Christoph Schumann's monograph on "Radical Nationalism in Syria and Lebanon; Political Socialization and Elite Formation, 1930-1958" offers an authoritative new approach to the growing historical literature in France and the US on Arab nationalisms during the Mandate period. He provides us with an stringent frame of analysis of how to deal with events that took place in the early parts of the century written down in the late 20th-century. Guided by the fundamental hypothesis that "human beings are historically and socially constituted and reside in an intermediary position between social structure and discourse" (p. 3), Schumann sets the methodological parameters in the introductory section. He sees his challenge in using autobiography as a historical source and goes to great lengths to navigate his analysis through the historiographical and theoretical maze of existing scholarship. Drawing on an in-depth discussion of Michel Foucault's archaeological method of discourse analysis ("between structuralism and hermeneutics") and Pierre Bourdieu's notions of social space, cultural capital and habitus, he argues that nationalism is a narrative construct that "has no origin or an essential inherent meaning, but rather a palpable composition, regularity and position in social discourse" (p. 19). Thus he shares with Rashid Khalidi (Palestinian Identity 1997) and James Gelvin (Divided Loyalties, 1998) the points that nationalism is multi-vocal and conjectural, has no singular root or authorship and that it is contingent on competing publics, symbols, slogans and rituals.
Unlike these authors, however, Schumann is not concerned with rewriting the history of particular nationalisms in the Middle East or with exploring the nuances of "what really happened" during the Mandate and early independence. Important events, like the Shishakli military coup, or personalities, like the charismatic Antun Sa`ada, enter the study only as narrative-structuring projections of the autobiographers. One of the novelties of the monograph is that by rigorously telling and retelling the story through the memories of a group of radical nationalists, Schumann attempts to develop an analytical tool-kit for the underlying processes of socialization and the formation of an intellectual elite that is localized and sensitive but "transferable" to other social movements around the world. On this level alone, Schumann's work represents an important contribution by the social sciences to German Middle East scholarship which has recently been subjected to a vitriolic attack from an Orientalist who blamed social scientists for dissolving the uniqueness of the Oriental other.
Schumann's point of departure is a generative comparison of a body of 18 autobiographies written by Arab and Syrian nationalist activists, ideologues and organizers predominantly of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), and to a lesser extent the League of National Action, the Ba'th Party and other minor opposition groups of the time.
The second part zooms in on four individual autobiographical case studies: Sa`id Abu's al-Husn's Niran `ala al-qimam (1994), Mustafa `Abd al-Satir's Ayyam wa-qadiyya. Min mu`anayyat muthaqqaf `arabi (1982), Hisham Sharabi's al-Jamr wa-l-ramad; Zikriyyat muthaqqaf `arabi (1988) and Ahmad `Abd al-Karim's Hisad; Sinin khasiba wa thimar murra (1994). From the titles it is evident that the study is dealing with a group of people who express both nationalist struggle and subsequent intellectual disillusion. Unlike Fouad Ajami, Schumann does not snigger at the passing of 'irresponsible' or 'utopian' ideals. Schumann does not decide - to paraphrase Hayden White - whether a given autobiographical work is a better, more correct account of a specific event or segment of the historical process. Rather, like White - and Gérard Genette- he seeks to identify the structural components of the autobiographical accounts. The distinction of four archetypes clarifies the different tropes. It is significant that Schumann chose not to take the metahistorical path of a Hayden White and direct his attention towards some epochal and inherent "tone" of tragedy in nationalist writing. Nor does the autobiographical comparison lock him up in the intertextuality of literary criticism. Rather, Schumann reconstructs these nationalists' biographical developments through the various phases of their lives - family background, childhood adventures and experiences, school and academic education and political activism.
The study acknowledges the fictionalization inherent in the autobiographical text but argues convincingly that a (former) nationalist's renditions of processes and events, his omissions, prioritizations and exaggerations are neither arbitrary nor intentional but played an integral part on the "cultural level of interpretative patterns, mentalities and symbolic orders" (p. 36). Both the narrative structure of the autobiography and the "expected reaction of the reading public" (p. 44) - introduced by print capitalism and the emergence of a public sphere - impose constraints on the fantasies of the autobiographer. Modern autobiography thus emerges as "the cognition, scriptualization and publication of individual life stories as historical experience" (p. 43). As such Schumann utilizes this literary genre as an authoritative probe into such elusive historical categories as the self-image, personal motivation and collective memory of political activists.
Having established the different motivations and diverse socio-economic, confessional, geographic backgrounds and professional careers of the authors on the one hand, and congruent autobiographical emplotments, similar social values, class-consciousness, interpretative patterns and self-imaging on the other, Schumann has a convincing case for the social leveling power of the nationalist cause amidst rapid social and political transformation in Syria and Lebanon. A Sunni urban notable from Palestine writes himself into the same class as a lower-class rural Druze and urban Maronite, a Shi`ite butcher's son from Baalbek shares the same social vision as a Greek Orthodox peasant and the scion of an established Beiruti bourgeoisie. Here the study faces another methodological challenge. If, indeed, nationalist discourse not only represents but structures material and social reality, then class formation manifests itself in far more complex ways than in the social relations of production. Moreover, the autobiographers wrote as members of a new intellectual elite and social avant-garde with a national audience in mind. At the same time they considered their life-stories as anything but unique, and "viewed their lives as exemplary of their generation, their cause or their nation. … Their stories tended to dramatize the collective suffering and the failure of the party, or to impart advice and lessons for future generations." (p. 42)
Schumann pre-empts an apparent paradox between vociferous elite claims and the de facto poverty of these young and ardent nationalists. By introducing Pierre Bourdieu's class analysis he gains the flexibility that allows him to speak of elites despite their low socio-economic status. First of all, Schumann argues, Bourdieu's notion of social space allows for the material existence of social difference in which modes of capital compete with each other: social capital (prestige, networks, family, lineage), economic capital (wealth, property) and cultural capital (knowledge, education, diplomas). Second, social space contains symbolic representations of difference which society utilizes to represent, communicate and structure reality. Distinction is not necessarily a conscious act, but an internalized and conditioned subjectivity within society, and Schumann introduces the concept of 'habitus' (defined as "the inscription of social position and experience of individuals into their thought, perception and action") in order to relate and mediate between the two spaces. (p. 34).
The last two parts expand the pool of autobiographies. They also discuss the prosopography of the Syrian Prime Minister Bashir al-`Azma, Lebanese Ambassador Nadim Dimashqiyya, Syrian dentist Sami al-Jundi, Lebanese lawyer Michel al-Gurayyib, Lebanese military officer Shawqi Khayrallah, Syrian deputy and minister Riyad al-Maliki, Syrian publisher `Adnan al-Muluhi, Syrian trade unionist Hafiz al-Mundir, Lebanese pharmacist Adib Qaddura, Lebanese doctor and party functionary `Abdallah Sa`ada, Jordanian doctor and politician Jamal al-Sha`ir, Lebanese airlines' employee Ibrahim Yamut and Syrian journalist `Abd al-Latif Yunis. Moreover, these chapters also shift the gaze from the individual-diachronic to the collective-synchronic analysis: the third part considers the social conditions that produce a new kind of anti-notable, intellectual nationalism and the fourth part examines the political conditions that lead to the radicalization of these nationalists.
The expansion of the educational system, access to higher education and the acquisition of cultural capital were the key developments for the emergence of a new social class in Syria and Lebanon. Although AUB and St. Joseph were considered anything but liberal institutions by the autobiographers, university life in Beirut and Damascus in the 1930s and 40s provided what Schumann terms the "intellectual habitus" that leveled existing social, geographical and confessional differences on the one hand and made the autobiographers susceptible to politico-ideological critiques of society on the other ("colonial", "feudal", etc.).
Like no other political party during the middle decades of the 20th century Antun Sa`ada's Syrian Social Nationalist Party mobilized this revolutionary potential and distinguished itself from alternative and competing nationalist discourses not only by its particular historico-geographical imagining of Syria, but also by its absolute claims to scientific truth.
Unlike rival Arab nationalist parties, membership of the SSNP was tightly organized and "even stylized" (p. 286). The unquestionable nature of Sa`ada's scientifist doctrine was enshrined in the party oath, universally remembered as a solemn ritual of absolute commitment to the cause, and homologically reproduced in marches, party symbols and the cult of the chosen ones. Schumann argues that the very narrative structure of the published memoirs documents the long-lasting effect of the nationalist discourse as a powerful mnemonic and hermeneutic construct. It is in this sense that these life histories turn nationalist discourse into analytically digested social formations.
Author: Christoph Schuman
Title: Radikalnationalismus in Syrien und Libanon; Politische Sozialisation und Elitenbildung, 1930-1958
Publisher: Hamburg, Deutsches Orient Institut, 2001
Reviewer: Jens Hanssen