Isam al-­Khafaji, Tormented Births: Passages to Modernity in Europe and the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005).

Any book-length comparison of the historical trajectories of Western Europe and the region “extending from Iran in the east to Egypt in the west, and from Turkey in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south” is ambitious by definition. In the outstanding Tormented Births, “written and researched over two decades in exile” from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Isam al-Khafaji has attempted more than comparison. He has attempted a new narrative for both European and Mashriq histories. The goal is nothing less than to “show the non-uniqueness of the third world path to modernity, which means by implication the non-uniqueness of the point of reference: Europe’s path to modernity.”


Tormented Births argues that important similarities between Europe and the Mashriq have been missed by Orientalists in thrall to unsustainable notions of fundamental cultural difference, as well as by dependency theorists convinced that the non-West cannot repeat Western history because of the distorting impact of global capitalism. Instead, he writes, “passages to modernity” in different parts of the world have involved universal processes of capitalist transformation.

Though al-Khafaji’s approach is heavily indebted to the Marxist tradition, its originality lies in his rejection of two major Marxian theses on non-European capitalism. Capitalist transformation was not imposed on a passive non-Europe, he argues, nor is it forever distorted there by European power. Instead, capitalism has “origins, potential and modalities of expansion” in both Europe and non-Europe. Therefore, al-Khafaji (a contributing editor of this magazine) seeks not to locate the Mashriq within dependent capitalism, nor to chart its debt to the West, but to contribute to understanding of the “rise of capitalism in general.” In principle, this formula avoids familiar forms of Eurocentrism. Rather than assuming that we already understand the rise of capitalism from the European case, and that studying non-Europe can only demonstrate conformity with or deviation from the European track, al-Khafaji suggests that non-European cases could falsify or enrich familiar, Europe-based understandings of capitalism.

To outline the more specific thesis: al-Khafaji likens the nineteenth-century Mashriq to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Empirical material from both regions is interwoven with extended theoretical passages. Social change in both places is understood neither in terms of the stirrings of proto-capitalism, nor, in the case of the Mashriq, in terms of the inevitable construction of peripheral capitalism. Instead, these years involved the making of an ancien régime, involving bankers, merchants, landowning urban notables and the “consolidation of…pre-capitalist forms of agriculture,” mainly based on sharecropping. Merchant capital avoided industry where profits were low. Moreover, the forms of localism and communalism found in the Mashriq during these years did not flow from Oriental characteristics. Rather, al-Khafaji argues, they stemmed from the constraints imposed by pre-capitalist social relations of reproduction, and were similar to those found in pre-capitalist Europe.

The ancien régime entered crisis in the first half of the twentieth century, not because of capitalist development, nor because of imperialism, but because of “bourgeoisification,” which al-Khafaji defines as involving the “dismantling of institutions based on ‘primordial’ relations, the political structures based on ‘naturally’ appointed leaders on local and/or national levels, the theoretical establishment of equality among individual members of a given society, the prevalence of urban economic activities over the rural ones and the establishment of the state as the major arbiter among individuals and local groups.” Bourgeoisification was driven forward by the “disintegration of the communal ties within the peasantry, and between the peasantry and their traditional chiefs-turned big landowners, the mass emigration from the countryside to the cities, the formation of a big mass of landless peasants, and the rising tensions and conflicts between…peasants…and their landlords.”

The resulting crisis brought the ancien régime to its knees, and ushered in an era of genuine revolution from 1952 to 1979. Just as in the France of 1789, the “atomized city dwellers were the major revolutionary force,” backed not by merchants and bankers, but by artisans, shopkeepers, ex-peasants, schoolmasters and small entrepreneurs. Just as, quoting Marx, 1789 created “the civil unity of the nation,” in the Mashriq national unity and centralization were the watchwords of the new regimes. These programs were accepted by popular, urban or migrant elements seeking to end discrimination based on geography, sect or ethnicity and yearning for recognition as equal citizens. State capitalism was one result of these revolutionary changes, but this configuration dug its own grave with its inherent tendency to divert capital into private hands, a tendency accounting for the timing and form of economic liberalization since the 1970s. Any pressure from Washington was incidental.

Finally, al-Khafaji argues that the Mashriq has not witnessed industrialization or capitalist takeoff since the crisis of the ancien régime because returns on industrial capital remain low compared to rents generated through the Cold War, transit dues, oil and other non-industrial investments. The lack of industrialization causes bourgeoisification to remain incomplete, because it diminishes institutional struggles and checks on the state. Where such states with independent means of rentier income preside over atomized societies, there is a regression to “patrimonialism, nepotism and clientelism.”

This is a substantial work and its proper evaluation is well beyond the scope of a short review. Most significant for this reader, however, is the invitation to popular history. This invitation is suggested not just by the endogenous focus, but by the enormous significance al-Khafaji attaches to the reproduction of social relations, a reproduction that is not just a top-down account of the dynamics of capital accumulation (much beloved of many a neo-Marxist), but also a question of social relations among the mass of the population. Hence the crisis of the ancien régime is very much a matter of ordinary lives changing: rural-urban migration and the breakup of old collectivities. Or, as al-Khafaji argues, the revolutionary programs of the post-World War II states were not simply imposed on a passive population, but were embraced where they promised recognition, unity and material advancement. We are not presented, moreover, with signposts to a popular history dominated by reductive or teleological notions of capitalist class transformation, as the Mashriq remains non-capitalist in al-Khafaji’s account. The emphasis on social relations echoes Marx’s wish, in The German Ideology, to study “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.”

Tormented Births is mercifully free of simple economism, with considerable attention being paid to social change and political authority, for which concepts al-Khafaji draws upon Maurice Godelier. For al-Khafaji, for example, the pre-capitalist ancien régime relied on peasant social relations. Although the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of private property in land, rural cultivators were “still attached collectively to land,” so the extraction of relative surplus value was “virtually unthinkable.” Atomized societies also played a major role in allowing states to dominate in the period of state capitalism and beyond, a formulation redolent of Michael Mann’s notion that the masses do not rebel when they are “organizationally outflanked.” This book is one of the most systematic and truly endogenous accounts of social change in the Middle East studies canon — and this very achievement presents a conundrum. As al-Khafaji asserts, “Social change should not be viewed in terms of a false dichotomy: internal vs. external effects.” The key question, instead, is how “a given community…internalizes the surrounding effects.” At one level, the work is a prolonged argument against those who would blame colonialism for regional outcomes. Yet al-Khafaji completely rejects the views derived from Orientalism and modernization theory that are usually associated with this “internalist” position. That is, social dynamics are not related to essentialist concepts of static and backward Arabs and Muslims, but to the political economy of social reproduction. In short, al-Khafaji’s book crosses political boundaries to produce what one might call an internalism of the left. His repeated insistence on the necessity to accept “facts as they are without torturing them to suit…ideological conviction” is thereby lent credibility.

Useful as it is, this internalism of the left poses several riddles. First, it is not clear that al-Khafaji escapes the “false dichotomy” between internal and external effects. Whatever his methodological protestations, his regional histories turn out to be remarkably insular: it is as if separate entities wrapped up in different centuries negotiate their own independent passages to modernity in isolation from the world. Europe’s trajectory is apparently innocent of empire, while the Mashriq hardly knows colonialism, dependency or military assault from without. In other words, al-Khafaji’s account emphatically argues for one term within the “false dichotomy” — the internal.

Second, al-Khafaji’s endogenous emphasis is on shaky ground in two places. He explains post-revolutionary regimes’ shift toward patrimonialism partly in terms of their access to oil wealth and other rents. But the presence of such rents can hardly be understood outside of international forces such as the Cold War and the oil market. The much-analyzed phenomenon of the rentier state blurs internal/external dichotomies, but this is not discussed in al-Khafaji’s work.

The silence speaks of a failure to tackle transnational structures. More importantly, we read that meager returns for industrial capital inhibited industrialization. If this is true, then given that petrodollars can be invested on Wall Street and that capital from the Mashriq is not always forced to stay there, it is fair to say that accumulation on a world scale, and the structure of the international economy, have an impact on the Mashriq’s relative returns. Such factors vanish from view in Tormented Births, in spite of the enormous importance of investment returns in industry to al-Khafaji’s theory of capitalist development. Hence, although al-Khafaji’s brand of internalism is a good tool to think with, an unusually productive way of thinking about the dynamics of non-capitalism and an antidote against those who see the West as the root of all evil (or the grantor of salvation), it is ultimately unconvincing. External power is more prominent than ever in this age of the International Monetary Fund and the invasion of Iraq, but it was hardly absent in the ages of Napoleon, Lord Cromer or Kermit Roosevelt.

Finally, it is not clear how the ineluctably Europe-centered theory of capitalism can serve as a basis for discovering universal processes in passages to modernity. For all the promise of al-Khafaji’s method, and his laudable avoidance of economism and teleological thinking, we remain constrained within an historical straitjacket in which evidence from non-Europe does not modify, but only, at best, confirms theses about the singular and already known figure of capitalism, as defined by the pioneering European experience. Either the Mashriq can follow a trail blazed by Europe, and thereby aspire to greatness, or it can deviate and regress. European colonialism, slavery, racism, patriarchy, exploitation, genocide and militarism are ignored, as Europe is dressed up in the benign disguise of bourgeois modernity. This idealized, abstracted Europe is judge and jury of non-European social change. In al-Khafaji’s case, the judgment is negative. When all is said and done, the history of the Mashriq is defined in terms of a failure to industrialize and to succeed at bourgeoisification. Indeed, al-Khafaji’s Mashriq remains non-capitalist right up to the present, which raises a tougher question. How can a transformation be universal when it turns out to be endlessly deferred?

Tormented Births treats the reader to an array of fresh and wonderfully thoughtful interpretations, built around an intriguing new periodization of Mashriq history. For all the varied criticisms of dependency theory, few have attempted to present concrete alternative narratives about passages to Middle Eastern modernity that grapple with the intellectual challenge of capitalism. Even fewer have also taken seriously the dynamics of non-capitalism. For these reasons, at the very least, this provocative book deserves wide readership and thorough debate. For all its value and originality, however, the book’s use of a concept of capitalism that remains wedded to the European experience complicates the author’s goal of showing the “non-uniqueness” of Europe’s path to modernity. There are no quick solutions to this problem, of course, but one possibility is to take a contrary position that insists on the coeval nature of global histories, and locates Europe and non-Europe alike in configurations of colonial power. In this way, our understanding of capitalism might be broken down and made plural. Any new directions, however, will have to grapple with the theses of Tormented Births.

How to cite this article:

John Chalcraft "Internalism of the Left," Middle East Report 238 (Spring 2006).
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