Bassem Chit’s critique of Arab nationalism

Issue: 145

Simon Assaf

Before his sudden death in October 2014 at the age of 34, Lebanese revolutionary socialist Bassem Chit fired the first salvo in what he hoped would be a far reaching debate on the problems of the left exposed by the Arab Spring in general, and the revolution in Syria in particular.

His article “Nationalism, Resistance and Revolution” was originally published in the fourth issue of Marxist journal Thawra alDaema (Permanent Revolution) in January 2014.1 The journal, which Bassem helped to establish, continues to be distributed throughout the Arab world.

At the centre of Bassem’s argument is the fundamental flaw in political perspectives among those influenced by Stalinism and Arab nationalism that has dominated the left for over half a century. He characterises this current as having two flawed components. The first is that they judge the actions of the masses not by the contradictions arising out of their social conditions, but through their supposed relations to regional and imperial rivalries. Secondly they reduce the demands of the masses to simple reforms inside existing regimes.

Bassem argues that, as these regimes fracture, the masses are further defined by their identity—such as by being Shia or Sunni Muslim, or with ethnicity such as Kurdish, or some abstract label such as “Levantine”. He proposes instead that the Arab regimes are fully capitalist and are presided over by ruling classes manoeuvring between global and regional interests as well as defending their own economic and social positions.

He argues that their mistaken analysis has led many on the “left” to identify with the Syrian regime while denouncing the popular movements against it as allied to the “American-Israeli-Takfiri project”—Sunni Islamists, Zionists and Western imperialism. The traditional left has also failed to recognise the importance of the revolutions across the region in 2011, seeing them as mere social struggles and, in the case of Egypt, voting in favour of the military’s constitution.

Bassem criticises the traditional left and Arab nationalists for subordinating the struggle for social liberation to that of national liberation. This is a further degeneration of the previous “stageism”—where social liberation comes after national liberation and the building of a strong state.

By fighting the national liberation struggle from “outside the class struggle”, national liberation movements “are heading towards assimilation with the dominant bourgeoisie”. He maintains instead that the two struggles are part of the same process and cannot be separated. Bassem writes: “National liberation cannot be achieved in the current conditions without being included in the process of socialist revolution itself” (p109).

But it is towards the “sectarianisation” of social classes that he reserves his harshest criticism. The Stalinists and nationalist currents characterise social classes not by their relations to the means of production, but by their identity.

Thus at different periods a section of the ruling class is seen as progressive or reactionary according to the particular balance of regional and imperial interests. The Shia Muslims were at one point described as the “working class” of Lebanon, and the Christian Lebanese as “a ruling class”.

In the run up to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) the Sunni Muslim section of the ruling class was declared “patriotic”, only to become “traitors” a few decades later. In a similar fashion the Shia and Alawi minority of Syria are part of an arc of “resistance” against the Sunni Muslims, who are now denounced as traitors in alliance with Israel, the Gulf states and the West.

This degeneration of the traditional left and Arab nationalists has disastrous consequences. Bassem instead concludes that any fundamental change can “only be made by the revolutionary masses, for it is in their core interest”.

1: The original, in Arabic, can be read here: