A materialist understanding of Maltese backwardness

Ingram Bondin finds a lot to chew on in Mark Camilleri’s latest book, A Materialist Revision of Maltese History 870-1919

How did the downtrodden Maltese masses experience reality through the ages, and how was this experience affected by their material conditions of life? Could they have conceived of escaping their state of subjugation for most of their history? Or were the material conditions unsuitable for them to become conscious of the real causes of their plight, making such an escape impossible? These are some of the questions which Mark Camilleri’s new book, A Materialist Revision of Maltese History 870-1919 attempts to address.

Camilleri proposes a new reading of Maltese history from the perspective of the Maltese masses based mainly on already known facts. The author does uncover some new historical information in the form of the Police log books kept during British rule. But while this sheds some light on the day to day life of the lower classes, it seems to me to be secondary to his expressed intent of revising our understanding of the period ranging from 870 to 1919.

Why 870 – 1919?

The dates mentioned in the book’s title are simply convenient markers for the start and end of Camilleri’s narrative. In the year 870, Malta was depopulated by Arab invaders, and the islands were only repopulated about hundred years after this event, as proved by the evidence recently uncovered by the late Godfrey Wettinger. The present Maltese community thus cannot be traced back any further than this date into the past. On the other hand, 1919 is the year of the Sette Giugno riots, when for the first time the Maltese masses spontaneously rose up and started to make demands for the improvement of their lot.

Of course neither is the starting date nor end date completely innocent. In selecting 870 as his starting date, Camilleri is taking aim at those who wrongly affirm the continuity of today’s society with the Christian community which they claim was founded by St Paul. In doing this, Camilleri is building on his previously published book, Il-Mit Pawlin u l-Abbuż tal-Istorja Maltija (St. Paul’s Myth and the Abuse of Maltese History). On the other hand, by having his historical account reach its climax in 1919, I believe that Camilleri is polemicising with those who from time to time write in the press to devalue the significance of this event’s rapture with the past.

Mark Camilleri's new book sets to demystify the tradition historical narrative about Malta
Mark Camilleri's new book sets to demystify the tradition historical narrative about Malta

A methodological innovation

The Hegelian influence is most visible in the fact that Camilleri has chosen to focus his attention on the process of the gradual acquisition of consciousness by the Maltese masses. According to the view point adopted by Camilleri, this process finds its climax in the Sette Giugno riots, when the Maltese people finally become self-conscious of their predicament. For the first time, the people correctly intuit the nature of the forces which are keeping them in a state of subjugation and spontaneously rise against them, thus opening the possibility of transforming their present situation, rather than perceiving it as natural and unchangeable.

On the other hand, in attempting to understand how this self-consciousness is able to mature, Camilleri abandons Hegel for Marx, and takes a rigorous materialist stance. What the author seems to borrow from Historical Materialism is a particular attention for the mode of production employed on the island during different epochs, sensitivity for the effect which the economic situation must have had on the consciousness of the people at different times, and a watchful eye for the ideologies which kept them passive and subdued.

The treacherous road to self-consciousness

Armed with an enriched historical method which carefully avoids those teleological commitments which can be implicit in Hegelian historicism or economicist readings of Marx, Camilleri proceeds to interpret the Late Medieval, Early Modern and Late Modern periods. Particularly enlightening is his analysis of the class structure of the various forms of society, the ideology espoused by each class and how the balance of power changed in response to changes in the economy, class struggle and war.

What emerges most clearly from Camilleri’s materialist reading is that the Maltese masses repeatedly failed to conceive of themselves as agents who could forge their own history, being trapped for most of the time in a state of economic dependency, want and intellectual stagnation propagated by religious obscurantism. When they did take centre stage, such as during the fateful insurrection against the French, they were not acting in their own interest, but in the interest of other classes.

Similarly, when changes in the international circumstances led to local economic booms, the advantages were mostly enjoyed by a few select merchants. Despite the availability of capital, this conservative and risk-averse class failed to invest, demanded unfair advantages such as monopolies, and opposed measures such as reducing the grain tax, even when this was leading to widespread misery amongst the toiling masses.

Given all this it is of no surprise that Camilleri should identify the 7 June 1919 as the event when the Maltese masses, under the pressure of a complex situation did finally manage to achieve some measure of self-consciousness, and in throwing off their mental shackles, rioted and demanded the improvement of their material situation. Although they did not have a vision of the future as yet, they did intuit that the problem lay in British Imperialism and the local profiteering elites who grew fat at their expense.

A couple of criticisms 

This book is a very informative and rewarding one, with a wealth of judiciously chosen information on the material conditions of the Maltese population, and a thoughtful reading of it will reveal it to be laden with lessons for our present circumstances.

One of its defects is that the thread which is running through it, that of the development of the consciousness of the Maltese masses, is not always apparent. The methodological introduction, which sets the tone and informs the reading of the rest of the book is written in a way which may prove to be obscure for readers who are not familiar with Marxism and German Idealism. The rest of the book makes for straightforward reading, but at times one does get the impression that it could have been organised somewhat better. 

One other odd thing with the book is its epilogue, which seems to have been added as an afterthought. In this short chapter, Camilleri jumps from 1919 to 1970, indicating that the country’s recurrent state of economic dependency was only overcome thanks to the industrialisation policies undertaken by Dom Mintoff. A series of interesting digressions follow, concerning matters such as the nationalisation of the National Bank, and how Neoliberalism is today threatening to bring the country in a state of economic dependency once again. Still, the 50 or so year gap between 1919 and the 1970s jars and leaves one somewhat disoriented. One hopes that Camillleri, while elaborating on his political insights in some separate future publication, will consider revisiting this epilogue in a second edition of his book.