A Scholar Rebuilds the Archives of Lebanon’s Left Before the Civil War
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the leftist forces in the world witnessed a major intellectual shock that led some thinkers to believe that humanity had reached the end of history with the victory of the capitalist model. However, other voices still believe that the left is a non-ending idea, citing the mass protests that have swept several regions across the globe in the last decade, especially the Arab Spring revolutions.
Fadi Bardawil, a Lebanese academic, is one of these voices’ most prominent examples. Bardawil spent 15 years investigating the history of his country’s leftist organizations, and carefully collected and documented their rare archives of political thought during a critical period extending from the 1950s until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
Bardawil documented the details of his scholarly expedition behind the scenes of Lebanon’s political and cultural life in a book published by Duke University Press in the United States in 2020, titled “Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation,” of which the Arabic translation will be published in the coming months.
“The first edition of the book was released late in 2010, but the mass uprisings that took place in some Arab countries in 2011 prompted me to work again on issuing a new edition that included additions related to the political changes and developments that took place in the region,” Bardawil, who is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, said in a phone call.
Bardawil believes that following the paths of Lebanon’s leftist organizations’ symbols and intellectual transformations over almost half a century highlights the nature of political work, how it was practiced, and the ways in which it interacts with the surrounding events at home and abroad. This helps to understand the experiences of the Arab uprisings in their historical contexts, says Bardawil. (See a related article, “In Lebanon, Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians.”)
Bardawil’s upbringing during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and the development of his political consciousness at the height of its events gave him a personal motivation to follow the rich partisan experience of the symbols of the Lebanese left as a pattern different from the roles played by other political forces in the war.
“The war was the only life I knew since my childhood, and the experience of the left was outside that life and its struggles.”Fadi Bardawil
Author of “Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation.”
“The war was the only life I knew since my childhood, and the experience of the left was outside that life and its struggles,” he said. “Their view of the world was more spacious, and they were gathered by ideas and political identity, rather than regional and sectarian identities,” he added. His research experience, he said, is an attempt to keep the memory of the past struggle alive, and to enrich the intergenerational dialogue.
In his research journey, Bardawil got acquainted directly with most of the symbols of the Lebanese left, followed their roles in decisive events throughout the history of contemporary Lebanon, and re-read their intellectual books and biographies, to understand how they were brought together under the banner of socialism in the mid-1960s.
In his book’s second part, he reviews the pitfalls faced by the Lebanese leftist intellectuals, with the decline of talk about the possibility of a revolution at a time when sectarian divisions were increasing, leading up to the outbreak of the war.
Another factor that prompted him to choose this topic is related to his seeking to know the leftists’ perception of the role of the intellectual in society, and the discrepancy between politics’ reality and practice.
Scarcity of Archival Materials
Bardawil searched several archives that preserve the memory of political organizations in the 1960s, besides examining secret party bulletins that disappeared during the war, and discovered that many events did not attract researchers’ attention due to the scarcity of the available information.
Bardawil says the main difficulty he faced was in obtaining archives and secret bulletins that were edited under pseudonyms, and were not available in traditional archives, in addition to the difficulty of accessing periodicals that were issued in that time and ran out of stock or ceased to be issued.
“The documentary work carried out by Bardawil reveals how the Lebanese left rose in the 1960s and 1970s, and shows its success in consolidating its presence among ordinary people at a time when sectarianism was spreading from bottom to top.”Francesco Anselmetti
A researcher specialized in Middle Eastern studies.
In order to reconstruct the past, Bardawil conducted several direct meetings with some of the most prominent actors within these organizations who were still alive, such as Waddah Charara, Fawwaz Traboulsi, Mohsen Ibrahim and Ahmad Baydoun, with the aim of illuminating and analyzing texts in different contexts, and to overcome the difficulties of obtaining archives.
Bardawil’s book has stimulated conversations among other scholars.
“The documentary work carried out by Bardawil reveals how the Lebanese left rose in the 1960s and 1970s, and shows its success in consolidating its presence among ordinary people at a time when sectarianism was spreading from bottom to top,” Francesco Anselmetti, a researcher specialized in Middle Eastern studies, said in a phone call.
Anselmetti explained that reviewing the experience of left-wing organizations in the 1960s may be important now because of the examples they provide to protest groups in the importance of preparing for a long confrontation with authority if they hope to achieve change. (See a related article, “Making Sense of the Arab Uprisings’ Aftermath: Think Small.”)
Anselmetti, who graduated from the American University of Beirut, hopes that Bardawil’s work will lead to more interest in the official archives of those organizations and those of other radical movements in the Arab world in the twentieth century.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
Other scholars believe that the main advantage of Bardawil’s book is the inspiring use of social and anthropological sciences in political research, in addition to his efforts to provide solutions to the problems of leftist organizations.
Bardawil’s book represents a “different kind of academic book, whose author uses multiple disciplines to provide new conclusions.”Myriam Amri
A doctoral researcher in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University
In a phone call, Myriam Amri, a doctoral researcher in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University, said that Bardawil’s book represents a “different kind of academic book, whose author uses multiple disciplines to provide new conclusions.”
The book opens a new door to modern social sciences, Amri said, as it provides academic evidence by using social-science techniques to show that political theories are not an “abstract thing” detached from the historical and sociocultural context. (See a related article, “Arab Classrooms Frequently Ignore History.”)
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Today, Bardawil is working on two new projects: The first is related to re-reading the heritage of critical theory in light of the revolutionary waves and uprisings that the Arab countries have witnessed since 2011. He also is reviewing an old research work that investigates the relationship between art and politics, based on the production of the Lebanese musician and theatrical artist Ziad Rahbani.
“I am trying to uncover the hidden thread that connects all these works,” Bardawil said, “and to investigate the different relationships that bind cultural production (history, social sciences, art) to political practice.”