Beinin and Lockman, Workers on the Nile

by Robert Vitalis
published in MER168

Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954 (Princeton, 1987).

Middle East Report editors Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman have collaborated on a path-breaking “political-institutional” analysis of the Egyptian working class. Workers on the Nile is a history of labor unions (the “labor movement”) and their involvement in the protracted struggle for Egypt’s independence (the “national movement”). While the decades between the uprising of 1919 and the consolidation of the military regime in 1952-1954 are familiar territory, the vantage point of organized labor is unquestionably unique. Workers on the Nile sheds new light on recent Egyptian history. In this review I want to point out some problems in the narrative strategy that the authors employ.

Beinin and Lockman combine a critical reading of recent Arabic scholarship and an exhaustive review of primary sources -- memoirs, diplomatic archives, Egyptian newspapers and the private papers of labor activists -- to tell the history of Egyptian labor unions and the nature of working-class collective action. [1] Their empirical labors alone make the study an invaluable contribution to the scholarship of the modern Middle East. Their attention to historical detail is, however, matched by a concern for theory and, in particular, what they define as the “central problematic” of labor politics in colonial and “semi-colonial” countries: “the dialectic of class and nation.”

At the risk of simplifying the argument, we can best understand the ideological and political practices of Egyptian workers (and hence the process of class formation) in terms of the intertwining of capitalist development and colonial rule. Beinin and Lockman summarize the problem of understanding working-class collective action in the form of a question: Did labor “raise independent class-based demands? Or were such demands suppressed and the autonomy of the labor movement subordinated to a nationalist leadership?”

Their answer to this deceptively straightforward question lies in their complex account of workers’ actions in the factories and in the streets of Cairo. The authors depict a working class “in formation,” composed of heterogeneous elements. The largest segment comprised laborers in small, under-capitalized workshops. Yet these workers were under-represented in the trade union movement emerging circa World War I. Workers in the few relatively “large” and “heavily capitalized” firms and sectors played the leading role in the organization of labor unions. The “center of gravity” in this early phase was the transport sector, including tramway workers and employees of the Egyptian State Railways.

Beinin and Lockman document the shifts in the influence of manufacturing and non-manufacturing labor over time. By the 1930s-1940s, workers in Egypt’s growing textile industry had replaced the transport unions as the new leading force in the labor movement. Similarly, they argue that over this same period, trade unions enhanced their capacity to organize and to make demands as a “politically independent” or “class-based” workers’ movement. The authors present this argument cautiously, making clear that there was no ineluctable logic to such an outcome.

Their narrative traces the effects of at least three ongoing conflicts which simultaneously engaged unionized workers: between labor and capital; between competing conceptions of workers and their relations to the nationalist movement; and between political “patrons” vying for the allegiance and control of working-class organizations. Basic rights and material interests were advanced fitfully and by degree in the face of unyielding capitalist resistance, state repression, the paternalism of the Wafd Party and its rivals, and the continuing tendency on the part of “most worker activists” to conceive of their shop-floor demands and the political objectives of the nationalist movement “as part of the same struggle.”

One of the clear strengths in this account is its sensitivity to the complex structure of the Egyptian trade union movement. At all times, significant divisions marked the organizations of the Egyptian working class “in formation.” Beinin and Lockman are most interested in the conflicts engendered by the differing political strategies of unions and by the competing ideologies embraced by union activists. How and why did labor organizations in textile manufacturing differ from unions in the cigarette and petroleum refining industries? Beinin and Lockman argue that the strongest strains of militant activism and political independence took root in part of the textile industry, where Egyptian communists had their greatest organizing successes. [2] In other sectors, the communists fared less well against the competing political currents represented by the Wafd and the Muslim Brothers. Nonetheless, the authors attribute the radical turn in post-1945 Egyptian politics to the strength of the communist-influenced labor organizations within the broader nationalist movement.

Throughout the study, the authors attempt to highlight the tensions that they believe underlie the “dialectic of class and nation” in Egypt, where “nationalism remained a central component of the consciousness of Egyptian workers, and class questions were most often perceived in national terms.” Nationalism provided a space within which unions could press working-class demands, but the potential cost in doing so was cooptation by political forces and, after 1954, the state. The authors end their study with an analysis of “the historic compromise” between Nasser’s regime and the organized labor movement. In their view, the working class accepted political quiescence and “incorporation” into the apparatus of the Egyptian state in return for improved “wages, job security and social benefits.” Nasser’s regime faced little resistance in implementing this new and heightened form of state-directed “paternalism” because of the “ideological hegemony of nationalism.”

The authors insist that politics and culture must be seen as constitutive elements of class, and it is their approach to the “problematic of class and nation” that deserves careful consideration. The Indian historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writing about recent works on Indian labor history, raises issues which are applicable to Workers on the Nile. [3] He argues that, despite an intense interest in “culture,” Marxist historians “operated with analytical frameworks which can never produce, from within themselves, an anthropological or theoretical understanding of culture(s).” Such frameworks “take for real a notion of ’working-class consciousness’ that is by definition exogenous to the particular histories and cultures under consideration.” Arguments about the “inevitability of the intertwining” of class and other forms of consciousness are designed to explain why workers failed to behave in ways that we might otherwise expect of them. At the same time -- and this is my immediate concern -- such an argument also tends to function as a “nationalist-Marxist indictment of colonialism.” [4] Ironically, it may be Beinin and Lockman themselves who are most inextricably bound up in the “problematic of class and nation.”

While they are clear about their differences with earlier Marxist tendencies in Egyptian labor history, they are much less clear about the critique of what they call “Nasserist or nationalist historiography,” and ultimately they adopt the same perspective. The authors are too careful to reproduce standard, unidimensional portraits of labor as merely a part of the national movement. Their underlying framework is best viewed where it is uncomplicated by “complex, contradictory and shifting” historical reality. [5] In the first page of Workers on the Nile, the authors state that their “history of the Egyptian workers’ movement is based on the premise that analysis of the process of capitalist development and the emergence of new social classes as part of that process is essential to understanding the history of modern Egypt.”

The authors see the process of capitalist development primarily as part of the epic of the nation and, in keeping with this nationalist-Marxist perspective, find it impossible to pry apart accounts of (capitalist) industrial development from the course of nationalist politics. [6] Thus they equate the birth of “an aspiring Egyptian industrial bourgeoisie” with “the struggle for national independence,” the two coming together with the founding of Bank Misr in 1920.

What led these historians to adopt this “romantic” frame of analysis? Eric Davis concluded his study of Bank Misr by admitting that Tal‘at Harb and the other founders of the bank “never thought in those terms.” [7] Lockman has suggested to me that they wanted to portray the way workers and other nationalists viewed the founding of Bank Misr. If true, the authors quickly (and inexplicably) abandon this workers’ perspective to analyze how, through “compromises with foreign the late 1930s...the Misr group ceased to be ’national’ in character.” [8] Yet workers and other nationalists generally did not view Bank Misr as any less nationalist after these “compromises.” The explanation for the ambiguities can be found not in workers’ views but in the theoretical and historiographical contributions of Egyptian and other “nationalist-Marxists” in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Beinin and Lockman’s arguments represent part of an elaborate defense of the political economy of Nasserism and, in particular, a rationale for the assault against capital between 1956-1961. Many of the arguments were developed by the Egyptian left to rationalize and support, first, the deepening of import substitution industrialization policies and the rapid expansion of state power and, second, beginning in the late 1950s, the widespread nationalizations and related components of “socialist transformation.” As elsewhere in the Third World, the left came to support rapid industrialization as a natural extension of political self-determination. [9]

Nasserists argue that the “project” of the nationalist movement and the “project” of the national bourgeoisie had both failed, in large part due to the continuing dominance of colonialism and foreign capital. In the nationalist historiography, the Nasser regime is the true successor to the political and economic forces which launched both the 1919 uprising against Great Britain and Egypt’s drive for economic independence via industrialization. While Beinin and Lockman demand a more nuanced reading of the Nasser regime’s relations with the working class, they simply reproduce every other basic feature of this historiography -- in particular, the argument that the Nasser regime came to power in order to allow “Egyptian capitalism to realize its full potential.” Egyptian historians have defended this position even after the Nasser regime destroyed Egypt’s capitalist class. [10]

The consequences of this line of thinking for Workers on the Nile are evident, for instance, in the relatively undeveloped ways in which the authors conceive of and discuss divisions in the capitalist class, primarily in terms of national origin. Unlike the “complex, contradictory and shifting” power relations which they dissect so masterfully in the case of the working class and its relations to the nationalist movement, they are content to argue that throughout the period 1882-1956, foreign capital simply “dominated” the Egyptian economy. Similarly, between 1922-1956, the British continued unambiguously to “control” the state. And, finally, the authors do not give us much insight into the relations between the working class, capital and the state. In other words, the issues most basic to a class analysis are lost in their sweeping narrative of workers and nationalist politics.

There are two kinds of political struggles detailed in Workers on the Nile: struggles in the workplace and struggles in the political arena. The authors narrate incidents of collective action in both, but their approach leads them to deal systematically only with the national arena. The state acts, and workers relate to it mainly as a repressive force. There is no sustained analysis of labor “policy” between 1922 and 1952. “Corporatism” and “paternalism” are discussed as strategies through which bourgeois nationalist political forces seek to enlist labor in the struggle for state power. [11] Beinin and Lockman provide few glimpses of workers acting outside the heroic arenas of the shop floor and the street. For instance, despite the powerful role of lawyers in the labor movement, there is no account of workers’ experience with and strategy toward the courts. [12] In Workers on the Nile, the Egyptian working class appears doggedly fighting for its rights and attaining its halting successes by uncompromising militant action alone.

I am raising these particular issues because of their traditional importance to the analysis of Middle Eastern political economy that I have long associated with MERIP and its editors. In the past few years, people I was first introduced to through their work in the MERIP collective have produced some of the most innovative new research in Middle East studies -- Judith Tucker’s superb analysis of women in nineteenth-century Egypt and Philip Khoury’s two volumes on Syria have quickly become standard sources in the field. Workers on the Nile is equally indispensable. Beinin and Lockman have written what is arguably the best new history on twentieth-century Egypt since the publication in 1972 of Jacque Berque’s Imperialism and Revolution.


[1] In addition, see two recent works published by political scientists: Ellis Goldberg, Tinker, Tailor and Textile Worker: Class and Politics in Egypt, 1930-1952 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986), and Robert Bianchi, Unruly Corporatism: Associational Life in Twentieth-Century Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
[2] Goldberg attempts to account for the variable strategies adopted by different groups of factory workers, broadly, using a rational choice perspective. He and his colleagues, Beinin and Lockman, who researched their books at the same time, should be encouraged to analyze the basic points of empirical and theoretical contention in their respective accounts.
[3] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Class Consciousness and the Indian Working Class: Dilemmas of Marxist Historiography,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 23/1-2 (1988).
[4] Ibid., p. 29.
[5] See their discussion of the historiography of the Egyptian workers’ movement, pp. 19-20. They fault nationalist historians such as Ra’uf ‘Abbas and Marius Deeb for failing to portray “the close yet complex, contradictory, and shifting relationship between the working class and the nationalist movement.”
[6] See pp. 8-12, section titled “The Development of Capitalism in Egypt.”
[7] See Eric Davis, Challenging Colonialism: Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920-1941 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 199.

[8] Beinin and Lockman’s argument is meant as a refutation of earlier tendencies in Egyptian historiography. See p. 11. Their argument is consistent with Davis. For a lengthy refutation of this variant nationalist myth, see Robert Vitalis, “On the Theory and Practice of Compradors: The Role of ‘Abboud Pasha in the Egyptian Political Economy,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 22/4 (August 1990).
[9] “It was this element of liberation...which in part recruited the left to import substitutionism and reconciled them to the apparently unlimited growth of state power. Socialism became entirely encompassed by radical nationalism, even through nationalism and the belief in a strong state were by tradition part of the politics of the right.” Nigel Harris, The End of the Third World: Newly Industrialized Countries and the Decline of an Ideology (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 122.
[10] See the powerful critique of nationalist-Marxist historiography by ‘Asim al-Disuqi, Nahw fahm tarikh Misr al-iqtisadi al-ijtima‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Jami‘i, 1981).
[11] A comparison with Bianchi is especially useful here.
[12] This point emerged in a discussion with Roger Owen and students in his seminar on the state in the Middle East, University of Texas, March 1990.

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