Founding the Lebanese Left: From Colonial Rule to Independence


2021-01-11    |   

Founding the Lebanese Left: From Colonial Rule to Independence
Beirut. El Burj. Library of Congress

On 30 April 1925, the walls and streets of Lebanese towns and cities were filled with pamphlets declaring that, “the Lebanese People’s Party, founded by the workers and peasants of Lebanon, demands lifting the injustice being brought upon the working class; it calls all the workers of this country to participate with the members of this Party in striking on  May 1, the only official holiday for all the workers of the world.”[1] The next day, red flags were flying in the streets of Beirut as thousands of workers went on strike and between 500 to 600 activists gathered in the Crystal Theater in downtown Beirut to celebrate May Day.[2]

Representatives from the Lebanese People’s Party (LPP) spoke about syndicalism, the power of labor organization, class differences, the dangers of capitalism, and the international solidarity of workers. This radical discourse was not new to the region; rather a long history of leftist organization had emerged in the urban centers of the eastern Mediterranean with the Nahda (renaissance) of the late Ottoman period.[3] However, a materialist class-based perception of society stood in staunch contrast to the idea of a religiously diverse society that justified the declaration of Greater Lebanon in 1920. The LPP was the first organization of the political left formed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and within the new borders and political unit of Lebanon carved out by imperial Britain and France. It was established on 24 October 1924 by a group of workers and intellectuals who shared an attraction to communism.[4] The joining of forces of the LPP and the already organized Armenian communists, Spartak Youth, led to the establishment of the Communist Party of Lebanon in the summer of 1925.[5]

The Communist Party of Lebanon and its predecessor organized within, rather than in opposition to, the framework of a Lebanese state. However, the Lebanese left pushed this framework and the boundaries set by French colonial powers in various ways. Like Syrian and Arab nationalist movements, it sought to break the sectarian monopoly on political and social organization, while also opposing colonialism; it also positioned itself as belonging to the wider Arab region and to a broader internationalist movement. On the eve of the imposition of the French mandate on Lebanon and Syria, political currents within Lebanon were, on a very basic level, divided between supporters of a Lebanese state separate from Syria, and a majority that opposed this separation and called for the unity of Greater Syria. Although the latter consisted of Lebanese from a wide political and religious spectrum, the former were predominantly Maronites and were strongly supported by influential segments of the Christian bourgeoisie. On 1 September 1920, Greater Lebanon under the French Mandate became a reality. Within Lebanon, these two currents came to represent on the one hand an acceptance of the mandate and willingness to work with it and even support it, while on the other hand the second current continued to insist on union with Syria and a refusal to accept the mandate and/or cooperate with it. In this respect, the LPP, and ultimately the Communist Party of Lebanon, represented a ‘third way’ in that it accepted the Lebanese state as a reality while at the same time sought to fight colonialism not only in Lebanon and the region, but across the world. The Lebanese left emerged as a unique political organization in a nascent state, by upholding the idea of Lebanon as anti-sectarian, anti-colonial, and anti-fascist. Although the term ‘left’ (yasar) was not the term that was used at the time to identify those operating within that political spectrum, this paper will refer to them as ‘leftist’ and ‘the Lebanese left’ in lieu of the various terms used at the time such as socialism (ishtirakiyya), communism (shuyu‘iyya), or bolshevism (al-bolshavikiyya) often interchangeably despite being problematic. In fact, a Lebanese ‘left’ existed during the nascent years of the Lebanese state within, as well as outside, the dominant Communist Party, that brought together a multiplicity of currents and causes on the national as well as international levels. 

Class-based Organization: A Threat to Sectarian Politics

In 1926, Michel Chiha’s version of the idea of Lebanon prevailed in the form of a Lebanese constitution that was drafted by a committee created by the French High Commissioner. What the Lebanese Constitution represented was the triumph of the myth of harmony only through sectarian difference; that in a religiously diverse society, the only viable form of politics was sectarian representation. This particular sectarian character of Lebanon was not only the way imperial powers had envisioned and understood Lebanon; it was made possible through French imperialism and colonial violence.[6]

Despite the prevalence of the sectarian option for Lebanon, none of the parties and politicians of the mandate era came out as openly sectarian and almost all denounced ‘sectarianism’ which, even when advocated as the solution for Lebanese communal diversity, still carried negative connotations and the prospect of future abolishment. In that sense, when the LPP and later the Communist Party rejected sectarianism, its discourse was not exactly unprecedented for its time and place. What made the Lebanese left different was the fact that it advocated for a class-based perception of society that negated the ‘communal’/sectarian model proposed by the political elite and the French colonists as the only marker of difference in Lebanese society.

Labor organization during the Mandate grew in parallel to leftist political organization and became the most serious threat to the idea of a communally divided Lebanon. While advocates of a sectarian Lebanese system declared that sects in Lebanon were in fact its political parties, the left organized in units that shattered this model and declared class as well as political orientation and ideology as the marker of political party organization and not religion.

Mandate Lebanon saw an increase in the scope and scale of mass mobilization and political organization in a way that had not existed within the Ottoman Empire before World War One. This came as a result of the accelerated integration of local markets into the world capitalist system starting in the 19th century, rapid urbanization and development of new means of communication, the deterioration of the socioeconomic status of workers and peasants, and the growing gap between rich and poor particularly after WWI in Lebanon.[7] After the war, workers primarily printing press workers, tramway workers, and tobacco workers reorganized their guilds (jam‘iyyāt). The early years of the 1920s saw a series of strikes and demonstrations by workers for wage increases and price reductions.

The first syndicate in Lebanon that was created by workers and consisted of workers alone, was the General Syndicate of Tobacco Workers (al-Naqaba al-‘Amma li-‘Ummal al-Dukhkhan fi Lubnan) organized by Fuad al-Shamali in the town of Bikfaya in 1924.[8] The earlier Workers Party of Greater Lebanon (Hizb al-‘Ummal al-‘Amm fi Lubnan al-Kabir), established in 1921, was a pro-mandate party that brought together in its ranks workers and their employers. By the early 1920s, the production of tobacco under the monopoly of the French owned Régie de Tabac had increased, leading to the increase in the number of workers in those factories that spanned the Lebanese map.[9] The Bikfaya syndicate established contacts with other labor groups – such as printing press workers, carpenters, cooks, drivers, and shoemakers – and in 1925 created the Supreme Committee of Syndicates (al-Lajna al-Naqabiyya al-‘Ulya), the first such organization in Lebanon.[10] These syndicates would continue to represent some of the few political organizations in Lebanon that crossed sectarian lines. The class-based rather than sect-based character of these organizations is the reason why the Lebanese sectarian leaders have worked to dismantle and, when unsuccessful, to penetrate and weaken these unions from the early days of their inception.

The Left’s Anti-Colonialism and Anti-Fascism

The first public appearance of the LPP was a call for class-based organization and action; however, its first public statement, signed by the Communist Party in July 1925, was a call in support of the Syrian revolt against French colonialism. The first conference of the Communist Party, held in December 1925, was dominated by the issue of the Syrian Revolt, and the first decision the fifteen delegates from Syria and Lebanon took was to support the revolt, followed by the decision to intensify the struggle against imperialism and the demands for national independence and democratic freedoms. The indirect involvement of members of the Communist Party in the Syrian Revolt begot them similar treatment by French authorities to the Syrian revolutionaries. Almost all the central committee members of the Comunist Party were imprisoned between December 1925 and January 1926. The imprisoned cadres of the LPP and the Communist Party would remain behind bars until 1928. 

The interwar years witnessed an unprecedented continuum of resistance against colonial rule that began in Iraq in 1920, followed by Syria in 1925, and Palestine in 1936. This culture of anti-imperialism drew upon and relied on the tenants and history of a tradition that had emerged in the late Ottoman period, which included islamist, nationalist, and leftist currents. The Lebanese left emerging during the 1920s drew upon these traditions and often leftists positioned themselves within that genealogy and as a continuation of it.[11]

The interwar years also witnessed the rise of nationalist politics in both Syria and Lebanon in the 1930s that coincided with the rise of fascism in Europe and the global threat of a particular interpretation of nationalism. The Lebanese left responded by first upholding nationalism in its anti-colonial framework, as well as by launching an anti-fascist movement that was intertwined with anti-colonialism. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, Raif Khoury was the most prominent leftist intellectual debating nationalism, and he defined it in contrast to Nazism and as liberationist (qawmiyya taḥarruriyya).[12] Colonized people’s nationalism was different from any other nationalism, it was a militant movement aimed toward liberation. Khoury argued that, “We, the sons of oppressed people, living under the burden of foreign dominion, understand nationalism as a militant movement (ḥaraka kifāḥiyya) aimed towards our liberation from foreign dominion which we call colonialism.”[13] In 1935, the Lebanese left established the League Against Nazism and Fascism in Syria and Lebanon and in 1941 its mouthpiece the journal al-Tariq.[14] In the meetings of the League that spanned the cities of Lebanon and Syria and on the pages of ­al-Tariq, the Lebanese left cultivated a discourse that laid claim to an Arabo-Islamic heritage that stood in contrast to the Maronite discourse of exceptionalism which severed Lebanese history from any and all Arab and Islamic lineage.[15] This was, in fact, the left’s answer to the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in Lebanon and the region, particularly the Phalangist Party of Pierre al-Jumayyil established in 1936. 

During WWII, voices from within the left emerged to argue that fascism was the last breath of colonialism, and that the destiny of colonized Arab people was connected to those of other colonized people around the world. Given the centrality of the anti-colonial struggle to the fight against fascism, leftists had to contend with the dilemma of standing on the same side as their colonizers. The need to reiterate their anti-colonial stance became a regular feat for these intellectuals in the face of accusations of being lenient towards their colonizers, the French and the British. In relation to fascism, leftists downplayed French and British colonialism as the “lesser evil,” setting their priorities in a world where a choice between two options had to be made. There was a consensus among the left that supporting fascism was not the solution to the colonial problem and they acknowledged the suffering of those colonized by democratic colonial states. This was particularly prevalent in the context of the Palestine question where some debates had emerged in Arab circles in support of Nazism within the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. 

The Lebanese left used the measure of French republican values to make claims for upholding democratic principles for Arab people in both the French and British Mandates, including the right for independence and self-determination for Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. The events of November 1943 in Lebanon, primarily the imprisonment of the main figures of government and the president of the republic by the French authorities, were framed by leftist intellectuals as a result of the connection between the national struggle and the anti-fascist struggle. On November 8, the Chamber of Deputies voted on a series of constitutional amendments removing the clause whereby the French mandatory authority held sole political power and jurisdiction over Lebanon. Al-Tariq published a direct declaration in the name of the League addressed to the French High Commissioner, denouncing French actions suspension of the Constitution, dissolution of Parliament, and the imprisonment of political figures as demonstrating a fascist-like spirit.[16]

The Lebanese left hailed Lebanon’s independence from French colonial rule as a major victory. However, the newly independent republic did not revise the sectarian power-sharing arrangement upon which Greater Lebanon was created, nor did the new amended Constitution of 1943 abolish articles 9, 10, and 95 of the 1926 Constitution.[17] Although the Lebanese left continued to create and embody a class-centric critique of that idea of Lebanon, it failed to address directly the dichotomy of unequal citizenship the Constitution created. It also failed to address the entrenched gender inequality that the state’s laws and institutions upheld, including the persistence of religious-based personal status laws and women’s political rights.

What About Women’s Rights?

One of the staunchest critiques against the idea of Lebanon as presented by the spectrum of ideologies and parties in Lebanon, including from within the left, came from women and from early Lebanese feminist conceptualizations of the state, citizenship, and public engagement. The initial founders of the LPP and the Communist Party of Lebanon and Syria were men, however most of the initial members were workers in the tobacco factories in Lebanon which was one of the main industries during the Mandate that included a very large number of female workers.[18] In the years to follow, both the unionists, who were closely connected to the Communist Party, and the LPP made little effort to recruit women.[19] Working women often indicated their disinterest in union activities since the latter did not make any efforts to accommodate working women’s family and domestic commitments on top of their work outside the home.

Within the Communist Party, there was an almost complete absence of women, as well as an inability to move beyond Soviet and nationalist frameworks of women’s emancipation, despite an opening of a party wing for women in the mid-1930s. In the first National Congress of the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon held in 1943-1944, the cause of women’s emancipation was completely marginalized. The only stipulation that mentioned women in the national programs proposed for both parties was an article related to family issues.[20] Although article 3 stipulated “equality between all Lebanese regardless of their religious or racial differences”, there was no mention of gender equality nor a call for the removal of religious-based personal status laws.[21]

Demands for women’s suffrage moved to the forefront within the context of fall 1943 and Lebanese independence. Women activists, initially predominantly middle class, framed their demands within the contours of what it meant to be an independent nation and to uphold citizenship rights and democratic principles. Emily Fares Ibrahim, a Lebanese writer, activist, and the first woman to run in parliamentary elections in 1953 after Lebanese women won suffrage, was active in the 1940s within leftist circles. Fares Ibrahim was a staunch advocate for women’s suffrage, and she repeatedly questioned the democracy of Lebanon in the absence of basic rights for women. In one of her several articles published in al-Tariq, Fares Ibrahim questioned, “who told them [men who refuse to give women their rights] they are fit for complete democratic rule when there are [women] in their country who have been denied their basic political rights?”[22] The only complete and humane democracy that Lebanon could achieve was through equality between men and women within the public sphere. Leftists denying women the right to vote and to run for office, despite being excited about the principles of democracy, were “more Nazi than the Nazis themselves.”[23]

Women within the Lebanese left were the first to interrogate class with the issue of gender and to debate women’s rights as part of a wider societal struggle for equality. These demands, as framed by leftist women, constituted a challenge to the principles of republicanism and democratic rule. Activists such as Fares Ibrahim threatened to reveal the weaknesses and drawbacks of the system that both leftist men and other liberal nationalist groups were calling for by pointing out that democracy is never complete when full rights for women are denied.

The Post-Independence Period

The immediate post-independence period witnessed a more serious attempt to appeal to Lebanese women and to engage gender issues, as well as a deep and effective commitment to labor organization. However, the post-WWII period would also be marked globally and regionally by Cold War politics, forcing the left to contend with the rivalries polarizing the political and social scenes. During those years, the Communist Party dominated the left, and a Stalinist line ruled over the party causing multiple purges and schisms.

In 1949, Fares Ibrahim was purged from the Communist Committee for Women’s Rights which she helped found, and in 1950 she was, along with a handful of her comrades, the victim of a smear campaign by the Communist Party that played out in al-Tariq.[24] Fares Ibrahim’s ‘error’, along with Raif Khoury and others, was their questioning of the party’s decision to go along with the Soviet Union’s acceptance of the partition plan for Palestine in 1947.[25] The party decision to accept partition in 1947 caused numerous schisms within the party and outside it; it is however crucial to acknowledge that 1947 was only the end result of a process in which dissent and heterogeneity became increasingly unacceptable within the Party. This heterogeneity was represented in the mélange of causes and identities that the Lebanese left was founded upon, primarily a challenge to local religious and sectarian forces, a push back on the effects of intensifying capitalism and imperialism, and a struggle against fascism. 

 

 

[1] The call was published in the newspaper Al-Sahafi Al-Ta’ih on 30 April 1925 and can also be found in Mohammad Dakroub, Juthur al-Sindiyana al-Hamra’, Dar al-Farabi, Beirut, 1974, p. 476.

[2] “Tazahurat Awwal Ayyar”, Al-Insaniyya, is. 1, 15 May 1925, p. 5.

[3] Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010.

[4] For more on that meeting and the origins of the Communist Party of Lebanon, see Yusuf Ibrahim Yazbik, Hikayat Awwal Nawwar fi al-ʻAlam wa fi Lubnan: Dhikrayat wa-Tariikh wa-Nusus, Dar al-Farabi, Beirut, 1974; Fuad al-Shamali, Asas al-Harakat al-Shuyu‘iyya fi al-Bilad al-Suriyya al-Lubnaniyya, Matba’at al-Fawa’id, Beirut, 1935.

[5] On the Armenian role in the Communist parties of Syria and Lebanon, see Artin Madoyan, Hayat ʻAla al-Mitras: Dhikrayat wa-Mushahadat, Dar al-Farabi, Beirut, 2011.

[6] For a deeper discussion on this, see chapter 5 in Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World,University of California Press, Berkeley, 2019.

[7] For more on the labor movement in Lebanon, see Jacques Couland, Le Mouvement Syndical au Liban, 1919-1946: Son évolution pendant le mandat français de l’occupation à l’évacuation et au Code du travail. Préf. de Jacques Berque,Éditions sociales, 1970; Abdullah Hanna, al-Haraka al-ʻUmmaliyya fi Suriya wa-Lubnan, 1900-1945, Dar Dimashq, Damascus, 1973; Ilyas Buwari, Tarikh Al-Haraka al-‘Ummaliyya Wa-l-Naqabiyya Fi Lubnan, 2nd ed, Dar al-Farabi, Beirut, 1980.

[8] The other leaders in the syndicate were: Farid Tohme, Butrus Hashimi, and Bishara Kamel.

[9] For more on workers in the tobacco industry in Lebanon, especially women tobacco workers, see Malik Abi Saab, Militant Women of a Fragile Nation, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2010.

[10] The committee was made up of: Berjis Abu Saleh (carpenter), George Ayan (barber), Zahran Gharib (printing press worker), Nassim al-Shamali (cook), Fuad al-Shamali (tobacco worker), and an Armenian shoemaker whose name could not be identified; Couland, Le Mouvement Syndical au Liban, p. 136. 

[11] On Arab involvement in interwar anti-imperialist movements such as the League Against Imperialism, see Sana Tannoury-Karam, “Long Live the Revolutionary Alliance Against Imperialism: Interwar Anti-Imperialism and the Arab Levant” in Michele Louro et. al, The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives, (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2020).

[12] Raif Khoury, “al-Qawmiyya,” Al-Tali‘a, Vol 2, no. 9, November 1936, 768–769. This article was initially a talk given by Khoury at the Young Men’s Christian Association in Jerusalem.

[13] Raif Khoury, “Nahnu wa-l-Fashistiyya,” al-Tali‘a 2, no. 10, 1936, p. 838–839.

[14] On the league and anti-fascism among the Lebanese left, see Sana Tannoury-Karam, “This War Is Our War: Antifascism among Lebanese Leftist Intellectuals,” Journal of World History 30, no. 3,2019, p. 415–36.

 

[15] Raif Khoury, “al-Turath al-Qawmi al-Arabi: Nahnu Humatuhu wa-Muk-mi-luh”, in Ma‘alim al-Wa‘i al-Qawmi wa-Maqalat Ukhra, al-Markaz al-‘Arabi li-l-Abhath wa-Dirasat al-Siyasa, Beirut, 2015.

[16] “Fi Sabil al-Istiqlal,” al-Tariq 2, no. 19, 7 December 1943, p. 32.

[17] For a discussion of this, see Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon, Pluto Press, London, 2007.

[18] By mid-1900, more than 40% of the Regie workforce was composed of women.

[19] For more on this see Malek Hassan Abisaab, “‘Unruly’ Factory Women in Lebanon: Contesting French Colonialism and the National State, 1940-1946,” Journal of Women’s History 16, no. 3, 2004, p. 55–82.

[20] Article 12 of the 19 stipulations stated, “protecting the Syrian family from the potential dangers of illiteracy and poverty; improving the status of women; and providing for the health of mothers and children”; see Sawt al-Sha‘b, January 7, 1944, p. 1

[21] Ibid.

[22] Emily Fares Ibrahim, “Sawt al-Mar’a: Huquq Jadida”, al-Tariq 2, no. 20, 29 December 1943, p. 15.

[23] Fares Ibrahim, “Sawt al-Mar’a: Huquq Jadida”, p. 16.

[24] Emily Fares Ibrahim, Raif Khoury, and Qadri al-Qal‘aji refused to accept the decision of the communist parties of Lebanon and Syria to go along with the Soviet Union’s acceptance of the partition plan for Palestine in 1947 and the dilemma that this created within the left. They were accused of Titoism in a smear campaign directed by the party in al-Tariq, and were excluded from participation in all circles of the Communist Party, including publishing in al-Tariq; see al-Tariq, March 1950.

[25] The decision was actually taken by Khalid Bakdash, since Farajallah al-Hilu, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Lebanon, had rejected the party’s decision and was accused of harboring bourgeois tendencies that he had to shed by writing a self-criticism letter. Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, The Communist Movement in Syria and Lebanon, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 1998, p. 38–39.

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