Re-Reading “Self Criticism After the Defeat: 1967”

Although every one of us knows deep down that the responsibility for the defeat, in the end, belongs to us, we persistently attempt in what we say, think, write, and declare to save face, protect appearances, defer to emotions, and concern ourselves with proprieties, morale, flattery and sensitivities, instead of doing the necessary work of calling things by their names and fixing responsibilities where they belong, saying to the ones who failed “you failed” and to those who are incompetent “you are incompetent”. (39)

I first encountered the work of Sadiq al Azm last year in Jens Hanssen’s Arab Intellectual’s course. I was immediately attracted by his writings. Unlike writers based in American or European contexts who approach Arab politics from a Western perspective, and who spend their time criticizing Western perceptions of the middle East, here was a philosopher of the Arabs and for the Arabs, and one much more concerned with liberation than representation. Al Azm’s practical focus on the military side of the conflict, and with the connection between the military defeat of Arab armies in the June War and the discourse surrounding, it gives the book a sense of urgency and authenticity. It is this criticism of prevailing late 60’s Arab discourse that makes the book so distinctive – rather than talk about the way someone else’s criticism of Arab politics is Orientalist, al Azm gets to work criticizing prevailing dogmas and showing how these dogmas materially oppress and stifle Arab political aspirations. This is not a book written from an “objective” point of view, rather than unapologetic example of side-taking which, because it has sided with Revolutionary anti-colonial struggle, frees itself to criticize all the dogmas and sloppy thinking employed by those who claim, like him, to stand on the right side of history. 

I nearly called this post “Re Re-Reading Self Criticism…” because every act of reading this book in translation is already part of the process of returning to the text – published in 1968, yet not translated into English until 2011, this foundational text of Arab political thought remains a new text for non-Arab speakers learning the anti-colonial traditions of the Arab world. When I first read the text, I was both astounded, but also deeply confused – here was an Arab revolutionary who, in places, makes the same arguments about the “Arab mind” that would seem more at home in an Orientalist text. I don’t have the citations lined up here, but I was at one point able to line up basically paragraph to paragraph the same argument appearing in Self Criticism as one could cite from Patai’s The Arab Mind. I was also self-consciously ignorant about the extent to which common Arab preconceptions, at least ones that al Azm claims were common in the late 60s, are still common today.

Since then I’ve accepted that these questions just aren’t really questions for me – I’m never going to be able to answer al Azm’s critiques of Arab society from a sociological point of view, because I’m neither Arab nor a sociologist. This realization has helped me understand better that what is racist about “Orientalist” texts isn’t in the falsity of their claims which generalize about “Arab consciousness”, but rather in their methods and framing of the questions – as outsiders who aren’t actually in the position to know where to draw the boundaries around a generality, and their universal claims are motivated by their own culture’s imperialist needs to give legitimacy to the racism implicit in colonization.

So this time, re-reading Self Criticism I focussed on the generalizable forms of al Azm’s claims – I’m not interested in whether he’s right about describing Arab society, so much as in developing a philosophical framework that can be used to possibly comprehend the relationship between revolution and counter-revolution in anti-colonial or other anti-oppression situations. This is certainly relevant to the ongoing conflict in Syria, where the regime justifies its massacres of civilians by appealing to its “anti imperialist” credentials, but it’s also relevant to social justice struggles more locally, in that there is a tendency on the left to spend a lot of time criticizing the people or forces conceived of as the enemy, and comparably little energy is devoted to self-criticism, and criticism from within is often responded to with defensiveness, bullying, and even exclusion. I believe al-Azm’s more general claims which describe a structure of incompleteness and dishonesty in a revolutionary approach is more universal and can be abstracted from the Arab cultural critique to which he attributes an underlying causal role.

Al Azm’s arguments can be divided into three categories

1) The Defeat creates pressing need for self criticism – the ’67 defeat must be an occasion for the deepest critique of Arab political discourse, the way the societies are organized, the way force is mobilized, i.e. like Russia after Russian-Japanese war of 1904. However all signs point to this not happening.

2) Deflective thinking – ways of characterizing the situation that shifts blame away from oneself, i.e. because the enemy is too weak and the defeat was an accident and against “natural course of things”, or because the enemy was too strong and defeat was inevitable and nothing could have made it otherwise. Or because enemy used “trickery”, or because enemy disobeyed “human rights”, or some other completely unreasonable assumption. (Al Azm grounds this in cultural criticism).

3) Revolutionary criticism – critique not primarily of ideas but of the way ideas are emptied of content and remain mere slogans while material reality remains dominated by pre-revolutionary ideas and practices. Unscientific thinking must be replaced with scientific thinking, decisions must replace flowery words. (Al Azm also grounds this in cultural criticism).


Divided into these four categories, we can now set about abstracting the critiques from their specific political-cultural-historical context, and ask about their more general relevance today. To begin with the first category, we have no “defeat” today – or do we? What of the ongoing decline of the welfare state, the segmentation of the left, the absence of an adequate response to environmental catastrophe – are these not “defeats” enough for us? In truth, they are not – none of these failures are interpreted as catrastrophes which require us to radically re-evaluate leftist academic and organizational trends. However, this doesn’t actually make us any different from the post-67 Arabs to which al Azm’s text is directed: his accusation towards them is precisely that the defeat, more commonly called the naksa (“set back”), is not being interpreted as an imputes to radical self-criticsm. Rather, various excuses are being made to avoid self-criticism, various means of what I am calling “deflective thinking”, which brings us to the second category. 

Deflective Thinking

Examples of deflective thinking in Self Criticism will not apply directly to contemporary situations. For al Azm, deflective thinking has two principle sources: being caught in conservative, traditionalist, chivalrous interpretations of war, and mis representations of the enemy as either much weaker than it is, or much stronger. We certainly cannot accuse contemporary leftist discourse of chivalry, and although some might criticize some leftists for being overly wedded to tradition, I don’t actually think those who reject the tradition are essentially any better. The problems on the left today do not come from the lack of acceptance of a new paradigm, rather, “accepting a new paradigm” can be simply one more source of left sectarianism. There is no universal new idea to which people must “catch up”. Of course, we could also criticize al Azm’s interpretation of his situation as one of modernity vs. traditionalism, and it’s not my place here to take a position on that question. However, if we focus on the other kind of deflective thinking: mis-representing the enemy, we can make productive comparisons to contemporary political stagnation.

Al Azm describes two kinds of Arab misrepresentation of Zionism which among other things obscure the need for self-criticism after the June war. The first is “the extreme underestimation of the capacity of the enemy”, and “the second…is that the Arab appraisal of Zionism and its power has fallen into…the exaggeration of its power and influence, to the extent of ascribing it overwhelming mythical powers that make it the mistress of capitalism, socialism, and the course of history at the same time”(61). The first interprets the June war as a historical aberration, and assures the listener that the course of history is surely against the existence of a tiny colonial Jewish state which must stand against the might of overwhelming Arab power. The military defeat, according to this way of thinking, is not considered seriously but interpreted almost as an environmental catastrophe, like an earthquake – not as something which ought to have been foreseen. This allows military thinking to remain in the pre-war frame, and people to believe that repeating the same (mistakes) will produce victory next time. Now, take the war out of all this talk, and does it not resemble the leftist tendency to romanticize failed revolutions of the past? Those who study the strategy of armed revolts which led to basically fascist outcomes? It certainly possible to see this basic phenomenon in leftists who interpret the leninist/maoist revolutionary course as natural, and the failures of previous revolutions as aberrations from the imagined norm. And it isn’t just the leftists, but a general human tendency to make excuses for the failure of a strategy in order to continue the same strategy rather than critically evaluating it and making deep changes.

As for the second mischaracterization of Zionism, the one which plays into anti-semitic fantasies like “the Elders of Zion” and justifies failure by interpreting the Zionists as absolutely powerful (i.e. as fully in control of the American government), can we see a similar tendency of thought in progressive movements more generally? I say we can, and the clue is in al Azm’s response to the anti-semitic fantasy of Jewish world control: he analyzes American business and shows that the hegemonic group in the American economy are actually the “White Protestants”, that “there is not the slightest doubt that the Jews lack influence in the main sector”, and that there is a clearly existing relation between “white protestant  economic hegemony on the one hand, and the racial discrimination it practices against other groups who control little (like the Jews), or those who have no power at all worth mentioning…like blacks, American Indians, and Puerto Ricans”(68-69). Now, I’m certainly not going to accuse contemporary leftist political movements of excusing their ineffectiveness by mass appeals to anti-Jewish racist fantasies, but if we think more generally about what such fantasies represent we can find a connection. If we recognize this racist fantasy as a form of magical, simplistic, conspiratorial thinking, then we can see it as an instance of rather than doing the hard work of understanding the power structure that you’re coming up against, simplifying it with a single word or phrase, and then as if by magic attributing to this uninterpretable form all the power and malevolence that you require your enemy to hold to justify your own righteousness. Or, to put it more simply, how often have we seen the words “capitalism” or “colonialism” used totally uncritically as names for evil forces rather than descriptions of processes which we seek to understand in their specificity? At an anti-oppression training I attended recently, a facilitator called capitalism and colonialism “the two big evils”, yet they did not describe a single example of the process of colonization or capitalist exploitation that went beyond the level of a slogan. We should not believe that the left is immune from conspiratorial thinking just because it rejects “conspiracy theories”, rather, for the same reason that we reject conspiracy theories we should reject simplistic and mystifying forms of anti capitalist and anti imperialist discourse.

Part of mystification of the enemy is a reduction overly simplistic moralizing criticism of capitalism and colonialism. Al Azm explains why we should reject this approach because we already know better, and our surprise at the crimes of our enemies bears a fundamental note of dishonesty

Colonialism cannot be blamed for behaving according to expectations. Wolves are not blamed for behaving like wolves, but rather the objects of blame are those who were supposed to protect the land from wolf attacks… (52)

Let us remember that the enemy army is an army of occupation and its primary task is to strike down any Arab resistance in the harshest and most ruthless manner….We have no right to behave as if we expected something from an occupation army other than torture, harshness, suppression, and carnage. Are we so naive that we expect…from it compliance with the law of human rights? (58)

Now certainly in a context where crimes are being committed by an entity which legitimates itself by representing itself as neutral, just, fair, welcoming, in compliance with international law, etc… it can be tactically effective to engage in moralizing criticism of that entity. But for those of us who know that the way our states speak about themselves is a charade, we should not be surprised when the Canadian colonial petro-state acts like a colonial petro-state. We should expect it, and if we don’t we have only ourselves to blame.

Revolutionary criticism

Much of what al Azm criticizes about the Arab revolutionary practices does come down to the tension between traditionalism and modernism, which as I’ve said is not something I’m interested in or want to discuss here. However, there is one aspect of revolutionary criticism which relates quite specially to contemporary situations: the temporality of revolutionary practice, which is to say the tendency for motivation to be tied to spontaneity, but not to work. Al Azm speaks of a youth who is overcome by “immediate but temporary zeal to carry arms when war breaks out”, but who does not recognize the parralel importance of “new obligations that the socialist transformation imposes on the patterns of his daily life, and especially in the execution of the tasks for which he is directly responsible”(77). It is not possible to make a direct comparison to contemporary situations since we don’t live in a revolutionary socialist state, but the more general truth – that the long, unrecognized, and boring work of organizing is of parallel importance to participating in the spontaneous uprising, is absolutely a problem for us. For unpaid social justice organizers, there is a good excuse for being low-capacity: you have to take care of your own economic needs yourself, or else you will not be able to reproduce yourself as an advocate for others, but rather become someone in need of various forms of assistance and advocacy. For paid organizers, however, we are aware of a phenomenon known as “careerism”, which means putting your own future job prospects as a paid organizer in front of the needs of the movement itself. Careerism should not be blamed only on the opportunistic paid organizers themselves, but on the structure in which we all participate which provides the material conditions such that precarity can result from not focussing on your own financial interests at the expense of needs of others. In fact, the problem for paid and unpaid organizers is the same:  whether we’re talking “low capacity” unpaid organizers, and “careerist” in paid organizers, we’re always talking about the failure to actualize our individual and social goods in common. As Andrea Smith said in a recent talk in Toronto, we need to change our lives so that work is organizing, and school is activism. We need to change the ways we work and learn so that they aren’t individualistic but part of revolutionary processes. Al Azm is effectively saying the same thing, although the prescription comes out differently in his Syrian statist revolutionary context.

I’ve done what I can in the writing above to begin to make al Azm’s Self Criticism relevant to political situations today. Certainly there is a lot more to talk about – I didn’t discuss how for instance the reduction of colonialism and capitalism to slogans plays a role in the leftist failure to interpret the Syrian crisis in a way that enables solidarity with the Syrian people. I also didn’t discuss the relevance of al Azm’s remarks about the army of occupation the problem of work versus spontaneous zeal  to the way we talk about Palestine, or perhaps more importantly to the way Palestinians talk about Palestine. I leave these opportunities open to others, and to the future. 


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