Saturday, March 14, 2009

A footnote to one man's antifascist kampf

In case you haven't been receiving your regular dispatches from the frontier, I would belatedly draw your attention to a recent visit to Lebanon by Christopher Hitchens. There on the invitation of the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation (a Washington-based lobby group aligned led by a Lebanese Forces member and aligned to the right-wing Hariri cult), he seems to have spent his time being laughed at by Lebanese leftists, especially after bigging up the sleazy opportunist and sectarian Walid Jumblatt as a 'true revolutionary', and leering at the girls at Hezbollah rallies. One afternoon, after a pub visit, he received a bit of a kicking from several members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The original story that sent the blogosphere humming was that he had written 'fuck the SSNP', or some similar sentiment, on an SSNP poster, thus risking abduction and torture by the party's militias. This was Hitchens' own version of events, and the thought of such dubious dutch courage had some of the sycophants quivering with delight. It turned out, however, that he had actually been defacing a memorial to a Lebanese resistance fighter and SSNP member named Khalid Alwan, who had shot two Israeli soldiers during the occupation. And there were no militias anywhere, just a bunch of pissed off civilians. To be frank, if they couldn't take Hitchens and his tipsy bozo friends down, they aren't all that impressive. This unfortunate episode became especially poignant when Hitchens interpreted his actions as part of a personal war against fascism. "One must take a stand. One simply must", he drooled. High kampf indeed.

Forget that the Lebanese Forces, part of the coalition which welcomed Hitchens, is a fascist militia movement co-founded by the Phalange. The post-irony Hitchens doesn't have to notice trifling inconsistencies like this. I just raise this amusing anecdote because it contains an interesting object lesson in the ideological mapping of the Decents. The SSNP are said to be the real fascists here. It is tempting to say that the sense in which the SSNP is fascist for the purposes of this discussion, is the sense in which anyone not wholly signed up the Project for the New American Century is a fascist. I suspect that there is no political force in Lebanon outside of the March 14th movement that Hitchens and his emulators would not describe as fascist. But the Decents point out that the SSNP have a symbol that looks like it might be a swastika if you look at it with one eye closed. With slightly more force, they point out that the SSNP are antisemitic, which is true. They point out that the SSNP possesses violent militias, which is also true - they saw action in the 2006 war against the IDF invasion. They aren't the only ones to have militias, of course. Several of their civilian members were slaughtered by Hariri militias in Halba last year and their offices have been repeatedly firebombed and attacked by the supporters of Jumblatt. One might add that the party has historically been right-wing and anticommunist, which is one reason why the United States considered them allies for covert action. Their cadre shifted to the left somewhat during the 1960s, and as a result the party has at times been erroneously described as belonging to the 'secular left'. Though they oppose confessionalism, they also aim to unite much of the land around the Levant from Turkey to Jordan under a 'Greater Syria', an idea based on the eccentric racial nationalism of the founder Antun Sa'adeh.

Claims that the SSNP was "modelled" on the Nazi party, whom their founder is said to have admired, are also popular currency in the right-wing blogosphere. It is a claim that is featured prominently on the party's wikipedia page, albeit you might flood your pants if you check some of the references provided. However incautious such claims are, there is a 'there' there. When the party was founded among a tiny intellectual cadre at the American University of Beirut in 1932, its doctrines bore certain (superficial) affinities to fascism. It was not uncommon for anticolonial intellectuals, raiding the intellectual arsenal of the European philosophes, to alight upon Johann Gottfried von Herder's romantic nationalism, as well as the racial doctrines that had been generated out of the colonial encounter. This was a case of stealing the oppressors' jackboots. And some of the anti-colonial movements forged in that era exhibited great interest in Germany as a once defeated nation that had renewed itself. Such germanophilia did not of itself entail sympathy with Nazism. It did lead to the SSNP setting their anthem to the music of Das Deutschlandlied (or 'Deutschland ├╝ber alles' as is it inaccurately known outside Germany), even if this is a tune that pre-dates the existence of Germany as a nation-state, never mind the existence of the Third Reich.

But matters are far more complex than this. The origin of this debate, as it were, is in the counterinsurgency of the French colonial authorities. The colonists accused the party of ties to Italian and German fascism the better to harrass the activists and prosecute the leadership. It was intended to undercut the popularity of the party (which it would not have had, if it had just been a fascist organisation). The charges were never substantiated, and the party went to great lengths to dissociate itself from both fascism and Nazism. This doesn't mean there were no pro-fascist tendencies in the party. The late 1930s and early 1940s were characterised by a tremendous struggle within the party between those who maintained that a pro-Axis position was logical for both strategic anticolonial reasons for doctrinal ones, and those who supported Sa'adeh's position that the party was neither democratic nor 'totalitarian'. But the latter position won. The Third Reich, for its part, had little interest in meddling in British and French colonial interests. Indeed, it was initially more interested in encouraging the Yishuv than in making any alliances with Arab leaders. Whatever affinities Sa'adeh et al may have had with the precepts of romantic nationalism, irrationalism and authoritarianism that underpinned fascist ideology, the relationship to fascism as such was always far more ambiguous than is implied in most of the polemical writing on this topic.

This caveat applies to a great deal of writing on nationalist currents in the Middle East, especially those that emerged the interwar period: the Arabs, we are told by neocons and their liberal confederates alike, were all in with the Nazis. Peter Wien's study of Iraqi Arab nationalism is a riposte to just this kind of scandal-mongering. And this is the only reason that Hitchens little street-fight with the SSNP is worth mentioning. For here is the point: it is a common trope of Zionist and imperialist ideology in general that nationalism in the Middle East has a special ideational affinity with fascism. If you wanted to redouble the critique, you could simply replace the term 'fascism' with 'totalitarianism' which effectively operates as a synomym for all non-liberal political forces in this discussion. This fits into a broader set of stories about how Israel's military aggression is actually thwarting the prospect of another Holocaust, and of how US imperialism and its local auxiliaries are at present an authentic force for democracy in a region characterised by 'fanaticism' and 'totalitarianism' of various stripes. That the political economy of Aramco imperialism has tended to involve the US in supporting the most right-wing and anti-democratic forces in the Middle East is yet one more of those trivial inconsistencies (between fact and fancy) which we need pay no attention to.