Book review

Fawwaz Traboulsi, Pluto Press, £16.99

As Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi writes in the introduction to his book, traditional accounts of Lebanon reduce the identity of the Lebanese to one unique form – their sectarian affiliation. Mainstream resources treat the struggles in the country as a series of tribal conflicts or as an earthly paradise for the extremely wealthy interrupted by “external intervention” and “fanatics”.

Traboulsi succeeds in emphasising “often neglected and obscured internal factors” such as the tax revolts of the 19th century, the workers’ movement of the 20th century and failed attempts at modernisation by the state and the left.

As international intervention in modern day Lebanon is hailed as the only solution to the current crisis, it is worthwhile reading that France, Britain and Germany started their imperialist roles going back to the mid-19th century, long before they supported the Israeli aggression of July 2006. Their intentions were never benevolent. By the 20th century most of the country was “an enclave of monoculture and monoproduction of silk at the service of the silk industry of Lyons”. 

Covering 500 years of history in 250 pages is constraining, but Traboulsi manages to pick out various threads that shaped modern Lebanon, notably to explain the nature of the confessional political system. He manages to historically define the goal of the secular movement in calling for its abolition.

He highlights the numerous uprisings – with stories about peasant revolts, communes, organic intellectuals and liberationist clerics – that shaped the 19th century. This he contrasts to the negative role of the superpowers, landlords, the church, and the bosses.

Traboulsi continues the thread about “those who resist” by describing the workers’ movement that began to develop following the First World War, the student demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s, the resistance, and shedding light on the plight of ordinary people. However, the book neglects the history of the workers of the 19th century. 

This weakness is not for lack of evidence. Throughout the book, one wonders how much effort comrade Traboulsi must have spent to obscure the class nature of the struggles, opting for the more “academically correct” terms.

The author was a leader in the Organisation of Communist Action in the 1970s and in the resistance to the Israeli invasion of 1982. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) under Kamal Jumblatt (a descendant of the tribal warriors mentioned at the very beginning of the book) had in its various incarnations hegemonised the programme of the left.

In a few matter of fact sentences, Traboulsi elaborates the nature of this movement that attempted a revolution in 1975. The LNM wanted “to impose a new superstructure on the Lebanese oligarchy” through “simple democratic reforms ‘within the context of the capitalist system'”. It used Palestinian freedom fighters and Lebanese workers and students as tools. The insurrection failed and 70,000 people lost their lives in 15 years of war between different factions of that same oligarchy, including the LNM.

Nevertheless, this book is a very smooth read. The concise descriptive approach makes it an accessible guide –- more so since it is written by one the few political leaders of the period who did not indulge themselves in the carnage.

Ghassan Makarem