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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: October 2020

12 - Crisis and Critique: The Transformation of the Arab Radical Tradition between the 1960s and the 1980s



In this chapter, I revisit two moments of crisis and critique in twentiethcentury Arab intellectual history: a public debate between Arab leftists and nationalists in Cairo in 1961, and the emergence of Arab Marxists‘ scholarship on Materialism and Arabic-Islamic philosophy ten years later. Both moments are embedded in their global and regional contexts, but are articulated by two sets of intellectuals. The first pits Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal (1923–2016) against Clovis Maksoud (1926–2016) over the relationship between the organic intellectual and the state. Haykal's Crisis of the Intellectuals (1961) was an attempt by Nasser's ‘court intellectual’ to goad a reluctant leftist vanguard into his president's project of Egyptian state building. Haykal summoned Arab intellectuals to Cairo for a threemonth- long conference in 1961, the result of which was a compromise of sorts: Nasser's adoption of Arab Socialism as state doctrine in the Egyptian National Charter of 1962. The second moment focuses on the Arab Left‘s historical-philosophical turn launched by the late Tayyib Tizini (1929–2019) around 1970. Other interlocutors and subsequent commentaries, concluding with Husayn Muruwwa's Materialist Tendencies in Arabic–Islamic Philosophy (1978), complement my discussion. I contend that my preliminary findings historicise our knowledge of the complexities of the Arab Left and teach us to step out of our particular academic moments when practising cultural critique in response to today's crises.

Most immediately, the ‘puzzle’ I am interested in is the twin concepts of ‘crisis’ and ‘critique’. The modern Middle East has been saturated with crisis talk, so much so that a new crop of economic historians are developing methodologies in order to avoid the reification of the crisis paradigm.4 And yet, we have no idea about the genealogy of the term ‘al-azma’, etymologically or discursively. The nahda texts are often replete with self-criticism and immanent critique which animated both religious reform and literary revival discourses. But they do not invoke an intellectual ‘crisis’, or define crisis in political terms.