Marxism in the United States developed on the margin of society. Shunned by organized labor, it has confronted this society as an outsider. Until the 1970s, the most successful American Marxist works of scholarship were macro studies by economists, written as if from a distance and emphasizing economic more than political and cultural aspects of rule and resistance to rule. Then the tableau in political economy began to widen. The writings of Eugene Genovese were an important part of this process. Politics was returning.

It is too early to know if Marxists will find a way to unite political and economic matters successfully. Youssef Choueiri’s work may help. As politics becomes more important for political economists, the issue of strategies of rule will become a priority. When that happens, questions about different kinds of domination will surely also arise. How does a particular state organize culture? Which individuals does it use as the dominant intellectuals? How do these figures control language, music, the past? By and large, such questions have not been researched.

This book is a conventional academic monograph covering a very wide subject with a broad brush. Indeed, Choueiri does not have the space to do more; at present it stands alone as the only general book on its subject.

Choueiri’s work contains material that political economists can use for the study of two issues. The first is the role of history in a Middle Eastern “tribal-ethnic” state; the second is the professionalization of history as it occurred in Egypt.

In tribal-ethnic states, historians are not usually as important as poets or religious personalities. Most local intellectuals shun history. Much of the actual history-writing is done by foreigners. But as the evidence presented here attests, the talented local historian can still serve his ruler; Kamal Salibi of Lebanon, an important example, composed a genealogy of the Maronite elite and later a “compartmentalized” account of the national history. Choueiri provides a second example, Mubarak al-Mili, an Algerian historian who turned to the study of ancient history and pre-history to achieve the totality denied by the realities of modern tribalist statecraft in his country. Finally, Choueiri shows that in tribal states a historian can “overdo” himself through the study of the society, yet still be useful to the regime. Here Choueiri draws from the career of the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui.

Egyptian history-writing and the “professionalization” of history in Egypt are prominent features of Choueiri’s account. Not surprisingly, he focuses on the Egyptian historian Shafiq Ghurbal, author of The Beginnings of the Egyptian Question and the Rise of Mehmet Ali (1928).

Cast in the mirror of political economy, Ghurbal’s decision to write a book based on French and British archives no doubt was a political decision. Why did Ghurbal find it expedient to do this and to define his sources as archival or “primary” ones? I would postulate that he and other leading historians of his generation, in many different countries, recognized that they could not compete with the influential litterateurs, that they had to invoke science as part of their arsenal to keep their influence. By making “real” history a “science” based on archives, Ghurbal’s circle cut down the number of people who could be called “real” historians, as opposed to amateurs, few of whom used archives, much less European ones. They could hold their own as well against the social scientists in terms of “science.” Here one might insert the point that Ghurbal’s generation was the first among historians which felt the challenge of social science — a challenge that in many countries, including the United States, appreciably diminished the influence of historians.

More work remains to be done on Ghurbal’s career in terms of Egyptian hegemony. Choueiri’s work is, however, a useful beginning. First, Ghurbal’s definition of history places the study of history for at least a generation in the hands of intellectuals from Cairo and the Delta. Upper Egyptian writers of history, especially those oriented toward metaphysical concerns, such as Lewis Awad, were considered to be simply muthaqqafin (intellectuals), i.e., not true historians. Second, with the challenge of Islam and the left, the liberal paradigm in Egypt appears easily threatened. Islamic history and Marxism both claimed to be scientific. Neither relied on archives or a narrative style; rather they imposed the idea that science required theory and that liberalism has a shallow theoretical base.

How to cite this article:

Peter Gran "Choueiri, Arab History and the Nation-State," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).

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