Using the pen name Mahdi Amel, Hassan Hamdan was a prolific Marxist writer and member of the Lebanese Communist Party from 1960 onward. He was born in 1936 and was assassinated in Beirut on May 18, 1987. That same year, his comrade Hussein Muruwwa (1910–1987) had been gunned down in bed. He too was a Marxist writer and a prominent member of the Lebanese Communist Party. Religious Shia militants (widely believed to be Hezbollah) murdered both as part of an orchestrated attack on communist activists who hailed from Shia families in South Lebanon.
Their deaths spoke volumes about the increasing clout of conservative political forces emerging then in the Arab world. If Amel and Muruwwa sought to separate state and religion, and advance both socially progressive causes and working-class organizations, their rivals sought the opposite. Organized religious Shia participation in the Lebanese Civil War sharpened and entrenched (rather than diluted) sectarian and confessional identities. With the defeat of the plo by Israel in 1982 and the weakening of the left nationalist alliance, the Lebanese political terrain changed. Militant communalism edged out both communism and nationalism. In the South, Shia fundamentalism came to carry the mantle of anti-imperialism and to struggle against Israel’s occupation of Lebanese lands. The Left thus lost its role as leading anti-imperialist force. With its demise, a whole tradition of radical Arab thought fell by the wayside.
Amel speaks to this whole radical conjuncture between the 1960s and early 1980s — when the Left was actively formulating theories and strategies of emancipation in the Arab world. His work is steeped in this progressive tradition. After completing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Lyon and teaching for several years in Constantine Teachers College in Algeria, he returned to Lebanon in 1967 and got involved in national politics. His numerous books show a profound engagement with core questions of Third World development and politics: the role of socialism in national liberation, the nature of what he called “a colonial mode of production” and a weak bourgeoisie, and the impact of imperialism on social structure and class politics. He also wrote about distinctly Lebanese problems, such as the power of the sectarian state and the role of the Palestinian resistance movement in Lebanon, as well as on issues of Arab history and thought, like Ibn Khaldun and materialism in the Arab world.
What marks out his writings from that of many others is that he aimed to advance an original Marxist analysis of the Arab world. Even though he wrote in a dense Althusserian style, the consistency of his work and its unique formulations capture crucial problems of Arab capitalist development. Here the Arab nation is understood through its historical specificity and class struggle, not through a nationalized variant of Marxism (like Anouar Abdel-Malek’s “national Marxism”) that conceded too much to non-materialist categories. Amel’s is a Marxism constantly wary of the distortions of bourgeois thought and its various cultural permutations. His materialism requires linking ideas to their social basis as well as producing emancipatory forms of knowledge independent of bourgeois dominance. Neither monolithic nor unitary, culture is crisscrossed by struggle and conflict, and class contradiction is key to understanding historical process.