T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

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Part I
Historical Background

Chapter 1
Feudalism in the Arab East

In order to understand present phenomena in the Arab East a certain knowledge of development in the past is indispensable. That between the 8th and 13th centuries the Arabs were at the peak of world culture as it was at that time is common knowledge, but the causes of their remaining behind, sunk in the feudal regime, while Europe marched forward to capitalism, the way advanced and cultured Arab feudalism turned into the backward, barbaric feudalism of today, is still an enigmatic problem for most students who come to learn about the Arab East. A description of Arab Feudalism showing the differences between it and European feudalism must therefore be the starting point for a study of the present-day Arab East.

I. The Rise of Arab Feudalism and the Arab Golden Age

The rise of Arab feudalism on the ruins of the Roman slave system, was born of the fact that the slave economy, which had been able to develop the forces of production all the while that there were constantly wide sources of labour power, became a serious obstacle to progress with the dwindling of these sources, i.e. with the cessation of Roman imperial expansion. As slavery spread, the Italian peasant was progressively ousted by the latifundiae. And so the military expansion of Rome accompanied by the tightening of the commercial bonds between the provinces of the empire brought with it two main results: the conversion of Italy into a land of latifundiae, and the conversion of Italians into proletarians (as the term meant then) – people who ate and did nothing, a group of parasites living at the expense of the toiling slaves. They were a praetorian band, disorderly, unruly, and the source of the economic and military weakness of the Roman Empire. The destruction, by conversion of Italy into a land of latifundiae, of the very class which had been the basis of the state’s military assurance – the peasantry – and the putting in its place of an inimical class of slaves, limited the power of the Roman Empire. Thus the very expansion of the Roman Empire became the cause of the exhaustion of the power of its expansion. With the cessation of the expansion, the Roman economy was confronted with two alternatives: either to increase the total amount of produce on which the slaves, proletarians, landowners and merchants lived, or otherwise to see to the ‘economy of man’s forces’ and diminish the cruel exploitation of the slaves. The first alternative was impossible, as the slaves’ productivity of labour was very much limited by the social position of this ‘labour power’, which led to lack of interest in greater efforts, boorishness and primitivity. The second alternative was impossible due to the fact that no boundaries could stand in the way of the appetites of the landowners and the desires of the praetorian masses. The first was impossible in slaves system, the second impossible in such a system founded on commercial bases, where masses of parasites formed the state’s military strength. So Roman society fell back upon its only ‘solution’: after most Italians had become proletarian, the harsh exploitation of the slaves on the Italian latifundiae increased, to such an extent that they ceased to reproduce their kind: and as a result the waste began to swallow up the latifundiae, and Italy had to start living parasitically, entirely at the expense of the provinces of the Roman Empire, and primarily at the expense of the rich granaries of Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

Thus the economic, military and cultural centre of gravity passed gradually over from Italy to the East, from Rome to Byzantium. The economic and cultural heritage which fell to the lot of the Arabs was therefore much richer than that which fell to the lot of the German tribes; the conquest of the Western Roman Empire involved much greater destruction of the resources of the latter than the Arab conquests, which during the course of one century made the Arabs rulers over an empire reaching from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China, an empire far greater than that of Rome at the height of her power. Whereas the ‘barbarians’ who entered the Western Roman Empire were settlers who comprised <p. 2> a majority of the populations of the countries they settled, the Arabs constituted a tiny minority of the populations of the places they conquered, installing themselves at the top of the social pyramid, which continued to be based not only on the labour of he toilers among the former inhabitants, but also on the work of the officials, merchants and others of the upper classes. The Arabs mainly took for themselves the most important positions in the leadership.

The fundamental difference between the feudalism of the West and that of the Arab East was this: the feudalism of the West was from the first, and for centuries after, based on natural foundations, while Arab feudalism from the beginning was based on commercial relations. While the European feudal lord sat in his castle on his domain, the received his rent in kind, the Arab feudal lord dwelt in the town, which was in actuality a feudal army camp. He received the rent from his estates which could be reached, whether near or far, by means of one of the large rivers, the Euphrates, the Tigris or the Nile. The existence of these rivers, together with the much higher level of the forces of production and culture inherited from the pre-Arabian past, brought about the commercial nature of the feudalism of the Arab East, which in turn brought about its centralised character. (Another basic factor that contributed to making Arab feudalism more centralised than that of Europe, was the necessity for centralised control over the barrages and canals used for irrigation, hence the essentiality of the concentration of the ruling class in the big towns.)

The Arab conquests also brought many different people into contact with one another. Instead of commerce in limited areas – Byzantium, Persia, Arabia and Abyssinia – large scale commerce arose, united under the flag of Islam. The inland customs tolls, and the local taxes which so much disturbed trade in ancient times and in medieval Europe, were altogether abolished in the East by the Arabs. Complete freedom of movement between the different provinces of the Empire prevailed. Thus while in Europe there were almost no commercial connections even within each country, the Arabs were engaged in highly developed commerce and shipping throughout the Mediterranean, along the lands of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and as far as the Far East. Even as late as the fourteenth century, the Arab writer, Ibn Khaldun, could remark of the Europeans, with justified scorn, that they ‘no longer float a plank on it (the Mediterranean)’.

From this commercial character of Arab feudalism flowed various important results. The produce which the European serfs gave to their feudal lords, or the cattle that they gave as rent payments, were not sent out to be sold. These serfs therefore did not need to give their lord more than he and his household needed for food. ‘The walls of his (the feudal lord’s) stomach set the limits to his exploitation of the peasant’ (Marx). This limitation of exploitation also put definite bounds upon the development of the economy, upon the investments of means by the lord, and upon the spurring on of the serf to invest means for the progress of agriculture. The feudal lord’s mode of life was very simple. That is why art, literature and all other cultural expressions which are born of abundance, riches and leisure, did not develop.

Under Arab feudalism, on the other hand, produce was grown for sale, and Arab feudalism was therefore based from its beginning on a harsh exploitation of the peasantry and on progress of the forces of production, as received expression in the command of Khalif Suliman to the director of taxes in Egypt, Osama: ‘Milk till the udder be dry, and let blood to the last drop.’ The Egyptian landlord compelled his serfs to fertilize the ground with green manure, and practice the rotation of crops. The Egyptian Sultans used to send special emissaries from amongst the high army officers on to their domains in order to force their serfs to use green manure whether they wanted to or not. And just because of the natural richness of Egypt and Iraq, the exploitation of their peasantry was very harsh during the whole of the Middle Ages. This reached its climax at the time that there was a combination of the payment of rent in kind and in money. In Lower Egypt rent was paid mainly in money (at least from the thirteenth century onwards); on the other hand, in Upper Egypt, where the yield was much greater, the rent was collected in kind. The same feudal lords owned estates both in Upper and Lower Egypt. After having in their hands the surplus of produce from Upper Egypt they had decisive authority over the produce markets of Cairo, and so could compel the serfs of Lower Egypt to <p. 3> sell their produce as a very low price at the same time of the collection of the rent, a season when the serf was very much in need of ready cash; the buyer was either the lord himself of a merchant who acted as his agent. This combination of rent in money and control over the produce market made the Egyptian feudal lord the decisive authority, and a far harsher taskmaster over his serfs than the European feudal lord. A clear picture of the position of the Egyptian serf at the end of the Middle Ages which also throws light on his position at the beginning, is given by the Arab historian Al-Jabarti, who staunchly defends serfdom:

‘The position of the fellaheen was worse than that of the purchased slaves, because a slave sometimes flees from his lord if the latter works him beyond his strength or beats him, while the fellah cannot flee and leave his birthplace, children and family. And if, despite this, the fellah does flee to some other villages and his hiding place becomes known to his master, the master brings him back by force, and tortures and humiliates him very much. Not even a beast could stand up to such trials and sufferings which are beyond conception. The fellaheen, however, used to this, see no harm in it. And because of the evils of their deeds, because they were not orthodox, and because they were not faithful to one another and caused trouble to one another, God put unmerciful people to rule over these fellaheen.’

Thus the relations prevailing between the Arab feudal lord and his tenants were far less patriarchal than those prevailing between the European feudal lord and his tenants in the Middle Ages. Also, the fact that the Arab feudal lord did not dwell in his castle in the midst of the villages belonging to him, but in the town far from his tenants, meant that he hardly fulfilled any task of justice among his serfs, or of their defence against another feudal lord. Because of this, his rule over other classes was much less clothed in the finenesses of ideology than that of his European counterpart. And therefore, while completely patriarchal relations were prevailing in Europe, the Caliph Maamun (813–33) could say:

‘The class unites its members: the Arab noble is closer to the Persian noble than to the common Arab, and the Persian noble is much closer to the Arab noble than to the common Persian, as the nobles constitute one class and the masses another.’

The riches and abundance, the development of commerce and the growth of towns, created the economic basis for the great development and flourishing of Arab culture; and really

‘No people in the Middle Ages contributed to human progress so much as did the Arabians and the Arabic-speaking peoples’ (P.K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, London 1940, p. 4)

The tremendous development of the Arab towns may be seen from the fact that in 670 (fifty years after the Hegira) it is told that in Basra there were 300,000 inhabitants and 120,000 canals, and Baghdad in 786, during the time of Haroun al-Rashid, i.e. fifty years after its foundation, reached such a height that it was said of her that she was a ‘city with no peer throughout the whole word.’ According to the same source, about a hundred years later there were 27,000 public baths in Baghdad, and even if this number is exaggerated, there is not doubt that Baghdad was incomparably superior to all European towns except the largest Arab towns in Spain.

Artisanry and handicrafts were well developed. Shipbuilding reached a very high level, which can be seen from the fact that very many shipping terms coined by the Arabs were taken over and included in the languages of Europe e.g. admiral, arsenal, average, cable, tariff, shallop.

The Arabs had the intellectual hegemony over the world from the middle of the eighth century to the beginning of the thirteenth when the Renaissance began in Europe. During this epoch Arabic was the language of science and culture throughout the civilized world. By the end of the eighth century most of the works of Aristotle, the commentaries of the neo-Platonists and the medical works of Galen were already translated into Arabic. Many of the works of the Persian and Indian scientists were also translated. In the course of some decades the Arab scientists acquired what it had taken the Greeks centuries to create. From India they brought many of the fundamentals of mathematics, among others the decimal system. Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) were the teachers of Platonism and Aristotelism to the Europe of the Middle Ages. The Arabs also did prolific work in the fields of astronomy (the influence of the Arabs on the development of astronomy is seen in the names of stars used in European languages, many of which are Arabic, e.g. Acrab, Algedi, Pherkad, Deneb, Altair, and many <p. 4> technical terms such as zenith, nadir, azimuth) mathematics (the part of the Arabs in its development is seen in the following terms translated from Arabic, such as sine, surd,), geography (the most important geographer of the Middle Ages was the Arab al Idrisi), alchemy, botany, and medicine, literature and poetry, historiography, architecture, philology, theology and linguistics.

How greatly the Arabs were developed beyond the Europeans may be seen from the fact that just as during the 16-18th centuries Africa was the source of supply of slaves for the plantation colonies of Europe, so for a long period during the Middle Ages Europe supplied slaves to the Arabs. And this in spite of the preaching of the Pope and his threats to excommunicate the sellers of Christian slaves. The superiority of the Arab countries is seen also in the contempt with which the Arabs regarded the northern ‘barbarians’, and attitude of scorn which received frank expression in the words of the learned judge Sa’id (died 1070):

‘The sun does not shed its rays directly over their heads, their climate is cold and their humours rude, while their bodies have grown large, their complexion light and their hair long. They lack withal sharpness of wit and penetration of intellect, while stupidity and folly prevail among them.’

On this basis of wide development of the forces of production and culture, relatively liberal relations were allowed to grow between the Moslem rulers and the Christian community. The situation of the Christians in the countries of the Arab conquest was described as follows:

‘Included in the independence of the inhabitants was also freedom of religion. In no place were the churches, monasteries and synagogues touched. Religious worship of the vanquished was free, and only superfluous publicity and the spreading of non-Moslem religions was prohibited. We must remember that the first victory campaign of Islam is discussed. And thus was Islam spread by the sword, as our popular literature says: In the Arabian countries such religious freedom prevailed as was not dreamt of in Europe a thousand years later … The broad sphere of justice was connected in those days very closely with religion. In this sphere too Islam allowed each religious community to live according to its manners and customs. Of course, each one was given the right to apply to the Arab authorities where there were internal disputes, but no man was forced to do this if he did not wish to do so.’ (C.H. Becker, Die Araber als Kolonisatoren, quoted by M. Assaf in History of the Arab Rule in Palestine, Tel Aviv 1935, p. 108, Hebrew).

II. The Contradictions in the Flowering of the Arab East

But the flowering of the Arab period was based on the most uncertain foundations.

The great dependence of the economy, and especially agriculture, on the existence of a well-ordered central government which ensured no neglect of irrigation and drainage meant that every serious disturbance, and primarily, every war, which upset the state upset also the foundations of the economy, and made large areas barren, In this way Iraq was turned by the Mongolian invasion (1258) in a very short space of time from a flourishing centre into a desert with a poor and hungry population.

A factor contributing to the instability of the Arab Golden Age was the incompetence of the state to conduct tax management by means of salaried officials. Instead the feudal lords in the shape of tax farmers (these were the Multazims) were given the right to collect both rent and taxes, and their major worry being not the state income but their own pockets, the former suffered badly while the latter fattened at the expense of the people whom they robbed left and right. Furthermore the limited development of handicrafts independent of the feudal lords caused the markets for agricultural products to be very limited. These two factors, which are connected with each other, made the Eastern economy very easily able to turn from a commercial economy with and advanced culture into a primitive economy of barter. Seeing also that the feudal lords held commerce in their hands and were inclined to extravagance rather than frugality during the Arab Golden Age, there were no big accumulated reserves to meet a time of need. Any disturbance in the irrigation system or trade circulation therefore had catastrophic results.

<p. 5> Finally we must not forget that the Arab East is but one part of the whole world and the level of its development is conditioned also by the relative position of its achievements compared with those of the rest of the world. When Europe began, with the second millennium, to March forward quickly while the Arab East lagged behind, the latter was bound to lose its position in world trade, manufacture, science and other fields. While Europe flowered with the Renaissance, the Arab East declined absolutely and relatively. The relative decline was in itself a cumulative factor accelerating the absolute decline.

It is these factors which explain the unstable foundations of the Arab Golden Age.

III. Why the Decline of Feudalism was not Accompanied by the Rise of Capitalism

Here we come to the most salient point in the explanation of Arab history. If the flowering of Arab feudalism was most unstable, why did this instability not pave the way for the rise of a new, non-feudal economy, society and culture: why did feudalism not give way to capitalism?

History marches forward in the most crooked ways, ways rent with contradictions, jumps, sharp turns and lapses. European feudalism was backward, primitive, poor and unenlightened. Arab feudalism was progressive, developed, rich and enlightened. And it was just because of this that it was easier for the third estate and capitalism to gain the day in Europe than it was in the Arab East. Cracks formed in the European economy through which the merchants an artisans could rise to form the powerful craft guilds and raise the militant towns which battled for their freedom from feudalism.

In the East a great surplus of agricultural products collected in the hands of he landlords who did not pass it on to independent merchants to trade in, but who employed their own agents who were dependent on them – a system which continued throughout the period between the Arab conquest and the penetration of the West in the nineteenth century. This, together with the fact that these feudal lords dwelt in the towns, hindered the development of an urban, independent third estate.

Many of the artisans and craftsmen, too, were not independent of the feudal lords but were their serfs. Even when Moslem guilds (Hirfeh) did arise, they did not attain any importance at all in the towns, and did not become any serious independent force. The government attempted to subordinate them to itself by appointing many of the national heads of the guilds, making them its officials and as far as possible turning the guilds themselves into government organisations.

The third estate is thus seen to have been on a very low rung of the social ladder. That is why it was made up almost only of men from the communal minorities. This fact – the entry of the minorities precisely into trade and handicrafts, becoming a vehicle for economic development, while the majority were engaged in agriculture – was already observed by Williams Petty in his book Political Arithmetic (1690). He comes to this conclusion after bringing examples from different parts of the world – Europe, the Ottoman Empire and India. The same process took place in the Arab East too, but here it was quantitatively of much greater dimensions, and much more accentuated than in Europe, which is why it also had special qualitative characteristics and results. Thus, for instance, the Jews had in their hands the monopoly over the collection of the non-agricultural government income of Egypt until 1769. Their position in this sphere was so well established that part of the books of the accounting department was kept in Hebrew, the technical manager of the mint was always a Jew, the collector of customs and the head of the money-changers’ guild were always Jews, and the accountant sent to Constantinople to give the Turkish government the annual report of Egypt’s financial position and the tax to be paid to the Sultan ‘had to be a Jew’. In 1769 the collection of the non-agricultural government income of Egypt was taken over by the Christian immigrants from Syria of the Jacobite Monophysite community. Likewise when towns developed in the region of the Nusayris in Syria (today called Latakia) the merchants and craftsmen and most of the urban inhabitants were not Nusayris, but men of the Sunnite Moslem minority. Similarly many of the Copts in Egypt, who were the collectors of rent for the feudal lords, formed a caste. The ire of the tenants was therefore directed into religious channels, away from the Moslem feudal lord, into whose pocket the rent flowed, onto the Christian collectors, who, of course, had not scruples in exploiting the illiteracy and poverty of the peasants, and robbing them to <p. 6> their hearts’ content. (It must not be inferred, however, that all the Copts were tax collectors; most of them were actually peasants.) While the economic castes in the Arab East did not reach the level of maturity they did in India, but remained only in their embryonic state, the very fact of their existence testifies to the low development of the third estate, and they at the same time very much limited the results of the social struggle, which here took on mainly a religious form, between the communal minority which formed the third estate, and the feudal lords who were members of the communal majority.

But that feudalism did not break down under the pressure of the internal development of the Arab countries follows not only from the fact that the feudal lords held commerce in their hands and controlled the towns and guilds, not only from the weakness of the third estate, but also from the relations within the feudal class itself.

The political organisation of Europe in the Middle Ages was based both on the sovereign authority of each feudal noble in the sphere of his domains and also on each noble’s being the vassal of another, with the king the most important of them all. He was primus inter pares. The monarch thus had very restricted privileges above those of other feudal lords, and the latter could always through struggle delimit from anew their mutual rights and obligations. When the king did manage to overcome the nobles and establish an absolute monarchy, it was as a result of the rise of the towns which gave the king financial assistance, helping him in the creation of a mercenary army of his own, and supporting him politically in his fight against the nobles. This process was accelerated by muskets coming into regular use, and the feudal cavalry army’s consequently declining in effectiveness a opposed to the infantry army. In addition external pressure might also hasten the rise of a centralized state as, for instance, in France during the Hundred Years’ War.

In the Arab East the position was different. From the very beginning the feudal lords, as has been said, concentrated in the large towns of their own accord, and a centralised state was established – without the pressure of a foreign army, and without the decline of the cavalry army – even before the third estate rose to any strength: as a matter of fact this very factor hindered its becoming strong. The dependence of the feudal lords on the kings was therefore much stronger here than in Europe. Here the king was not primus inter pares, and he feudal lords had no sovereignty of their own. If they fought against the king, their fight brought no constitutional changes in its wake, nor any new restrictions of the king’s rights, but merely created a new monarchy which was almost in no wise different to the former one. Kings came and went, but their privileges remained constant.

The European feudal lord had a certain domain. This was inherited by his descendants, and for generations remained in the family. The feudal lord had many ties there, and as we have said, for a long period patriarchal relations prevailed between him and his tenants. In the struggle of the king against the nobles, therefore, the latter could very often – and especially if they were not absentee – depend on the support of their tenants. The total uprooting of one group of feudal lords and the putting in its place of another group was therefore impossible, and this caused the struggle between the king and the nobles to be much more acute. In the Arab East on the other hand, the feudal lords were not permanent owners of particularly large domains, but simply members of an upper class, which, as a collective, owned the land. The Arab feudal lord was the collector of taxes and rent, like the zamindar in India. He would get the right from the Sultan to rob the serfs of one or another area (Iltizam), they being considered tenants of the Sultan. In Syria and Palestine these tax farmers changed from year to year, but in Egypt they received the right to collect the taxes for their whole lives, and their heirs had a preferential right in the appointment of the deceased’s successor. In these conditions the feudal lord’s wings were very much clipped. It was much easier for the Sultan to cut down his privileges, or even get rid of him, and put another in his place. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, therefore, the Sultan was wont to give different small parts of different villages to one tax farmer, instead of one village or a number of entire villages. Seeing that an annual redistribution of the communal lands took place among the different clans of the village, every feudal lord generally got the lands of one entire clan. The ‘cities’ which were given to tax farmers were only large villages, the real towns, such as Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo, in which most of the emirs and knights lived, being administered by the Sultan or his <p. 7> representative, the governor-general. (This does not at all contradict the fact that some very powerful feudal lords existed and still less, that strained social relations prevailed between the feudal lord and his tenants; the petty lord, the knight, was not more lenient with his tenants than the great feudal lord.) The weakness of the feudal lords’ position and their dependence on the monarchy is further seen in the increase in the area of the Sultan’s private property, and the decrease in the area handed over to the emirs and knights as fiefs. In order to achieve this, the Sultans made new redistributions: the land was divided into those of the Sultan and those of the feudal lords, the latter being divided into a number of fiefs, these being distributed by lot among the emirs and knights according to rank. This distribution was first practised in Egypt in 1298, in Syria, Palestine and Lebanon in 1313, and in Egypt from anew in 1315. Before the first distribution the Sultan and his freed slaves (Mamelukes) together owned 4/24ths of the land of Egypt, and the emirs and knights 20/24ths; the distribution of 1298 gave 4/24ths to the Sultan as his private domain, 9/24ths to his freed slaves, and 11/24ths to the emirs and knights; in 1315 10/24ths to the Sultan as his private domain, and 14/24ths as fiefs to the freed slaves, emirs and knights.

It was also enacted in 1298 that from then onwards the ‘emirs of the hundred’ would not defend the fiefs of the knights (of course the former knights had paid for this protection), but the Sultan would do so through government departments specially intended for this. Thus the Sultan also exploited the antagonism between the emirs and the knights in order to strengthen his position.

The great differentiation in rights and incomes between the different feudal lords also impaired their strength. This is not the place to describe the different ranks of Arab feudal lords. The only description of any consequence here is that of their different incomes. The income of the ‘empire of the hundred’ during the period of the Memelukes (1250–1517) 80–200,000 dinar jayshi [1] a year, of the ‘emir-al-tabl’ 23–30,000 of the ‘emirs of the ten’ 9,000 and below, of the ‘emirs of the five’ 3,000, of a freed slave of the Sultan 1,000–1,500, of a free knight 250 and above.

The feudal lord’s position was thus very shaky. This gave its mark to a special phenomenon of the Arab East: that from time to time whole layers of feudal lords were cast aside, others coming in their places: in place of the Arab feudal lords came the Sultan’s freed slaves – the Mamelukes – who were not of Arab origin and did not speak Arabic but Turkish. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they mostly originated from the Mongolian state, the Golden Horde, whose centre was on the banks of the Lower Volga; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they were mainly Caucasian, and especially Circassian. With the Tsar’s increasing resistance to conscription in the Caucasus for the Sultan, the Balkan elements (Albanians, Bosnians, etc.) came to the fore.

The concentration of the feudal lords in the towns caused not only the weakness of the feudal lords and their dependence on the monarchy but also the weakness of the king and his dependence on them. Whole feudal strata were annihilated by the Sultans, and at the same time the number of Sultans who did not die at the hands of their feudal vassals was small indeed.

The position of the feudal lords at the end of the Middle Ages tottered, but the positions of feudalism was as strong as ever, ever new feudal lords coming to take the place of the old. Disorder prevailed, dynasties were overthrown and the feudal lords rebelled every now and then. But all this happened without at all damaging the feudal structure, rather, on the contrary, strengthening it. Incessant upheavals on the surface, the peace of the grave below.

This disorder and insecurity and the despotic actions of the Sultans and other feudal lords, were additional factors retarding the activity of the third estate, the accumulation of capital in its hands, and the rise of capitalism.

The fact that the peasant wars which played such an important role in the history of Europe left no actually noteworthy impression on development in the Arab East springs also from the same chain of factors already discussed.

<p. 8> The fact that patriarchal relations did not prevail between the serfs and the feudal lords in the Arab East, but that the former suffered a worse lot than the slaves, caused them not to be a keenly revolutionary force, but, on the contrary, brought about their degeneration, and their animal-like character. M. Weber, in his book General Economic History (London) was quite right, when speaking about the peasant wars, in saying that they ‘did not break out … where the conditions of the peasant class were worst, but rather where the revolutionaries have attained a certain degree of self-consciousness’ (p. 89).

An additional factor connected with this, which also contributed to depriving the few sporadic revolts of any perspective and influence was the fact that the peasants were dispersed in villages while the feudal lords were centred in the towns, so that the former could hardly get at the objects of their wrath. In Europe too the dispersion of the peasants was their main weakness, but there the power of the feudal lords did not measure up to anywhere near that of their fellows in the Arab East as they lived in castles and not in big towns.

The most important factor depriving the Arab peasant revolts of any real influence on Arab history was the lack of a revolutionary urban leadership. The towns did not have financial, police or juridical autonomy and the revolts which broke out in the towns now and again were not an expression of the struggle of the merchants and artisans for the achievements of municipal rule, but uprisings of the masses of poor – unemployed, slaves, poor artisans and small shopkeepers – who wanted the price of bread to be lowered but did not rise to the posing of more encompassing demands.

Thus declining, rotting feudalism did not open a door for the rise of any new social forces.

The dialectics of history pronounced its judgement thus:

The fact that Arab feudalism was based on higher general economic and cultural plans gave it at the beginning a character more developed, richer and more enlightened than that of Europe, but at the same time retarded the rise of the third estate, of capitalism. The very fact that from the beginning here existed a centralised feudal government, dialectically prevented the rise of an ‘enlightened’ centralised monarchy. The fact that from the beginning there was clear order and that well-defined relations existed between the feudal lords and the monarchy, caused the perpetuating of the disorder and upheavals which permanently conserved these relations. Arab feudalism was based on too high an economic plane to vacate its place for another economy, the feudal relations were based on too high a degree of centralisation to vacate their place for new relations within the old ruling classes and the rise of a new ruling class. The Arabs were the bearers of culture between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries, which is why they lagged behind so much during later centuries.

Many world factors, outside of the sphere of the internal social relations on the Arab states, also helped to bring this about.

It is known what a great role in the rise of capitalism in Europe was played by American gold, the plunder of the inhabitants of America, the hunting of negroes in Africa, and the pillage of the inhabitants of the East Indies. The colonial system of the European states in the period of commercial capitalism was described by an orthodox Christian in these words:

‘The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth’. (Marx, Capital, Modern Library Edition, Vol. I., p. 824)

It was a sine qua non for industrial supremacy to take an important place in the pillage and plunder which accompanied commerce. That is why the Italian cities which were far from the Atlantic Ocean and could not take part in the plunder of America, or any considerable part in the trade with India after the discovery of the Cape route to the East and the closing of the Middle East land route, declined and were pushed aside while Spain, Holland and England rose to first place. In the wake of the plunder-commerce came the development of manufacture. The situation of the Arabs, far from the Atlantic Ocean, excluded them from the former, and consequently from the latter.

The industrial revolution gave a great impetus to the economy of England, <p. 9> Germany, France, Holland and other European countries, while the Arab countries remained backward. These latter could not materialise the industrial revolution not only because of the factors mentioned, but also because the Arab East has no coal, which was at that time the only fuel to set machinery in motion.

The powers which shook the feudal structure in the Arab East did not come from the Arab East itself, but from the West. This influence being rent with contradictions, it undermined the foundations of the old order, but at the same time preserved and even regenerated them on a higher economic plane. The coming chapters will describe the penetration of the Western Powers into the Arab East, and the changes thus caused.


1. Dinar Jayshi was a fictitious monetary unit for the estimation of the income of the fiefs.

Last updated on 28.5.2011