The French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson, whose Polish parents died in Auschwitz while he was serving in the French Institute in Damascus, was born on May 22, 1915. Some sources say Paris; others say Marseilles. A true iconoclast, he resigned from the French Communist Party in 1958 in the name of anti-authoritarianism. He opposed Zionism as imposing a false nationalism upon all Jews while forcing the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland, though he learned both Hebrew and Arabic. Yet he urged peaceful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and continually urged the Palestine Liberation Organization to renounce violence, terrorism, and their hope of a military victory over Israel. Rodinson was the first commentator to call Israel “a settler-colonial state,” and also coined the phrase “Islamic fascism” [le fascisme islamique] to describe the Iranian Revolution in 1979, taking Foucault to task for his uncritical enthusiasm and support of Khomeini. In 1961 he wrote Muhammad, a biography of the prophet of Islam that is still banned in parts of the Muslim world.
On political Islam’s potential duration, Rodinson wrote:
Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another thirty or fifty years — I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, as long as the basic frustration and discontent persist that lead people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it — look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come.
On Zionism as a form of nationalism, he wrote:
I am well aware that the designation “nationalist” for the Zionist movement often gives rise to protest on the part of Arab intellectuals. I have already come up against it. This is because in the Arab world, for reasons which are evident, the term “nationalism” has acquired a positive connotation, a sacred aureole. For the Arabs, nationalism is by definition a feeling, a passion, a duty, a praiseworthy (even admirable) movement. Zionism, being in their view something which is in its very essence bad, a perverse undertaking, cannot be nationalistic. It is a project of pure banditry, an operation planned by Satanic manipulators which sweeps along the deceived masses or individuals essentially just as evil.
In 1948, he became director of the Muslim section of the National Library in Paris. Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) praised Rodinson for his “extraordinary achievements” as well as his “methodological self-consciousness.” For Said, Rodinson was one of the exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines. In the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), he gave his opinion of Said’s Orientalism:
Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.
His books, available for download here, include:
- Mohammad (1961)
- Islam and Capitalism (1966)
- Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (1967)
- “On Zionism and the Palestine Problem Today” (1975)
- “Islam Resurgent?” (1979)
- “Khomeini and the ‘Primacy of the Spiritual'” (February 1979)
- The Arabs (1979)
- Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1980)
- Marxism and the Muslim World (1982)
- Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1984)
- “Mythology of a Conqueror: On Saddam Hussein” (1991)
- “Critique of Foucault on Iran” (1993)
- “Why Palestine?”
- “On Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar” (2003)
An interview from 1986 follows the picture gallery below. Enjoy.
Joan Mandell & Joe Stork
Middle East Review 269
November 15, 1986
Joan Mandell and Joe Stork spoke with Maxime Rodinson in April 1986, when he came to Washington for the celebration of MERIP’s fifteenth anniversary. We publish the interview here for the first time.
You represent a unique combination of someone who has a militant left political background as an activist and is at the same time a renowned scholar. What circumstances account for this?
I was born in 1915. The milieu of my parents was one in which we had no doubt that this combination was absolutely essential. We had no doubt at the time there could be contradictions between scientific work and a commitment to action. I learned a great deal from my old master and professor, Marcel Cohen, a Greek linguist and communist. He had great ideas about Semitic linguistics and on the side he felt the duty to be committed. He was a member of the French Communist Party from the beginning. He used to say that people who never change are fools, and I have asked myself whether I was a fool because I had been in the Party since the 1930s. I remember that at one time I had some disagreements with the Party, but some months after that I understood that the Party was right and I came back to it. So I am not a fool!
You wrote in the preface to one of your books how even when you first joined the Party early in your life you were conscious of the problem. You didn’t join naively or blindly and you were aware of the constraints that it would represent.
I understand now that there is a process. I couldn’t have understood it without the experience…. Once you are in an organization you are restricted. I remember just before joining and committing myself by adhering formally and signing papers, I was buffeted between two trends.
On one side there was the French primary school where I learned to be tolerant, democratic and respectful. This trend was supported by a man among the Jews who emigrated from Poland and Eastern Europe.
Did your family also migrate from Eastern Europe?
Yes. My father was from Byelorussia. He was educated in college in Smolensk, wrote poetry in Russian, read English, French and German. He came to Paris in 1885 and my mother in 1900 or 1901. They were the kind of people who came to France to pursue their studies but were forced to work to survive. My mother was less educated; she spoke Yiddish and a bit of Russian. She was very fond of things Russian…Poland was at that time part of Russia.
Were your parents already in the Communist Party when they came to France?
There was no Communist Party at that time. They were more or less socialist-minded. My mother had disgust for all things religious, and I inherited that. She spoke with horror of rabbis. When my father first came to Paris he was a Marxist, a syndicalist, one of the founders of Jewish trade unions. In 1905, there was a process of unification of many socialist parties in France. My father entered this new socialist party. He had a job — unpaid — as a keeper of a library. Many new people like Trotsky and Lenin went there.
In France, at the time of the revolution, to what extend did the Jewish workers work as a group? To what extent was there consciousness as Jews, and how did that intersect with the broader trade union movement?
It was a process of transition. Many of them were just coming from Russia, and spoke only Yiddish. On the side, they were concentrated in certain sectors like the garment trade. So naturally the trade union of workers who made raincoats were almost all Jews. At the time of the Russian revolution many went to Russia. I was born in Paris and perhaps my mother and father found this a great excuse to stay in France. My father understood how things were in Russia, while my mother and I were enthusiastic to go back. So she prepared to go back without my father. But her friends advised her not to leave her husband, and she stayed.
I was dispirited at the time because I was in primary school and had no prospect to go to university. But one of the things that upset me was that I did not know foreign languages. I was without culture. Then I discovered a marvelous thing: Esperanto. I understood that it was replacing all the languages; it was easy to learn. At that time it was encouraged by the Soviet Union, by trade unions, by the Communist Party. I studied it in evening lessons at the houses of trade unionists. I was assigned a correspondent in the Soviet Union, in the town of my father. I wrote asking, “What is the problem with Trotsky and Stalin?” and so on.
How old were you when you finished primary school?
I was 12 or so. To go to secondary school you had to pay a lot of money, but there were scholarships. I got one, but at that time my parents were badly off financially. I began to work as an errand boy, running errands for consulates. I was very pleased. It was a very good life, I thought, but I knew that after ten or 20 years it would not be so fine. I began to think about a way to get out of that. My mother had a very naive admiration for intellectuals, and at the same time she was a fervent communist. We were always going to demonstrations. I took free evening lessons, offered by competent people, in anthropology at the trade [union] house. I was always fascinated by ancient civilizations. In primary school I learned only French history. In secondary school, bourgeois children had the privilege of learning the history of Greece and Rome. I was very angry about this class privilege and I began to read books about ancient history.
What was your sister doing at this time?
She was engaged in many social activities. She was fond of French culture and contracted a horror of all things Jewish, Russian, and political. She had a good voice and sang with the choir of the Party — there was no other. I can remember the songs very well. You can discover the popular state of mind not in the books of theoreticians or philosophers but in popular songs.
At that time, I began one foreign language — English. And during the time I worked as an errand boy I learned Latin in evening classes. I was also studying Greek and Latin on my own.
And you learned Latin and Greek out of anger at not having been able to study it?
Yes, exactly. Later I discovered that there was a school of Oriental languages in which you did not need to have the Baccalaureat — I only had the Certificat d’Études Primaires. You only needed to pass an exam concerning the literature part of the Baccalaureat — history and literature. I knew a lot about that.
How old were you then?
Between 14 and 17. Three years: 1929 to 1932. In 1932 I took the examination and I passed in part because they wanted two languages and I only had one — English. The second one I learned from an encyclopedia — Spanish. The director of the school at the time was a very good man, a professor of Russian and a friend of Tolstoy. He saw my identity papers that my father was from Russia.
At this time, were you engaged in political work?
No, not yet. Not organizationally. I was afraid. But when I was 14, I began to acquire some consciousness. When I came to take the examination [in 1932], the examiner was a professor of modern Greek. He asked me about socialism in the nineteenth century. I reacted very cautiously. I spoke about Saint-Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen. He asked about Karl Marx. I thought he was trying to bait me. I learned later on that he was referring to examples of bad bourgeois education — knowing a lot about Saint-Simon and nothing about Marx. After that I began to study.
Was this a state school or a private one?
State. During vacations I began to study for the Baccalaureat. I learned physics, chemistry and math during the vacation. I chose Arabic, but I am not sure about the reasons for my choice. I had read extensively on Arabic and Islamic history, but also on Chinese and Scandinavian history. We had town libraries in Paris, dating from the 1880s or so, the time of the anti-clerical struggles. They propagated Darwinism, history of religion and the like. I had a good knowledge of the history and beginnings of Islam among other things. I did not choose Chinese because it was a bit farther from Europe. I was fond of European history and history of religion because I was preoccupied with the problem of God at that time. Is there a God or not? I had been in touch at that time with Protestantism. I was susceptible.
Your family did not practice any of the rituals?
No. I was disgusted by all that. We were against everything — Christianity and Judaism. At that time the left movement was very strongly anti-clerical. But I had read books on the history of religion, and I was fascinated. To be clear about the question of God, I began to study the Bible and critical studies of the Bible in the library.
Were you familiar with Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity at that time?
Not at that time. I had read Renan about the history of the beginnings of Christianity, and it was fascinating to me. I still know the Gospels and the whole history very well. I have thought about the similarities between religions and political parties. Renan himself had said that the first Christians were something like socialist cells. St. James, the brother of Jesus, was expelled…and his trend did not win the struggle. It is the same with us in the socialist and communist parties. At that time I was sent by my father and mother to a vacation camp organized by the Communist municipalities. It was a curious mix. Some were not communist at all. Poor people from small towns had the right to be there, too. Many boys asked me what I was — socialist or communist. I said I had no commitments. They asked about my father and mother. I said they were communists. So they said I was a communist. I said no, I had a mind of my own.
Well…to learn Arabic and to be engaged in Islamic studies meant to not be too far from European history and from the history of Christianity and Judaism. So I always had this funny idea of being in touch with most things, and Arabic seemed to me a good way for that. But when I began to study Arabic I picked up an interest in Semitic linguistics. I took lessons in Hebrew and Semitic languages, history of religion, anthropology.
One outlet was the diplomatic service, but I did not know what it was. There was the Middle East and other areas. You had to have three languages to take an examination to enter the Foreign Service. I thought, why not? It was Arabic, Turkish and either Persian or Ethiopian. The professor of Amharic was Marcel Cohen — a communist. It was good to have a communist professor among the bourgeois wolves to protect me. So I began to study Amharic. He was first of all a linguist, so he emphasized linguistics more than other things. Even in my primary school days I had some contacts with this world of universities and bourgeois people, by way of my sister. She was born at a time when the family was better off than in my time. So she studied at the time in a secondary school. This was not for free, and there were rich people there. She had companions among girls from higher society. Among them, a professor in the school [École des Hautes Études], Alexidor Levy. He was a French Jew, and I learned Hebrew from him. He was protecting me in a way. I was a friend and companion of his son. My sister was a good friend of his daughter. So I asked his advice before choosing my language. That was part of the way I came to my decision.
Were you aware of the contemporary history of the Arab world and the Middle East, or were you mainly interested in this ancient history?
At the time I was not so much interested in contemporary history. But this was the time I began to decide to be a member of the Communist Party. At the time of Hitler’s ascendance, I thought, “It is the only strength against the Hitlerites.” It was in 1937 that I joined the Communist Party.
There was fascism, there was economic depression, there were a lot of militants. To what extent were you conscious at that time of the situation in Palestine?
Not much. I found letters in Yiddish received by my father from a French friend, who was someone in the movements of Jews, socialism and Zionism, and I found discussions about Zionism, but I was not very interested in that. Well, you see, at that time, in our milieu we were laughing about Zionism. It was not an attraction to me. I had no fundamental hostility to that because I did not know. When I was admitted to the Communist Party, I thought it was my duty not only to study the past but also to be in touch with contemporary movements — the communist parties in the Arab countries. It was a result of my joining the Communist Party. We attended the yearly festivities of the Party and we met North African and Algerian revolutionaries.
So you were going to school now and studying Arabic and you joined the Party?
Yes, in 1937 there was a great day in my life because I had passed my examinations in Turkish, Arabic, Amharic, history of religion, and I had a good package of diplomas thanks to my protector Marcel Cohen. I was engaged at that time in what is now the Center for Scientific National Research. The Popular Front won the last elections; they were creating that center and giving money for scientific research. I was paid a little, and I got married in 1937. It was the beginning of a new life.
Was your wife someone you met through the Party?
No, she was a student in the school of Oriental studies, too. From good French Catholic extraction.
What circumstances brought you to Lebanon in 1940?
I was too frail to pass the physical exam for the army, so they put me in the auxiliary service. Then things began to change. In May, the Germans invaded France in the north. Before going to the army, I asked my professor for recommendations to be put in the regiment in which I could use my Arabic and Turkish. They told me that it was difficult. I was in the town of Tours, and there was an order for ten people to be sent to the Polish brigade in Syria to furnish them with food. I went to the secretary of the colonel and I said, “They all protest against being sent to Syria because the Germans are coming. You can put me instead.” This was how I went to Lebanon and Syria on the last ship that left Marseille before Italy came into the war and stopped the traffic in the Mediterranean. I was in Beirut on June 3, and the Germans were advancing south.
What was your first view of the people and culture in Lebanon?
I had some colonial ideas left in my mind, here and there, reinforced by study of anthropology. I remember a time I asked a Syrian man, “Did you have people gifted in mathematics, too?” He was angry, of course.
We went to the Polish camp in Homs, but they were not sure what to do. In Homs there was no need for French people to come. It was a time of great trouble in France, a new government. Nobody knew what the disposition of the new Pétain government would be, so they allowed Poles and others to go to Palestine to pursue the struggle against the Germans as they liked. Well, I was in trouble with one of two people left in my regiment. There was one friend among the ten coming from Tours, one a teacher in primary schools. He was an anarchist; I was communist. We spoke together about what to do. The Poles said we could go with them but at the same time they said they are going to Palestine, we will find Jews and only two months ago we were beating the Jews in Warsaw. That’s not very engaging. People of the Foreign Legion hesitated, too. Some went to Palestine, others thought it was time to make brigandage in the desert. With my anarchist friend — there was a Jesuit, too, making propaganda for de Gaulle — we decided to stay here, not too far from Palestine, in Syria and Lebanon, and there would always be a possibility to go to Palestine, we’d wait and see. In the end, the army found a solution for us. They put us in Damascus. I was at the bottom of the hierarchy. I was a second-class soldier. But it was a perfect opportunity to practice my Arabic.
Did this engage you all the time?
Yes, all the time. We were in a pitiful situation because there were no relations with France at the time. The pay of the simple soldier was very low, enough to buy only one ice cream every day. We did not even have enough soap. There was one lieutenant, French, from North Africa. He engaged in Arab studies at the time because he was director of censorship in Damascus. He had for his assistant an Armenian who knew Arabic well. At the time, the Armenians had a right to vacations, so he needed a substitute. He wanted to see what was the level of my knowledge. He took me with him for one month to help him translate Arabic newspapers for the French service in Damascus. I came in contact with two or three of the French engaged in Arabic studies there, at the French Institute of Arab Studies in Damascus.
In November I faced a dilemma: whether to return to France or to stay. I had to furnish the army with a contact in case of war in the country, and it was very difficult for me because I had no right to go to Beirut without authorization. Syrians who had studied with me before the war in Paris tried to help me, but there were no jobs, except that I could teach. I got a recommendation to a Lebanese politician — the prime minister at the time, [Riyad] Sulh. They were both in touch with nationalists in the Muslim school in Sidon. I was authorized to go to Beirut and meet with the people of Sidon and sign a contract. Then I had to go back to Damascus to wait for my demobilization, which took a long time. The first of December, I went to Sidon. I had no money, only my uniform. My sister-in-law sent some money from France. It turned out that they would not pay me during the month of vacation. In Sidon there was a special secondary school founded to serve the Muslim community. There were almost no public schools in Lebanon. This was a private school, the Institution of Muslim Benevolence. I lived in a dormitory. There was one Armenian from Beirut, Christians, Muslims — all together. I taught French. At times I compared French and Arabic literature.
Were they suspicious of you?
At times, yes. They were suspicious that I would give reports to the French mustashar in Sidon. But they saw that I had only straight relations with him. And then there was the Jewish question. When I had to fill out papers, I was asked my nationality, age and religion. I said it was prohibited in France to ask such questions. “Don’t be angry,” they said, “it’s just for the official papers.” I said, “I have no religion and no faith in God.” They laughed.
There was a Jewish school — Alliance Israelite — and I befriended the director, who was a good man. He was a Sephardic Jew. His wife was quite stupid and said to everyone that I was a spy for the French. She said this to all the people of Sidon. I was afraid of consequences, even though in the school it was no problem.
I had my first experiences with Arab politics in April or May of 1941. There was a revolt in Iraq. The students were very enthusiastic and wanted to join the Iraqi forces against the British. When the professors went to the classroom, the students all stood up and said they did not want to study, but to struggle. They went to Beirut, to the Iraqi consul, and asked to join the Iraqi forces. They were very enthusiastic. We heard Iraqi radio everyday saying how many British planes [were downed] and people were killed. The consulate told them they had to prepare themselves. But nobody knew anything about war. We found at last, in Sidon, an old man who was commander of a submarine in World War I. They had seen a French officer’s handbook on my table. They thought I had wartime experience with the French army. I had not even passed my examination for preparation for the second-class officers. I had to lecture them on French military theory; it did not matter to them that the French army was defeated the year before.
During this time, did you still have any link with the Party?
There were no links at all with the Party. The Lebanese Communist Party was banned.
Did you try to find out about the Party in Lebanon?
The year after that, when the Gaullists and the British had won, the French authorized the Lebanese and Syrian communist parties to resume their work. Germans were far away, struggling against the British, and the only allies of the French were the Soviets. The Americans were far away at that time. The French allowed the Communist Party — some members were in jail while others were underground — to go public. I told them that I was a basic member in France. I began to make friends with them. This was in 1941, after the victory of the British in Lebanon and Syria. My wife came in September. I was no longer in school and had to search for a job. In June 1941, the British invaded Lebanon and Syria. French troops went back to the Damour River. We stayed in Beirut. The suburbs of Sidon were bombed. There was news that the Germans had entered Russia. Almost all Lebanese and Syrians were probably for Hitler, of course. He now had war in France, Yugoslavia and Russia. We thought Hitler was lost. We were very happy. We drank vodka.
When was it that you started to work in liaison with some of the Lebanese and Syrian communists?
In 1941. With the new French administration, the left, the Communist Party reappeared. I met the chiefs of the Communist Party, the secretary-general [Khalid Bakdash, Nicola Shawi] and for the first time I was in touch with them. The French authorized them to publish the paper Sawt al-Sha‘b. I began to develop strong ties with them. At that time, French people could help.
You mentioned in one of your books Farajallah Hélou, secretary-general of the Lebanese Communist Party, as someone very special.
Yes, he was a very kind man. Khalid Bakdash could have been a terrible man if he were in power. But Hélou was a very good man, pleasant and human. Nicola Shawi was in between. They all spoke French. I read their books in Arabic and helped them, and at the time contributed to their cultural journal. In 1943 I began to give lectures on Marxism — in French, of course. At first it was in the house of a Lebanese architect in Beirut. Antoun Thabit was a kind of fellow traveler. Before the war he was acquainted with surrealists, and they made imitations of French and British surrealists in Beirut. After a while he was admitted to the Communist Party, a member of the central committee. He won the prize for peace after the war. When he died, they had a special mass for him. This was unimaginable in France, but it wasn’t in Lebanon. After all, he was a Maronite.
At this time, you were also traveling to Palestine occasionally?
Yes. At this time it was very easy to take the bus from Beirut to Haifa. I was in charge of buying books for the library of the [French] Department of Antiquities. I was very popular among the booksellers in Jerusalem because it was a place in which you found books of Jews who emigrated from Germany at cheap prices. At that time I had no links with the French Communist Party, and in the Lebanese Communist Party I was not a full member because I was French. So I could not be completely engaged. I began to have some doubts; when you are not in the organization this is easier. But I began to return to activism. After the liberation of Algeria, links could be established with the French Communist Party in Algiers. They did not know me. I was a very small member of the Party in France. But they began correspondence with me. We asked advice and had an association in Lebanon—the friends of Liberté [the French communist paper in Algiers]. We began to ask for money. I was freer in my movements because I was an official in the delegation of Free France. There were French communists passing through Beirut, mostly sailors in the French navy. A French engineer in Beirut began to have regular meetings at my house, discussing the situation, reading what we thought to be the right instructions at that time.
I began to return to political activism more than I had ever done before, with my links with the Lebanese and Syrian party. This was really the time when I began to be an active communist. I had reactions to the Soviet army. It was unfair for the British and the Americans not to open a second front. I was very worried because my family was in France, and I had no news. In 1943 they were taken to Auschwitz. The Red Army was the only one advancing; the Americans and British were advancing very little in Italy.
Your parents were killed in Auschwitz?
Yes, in 1943, but I learned of it after liberation, in 1944. We had contact by way of the Red Cross and the Vatican. For a while I did not get any cards from them. Olga was in Paris, my aunt and uncle spoke very bad French. They took a yellow star. My sister-in-law got married to a French man. The trouble with my mother and father is that they struggled themselves. Even before the Germans asked the Vichy government to do it, the Vichy government began to take a census of the Jews. At that time, Svertski, of whom I have spoken, had committed suicide. He was very lucid, he had asked for my father to do the things necessary to bury him. My parents, by Communist faith, chose Soviet citizenship. Before France recognized the Soviet Union politically on May 24, there was a commercial delegation where Olga worked as a typist. My parents could have escaped because of the connection with Olga’s employer.
For the rest of the time you were based in Beirut, until early 1947, you were working for the French administration?
Yes, first for the Department of Antiquities, which was dissolved in 1943-1944 with independence and given to the Lebanese and Syrians. The French devised a superior school for archaeological missions in which I was assigned odd things, to be paid by the French administration there. People [both Vichyists and neutrals] in 1941 wanted only to go to France. There was a race between the Vichyists and the Gaullists to attract French officials and military in 1941. If you were to go back to France with Vichy you could advance in the civil service or military. I was offered the rank of sergeant in the military with the Gaullists. With the Vichyists I could have been a general. But first you had to decide if you adhered to de Gaulle or Vichy or be neutral. I confess I was neutral because I had not much faith in de Gaulle. De Gaulle issued a decree that all officials of Free France would have a job and be integrated into the French service. French officials in colonies, especially in Mandate countries, were not of the French service. They were engaged in the place without privileges and guarantees of the French civil service. So it was a great thing for them. I was not an official. I was paid by the center but it was not a contract, and I was not a regular fonctionnaire. I was given the title of librarian. We had to choose among administrations. I wanted four things, among which were diplomatic service, professorship and library work.
At first they sent me a telegram offering me a very good job in the diplomatic service in Arab countries. After a few days, they figured out my background and sent another telegram and canceled their offer. I was in a position to discuss it because there were communists in the government. But the day before, I thought diplomatic service would be too much work and not enough time to read. I was angry at the second telegram and wanted to protest.
So you went back to France in 1947?
Yes, in 1947. I had the right to ask for a job in the administration of libraries. I was given a job in charge of printed books of the Middle East.
When did you get back to the Arab world?
Not for a long time — 1954. I had no money to travel. In 1954 I had a mission from the Center for National Research to study witchcraft in Cairo — possession of women. There were many witches in Cairo, until now. I went to Cairo for two months, and stayed ten days or so in Lebanon on the way back. I was in touch with Communist groups there. That was the beginning of my real adult years — 1954 — the year before I became professor. My wife was at home, with no money to travel.
So while you were working at the center in Paris you were still a member of the Party and still active?
Yes, even more active than before because the Party demanded much from us at that time, especially since I was a specialist on Arab countries and Islam. They asked me to contribute to newspapers.
You were manager of Moyen Orient at that time?
Yes, in 1950-1951. It was at the request of the Party. There was a group of immigrants from the Middle East, from Muslim countries, really, and Jews from Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. They published this journal once or twice, and afterwards felt that it would be a good thing to have French among them. We all worked together. I wrote only one or two papers. We had money from a rich Egyptian Jew. Socialist countries helped us a little, asking for 50 copies for Bulgaria, 100 or 200 for the Soviet Union. This was the help we got. This became very troublesome for most of our people, immigrants, of course. Some were expelled. That was the end of this journal. It had a good reputation at the time. Nobody was interested in the Middle East at the time; they were interested in Vietnam and China.
Were you also at this time playing a role in liaison with the communists of Syria and Lebanon?
Yes. I was an intermediary for both sides many times. They knew that I was in Paris, close to the Communist Party, and that I was familiar with their problems. They knew very well that the French Communist Party understood nothing and had no interest in their problems. So very often I went to the colonial bureau, telling them to take this or that stand on the problems. Rarely was I heard. But, nevertheless, I played this role.
A big question at this time is that in 1954, the beginning of the Algerian revolution, the Party did not take a strong stand.
I did not have much knowledge of the events in North Africa at that time.
Did this become a big debate for you?
Yes, because I was beginning to have doubts about the politics of the Party at that time, and with others we managed to ask the Party to take a stand more in favor of independence of Algeria. But we were all disciplined in the Party at that time. We got angry about the position of the Party, and more prone to associate with non-Party people — the independent left — which is taken very badly by the Party, of course. But the Party had taken great pains to demobilize. So in 1956 there were elections in France. The socialists came into power and the Party had great expectations, especially with relations to Moscow and the idea of the great alliance of the socialist parties and the Soviet Union. All this could not be endangered by secondary things like Algeria. When the new assembly [Chambre de Députes] met, the Party voted special powers for Guy Mollet in Algeria. This was the first time I dared to contradict the position of the Party. Not all the way, of course. I wanted to speak out against these special powers. They decided that they had to make that move and sacrifice a part for the whole. I began to have doubts, theoretically. I began the slow evolution toward a critique of the Party. I left two years later, in 1958.
So what made you most critical of the Party came out of your knowledge of the Middle East?
I was in doubt about decisions of the Soviet Union more and more. But this could be endured without putting in doubt the whole structure. The Russians could make mistakes; nobody is perfect. This was not of most importance in my mind. It was more at the time of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Khrushchev report. I began to be more and more outspoken in my critiques, and I was at that time among opponents inside the Party. I was expelled in 1958 for one year. But after that I never went back.
When did you start writing about the national question and Palestine and Zionism?
I was writing on the Middle East in general. The Palestinian problem was perhaps less prominent than today. I began to think more and more about it. At the same time, the cultural journal of the French communists asked me to review books. I reviewed the French translation of the book of Stalin. I took the time to think about the problem. I did not have a great will to engage in problems of Zionism, but I had met when I was in Beirut some militants: Fu’ad Massa, the head of the Palestinian Communist Party at that time; groups of Jews and Arabs supporting a binational state. But I did not want to be involved.
Once, in France before 1967, some students came to me. I was angry with Zionism but I did not say much about it. When these Arab students presented their problems to me, they asked us to participate and tell them our point of view. Some Jewish students were meeting and discussing the problems and they wanted to do the same, but not under the supervision of the Zionists, and they wanted to ask my point of view. I gave a speech with anger and strength. It was published later under the title, “If I Were an Arab.” Zionists later responded to my paper. But in the meeting itself they wanted to speak as soon as I was finished.
Why is it that before 1965 you did not really want to get involved in the issue?
Because it was intricate, difficult to explain to people. It was not my first preoccupation at the time. But more and more, I found myself involved.