For Marxists, using a theory that began as an analysis of capitalist society, precapitalist and colonial societies have presented a dual, dialectically interrelated problematic: problems of the theoretical analysis of such societies, and problems of revolutionary strategy in the colonial societies—where Marxists have too often been guided by globalized schemes rather than applied genuinely Marxist criteria to differentiated social systems.

The works of Marx on precapitalist societies are on a level of considerable generality, and are concerned above all with the historical preconditions for the emergence of capitalism, and with the periodicity of history from tribalism to the modern age. In this sense, they are not so helpful for analysing societies that have failed to develop capitalism but have existed in a world where capitalism has developed and are therefore exposed to destructive forces unknown to precapitalist Europe.footnote1 Marx’s scattered writings on colonial societies, particularly his writings on India, assume that capitalism will simultaneously destroy oriental society and create capitalism instead.footnote2 Faced with the short history of the British impact on India, he failed to see that capitalism simultaneously destroys existing social structures and prevents these societies from developing along the capitalist path. When considering the British impact on Ireland, which had continued over eight centuries, Engels was able to see what is now the basis of any analysis of the third world—that the impact of imperialism is essentially destructive and leads to a process of economic involution and social disruption.footnote3

Nevertheless, a Marxist theory of the societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America is not only a possibility but a necessity for the national liberation movement, and for combatting imperialist social science as propagated in the universities of Britain and America.footnote4 These two recent works, by Maxime Rodinson and Anouar Abdel-Malek,footnote5 are important contributions to a Marxist analysis of the Middle East, an area where the national liberation movement is in considerable confusion as to the nature of the societies it is confronting.

The central historical problem that is posed in analysing the Middle East is the failure of Muslim society to resist western capitalism and the effects of this failure on subsequent history. This failure began with the Ottoman expulsion from Hungary in 1687, and from that time on the disruptive impact of Europe spread throughout Muslim society. Military defeat was followed by an economic invasion and the ‘industrial infanticide’ that was the global effect of capitalist expansion. Local handicrafts were destroyed; production was geared to the European market; the result was political, social and cultural underdevelopment.

In the Middle East, this enabled the West to occupy strategic areas, unload an unassimilable Jewish minority onto Palestine, and pillage the oil resources of the region. This involution has prevented Arab, Persian or Turkish societies from combatting the destructive impact of imperialism, and from being able to use existing resources to deal with the problems they face. The result is the induced confusion of Middle Eastern politics today—Palestine, military-terrorist régimes, rural overpopulation, Islamic fanaticism, hysteria, sheikhly reaction, Arab balkanization.

From the 17th, but particularly from the 19th, century onwards Middle Eastern societies were unable to resist European capitalism with an indigenous capitalism or with an alternative form of state capitalism. The classic answer to this weakness of Middle Eastern society is that of vulgar Weberianism: the Middle East was prevented by Islam from developing capitalism. This mechanistic belief in the autonomous force of Islam is today also found in the theory that Islam is a bastion against communism, one of the more absurd tenets of neocolonial orientalism.

The purpose of Maxime Rodinson’s work is to show with a vast range of erudition and acquaintance with Muslim civilization over 14 centuries that Islam, far from impeding a native capitalism, was in no way responsible for the failure of the Middle East to provide a countervailing Muslim capitalism to that of Europe. His central analysis is divided into a study of Muslim theory and its relation to capitalism; and a study of Muslim practice and the presence in Muslim society of a flourishing capitalist sector.