Dipesh Chakrabarty’s well-documented, theoretically informed, innovative history of the jute mill workers of Bengal, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal, 1890-1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), poses this central question: “Can…third-world countries like India…build democratic, communitarian institutions on the basis of the nonindividualistic, but hierarchical and illiberal, precapitalist bonds that have survived and sometimes resisted — or even flourished under — the onslaught of capital?” (p. xiv) In a time of glasnost and perestroika it may be instructive to recall the answer proposed by Soviet theoreticians during an earlier period of liberalization in the Soviet Union — the noncapitalist road to development.

This is the project of Esmail Hosseinzadeh’s Soviet Non-Capitalist Development: The Case of Nasser’s Egypt (New York: Praeger, 1989). Hosseinzadeh’s exposition bears the stylistic marks of Trotskyist orthodoxy, and his empirical study of Egypt, though its argument contradicts conventional wisdom, is based mainly on existing literature. But this book addresses important questions in a useful way.

The first section of the book surveys the concept of noncapitalist development in Marxist theory from Marx to the post-Stalin era. The anticolonialist and anti-imperialist nationalist movements that emerged in Asia and Africa after World War II were a significant anti-imperialist force. The existence of the Soviet bloc increased their chances to achieve real national independence. Social and political conditions in those countries favored the rise to power of governments representing the intermediate strata. Based on these correct empirical observations, post-Stalin Soviet theorists went on to argue that “national democratic” regimes led by such movements would opt for a noncapitalist road to development, and that this was a viable path to socialism. Hosseinzadeh’s case study of the application of this theory to Egypt demonstrates its inadequacy and failure.

Any sober survey of Egypt, Syria and Algeria today — all formerly Soviet favorites in the noncapitalist developing group — must reach the painful conclusion that the current direction of their crisis-ridden economies is best characterized by resurgence of the market, redistribution of economic surplus in favor of the privileged classes and increasing domination by international capital.

How could the predictions of the Soviet theorists have been so wrong? As Noam Chomsky has often argued in explaining absurdities in official foreign policy pronouncements of the United States, people often believe (sincerely) what it is useful to believe. The Soviet effort to break out of the isolation which the United States sought to impose on it in the era of the Cold War led the leadership to make alliances with Third World nationalist movements. Moreover, as Samir Amin has suggested, there was a complementarity between the centrally managed economies of the Soviet bloc and those of states designated to be on the noncapitalist road. Prevailing ideological norms required that these alliances be justified as an advance for socialism.

Hosseinzadeh shows how the conceptual straitjacket of the noncapitalist road misconstrued anti-imperialist nationalism for socialism in Nasserist Egypt. The legacy of this confusion continues to affect the thought of much of the Egyptian left today.

Dipesh Chakrabarty addresses some of the questions suggested by the theoretical inadequacy of the concept of noncapitalist development. Rethinking Working-Class History reflects the approach of the subaltern studies school of Indian Marxists, for whom theorization of culture and avoidance of economist and determinist conceptions of base and superstructure have been major concerns. Chakrabarty’s study is premised on the important insight that Marx’s thought presumed the hegemony of bourgeois culture. Thus, classical Marxism, though it criticized the liberal concepts of the individual, freedom and equality, did not absolutely reject these values. Rather, it sought to realize them in a higher form.

Chakrabarty’s historical narrative demonstrates the problems that “the persistence of prebourgeois culture” pose for the organization, consciousness and struggle of the working class in the Third World. Since the process of capital accumulation does not automatically transform this culture and thus render the struggle for bourgeois rights obsolete, how can the working class gain the class consciousness necessary to undertake the task of social emancipation which Marxist theory entrusts to it? Chakrabarty rejects both the universalist argument that the objective laws of capital will remake Indian workers in the image of the classical European working class (which in any case has not been particularly revolutionary recently) as well as the national-exceptionalist argument that Indian (or any other) culture determines a unique class consciousness and path to working class emancipation. Rejecting all forms of teleology, he concludes that the history of the oppressed provides no guarantee that a politics of emancipation will emerge and that the only enduring reality is struggle.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe, the renowned radical political theater company, has made its first effort to address the Arab-Israeli conflict in its new production, Seeing Double. The play, which unequivocally embraces the two-state solution to the conflict, represents an important contribution to making support for the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination an indisputably legitimate and integral part of the progressive agenda in the United States. The plot of the play uses the same opening gambit as Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses: An airliner carrying a Palestinian-American and a Jewish-American to Israel/Palestine crashes, and the two protagonists — both played by Michael Sullivan — become confused about their identity when each is claimed by the family of the other. This plot device draws in people who may themselves feel confused about the conflict.

The script was written by a committee including Palestinians, an Israeli, an American Jew, and others, and reflects some of the compromises necessary to accommodate such a diverse group. Unlike most Mime Troupe productions, questions about class and US imperialism receive little attention, and the enemy is not clearly specified. The emphasis is on the need for compromise and reconciliation. Some have objected to the uncharacteristic political “softness” of this production, and its comic mode may be offensive to Palestinians who are unused to seeing their national cause represented in this style. Yet, Seeing Double has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on audiences that would never otherwise have been exposed to the issues it raises. Despite my own differences with its political sensibility, I found myself moved by it. For bookings, contact: San Francisco Mime Troupe, 855 Treat Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110, (415) 285-1717.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Editor’s Bookshelf," Middle East Report 161 (November/December 1989).
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