined the Lebanese Communist Party in 1960 and in 1963 he moved to newly-independent Algeria to train teachers in Constantine. During his tenure at the teachers’ college, Amel penned several articles, including one on Fanon’s revolutionary thought, for the Francophone magazine Révolution Africaine. Amel’s residence in Algeria coincided with the golden age of Africa’s and the world’s liberation movements. Algeria was a mecca for revolutionaries and progressive activists, who found a haven in the capital, Algiers. The nation’s new ruling party, the battle-tested National Liberation Front, provided ideological, diplomatic, financial, and military support to liberation movements, including ones from the United States and Canada. A thorough study of Amel’s contacts with Third-Worldist movements that were headquartered in Algiers and how these conversations, if any, shaped his future theorizations of the liberation movement in Arab societies would shed light on the confluences that informed his analyses.1 Among Amel’s numerous theoretical works, we can mention A Critique of Quotidian Thought (1988), The Crisis of Arab Civilization or the Crisis of the Arab Bourgeoisie? (1974) and the book from which we translated these excerpts, Theoretical Preliminaries to the Study of the Impact of Social Thought on the National Liberation Movement (1973). In addition to his prolific theoretical output, Amel published two poetry collections.

Amel’s writings about Marxism in Arab societies were produced in a context of disillusionment. It was a disillusionment with nominal national independence, which had expelled the colonizers through the front door only to see them return through the side window of neo-colonial economic structures. Additionally, the anticipated liberation of national independence did not occur and the post-independence intelligentsia in the “Arab world” aligned themselves with the capitalist West, thus hypothecating their economic and social decision-making to neo-colonialism through the work of multinational companies or international financial institutions such as the World Bank. At the heart of Mahdi Amel’s argument in Theoretical Preliminaries is the fact that imperialism continued to exert itself upon Arab societies. Amel’s diagnosis and theorization were shared by Arab Marxist-Leninist movements in the 1960s and 1970s. The collusion between post-independence nationalist bourgeoisie and the imperialists, in their neo-colonialist form, sought to maintain the social and economic status quo after the independence of formerly colonized countries. Student movements and disillusioned national liberation leaders, who organized the masses and created opposition parties to counter the “return” of colonialism, condemned and resisted this tendency. The National Union of Moroccan Students, for instance, made a precocious analysis as early as 1958 that placed fighting imperialism as one of its priorities. However, the revolutionary élan of the Marxist-Leninist movement was met with repression from the dominant classes whose tighter grip on power benefited from the support of the capitalist West. 

In Theoretical Preliminaries, Mahdi Amel provides a critique of the Arab regimes’ deviation from Marxist theory. He argues that 

Marxism has to prove its worthiness by becoming the ideology of the national liberation revolution. This means that it must prove [this worthiness] in the theoretical and political fields in the meantime as an ideology of the proletariat. This also means that we must clearly determine the ideology of the proletariat and its place in the process of national liberation revolution. [We also have to determine] the proletariat’s place in this alliance as it occupies the position of the dominant-negative class.2

In his analysis, Amel attributes the distortion of Marxist theory to the dominance of the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie in their representation of “nationalist ideologies.” Robbing the working class of its leadership role in the national liberation movement emanates from the separation of the “social issue” from the “‘nationalist’ issue.” This diagnosis leads Amel to conclude that the analysis of class struggle and the place of the national liberation movement in these societies yields a distinction between “a bourgeois, reactionary tendency,” which takes a nationalist form, and a “revolutionary tendency,” which embodies the revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat under the leadership of the “true communist party.” The latter tendency is the one that represents the national liberation movement. Finally, Amel places opportunistic revolutionary elements alongside the bourgeois class as a result of their ideological practice. The coalition between the bourgeois class, the opportunistic revolutionaries, and neocolonialism has attracted and continues to attract critical attention from the radical left.

The selection we have translated for this issue on imperialism focuses on how Arab societies perceive themselves as formerly colonized nations within the “colonial mode of production,” which he distinguishes from the capitalist production mode and defines as “the form of capitalism that depends structurally in its historical formation and also in its current development on imperialism.”3 Rather than start from the point of view of the hegemonic, imperialistic societies, which have the means to impose their views anyway, Amel centers his analysis on the weaker side, which structurally depended on imperialism. Effectuating this paradigm shift in the focus from the dominant to the subaltern also requires the endowing of the Arabic language with Marxist conceptual frameworks adapted to the reality of Arab societies. Consequently, in addition to analyzing the colonial mode of production and the class struggle inherent to it in Arab societies, Amel also strives to produce the scientific language required to transmit his analyses. Thus, Amel in his multi-pronged theoretical endeavor combines the theorization of imperialistic production and its effect on the proletariat class in Arab societies, and attempts to generate the conceptual tools to express these theorizations from an Arab Marxist point of view.

Mahdi Amel’s theorization of the “capitalist mode of production” has inspired generations of Marxist-Leninist activists who shared his analysis of the factors that led to the stagnation of Arab communist parties. In the case of Morocco, which I know best, the Marxist-Leninist movement, which also emerged as a response to the failure of the Moroccan Communist Party under the leadership of Ali Yata to disengage itself from Soviet domination and from its enthrallment with the monarchy in search of a dearly won recognition, sought to create the cultural conditions for the political revolution of proletariat. Since 1970, these groups formed Ila l-Amām (Forward!) under the leadership of Abraham Serfaty, a Moroccan Jew, and Abdellatif Laâbi, a novelist and poet, and Abdellatif Zeroual, a philosophy teacher, and others. This revolutionary group congregated around the avant-garde, social-cultural and political magazine Souffles/Anfās. In addition to its political engagement, Souffles/Anfās launched a “linguistic guerilla war” – to borrow Mohamed Khair-Eddine’s phrase in another context – on the Arabic language, which remained petrified in its classical molds. 4 After the brutal arrest and torture of hundreds of its members inside Morocco between 1972 and 1974, the movement mainly survived among the Moroccan diasporas. Upon the release of the majority of its leaders in the early 1990s, current and former members of the Marxist-Leninist organization have been the driving force behind the human rights movement in Morocco. Its members were also among the foremost producers of prison literature. Amel’s work is referred to and used as an epigraph in many of these writings in which it continues to survive in unexpected ways and itself requires further study.

– Brahim El Guabli

[…] When some people find fault with thought for the solidity of its internal construction and the rigor of its logic and its dynamic deduction of theoretical concepts and their arrangement (organization) in a network of airtight relationships, they are criticizing it from the position of ignorance of the nature of scientific thought and its theoretical activity or, in the best of cases, from their implicit or explicit association with an empirical or positivistic thought that conceives knowledge as a documentary registration of the experimental [empirical] reality – in all the chaos of its details and the feverishness of its events – into the ordinary language. As a result, [these people] neglect the role of the theoretical concepts necessary for the production of knowledge whereby thought works on its topic (subject), which is a prior knowledge. These tools are not ready-made, but they must be produced or reproduced, just as is the case for Marxist theoretical concepts. Indeed, and in clearer terms, the operation of production of the tools of knowledge production does not existent for this experimental thought. This is the origin of the confusion, which I pointed out earlier, regarding the comprehension of my theorization attempt […].

[…] The notion of the colonial mode of production crystallized in the light of this materialist understanding of dialectic. The function of this theoretical concept lies in heling us understand the structural difference between the two sides of the dialectic in the relationship between the colonized or the formerly colonized societies, and the imperialistic societies, in the unity of the two parties in the international capitalist system. Any investigation of the relationship between these two parties in the light of the Hegelian dialectic creates a symmetry between them and must confront the reality of their difference at every turn of the development of each one of them and its process in its organic connection with the other. Consequently, knowledge either becomes impossible for this way of thought or the form of knowledge acquired misses the subject, since it is a form of rehashing of readymade concepts which it uses to project onto the distinctive structure of our Arab societies and their historical process a development framework that was probably good for knowing the progress of imperialistic societies and their structure. Through this projection, the frozen thought is satisfied in its approach to our historical reality by reading its framework, thus sees in this reality, for instance, the same historical phases which capitalism went through [in its development] in imperialistic countries. [As result, this pattern of thought] […] reaches with astonishing simplicity well-known wrong arguments that have left their imprint on the practices of the Arab revolutionary movements for half of a century or more. Such sayings include arguments such as that the period of national liberation is historically independent from the phase of transition to socialism because it is the phase of construction of capitalism and its emergent period on the basis of its enmity to capitalism, and that it is also the phase of the formation of classes and completion of the development of the working class, following the model of the developed capitalist society. It is a necessary phase during which class leadership [is] at the hands of the “nationalist” bourgeoisie, which is in a state of enmity with imperialism, and the role of the proletariat and the revolutionary movement at this stage is limited to supporting this bourgeoisie. The deadly mistake [according to this] is burning stages.

I have defined the colonial mode of production as a historical form that is distinct from the capitalist mode of production. It is specifically the form of capitalism that is connected in structural dependency with imperialism in its historical formation and current development. I have attempted to define the nature of the difference between this form of capitalism and the imperialistic capitalism in Europe, as an example. The main distinction that probably explains the different facets of difference between them is that capitalism in our colonial societies had started to form historically during the period of crisis of the world capitalist system. Thus, the stage of its emergent development was [also] the stage of its crisis. In another way, it did not witness the emergent revolutionary stage which the capitalist mode of production in Europe had gone through. Its structure was a structure of crisis – or crisis-like – since the beginning of its formation under imperialistic hegemony. Consequently, its historical development had continuously with the obstacle of this crisis-like structure, meaning that its development was in crisis – bridled from inside its structure – in connection with this structure’s subaltern dependency on imperialism. This is a salient mark of the law of differential development that governs the world capitalist system, and in which we find the explanation of the bridling of the process of class differentiation in the colonial social structure. The realization of this process collides continuously with an internal obstacle in this structure that prevents it. [This internal obstacle] is this structure itself, as it is the structure of dependency capitalism, by which I mean the structure of colonial production. The difference then is not quantitative difference in the degree of progress between the structure of this production and the imperialistic production, in the unity of the two in the world capitalist regime, but it is a structural difference, which means that it is a difference in the structure whereby it is impossible for colonial production to become imperialistic or [to be able to] catch up with it. This difference between the two, which finds its material foundation in the relationship of structural dependency in which the former is subdued to the latter repeatedly […], appears clearly the fact that imperialistic, capitalist production tends in its expansionist progress to eradicate prior relations of production, whereas colonial production is relatively too weak in its development, which is bridled by this relationship, to exterminate these prior relations that have cohabited with it in the colonial social structure. It in its development tends, on the opposite, to allow their renewal as if the form in which it dominates them were the same form in which they are relatively reproduced.

Translated by Brahim El Guabli

Selections from Muqaddimāt naḍariyya lidirāsat athar al-fikr al-ishtirākī fī ḥarakat al-taḥarrur al-waṭānī [Theoretical Preliminaries to the Study of the Impact of Social Thought on the National Liberation Movement] (Bayrūt: Dār al-Farābī, 2013), 4–11. Thanks are due to Elise Harris for helping to facilitate this translation. 


1 For a concise account of Amel’s theoretical and political trajectory, see Vijay Prashad, “The Arab Gramsci,” Frontline, March 21, 2014. See too Samer Frangie, “Theorizing from the Periphery: The Intellectual Project of Mahdi ‘Amil, International Journal of Middle East Studies 44 (2012): 465-82.
2 Mahdi Amel, Muqaddimāt naḍariyya lidirāsat athar al-fikr al-ishtirākī fī ḥarakat al-taḥarrur al-waṭānī (Bayrūt: Dār al-Farābī, 2013), 1.
3 Ibid., 10.
4 Mohamed Khair-Eddine, Moi, l’aigre (Paris: Seuil, 1970), 28.

Authors of the article

(1936–1987) was a Lebanese communist activist and Marxist theorist.

is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. His work has appeared in Arab Studies Journal, The Journal of North African Studies and Francosphères. He is also the co-editor of the special issue of The Journal of North African Studies entitled “Violence and the Politics of Aesthetics: A Postcolonial Maghreb Without Borders.”