Kamal Jumblatt’s Intellectual Itinerary
Kamal Jumblatt is best known for being an important leftist leader in Lebanon and the head of its Druze community, a minority religious group generally considered a branch of Shia Islam. From 1943 to 1977, he was elected deputy for the Chouf district in Mount Lebanon, and as a minister he held multiple portfolios in the early 1960s. Thus, people remember Jumblatt first and foremost as a politician, and he was especially popular for being a rather unconventional one. From the beginning of his political career, he adopted a strong anti-establishment stance and continuously criticized the confessional system, despite his own family’s status as prominent religious leaders. He was also the founder of the Progressive Socialist Party and became one of the most acclaimed leftist leaders throughout the Arab world.
Alongside this, however, Jumblatt was also an intellectual. He wrote a great deal: aside from a dozen books, around 4000 texts have been attributed to him since his death . He also gave numerous conferences, published articles in the majority of Lebanese newspapers and held teaching positions. A lot of theories have emerged among both his admirers and detractors to explain his political trajectory and actions, specifically during the Lebanese war. This article will attempt to avoid such partisan readings as it examines his political thought, with its particular mix of socialism and personalism.
A promising young intellectual
Jumblatt may have had his first encounters with socialist ideas during his stay in Paris in the year 1937–1938. He was studying law at the Sorbonne University when the leftist coalition of the Popular Front came to power under the leadership of Leon Blum. He then returned to Beirut, and was elected deputy for the first time in 1943, but this did not stop him from pursuing his intellectual interests. He frequently wrote articles for two magazines, Cahiers de l’Est and Al-Adib, respectively owned by his close Christian friends from the Chouf area, Camille Aboussouan and Albert Dib. In one of the articles, “Our Economic Future” in 1945, Jumblatt stresses the need for combined social and economic legislation and calls for the redistribution of all unexploited lands.Séminaire du Professeur Chevallier 27 Janvier 1981 (Document non publié – Bibliothèque de La Sorbonne). He also suggests that cooperatives be given an increased role.
Although the measures Jumblatt calls for are clearly borrowed from the socialist economic framework, I argue that in the mid-1940s he was experimenting with different economic models and still cannot be considered a socialist. In this period, Jumblatt’s main motivation was to resolve the issues faced by the underprivileged classes. This was in step with other attempts in the late 1940s to devise forms of labour organization that avoided class warfare. Indeed, Jumblatt’s type of “progressive socialism” was in fact influenced by Emmanuel Mounier’s theory of personalism: a philosophy that concentrates on the human being as a person, as opposed to the ‘individual’ as an abstract legal or political category. In 1946, his article “The New Democracy” insisted on the need for individuals to be accomplished human beings in order to realize the ideal society. The philosophical and humanist content of Jumblatt’s writings is the natural result of his French Catholic education. He was thus very familiar with European political thought: Rousseau, Bergson and most importantly Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who produced a Christian theory of evolution, were the French thinkers who influenced him the most.
Being an intellectual mattered to Jumblatt’s persona and writing enabled him to show that he was one. In the late 1940s, Jumblatt also participated in a high-quality debate between cosmopolitan intellectuals, and in 1946 he gave a series of lectures at the Cénacle Libanais, at the time a competitive tribune for the most brilliant Lebanese thinkers. It can even be said that constructing his ideology of progressive socialism was also a part of his self-fashioning as an intellectual. This explains why he invited intellectuals of all stripes during the summer of 1947 to help him prepare the founding charter of his party. Indeed, Jumblatt seemed to think that only an enlightened progressive elite could help him against the politicians of the traditional parties. He also believed that paving the way for independence was only possible through a renewal and renaissance of Lebanese thought. It is therefore worth noting that it was professors from various universities in Lebanon who were behind his final transition to socialism, and the Progressive Socialist Party was finally established in May 1949.
A more human socialism
The PSP’s doctrine can be described as a form of reformist socialism as opposed to revolutionist communist ideologies. Indeed, the text “Doctrine of the Progressive Socialist Party” is in reality Jumblatt’s humanist profession of faith rather than the party’s program. In universal terms, he justifies the creation of his own party as a solution for the failure of European socialism and criticizes the ideological rigidity of Marxism, and its contemporary Stalinist avatar. He advocates the creation of a new, “more human socialism”, which is closer to its spiritual roots and the predicaments of social Catholicism.
Jumblatt’s socialism can be understood, in the late 1940s and until the mid-1950s at least, as a combination of de Chardin’s evolutionism and non-Marxist socialism. Between 1950 and 1953, Jumblatt gave several talks on democracy at the Cénacle Libanais, elaborating on the hybrid nature of his socialism. Indeed, it was in fact closer to social democracy, as shown by his admiration of the British Labour Party in the early 1950s . Denying the existence of class struggle, Jumblatt opted for a moderate economic approach, based on reform of existing institutions. In this respect, the years 1945–1956 mark the most intense period of intellectual work in Jumblatt’s life, with the elaboration of the PSP’s refined ideology, completely unequaled on the Lebanese political scene. However, the Catholic personalist content of this ideology drew Jumblatt closer to the views of centrist Christian democracy, which had been enjoying a resurgence in postwar Europe.
In short, Jumblatt’s leftist thought was by no means exceptional compared to the general trend, but it surely helped him emerge as a new kind of leader in Lebanon, in contrast to traditional corrupted politicians. Until the mid-1950s, he was still adopting a reformist approach towards the state. But this progressively changed.
Riding the anti-colonial wave
At the same time, Jumblatt’s thought also adopted the claims of Third World anti-imperialism as an attempt to devise a new world order breaking away from both capitalism and Soviet socialism and asserting the independence of Asian and African states. During a three-month trip to India in 1951–1952 to study Hinduism and yoga, Jumblatt met with representatives from the Praja Socialist Party and a joint communiqué was issued as a pledge for the emergence of a “Third Force”. It can be argued that Jumblatt’s ever-changing brand of socialism, a bizarre mix of Catholic personalism and pan-Asiatic anti-imperialism is mostly interesting for what it reveals about the zeitgeist of the postcolonial period. This also explains how Jumblatt’s leftist thought rapidly shifted in the late 1950s to endorse a revolutionary pan-Arabist stance. His writings lost their scholarly content in the following decades, and his language became typical of revolutionary discourse in the context of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise as the champion of anti-imperialism.
But Jumblatt’s growing pan-Arabist rhetoric coincided with his fierce opposition to the pro-western Maronite President, Camille Chamoun, who kept him out of government after 1952. Indeed, the late 1950s didn’t offer much opportunity for reflection, and along with many other Lebanese political actors, Jumblatt was forced to take much harder positions on foreign alliances. Jumblatt’s personal reading of the 1958 Lebanese crisis revealed his ideological shift: He describes this episode as being “a socialist revolution” in light of the armed struggle led by many PSP militants against the pro-western regime . Hence, Jumblatt’s transformation from reformist to revolutionist was hastened by overwhelming strategic imperatives, and from 1958 until the outbreak of the civil war, Jumblatt’s political aim was the demolition of the state, the embodiment of imperialism. In a way, Jumblatt indirectly abandoned his “more human socialism”, and became less reliant on French thought while adopting a radical leftist posture.
Final transformation: A rectified Marxism
In the last decade of his life, Jumblatt reached the height of his political career, to an extent never dreamt before by any Druze leader in Lebanon. From 1968 until his death in 1977, he worked vehemently to establish his authority as a major pan-Arab leader of the radical Left. He did so by positioning himself as the champion of the sacred causes of the post-colonial Left: the Palestinian cause, Pan-Arabism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism in the aftermath of Nasser’s death, as well as the students’ and workers’ movement, whose social demonstrations he supported in the early 1970s. All of which was naturally directed against the Lebanese state.
In 1972, Jumblatt was awarded the prestigious Lenin prize, thus confirming his now undeniable status as a leftist leader. Hence, the moderate intellectual he had been at the end of the 1940s had completely disappeared to make way for an acclaimed revolutionary figure. It’s interesting to note here that in his address to the Francophone newspaper L’Orient-Le-Jour in 1971, Jumblatt evokes de Chardin in a last attempt to reconcile with his primary sources, when he partially confessed his late conversion from socialism to Marxism by asserting that “a well-understood Marxism, with its objectives rectified by de Chardin’s theory, is certainly the challenge of our time”.