The Problem of the Middle East (1946), Tony Cliff’s first book, has long lain buried in the archives. It has now been published online, just as the Middle East is alight once again with revolution. There is much in today’s wave of uprisings and revolutions that the Cliff who wrote the book as a young Trotskyist activist in Palestine in 1945 would recognise. The dictatorships shaken by popular revolts from below, the decaying hegemony of the region’s imperial powers, the rising tide of workers’ struggle: all these are explored in the book. Although when completed in 1946, the greatest struggles of the turbulent decade which followed were still in the future, Cliff showed remarkable prescience in seeing that the Middle East stood at the crossroads. The alliance between the old colonial powers, the landlords and big merchants which had formed the bedrock of the political order since the First World War, was in terminal decline. Rising social forces such as the nascent working class and an educated urban lower middle class were impatient for political and social change. Social justice, national liberation and democracy were the watchwords of their struggles – slogans which would be picked up again in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus and Sana’a in 2011.
Writing the book in snatched moments as he whiled away time in hiding from the police, Cliff was optimistic that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution could be applied to the Middle East. The development of the workers’ movement in Egypt was central to his analysis. ‘The rise of an independent proletarian power’ there was a pivotal development for the whole region, he believed. After the book was completed, an explosion of strikes and protests against the British military occupation of Egypt in early 1946 sent him hurrying to update the manuscript to take account of these new developments.
Both the book and the revolution in the Middle East remained unfinished. Cliff moved to Britain in 1946, taking the precious manuscript with him. And although his prediction that a revolutionary wave would engulf the region was proved right, with Egypt, Syria and Iraq shaken by repeated popular uprisings, the outcome was not the one he hoped to see. Army officers in Egypt and Iraq seized power on the back of the struggles from below, but were able to deflect the revolution onto a track of state-capitalist economic development and crush independent workers’ organisations, a process Cliff would explore in his later writings.
Although Cliff’s hopes for socialist revolution in the Middle East in the forties were dashed, sixty years later, The Problem of the Middle East, still raises urgent questions for today’s revolutionaries.
[For an image of Cliff's 1946 pamphlet The Middle East at the Crossroads - see here]
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