Art and Ideology (pt. 1)


Sune Haugbolle, Associate Professor of Global Studies at Roskilde University in Denmark, explores the role of popular art in shaping people’s ideologies. The following is the first half of a two-part essay examining the development of leftist ideologies in the Arab world which led to the popularization of what is known as leftist folklore. 

Intellectual history has long dominated the study of ideologies in the Middle East. Since Albert Hourani’s famous Arab ought in the Liberal Age (1962), a number of scholars have linked ideological formation to intellectual life in the nahda period, stressing the role of famous writers and thinkers. According to this narrative, the reforms of the late Ottoman Empire produced social change in Egypt and the Levant, which led to the emergence of ideology in the Middle East.1 A class of well-heeled, educated professionals—doctors, lawyers, journalists, and editors—as well as a middle-class urban intelligentsia known as the effendiya, adopted and reshaped socialist, anarchist, nationalist, and liberal ideas and gave them an outlet in newspapers, journals, and artistic production. Islamic reformists gave rise to Islamist movements. Socialists and communists adopted and reshaped Marxist ideas under the influence of anticolonial sentiments, while Arab anarchists actively spread their ideas through propaganda work. In the decade following World War I, the various ideological trends became the basis for political parties and currents. ese institutions—journals, newspapers, and parties—are the usual foci for studies of ideological formations both in the nahda period and in the rest of the twentieth century.2

Most research has focused on the lives and work of intellectuals. One of the results of this focus on great thinkers, I argue in this article, has been that scholarship on ideology in the region tends to ignore how political ideas gained currency among the wider Arab populations. By framing ideologies as subjectivities and traditions, I want us to think of political ideas as fluid fields of identification that shape the political thought of a much broader segment of the population than professional intellectuals. I urge us to interrogate the spaces in between ideological traditions, in particular the zones of overlap and convergence between the left and liberalism. In this article I focus on the space in between liberal and leftist subjectivities by analyzing the Lebanese singer Ziad Rahbani, his work, and his significance in a Lebanese cultural and political context. His songs intervene in a eld of ideas, but not in ways that can simply be likened to political theories or political programs. As John Thompson poetically puts it, “‘Ideas’ do not drift through the social world like clouds in a summer sky, occasionally divulging their contents with a clap of thunder and a ash of light.”3 Rather, ideas circulate in the social world as utterances, as cultural expressions, as embodied understandings of the social world—habitus—based on human experience. Thererefore, to study ideology is to study expression in the social world. It is to study the ways in which political ideas are negotiated over time in an ongoing reflection of history. Ideological processes are long intergenerational conversations, or cumulative discursive traditions in the sense used by Alasdair MacIntyre. Tradition, MacIntyre argues, is a historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her own good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part.4

In political culture, discursive traditions and sensibilities afford a comprehensive, ongoing reflection on the individual’s “own good” in relation to the common good of society. For example, in communist parties and the milieus that surround them, a common frame of the ideal, egalitarian society exists, but with significant variations. These variations, which if serious enough can become subsidiary ideological traditions, reflect how people read history as it unfolds, and how particular interpretations of that history become paradigmatic.

Following this theoretical cue,5 a sensible starting point for a reappraisal of the left in the Arab Middle East is to view the left as a discursive tradition going back to the first generation of Marxist, communist, and socialist intellectuals in the late nineteenth century,6 through the growth of Arab communist and socialist parties in the interwar period.7 After the two world wars and independence, socialist ideals played a role in the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), in the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, in Ba‘thism, and in Nasserism. The founder of the Syrian Ba‘th Party had been influenced by Marxism while studying at the Sorbonne in the 1930s, and particularly during the party’s “radical” period from 1966 to 1970 Marxist revolutionary ideas came to the fore. Likewise, the ANM, particularly after 1967, embraced revolutionary Marxism as a way to fulfill the dreams of Arab unification, social justice, and liberation of Palestine.

Gamal Abdel Nasser adopted what he called Arab socialism in the early 1960s, but like other progressive regimes he also disagreed strongly with Arab communists over the place of religion in society, as well as the nature of class struggle and class analysis. Conversely, communists accused Arab nationalists of being petty bourgeois state capitalists.8 As a result the authoritarian republican governments of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya persecuted communists. They did not do so for purely ideological reasons. Indeed, rifts and alliances on the Arab left during the Arab Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s were often contingent on power struggles and strategic decisions, including whether to be “non-aligned” or in the Soviet or Chinese fold.

In the 1960s what Tariq Ismael calls “the new left” emerged, first in small intellectual groups such as Socialist Lebanon, and after the 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel in full-blown social movements like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Organization for Communist Action in Lebanon.9 These organizations were skeptical of the ability of the old left (as Ismael calls Nasser, the Ba‘th Party, and the ANM) or the pro-Moscow communist parties in the region to transform Arab societies and economies. A more militant, and more globally oriented, form of revolutionary socialism attracted many young people in the region, including in Lebanon.

At the same time, Marxist thinkers such the Syrians Yasin al-Hafez and Ilyas Murqus criticized Nasser’s “Arab socialism” for lacking a democratic basis and being stuck in what they called takhalluf (backwardness).10 This post-Marxist trend from the 1970s onward foreshadowed a more substantive accommodation between Arab communism and liberalism after the end of Soviet communism in 1989. Ziad Rahbani’s intervention in the ideological tradition of the Arab and Lebanese left begins exactly at that moment, at the start of the Lebanese Civil War, in the midst of revolutionary fervor.

Ziad Rahbani and the People

In an interview with historian Ahmad Beydoun published in the newspaper al-Wasat in 1996, Ziad Rahbani tells the story of how, as a teenager, he longed intensely to be with the “real people.” As the son of the iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz and her songwriter husband ‘Asi Rahbani, Ziad Rahbani grew up in a musical and artistic environment. But his home in a wealthy suburb north of Beirut, where he attended a French-language elite school, also felt to him like a secluded upper-middle class cocoon. For many young people and aspiring artists like Rahbani in the turbulent early 1970s Lebanon, with its student movements, worker strikes, and Palestinian guerilla fighters in the south, the “bourgeoisie” was the archenemy. It restrained the free human spirit and maintained political and social injustice.

Rahbani was attracted to “the people,” he relates in the interview, because of the “spontaneous and natural . . . behavior, language, and expressions” of regular people. As an artist, he sought inspiration in the colorful and truthful “stories emanating from daily life.”11 He wanted to get his hands dirty in the popular milieus, to adopt a working-class perspective, like many other leftists around the world in the 1960s and 1970s, to live like them and let his music be shaped by his experience. In the following years, in the mid- to late-1970s, his work veered toward a musical style that married Arabic oud-based popular songs with jazz and funk, while his lyrics gave voice to social critique by adopting vernacular expressions and satire.

As Fadi Bardawil shows, these are not songs pretending to be “folk” but rather songs that play with the musical and linguistic trope of authenticity and “the popular.”12 Ziad Rahbani is not quite sha‘bi—the Arabic term for popular which connotes authenticity and enmeshment in village and street life—in the same way as, for example, the Egyptian singer Shaykh Imam, whose songs have also become iconic for Arab leftists. Rather, as Christopher Stone puts it, Rahbani often walks a thin line between parody and a kind of homage to folklore. Due to his genre-bending tongue-in-cheek style, it is possible to see Rahbani as a sophisticated, almost postmodern artist.13

Others maintain that one of the reasons for his popularity is his direct tone of voice that is readily recognizable to the majority of Lebanese. As Suzanne Abou Ghaida argues in her study of Ziad Rahbani fan culture, this voice is at once folkloric and deeply rooted in the complexities of modern Lebanese society.14 From a social historian’s perspective, Rahbani’s innovative albums, musical plays, journalism, and radio satire of the 1970s and 1980s chronicle daily life in the civil war years. Because of their often bittersweet rendition of happiness, love, and poetry mixed with surly sarcasm and social satire, this body of work expresses the complicated emotions surrounding this period. Rahbani has continued making music to this day, sometimes in collaboration with his mother. But the albums and musical plays of the war period in the 1970s and 1980s stand out as his masterpieces.

He has created music that has become part of popular culture, vernacular lore, and important lieux de mémoire through which Lebanese construct their memories of the war years.15 As I will argue in this article, his songs are also venues for ideological contestation. They are places to look for negotiation of what it means to be on the left.

It is challenging, methodologically and theoretically, to work with popular art as a form of ideology. Ideology in its most self-evident meaning often refers to political ideas as they present themselves in formal political discourse and political theory. In this view, popular cultural production is less relevant and serious than political thinkers and movements. Moreover, popular art, like all mass-produced culture, is ephemeral, part of an ever- changing circulation of aesthetics and information in the public sphere, and its impact can therefore arguably be hard to detect. Despite these challenges, most social historians since E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1964) and the “new social history” of the 1960s and 1970s would acknowledge that popular art and daily life are important venues for the circulation and reproduction of ideology. Following this logic, a range of twentieth-century sociologists, mainly of the Marxist school, have sought to expand the notion of ideology from the formal political realm to encompass how social milieus influence thought.16

This “cultural” school of ideology theory, with influences from anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies, sits uneasily with normative political theory. The latter, under the influence of the stark ideological contests of the twentieth century, tends to describe ideologies much like it describes cultures: namely, as bounded human groups characterized by a high degree of cultural homogeneity.17 In contrast, the insights of the constructivist and linguistic turns in social science of the last three decades inform how most anthropologists and social historians today look at ideology (and culture). Rather than searching for boundedness, social historians see the existence of communities as a result of particular work that aims to produce internal coherence. This work does not just take place in political forums, but in many forms of social interaction and meaning making. I rely on these insights in my discussion of leftism and liberalism in this article.

Ideology studies in today’s fluid world must find a way to account for the lack of boundedness while also maintaining workable conceptual categories. For the study of Arab leftism, this means that we must attend to the work aimed at producing internal coherence and investigate the zones of contention as well as overlaps with other ideological traditions such as Arab liberalism. By Arab leftism I refer to the various dimensions of communism and socialism as they have manifested in political, cultural, and intellectual life since the late nineteenth century. It is a transnational tradition, with strong links between individual Arab countries, and with ideological and institutional links to the global left.

But each Arab country has also developed its own milieus and ideological debates on the left relating to national events and questions. If one were to situate Rahbani’s musical universe in the ideological landscape of Lebanon, and the wider Arab Middle East, it is fair to say that many communists and self-styled leftists (yasariyyun) feel ownership of his work. This is partly because of his social critique, and partly because of Rahbani’s lifelong informal affiliation with the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP). At the same time, he is not a straightforward political artist, nor is he a straightforward leftist, with the notable exception of his 1985 album Ana Mush Kafir (I Am Not a Heathen). I analyze this album below.

Rather, in his person and in his work Rahbani embodies what I call a liberal Arab subject. He is unbounded by conservative tradition but at the same time his work catalyzes contentions over the meaning of leftism in a Lebanese, and to some extent a wider Arab context. This makes him an interesting case for discussing the relationship between Arab liberal and leftist traditions, which, I argue, are not mutually exclusive but overlapping fields of historically contingent ideas and affective politics. I make this argument by discussing the production of ideology through an analysis of selected songs from Rahbani’s vast oeuvre.

The Production of Ideology and Popular Art

Rahbani was neither the first nor would he be the last person from a well-heeled background to be infatuated with “real people.” In an Arab context, there is a strong tradition of iltizam (commitment) and fann multazim (purposeful art) in modernist literature and art.18 In music, commitment and realism can principally be located in the tradition of the “popular song” going back to communist and folk singers in the 1920s onward. The popular song thrived in the 1970s and 1980s, not least in Lebanon, where singers such as Marcel Khalife and Khalid al-Habr formed a group of musicians devoted to traditional musical styles and social realism in lyrics dealing with everyday struggles. Rahbani worked with the popular singers in Lebanon and was influenced by their musical philosophy.19

Not a few of these singers, writers, and painters who portrayed ordinary people came from a middle-class background, and politically from a position on the left. On a global level, understanding the life-world of people of lesser means has always been at the core of leftism’s self-definition as invested in the radically egalitarian transformation of society.20 The common is the ideal, not just as a reflection of working-class culture in the present, but also as a future projection of the classless, utopian society. This predilection for the common can be found in writings of socialist thinkers, but equally in popular culture such as the songs of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, to take two gures from US popular culture who have also become global leftist icons. The focus on the “ordinary” as the realm of the “real” (which in turn establishes the life-world of the bourgeoisie as unreal pretension) goes back to the founders of modern socialism. In a famous passage of The German Ideology, Marx and Engels claimed that the study of ideology should begin with the study of “real men.”21 They posited that theory on its own does not reveal the workings of ideology. Instead, one needed to look at how humans actually lived their lives, thought about the world, and interacted in society to formulate and constantly reshape ideas about the social. The purpose of that exercise, for Marx and Engels, was to reveal how social inequalities distort the way oppressed classes experience the world, producing “false consciousness” that makes illiberal power structures appear liberal and impedes social action.

Liberalism in this sense is equated with a political philosophy that (sometimes unknowingly) upholds injustice in service of the powerful in society. Whereas liberals maintain that the road to progress, equality, and modernization lies in a social contract to organize competition for the benefit of all citizens, Marxists advocate political struggle to fight social hierarchies. In that sense, Marx and Engels shared an enlightenment vision of human liberation with liberal thinkers such as Locke and Kant, but they differed in the analysis of the obstacles facing this liberation.

The emphasis on false consciousness in the Marxist tradition of ideology studies has arguably not had Marx’s desired effect of putting the subject into clearer view. Rather, it has produced an overemphasis on structures. This emphasis often reduces the individual with conflicting life stories and changing interpretations of the world to a duped subject with little or no ability to analyze or react to his or her predicament.

However, a number of ideology theorists after Marx, not least Gramsci, Mannheim, and Althusser, and more recently Terry Eagleton and the early Slavoj Žižek, have taken up the original call to marry political theory with social history (in its broadest sense, encompassing the lives, feelings, expressions, and communication of “real men”).22 Instead of taking ideas for granted as transmutable facts, sociologists of ideology look at what we could term the production of ideology. This production takes place on multiple levels of society but involves, crucially, the circulation of discourse, sound, and images in mass media. Popular art is a particularly interesting zone for analyzing the production of ideology since it involves, in the words of Eagleton, a “combination of intellection and immediacy, lawful order, and sensuous pleasure.”23 Pleasure (French: jouissance), as Žižek points out, is crucial to the attraction that ideologies hold on individuals.24 Pleasure is the end point, the “sublime object of ideology,” where the incoherence of human existence is resolved, so Žižek claims in his Lacanian reading of ideology.25

But jouissance also refers to the pleasure of consuming ideology. People use, and live, thought patterns through enjoyment of the aesthetic and moral qualities of cultural production such as songs. In the process, they not only internalize ideologies, but also remake and produce ideologies. Ideological groups tend to be united by the appreciation, the instinctive understanding, of such popular art. Popular art, of course, is a representation of “the lives of real men,” not an objective rendition. It is interesting not because it necessarily tells us how real people live, but because it tells us how people imagine ordinary lives to be. Popular art is consumed with pleasure in Žižek’s sense of the word: it is representations which people enjoy reading, looking at, listening to, and sharing with others. This is certainly the case with Rahbani’s songs, which people in Lebanon play, cite, and whistle with smiles on their faces. For the purpose of understanding ideological positions in a given society, popular art can therefore give important pointers to the lived content of ideologies, as well as to the contestations going in within ideological traditions such as Arab leftism and Arab liberalism. It allows us to talk about ideologies in a way that embraces what might otherwise be seen as insurmountable conflicts between ideological traditions.



  • 1  Carter Findley, “ e Advent of Ideology in the Islamic Middle East (Part I),” Studia Islamica 55 (1982), 143-69.
  • 2  Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, e Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).
  • 3  John ompson, Studies in the eory of Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 2.
  • 4  Alisdair MacIntyre, A er Virtue: A Study in Moral eory (London: Duckworth, 1981), 206.
  • 5 SuneHaugbolle,“Anthropology and Political Ideology,” in Handbook of Political Anthropology, ed. Bjørn omassen and Haral Wydra (Cheltenham: Edgar Elgar, 2016).
  • 6  Khuri-Makdisi, e Eastern Mediterranean.
  • 7  Walter Z. Laqueur, Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East (London: Routledge,
  • 1956).
  • 8  Fred Haliday, “Marxism and the Arab World,” in Post-Marxism and the Middle East, ed.
  • Faleh A. Jabar (London: Saqi, 1997), 14-15.
  • 9  Tareq Ismael, e Arab Le (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1976).
  • 10  Manfred Sing, “Arab Post-Marxists a er Disillusionment,” in Arab Liberal ought A er
  • 1967, eds. Christoph Schumann and Meir Hatina (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015),
  • 155-75.
  • 11  Ziad Rahbani interviewed by Ahmad Beydoun, quoted in Fadi Bardawil, “Art, War, and
  • Inheritance: e Aesthetics and Politics of Ziad Rahbani” (master’s thesis, American
  • University of Beirut, 2002), 48.
  • 12  Bardawil, “Art, War, and Inheritance,” 84-86.
  • 13  Christopher Stone, Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: e Fairouz and Rahbani
  • Nation (London: Routledge, 2007), 119.
  • 14  Suzanne Abou Ghaida, Analyzing the Ziyad Rahbani Phenomenon through Fan Discourse
  • (master’s thesis, American University of Beirut, 2001), 30-38.
  • 15  Sune Haugbolle, War and Memory in Lebanon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
  • 2010), 111-14.
  • 16  Darrow Schecter, e History of the Le from Marx to the Present: eoretical Perspectives
  • (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).
  • 17  See, for example, H. B. McCullough, Political Ideologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
  • 2010).
  • 18  Verena Klemm, “Di erent Notions of Commitment (Iltizam) and Committed Literature
  • (al-Adab al-Multazim) in the Literary Circles of the Mashriq,” Middle Eastern Literatures
  • 3, no. 1 (2000), 51–62.
  • 19  Bardawil, “Art, War, and Inheritance,”18-38.
  • 20  Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Le Changed a Nation (New York: Knopf),
  • xiv.
  • 21  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, e German Ideology, Part 1 and Selections from Parts 2
  • and 3 (London: International Publishers, 1970), 42.
  • 22  Matthew Sharpe, “ e Aesthetics of Ideology, or ‘ e Critique of Ideological Judgment’ in
  • Eagleton and Zizek,” Political eory 34, no. 1 (2006), 95-120.
  • 23  Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London: Verso, 1991), 63.
  • 24  Sharpe, “ e Aesthetics of Ideology,” 113-16.
  • 25  Slavoj Žižek, e Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).
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Sune Haugbolle

Sune Haugbolle is Associate Professor of Global Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark.

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