Political Economy of Hezbollah: A Book Review

Hezbollah’s role in the Lebanese government is being used as a pretext for Saudi Arabia and Israel –with U.S. backing– to threaten Lebanon and Iran with war.    For those socialists who oppose the actions of all these states and want to express a principled anti-war position,  Joseph Daher’s  Hezbollah:  The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God is a must read.

Daher, Joseph.  Hezbollah:  The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God.  Pluto Press, 2016.  288 pp.

Reviewed by Frieda Afary

November 12,  2017

Hezbollah’s role in the Lebanese government is being used as a pretext for Saudi Arabia and Israel –with U.S. backing– to threaten Lebanon and Iran with war.    For those socialists who oppose the actions of all these states and want to express a principled anti-war position,  Joseph Daher’s  Hezbollah:  The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God is a must read.

Daher is a Swiss-Syrian academic/activist and the only  Marxist scholar who has done a serious study of the Hezbollah as an organization and party.  He places the Hezbollah in the political, economic and social context of the contemporary period and  argues that “while the ‘Islamic Way of Life’ may be the professed goal of Hezbollah,  its actual practices can best be understood as a reflection of the nature of the capitalist environment in which it operates.”(p. 4)

I.Rise of the Hezbollah

Daher argues that rise of Hezbollah and the sectarianism that so characterizes Lebanon, has to be seen in the historical context.  The French colonialists’ patterns of rule after the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of Greater Lebanon(Lebanon and Syria)  in 1920,  promoted  the domination of  the Maronite Christian bourgeoisie over the  Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and in turn privileged Sunni Muslims over the Shi’a who formed the majority of the poor and were mostly rural.   By 1943 when Lebanon became an independent country,  the domination of the Maronite bourgeoisie was entrenched.   The president was to be Maronite,  the prime minister was to be Sunni and  a Shi’a leader was to  head the parliament.    Over time, as Palestinian refugees started to enter Lebanon,  and were excluded by Lebanese law from full integration in Lebanese society,  some sectors of  the Shi’a popular classes felt an affinity with them.

In the early 1970s,  after over two decades of Shi’a peasant migration from rural to urban areas,  and at a time when the  Arab socialist and nationalist discourse had become very influential among the Shi’a who were mostly  peasants and workers,  the  Amal party emerged.  It sought to use Shi’a discourse to build a movement that would rival the left.

In April 1975,   when the Lebanese Civil War was sparked by the Christian Phlange’s massacre of Palestinians,  what began was a class war between the haves and the have-nots.  The Lebanese National Movement, an alliance of leftist and nationalist movements led by  Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party,  supported the Palestinian resistance and called for an end to the sectarian political system.

The civil war however,  moved away from the direction of a class war  and instead became a fifteen-year bloody, destructive and sectarian war which created the environment for the rise of Hezbollah.   Daher explains why:   1.  Hafez Assad’s Syrian army which officially entered Lebanon in 1976,   supported the Phalange in its war against Palestinians and all leftists.  2. The Shi’a Amal Party made an agreement with the Assad regime.  3. Organized labor was weak.  4. The  concept of “community class” developed by Mohsen Ibrahim,  had an unfortunate influence on the Lebanese National Movement and strengthened sectarian tensions.  The Lebanese National Movement also increasingly abandoned radical socioeconomic demands and the goal of secularism.   5.  Israel invaded in 1982 to target Palestinians, Lebanese nationalist and progressive organizations.  6.  The Lebanese National Resistance Front which attempted to replace the Lebanese National Movement was targeted by Israel,  Syria as well as Shi’a Islamists who assassinated its leadership.

It was in 1982, in this environment of war, sectarianism, segregation, rule by militias  and warlordism  that Hezbollah started operating under the banner of “Islamic Resistance.”  First,  since the 1960’s,  young Shi’a clerics had been studying in Iraq under Ayatollah Khomeini and returning to Lebanon.  Secondly,  in 1982  the  “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”  of Iran known as the Pasdaran had established training camps in Zabadani and western Bekaa  in Syria which became the nodal points for  Iran’s training, supply and support for the Hezbollah. (p. 154). This effort went hand in hand with the Iran-sponsored  “Council of Lebanon”  in 1983 which was in charge of overseeing the Hezbollah and its connection with Iran,  and  in which two out of five leaders were Iranian(including Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran’s ambassador to Damascus) .   Its goal was to promote Khomeini’s brand of Shi’a fundamentalism.

Daher emphasizes that another key element in the emergence of Hezbollah was Amal’s effort to establish a modus vivendi with Israel after  Israel’s invasion  of Lebanon in 1982.  In response, Amal members at odds with Amal’s leadership (Nabih Berri) allied themselves with the al-Dawa Party,  the Ulema Assembly of the Bekaa and other Shi’a organizations.  In 1985, these organizations which  represented a geographical base of the Shi’a Islamic leadership from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley,  produced a joint document entitled “Manifesto of the Nine”  and advanced the following objectives:  Islam as the foundation for organization, Resistance against Israeli occupation, Guardianship of the Jurist [Khomeini and his successors].

In economically depressed areas such as Bekaa and Beirut’s south suburbs, Hezbollah has used significant levels of financial support from Iran to strengthen its popular base by establishing foundations, charities, and a variety of  social services independent of the Lebanese state.   It has provided jobs for unemployed youth.  It also guarantees a monthly salary from Iran for Hezbollah fighters and provides a pension for families of “martyrs.”

II.  Hezbollah’s Role in the Lebanese Government and as an Arm of Iranian Regional Imperialism

In 1989-90, According to the Ta’if Agreement which ended the civil war and reconfigured the sectarian system in Lebanon,   Hezbollah’s now ascendant position was codified.    While other militias were disarmed,  Hezbollah was allowed to maintain its armed wing as an anti-Israel resistance.    It continued to benefit from the financial and military  support of  the Iranian and the Syrian regimes.   Syria was granted de facto hegemony over Lebanon.

Later,  in 1992, Hezbollah, backed by an edict from Khomeini’s successor,  Ayatollah Khamenei,  participated in the Lebanese legislative election and has subsequently held  key posts in the Lebanese army and security apparatus.  As members of the parliament,  and since 2005,  as representatives of the ruling government.  Hezbollah leaders  have participated in imposing  massive state cuts in wages, benefits, regulations  and social service.  The Hezbollah  has also been part of the state’s strategy of breaking strikes and establishing rival unions or restructuring existing unions along sectarian lines.  (p. 131-133) All of these efforts have been aimed at enriching  Lebanese capitalism and encouraging   investment flows both from the Gulf countries and from the West to promote an economy based on trade, finance, and tourism.

While the main levers of the economy remain under the control of the Sunni and Christian bourgeoisie, a  new  Shi’a bourgeoisie has emerged.   It had been formed through  warlordism during the civil war and through the re-entry of  wealthy Shi’a emigres from West Africa and the Gulf.  After the war, the Shi’a bourgeoisie was able to  enrich itself further through investment with Iranian funds and with parallel  Lebanese state funding in the construction industry in Shi’a majority areas  (p. 79)  It has also been involved in trade and  small businesses in the service industry. (p. 71) Hezbollah also  provides loans for young entrepreneurs to establish businesses in Africa. (p. 84).   It  benefits from clientelism stemming from its position within the state apparatus.

While the overall economic status of the Shi’a population has improved,  poverty still remains very high in Shi’a areas where class inequality within the population is also greater.  (p. 77)  The Hezbollah’s membership and cadre especially in Beirut, increasingly constitute the growing Shi’a middle class, professionals with a secular education and the bourgeoisie.  (p. 88) In turn,  the party’s priorities are increasingly oriented toward the highest economic strata. (p. 91)

According to Daher:  “Hezbollah has managed to achieve a position of hegemony among Lebanon’s Shi’a population through a balanced combination of consent and coercion. Provision of services  to large section of the Shi’a popular sector and repressive measures against those who step outside the norms of the party.”(p. 93) It also offers its own school system, its own textbooks and extracurricular activities for youth in all of which patriarchy, anti-semitism and “a highly sectarian and Shi’a oriented” version of Islam is taught. (p. 117)  It accuses  independent Shi’a journalists of being traitors and Sunni Jihadists.  It also uses women volunteers who visit the homes of families receiving social support,  to make sure that these families do not violate party norms of behavior and the dress code for women.

Hezbollah enjoyed popularity in the Arab world for its resistance against Israel,  especially after Israel’s invasion of  Lebanon in 2006.   However, it has been greatly discredited since 2011 when Hezbollah militias started to participate directly in the  Assad regime’s  brutal destruction of the  Syrian revolution.  The Hezbollah’s activities in Syria have been conducted under the guidance of the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and in coordination with Russian airstrikes and  military forces.(p. 180-185)  Syria is of great importance for Iran as an arms corridor to Lebanon and a pathway to the Mediterranean.

According to Daher’s estimates,  there are 5000 to 7500 full-time Hezbollah soldiers and 20,000 reservists. (p. 154)  A more recent report by the New York Times (8/28/17) estimates that there are 8000 Hezbollah troops in Syria at any one time and a total of 50,000 troops many  of which are in Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere.  Military training generally takes place in Iran or in Syria.

While the Hezbollah death toll in Syria (1300) and injury rates (thousands)  is creating resentment among the families of Hezbollah soldiers in Lebanon,  Daher states that  “the majority of the Shi’a population is still strongly supportive of and reliant on Hezbollah. . . Indeed Lebanese Shi’a are joining the Hezbollah in greater numbers.” (p. 189)

III.  Hezbollah’s Future?

Although Hezbollah still enjoys popularity among the Shi’a, it faces major problems:

First,  the bulk of Hezbollah’s funding comes from the Iranian regime which is currently facing severe economic problems of its own.  These economic problems are not only caused by the U.S. imposed sanctions  but also by the decline in the price of oil which promises not to rise to previous heights due to structural changes in the global energy industry.

Secondly,  shifting alliances in the Middle East have led to the coming together of Saudi Arabi and Israel, and have further strengthened Israel’s imperialist role in the region.  The  intensifying conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran as two poles of capital in the Middle East region has also led to other shifting alliances.   Iraqi Shi’a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr and   Shi’a prime minister Haider al-Abadi  who have been supporters of the Iranian regime, have recently  also expressed their support for Saudi Arabia.

Thirdly,  Hezbollah no longer enjoys the mass support which it had among the Arab Sunni population for its resistance against Israel.   It is now despised as an army directly responsible for the Assad regime’s murder of half a million innocent and mostly Sunni civilians in Syria.

Fourthly,  The Shi’a middle class and bourgeoisie’s influence and interests within the party have been increasing throughout the years,  at the expense of the poor and working class population.  Hezbollah’s role as part of the Lebanese government in breaking strikes and promoting cuts in wages and state benefits belies its claim to stand for the downtrodden.

Furthermore, Hezbollah has not advanced Palestinian rights  in Lebanon.  It has opposed the naturalization of Palestinian refugees.    Its 2009  manifesto  also upholds the  Lebanese sectarian system as the basis of coexistence. (pp. 47-48)


Joseph Daher’s study shows that Hezbollah is the product of a bloody civil war,  the transformation of the  1979 Iranian revolution into a repressive religious fundamentalist regime,  and the sense of dispossession experienced by Lebanon’s Shi’a population.   Thus, the effort to challenge Hezbollah can only be successful if it arises from the struggles for social justice, women’s rights and human rights within the Middle East.

A war against Lebanon and Iran by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. would only strengthen religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism in the region and would start a wider regional war that would destroy any hope for the Middle East.

Joseph Daher’s serious effort to analyze Hezbollah’s rise through a historical materialist approach can help anti-war activists express a principled anti-capitalist opposition to Hezbollah and all global and regional warmongering powers.

Frieda Afary

November 12, 2017

This review  was originally published by the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists


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