Maxime Rodinson: Marxist, Orientalist, anti-Zionist, anti-Islamist

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:

  1. Mohammad (1961)
  2. Islam and Capitalism (1966)
  3. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (1967)
  4. “On Zionism and the Palestine Problem Today” (1975)
  5. “Islam Resurgent?” (1979)
  6. “Khomeini and the ‘Primacy of the Spiritual'” (February 1979)
  7. The Arabs (1979)
  8. Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1980)
  9. Marxism and the Muslim World (1982)
  10. Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1984)
  11. “Mythology of a Conqueror: On Saddam Hussein” (1991)
  12. “Critique of Foucault on Iran” (1993)
  13. “Why Palestine?”
  14. “On Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar” (2003)

An interview from 1986 follows the picture gallery below. Enjoy.


Rodinson looks back

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.

Continue reading