With the news dominated by the violence and sectarian conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the positive legacy of modern Arab thought, especially the writings of Arabic-language figures on the topic of socialism. Additionally, I wish to show how Arab Christians contributed to the development of socialist thought in the Arab-speaking world.
Arab Christians played a crucial role in the development of progressive and socialist thought in the Middle East, which highlights why the decline of Christian communities in Iraq and other countries due to bumbling Western intervention and Islamist reaction is such a disaster for all people of the region regardless of religious or ethnic background.
Shibl Shumayyil: (1860-1917)
Shibl Shumayyil (1860-1917) was a Syrian Christian and perhaps the primary pioneer of socialist thought in Arabic-speaking countries. Trained as a medical doctor at the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut), Shumayyil also studied medicine in Paris before finally settling in Egypt. Shumayyil was one of the first professed socialists in the Arab world. His work "True Socialism" was originally a chapter in a book by Shumayyil and was likely written in 1913.
"True Socialism" is written in question-answer format and consists of a defense and explanation of Shumayyil's thoughts on socialism. Shumayyil begins his discourse by defending socialism against the charge that it rewards the lazy at the expense of the industrious. To the contrary, Shumayyil notes, socialism is properly described as a system of justly rewarding labor. The first aim of socialism is to provide work. Shumayyil expands on this by writing:
“I mean that the social system must be organized in such a way that all people in the society work and become useful, as well as being beneficiaries, each one according to his effort, until the society becomes free from the unemployed, and from those others who are deceived and who distort and corrupt.”
Shumayyil goes on to describe socialism as a cooperative enterprise and contrasts the cooperative nature of socialism with the individualism of other social systems. Under a system where individuals lack solidarity and seek to undercut each other for the “favor of the ruler or the boss,” the common people are afflicted with “severe pressure [that] destroys the mind and closes the door to knowledge; consequently ignorance prevails.” Shumayyil also goes on to criticize the existence of tremendous inequality, writing:
“[T]he extreme inequality among people in such systems makes them lose all human contact with one another in all aspects of their daily life. Consequently, individual conditions worsen and the social structures tremble. One sees fancy palaces and miserable huts side by side; clean sections are adjacent to dirty ones; some people wear fancy clothes while others are in rags; some are healthy and enjoy all kinds of comfort while others are sick and cannot find their necessary food.”
Socialism thus aims to rectify the injustices of past systems by recognizing the right to work, the right to just reward based on effort, and the right of the worker to live in comfort and health. Shumayyil’s description of the stresses and problems faced by individual workers struggling alone against their peers in a kind of dog-eat-dog struggle for work still has a great deal of relevance for workers today despite the fact that it was written one hundred years ago.
Additionally, Shumayyil’s advocacy of full employment, just pay, and the support of a civilized and comfortable life for the worker and his family echo many of the demands of labor unions, social democrats and socialists today. Clearly, Shibl Shumayyil's work on the nature of socialism is still relevant today and deserves to be remembered and studied.
Hanna, Sami Ayad. Arab Socialism: A Documentary Survey (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1969).