Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
No observer of present trends in the Arab world can fail to be impressed by the strength of its revulsion against Western political and economic values and ideologies. To take one example among many, a recent book by a prominent Egyptian publicist starts with two propositions which he not only believes to be self-evident but obviously assumes are accepted as such by his readers: present-day capitalism does not work; and Western democracy is a sham, since all power is concentrated in the hands of the owners of the means of production. Judging from pronouncements at the recent Cairo conference of non-aligned nations, such views are widespread in Africa and Asia.
The revulsion of the Arabs is not difficult to understand in view of their grievances-many real, more fancied-against the various Western peoples. But the matter is more complex. It is not just a question of a whole society turning against an alien civilization. It is also a process in which some parts of a society turn against other parts, and in so doing against certain alien values which the latter represent. In other words, the ideological changes taking place in the Arab countries today reflect deep structural changes in their society. The principles and institutions that held together the traditional Arab society have broken down; a desperate search is under way for new bases of integration; and it is felt that the traditional Western ideologies and institutions do not provide these bases.
Arab society in the eighteenth century had very few virtues. Its economy was not only stagnant but actually retrogressing. Its politics were characterized by venality, rapacity, insecurity and oppression. Its intellectual and artistic life was barren. Worst of all, it lived in a smug, self-satisfied lethargy, completely isolated from the outside world- "we do not hear of a single Egyptian who had visited Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries."[i] But it had one redeeming feature, the obverse of some of its defects: it was a stable, integrated society, i.e. practically all its members believed in the prevailing values and had a strong loyalty to a small group and at least passive acceptance of existing institutions.
Of the sedentary population, perhaps four-fifths consisted of peasants, whose condition was hardly idyllic. Their exploitation by the tax-farmers cannot but have aroused deep resentment. The constant feuds between village factions added their share of misery. Bedouin raiders, famine and plagues were frequent visitors. But the prevailing communal systems of land tenure (musha, dira and ard al-fallah) provided both security and a rough measure of equality, since the land of the village was periodically redistributed among its members in more or less equal shares. This meant that there were no landless peasants. It also meant that within the community there were no great differentiations of wealth. Lastly, it meant that each individual knew that he belonged to two closely knit units, the family and the village, which would stand by him in case of need.
The handicraftsmen, who probably constituted the majority of the urban population, were bound together by guilds (asnaf) and religious brotherhoods (turuq). The former regulated production and doubtless formed strong barriers against technological and economic progress. But, in alliance with the brotherhoods, to which they were closely tied, they did provide the craftsmen with security and an object of loyalty. A further integrating factor was the tie of kinship binding the inhabitants of each quarter, which often constituted a self-contained unit with its own gates, baths and place of worship.
The merchants, who in Europe were for several centuries a dynamic and even revolutionary class, certainly did not constitute a threat to the existing order. For one thing, their wealth was small and their social and political power very limited-the Islamic world never had city-states with independent, self-reliant bourgeoisies. For another, they had practically no contacts with the outside world which might have inspired them with new ideas. Lastly, in many areas and branches their activity was largely regulated by custom, which meant that the driving force of competition was greatly attenuated.[ii]
Another group which in the West and Russia has been both dynamic and subversive of existing régimes is the intelligentsia. Its nearest counterpart in the Arab world were the ulama, men trained in religion and jurisprudence. But because of their religious background the ulama were almost necessarily bound to be loyal to any society based on Islam. Moreover, for many centuries Muslim political theory had stressed the principle of obedience to any government that both had military power and promised to respect the sharia, or religious law of Islam. In the absence of an intellectual ferment and of a group that could utilize it to further its own ends, the various disturbances that occurred in the Arab world-army insurrections, conquests by one ruler or pasha of another's territory, bedouin raids, local revolts, etc.-could not lead to any important modification in the social structure, but only to a change in the composition of the ruling group.
Of course Arab society was not completely static. Economic and social changes occurred in Syria and Iraq in the eighteenth century. The Egyptian scholar, Shayyal, already quoted, states that: "Towards the close of the eighteenth century we detect the first signs of a spontaneous cultural revival. It was an internal movement which emerged from within Egypt away from any outside influence whether from the East or from the West." The Wahhabi movement was a challenge that might have revitalized Islam. A Soviet scholar has discerned the beginnings of "capitalist production" in the larger textile and other establishments in Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century. It is just conceivable, though highly improbable, that left to itself Arab society might have evolved into a healthier state. But in fact it was violently thrown into the mainstream of world history.
The chief responsibility for this may well lie, as Toynbee, Gibb and other Western writers claim, with those monarchs and statesmen-Muhammad Ali in Egypt, Mahmud II and Reshid Pasha in Turkey, Khaireddin in Tunisia-who realized that, without some thoroughgoing modernization their countries could not survive a European onslaught. But an equally important factor was the quest of the Western countries for raw materials, markets, bases and spheres of political, religious and cultural influence. This led them to open up the Ottoman Empire to Western traders by such measures as the Anglo- Turkish Commercial Convention of 1838, to back with diplomatic and other means those of their citizens who were hunting for concessions, and eventually to impose their rule over practically the whole Arab world. And it was certainly the presence of the West in the region that caused the latter's development to take the peculiar form that it did. To put the matter concisely, Western influence accelerated the transformation of the Arab world from a subsistence to a market economy, and the dissolution of its communal and organizational ties and their replacement by individual, contractual relationships; at the same time, it inhibited the growth of an Arab bourgeoisie.
The process of transformation, and the consequent dislocations, took much the same form as in other parts of the world. In the first place, Western medicine and hygiene eliminated the plagues and many of the endemic diseases prevalent in the region, while improved transport and increased food supplies prevented the occurrence of famines. The result was a sharp reduction in the death rate which, since the birth rate remained at its previous high level, led to a rapid increase in the population. For a long time the annual rate of growth averaged about 1 percent, but in recent years it has risen to between 2 and 3 and may soon go over the latter figure, which would mean a doubling of the population every 20-25 years. The vast growth that has already taken place, unaccompanied by either massive industrialization or a commensurate extension of the cultivated area, has led to great pressure on the land and, in recent years, to an exodus to the cities. The social consequences have been the appearance of two new phenomena: the landless peasant, and a large, underemployed, amorphous, urban proletariat.
The emergence of a landless peasantry was also promoted by another important transformation: the change-over from a subsistence to a market- oriented, cash-crop agriculture. The economic consequences of this change were predominantly beneficial-a large increase in agricultural productivity and output, greatly expanded exports and a substantial growth in the national product. But the social consequences were far less favorable. Thus the dissolution of the village community-without which no progress could have taken place-eliminated the security formerly enjoyed by all peasants. Production for the market meant exposure to price fluctuations, which often led to indebtedness and loss of land. Economic progress produced a rapidly widening gap between the able, cunning or lucky members of the village on the one hand and the inefficient, simpleminded or unfortunate on the other; and such inequalities tended to be self-perpetuating and cumulative. The adoption of Western law codes and their application to land worked in the same direction. Moreover, much of the land was appropriated by former tax- farmers, tribal chieftains, city notables or others, and since rents soon came to absorb a large and growing portion of the total product, the benefits of agricultural progress accrued primarily to a small number of landlords, often absentees. Again, in some countries, notably Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine and Morocco, a large fraction of the cultivated area passed-partly by expropriation or chicanery, partly by purchase-into the hands of foreign settlers, thus reducing still further the area available to Arab farmers. Lastly, it should be noted that agricultural techniques showed little or no improvement. The only exceptions were Egypt and such enclaves as the European farms in North Africa, the Zionist settlements in Palestine, the Gezira scheme in the Sudan, and parts of Lebanon. The cumulative effect of all these factors-coupled with the lack of industrialization-was that the Arab countries did not acquire a prosperous, conservative peasantry. Instead, there was an ever-growing number of landless peasants, or of land-hungry farmers with steadily shrinking plots, envious of the neighboring estates of native landlords or foreign planters. Where, as in Egypt and Algeria, the level of living of the rural populations actually declined, the explosiveness of the situation was greatly increased.
Meanwhile, the towns were passing through an even more acute crisis. The handicrafts, which had occupied the greater part of their population, received mortal blows from the competition of machine-made European goods and, in Egypt, from Muhammad Ali's state factories and monopolies. The disruptive effects of this shock went deepest in such towns as Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Tunis, which had previously supplied the adjoining regions with manufactured goods.[iii] And with the ruin of the handicrafts came the dissolution of the guilds that had bound together their members. In their place emerged a mass of unemployed or underemployed workmen, constantly augmented by influxes from the villages and-again in the absence of industrial development-unable to organize and raise its level of living.
The processes so far described do not differ basically from those that took place in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, or in many other parts of the world somewhat later. But the crucial difference lies in the fact that Western Europe industrialized. This greatly strengthened its bourgeoisie, which had already become a significant force thanks to the earlier development of trade and finance. And in the course of the 19th century the bourgeoisie became the dominant power in society. But the Arab countries began to industrialize only during the last few years, and their economic and social structure was such that-with the exceptions noted below- no native bourgeoisie developed until very recently. This delay, and the consequent weakness of the bourgeoisie, prevented the latter from playing a significant part until hostile forces had developed to the point where they could overwhelm it. And, since the political and economic values and institutions of the West-liberalism, constitutionalism and free enterprise- are essentially middle-class ones, the crushing of the Arab middle class has meant the elimination of the one class that could still have defended these values and institutions.
The factors that impeded the industrialization of the Arab countries, and of other underdeveloped areas, have often been described. Some would have existed under any political régime: the narrowness of the market, because of low agricultural productivity; the unfavorable social structure; the scarcity of iron and coal, until very recently almost indispensable to industrialization; the dearness of fuel, until the discovery of petroleum and natural gas in the last few decades; the very poor transport systems; the paucity of investment capital; the absence of industrial credit; and the lack of technicians and skilled workmen and, still more, entrepreneurs. But it is no less true that some of these difficulties were greatly aggravated by the nature of the relationships between the Arab countries and the West. Thus the shortage of capital was accentuated by the heavy service charges on the debts contracted-often at usurious rates-by spendthrift monarchs.[iv] Industrial credit facilities could have been expanded by government pressure on the banks, which confined their activities almost solely to trade. The lack of skills could have been partly remedied by an appropriate educational policy. But the absence of Western interest in Arab education may be illustrated by the fact that in 1955, after 125 years of French rule, the literacy rate among Algerian Muslims was about 15 percent and only one-sixth of the children of school age (6-14) were attending school. Similarly in Egypt during the first 20 years of British rule government expenditure on education was under 1 percent of the total.
Moreover, the little that was done in education was misdirected, from the point of view of economic development. Thus whereas under Muhammad Ali (1813-1848) 327 of the 339 students who were sent abroad on government missions studied industrial technology, engineering, medicine or agriculture, and under his successors (1849-1882) 270 out of 279, during the British Occupation (1883-1919) the figure was 74 out of 289. But the most important point is that a sympathetic government could have given the encouragement and protection without which no industry could possibly have established itself against foreign competition: tax exemptions, rebates on transport rates, preferential purchases and, above all, tariff protection. Instead, local industries were exposed to the full blast of foreign competition. Thus French goods entering Algeria and, with few exceptions Tunisia, and Italian goods entering Libya were exempt from duty, and all imports into the Ottoman Empire and Egypt paid a flat rate of 8 percent, no distinction being made between raw materials, capital goods and consumer goods. Indeed hostility to local industrialization went further: when a small cotton textile industry did develop in Egypt it was subjected to an 8 percent excise duty, i.e. the rate levied on imports.
Lack of industrial development and the weakness of the bourgeoisie are closely interconnected. On the one hand, industry has everywhere been one of the main sources of middle-class strength. And, on the other hand, in most countries capital and entrepreneurship have flowed into industry from other sectors of the economy dominated by the bourgeoisie, notably trade and finance. But the fact that Arab handicrafts were under such great pressure meant that few if any could expand and develop into workshops and factories, and industrial recruitment from this source was negligible. And in the Arab world all the main sectors of the economy, with the partial exception of agriculture and petty trade, were largely or wholly controlled by foreigners.
This situation comes out most clearly in Arab Africa. In Algeria and Libya almost every single urban activity-finance, transport, trade, real estate, manufacturing and the professions-was controlled by Europeans, who even provided most of the skilled labor; in addition they ran most of the "modernized" agriculture. In Tunisia and Morocco, the bulk of urban activity and a significant part of agriculture were similarly controlled by Europeans. And the same applied to Egypt until the 1950s, with the not very important difference that here Europeans shared their control, to a certain extent, with various minority groups. In Arab Asia, except for Palestine under the Mandate, foreign investment and immigration were insignificant until the recent expansion of the oil industry. But in several of these countries the middle class consisted to a large extent of minority groups- Jews in Iraq and Christians in Syria and Jordan.
The effect of this phenomenon was that for about a century the entrepreneurial middle class (as distinct from the salaried middle class) became identified with foreigners or minority groups. Of course a Muslim bourgeoisie did eventually develop but, except in Lebanon and to a lesser degree Syria, it came too late and was too weak to meet the onslaught of the hostile forces that had emerged. In Egypt, the bourgeoisie developed as a result of the efforts of the Misr group, of the 1930 tariff, of the abolition of the Capitulations in 1936, of various government measures to "Egyptianize" business, of the weakening of the Europeans during and after the Second World War and of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In the Arabian peninsula the small middle class that arose owed its existence to the oil boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The same cause was at work in Iraq, supplemented by the exodus of Jews after the Arab-Israeli War. In Libya the sequence was reversed, the withdrawal of the Italians after the Second World War being followed by an oil boom. In Tunisia and Morocco French withdrawal enabled the local bourgeoisie greatly to increase its strength. And in the Sudan a small middle class is being slowly formed, thanks to the country's relatively undisturbed development.
Given sufficient time, these bourgeoisies might have been able to get control of their societies and reshape them in their image. Unfortunately for them, and for the West, the fabric of their societies was already being torn by the various stresses to which they were being subjected. Among such stresses were the population explosion, the hypertrophic urbanization, the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution referred to above. Two other processes deserve more detailed treatment: the cultural changes and the political struggles.
The discovery of the West, and the consequent cultural transformation of Arab society, has had the revitalizing-and intoxicating-effect of a renaissance. Its over-all consequences have of course been incalculably beneficial. But it has had a very unsettling effect on Arab society by bringing into being a new class of intellectuals. And whereas the old "intellectuals," the ulama, were deeply loyal to the basic values and institutions of their society the new ones did not owe it any such allegiance and looked right and left, East and West, for new sources of inspiration and loyalty. Thus, for the first time in many centuries, new ideas began to corrode the fabric of Arab society.
Meanwhile political strife was being added to social discontent and stirring up the masses. In the Arab East there were the struggles against the British and French, the traumatic Arab-Israeli War and the Suez attack of 1956. In North Africa there was the shattering effect of the Algerian Revolution. All these struggles could be waged only by calling on ever wider sections of the population to participate, by digging into ever deeper social strata. The increased participation of the masses meant that new leaders, of more humble origins, soon took command. And these leaders represented not the hitherto dominant upper and middle-class values but radical ideologies.
In the light of the above analysis, the shift in Arab ideologies becomes quite intelligible. For a long time, until the 1920s or '30s, the dominant ideas were those of moderate nationalism, constitutionalism and political and economic liberalism.[v] The reasons for this are obvious. First, these were the dominant ideologies of the leading powers-Britain, France and the United States-and to them was given full credit for the prosperity of these countries and their victory in the First World War. Second, Arab cultural contacts were almost entirely restricted to these three countries. Third, liberalism and constitutionalism suited the Arab upper and middle classes, since they controlled parliaments, parties and the press. And economic liberalism, in addition to being fashionable, was the only policy open to governments whose hands were tied by the Capitulations, Commercial Conventions and other bonds. But, given the Arab social structure, these ideas made practically no impact on the masses.
During the 1930s and '40s Arab society passed through an acute crisis, caused by such factors as the drastic fall in agricultural prices during the Depression; the presence of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops during the war and the consequent sharp inflation; the growth of unemployment among both unskilled workers and high-school and college graduates; and the unending struggles against foreign occupation. But at the same time the world climate was changing, with the emergence of the Soviet Union and, subsequently, China as major powers and with the rapid growth in the "developing" nations of the belief in socialist planning and one-party dictatorship. The result was the collapse of the fragile Arab parliamentary systems and the replacement of the landowner and bourgeois élite by one of army officers, bureaucrats and technicians drawn from lower strata.
And now, as in so many other underdeveloped countries, an attempt is being made to reconstruct society on the twin bases of nationalism and socialism.
The nationalism consists of an attempt at self-affirmation, primarily against the Western countries which formerly ruled the area and still dominate its economy. But the question immediately arose as to whether that nationalism was to be based on Islam or Arabism. Islam, the religion of 90 percent of the Arabs, had been for centuries the traditional, and is probably still the strongest, bond holding them together. This fact was clearly seen by the Muslim Brotherhood who, in the 1940s and early '50s, achieved great success by appealing to the sense of Muslim solidarity of the masses and by promising radical changes which would bring down the rich and improve the lot of the poor. But such an approach was open to serious objections. First and foremost, the greater part of the educated classes realizes that the ideology and organization of the Brotherhood cannot cope with the complex modernization required by Arab society. Second, the Brotherhood's approach presupposes an essential identity of interests between the Arabs and their Muslim neighbors-the Turks, Iranians and Pakistanis; but in fact there has been considerable tension between them because of conflicting territorial claims (Alexandretta, Bahrain and Khuzistan) and opposed international alignments. Third, in the mid- twentieth century it is no longer fashionable to proclaim religion as the official basis of society. Lastly, it created unnecessary difficulties with the Christian minorities, which had played an important part in the development of Arab nationalism and still have a minor contribution to make to Arab society.
Instead, the army groups that crushed the Muslim Brotherhood worked out an alternative, Arab Socialism. Like the socialist nationalism which is sweeping so many underdeveloped countries, it is an amalgam of intense nationalism (with a strong Muslim component) , militarism, state ownership and egalitarianism. In other words, the essential ingredients were the same as those of the Brotherhood but the doses different. The nationalist aims of this movement are the achievement of full independence, which implies the elimination of all foreign military, political and economic positions in the area; cultural independence, which is deemed to require close regulation of the entry of outside influences and the suppression or strict control of foreign schools and other institutions; and Arab unity. Its socialist aims consist essentially of the desire for greater equality and rapid industrialization, since industry is regarded as the main hope for economic development and military and political power. In view of the failure of the native bourgeoisie to carry out sufficiently rapid industrialization, this is to be brought about by state ownership of the principal means of production and by socialist planning. This, it is rightly believed, should reduce private consumption and increase the amount available for investment, though little thought has been given to the concomitant rise in public consumption and the sharp reduction in the efficiency of capital investment under bureaucratic socialism and increasing militarization. Nationalization and planning are also favored because they are expected to eliminate the influence of all private individual or group interests, foreign or local, and give the new rulers full control over their societies.
For it goes without saying that the socialism in question is an authoritarian or perhaps even a totalitarian one, resting on army rule or one-party dictatorship. It is one that gets much more inspiration from Russia, China or Jugoslavia than from Western Socialism. As for Western political and economic liberalism, its influence and appeal have practically disappeared. It may be added that the new socialist ideas have been spread by, and the new leadership has been recruited from, not the working classes but mainly the lower middle class. In the words of Hisham Sharabi: "It is significant that just as parliamentary democracy had been established without a middle class, revolutionary socialism under army control is now instituted without the firm base of a working class or proletariat."
Of course, the ideological shift described above has not taken place everywhere. Lebanon is still committed to parliamentary democracy and economic liberalism. Morocco, Syria and Tunisia are struggling hard to find their way. In all four countries a native bourgeoisie had the time to develop, and is not inclined to give up its power without a struggle. Several Arab countries have not yet reached the stage where either liberal or socialist ideologies are meaningful. But all this is less important than the fact that both Egypt and Algeria are engaged in revolutions to implement their slightly differing versions of Arab Socialism; with the nationalization laws of July 1964, Iraq also seems to have chosen the Arab Socialist way. For well over a hundred years Egypt and Algeria have been the seed beds of change in the eastern and western halves of the Arab world. Because of the reforms started by Muhammad Ali in Egypt and the activity created by the inflow of French capital and settlers in Algeria, economic and social developments in these two countries have, in the past, had deep repercussions on their neighbors. It is hard to believe that this will not also hold in the immediate future.
[i] G. al-Shayyal in "Historians of the Middle East," edited by Bernard Lewis and P. M. Holt. (London: Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 410.) By way of contrast, by the end of the eighteenth century, a group of Japanese scholars had achieved-through the small chink provided by the Dutch settlement in Deshima-a much clearer picture of contemporary Western civilization. They had accepted the Copernican cosmology and understood the system of the circulation of the blood. (See Donald Keene, "The Japanese Discovery of Europe." London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.)
[ii] A friend told me that as a young man in Damascus, in the 1860s, wanting to buy some cloth, he was told by the shopkeeper: "I have sold quite a bit today-try my neighbor, who has done very little business."
[iii] The above is an oversimplified account of a long-drawn and complicated process. Some handicrafts gained a new lease on life by using cheaper imported materials, e.g. cotton yarn. Others managed to survive by drastically reducing the earnings of the craftsmen. A handful improved their processes, thus raising their productivity.
[iv] At the beginning of this century, interest and service charges on the public debt absorbed nearly a third of the Ottoman budget, in Egypt nearly a half and in Tunisia a quarter. The £5,000,000 thus paid out annually by Egypt represented perhaps 4 percent of its gross national product.
[v] Even as late as the mid 1940s, the two heroes of my students at the American University in Beirut were Mazzini and Friedrich List.