In Praise of Human Progress

When one philistine saw the huge extent Anatole France’s book collection, he asked the typically tedious question: “And you have read all these books have you Mr France?”

Mr. France, of course, replied dismissively: “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day”.

At least that is how Walter Benjamin tells the story in his essay “Unpacking my Library”.

I don’t take quite that much pride as Anatole France in not reading my books and have recently decided to get rid of some that I must admit to myself I will never read. Amonf these neglected works are translations of communist texts into Arabic made a propaganda by the Soviets, mostly published by Progress publishing house in Moscow. I haven’t read most of them in English and I don’t suppose I will ever read them in Arabic, so I have decided to give them away to the British Library.

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Yet, there are some communist books I cannot bear to part with. I will briefly talk about one of these now. It is a small (32-page) pamphlet that I bought on Nabi Danial Street in Alexandria, called “The Progress of Man”.

It is a translation by Mustafa Kamil Munib of a pamphlet published by the British Young Communist’s League. The Arabic version was printed in Egypt as part of a series called “Peoples Publications”. Munib partly salutes his comrades and partly justifies his translation of a British pamphlet during a time when Egypt was fighting against British colonialism by saying “the British Communist Party is leading the British people in their democratic struggle to realise their own rights and freedoms. This struggle strengthens our own national, democratic struggle in the service of Egypt and our people.”

Munib was journalist who contributed to communist leaning journals like al-Majalla al-Jadida and Hurriyyat al-Shuub. He would publish pamphlets out of the first floor of the building that now contains Abu Shaqra Kebab restaurant on Qasr al-Aini street.

This pamphlet itself contains short descriptions of the stages of human development according to the Marxist framework: Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism and finally Socialism. However, from my perspective, what is most interesting is the fact that this pamphlet contains two inroductions written by Munib. The first was written 4th August 1945 in Cairo.

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It ends with the passage I quoted about the British Communist Party above but begins with a strong statement of purpose and defence of Egyptian communism:

“We expect that the reactionaries – those in power and those not in power – will launch a campaign against us. They will say that we are trying to overthrow the system of government in Egypt and they will use this pamphlet as evidence for that, as well as the other books that we publish..

Putting things in their proper place, we want to clarify the truth about ourselves and register our aims and demands so we do not give the reactionaries the chance to accuse us of something we are innocent of.”

He then begins by saying that under the constitution they have the right to free speech and continues by laying out their aims: Egyptian independence and an end to British colonialism, improving the living conditions of their people, giving the Egyptian state the power to stand up to foreign capital (especially the monopolies) and so on. Then he goes on to demand the ability to set up workers’ unions and political parties for workers.

However, in his attempt to respond to the accusations of the reactionaries he shows the moderation of their methods. He insists that – even if their philosophy and creed are Marxist and socialist – their actions are limited to campaigning for their state aims within the boundaries of the current capitalist state. At least for the moment, they do not want to create a fully socialist state (though obviously it is their final goal)

The first edition of the pamphlet must have sold well because a second edition was made a couple of years after. This is the edition that I have and it has another introduction in the beginning. FullSizeRender (42)

Munib tells us that within a few days of its publication he was thinking about doing another run of the pamphlet. However, he was not entirely satisfied with it as a work of socialist thought and was hoping that another, better one might be published. After two years, when he still saw a lack of simple books about socialism for the Arabic reader he saw he had to make another run of this one.

The new introduction is dated 29th October 1947. In it, as well as noting the importance of the first edition to the Egyptian socialist movement, he also responds to some of the criticism he received for his first introduction. A number of progressive thinkers had attacked his peaceful, slow aims and thought that, if he was a socialist he should demands socialism. Another group thought that any fight against colonialism must also include a fight against local autocracy. He devotes most space to people who thought that before socialism Egypt had to go through a stage of Bourgeois Democracy.

Munib does not so much argue against these views in his introduction as lay out their positions. It is clear that the main debates in Egyptian communist circles at the time were about whether to deal with problems like British colonialism and building indepedent institutions first and then move on to creation of a socialist state or whether the imposition of a socialist programme should be at the core of everything they did. They were keenly aware that there were autocratic and reactionary forces in Egypt besides colonialism but they also saw that the biggest problem that Egypt faced was its lack of independence.

This is not a problem that these two short introductions solved. In fact, it is hardly a problem that many socialist movements have successfully been able to solve. It would take the efforts of more than just one man. Therefore, he ends with a plea to other writers and thinkers to contribute to this movement and led a hand in this important stage of Egyptian history.

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Looking back at it now, Munib is right about this stage in Egyptian history. The 1940s was when Egyptian Communist movements really began to gather steam and become serious political forces. This is why I am keeping hold of this particular pamphlet. The 1970s Arabic works printed in Moscow were surely politically important in Egypt but this snap-shot of a growing socialist current, written by an Egyptian who was directly involved in its debates is a rare thing to find in an Alexandrian bookstall.

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