Lenin and the Arab Spring

by Joseph Green, Communist Voice Organization (U.S.) on December 22, 2012

Originally posted here.

The Arab Spring is shaking the Middle East and North Africa, but the euphoria of quick victories is fading. Some regimes are resisting change with bloody repression, while where old tyrants have fallen — Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Qaddafi in Libya — there is a struggle over what is to come next. There is the fear that many old regimes will survive, but also the fear that market-fundamentalist regimes, or Islamist ones, or pro-imperialist ones, may replace the ones that fall.

This isn’t simply some unusual problem that has arisen in the Arab world. No, this is typical of what’s happened in the liberalizations of the past few decades. Generally speaking, the resulting regimes have hardly been much of a prize. Whether it was the collapse of the state-capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines to the “people’s power” revolution of Corazon Aquino, or the replacement of the one-party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dictatorship in Mexico by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) presidencies, the results have been disappointing. Some regimes retain most of the authoritarianism of the past; others are market-fundamentalists; and the enrichment of new bourgeois factions is universal.

Yet despite the pain, something important has changed. There was no way forward except through the removal of the old regimes. This paves the way for new struggle, struggles that will more clearly be based on the issue of class exploitation. The question before the working masses isn’t whether to fight for democratic rights, but how to get organized as an independent class force in the midst of the struggle against political tyranny.

Marxism sheds light on these questions. For example, in 1905, Lenin wrote one of his major works, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. He stressed that democratic uprisings, even though they do not eliminate capitalist exploitation, are of vital importance to the working class. And he highlighted the class struggle that takes place inside the democratic movement, thus following the tactics set forward by Marx and Engels throughout the latter half of the 19th century and adapting them to the conditions of the Russian revolutionary movement.

It’s been over a century since Lenin wrote Two Tactics, and the economic and social conditions have changed all over the world. But the basic principles he set forward are still valid. They show the special role of the working class in the democratic movement while puncturing the illusion that these democratic movements would reach prosperity and socialism if only it weren’t for this or that individual betrayal. The working class still has to be the most fervent fighter for democratic liberties, but it also has to develop its own independent class movement whose aims go well beyond the immediate democratic goals.

Features of the Arab Spring

Today the “Arab Spring” is the latest of the democratic movements. The masses in one country after another have risen up to challenge old tyrannies. For decades, the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, no matter whether they were servile client states of outside imperialism or sought to become regional power-brokers in their own right, have mainly been police states or authoritarian tyrannies. The wave of revolutions of decades past that overthrew the old colonialism and some of the local monarchies saw an massive upsurge in the activity of the working masses, but the regimes that eventually came to power proceeded to clamp down on the revolutionary working-class movement, the rights of various national and religious minorities, and all signs of independent political life among the masses.

The Arab Spring has challenged this. It is a movement of people who have had enough. Demonstrators have come out in the street in the face of police, troops, snipers, and mass arrests and round-ups. The democratic movement has shaken regimes which, backed up by overwhelming force, seemed untouchable only yesterday. Which regimes will survive still isn’t clear. But it’s clear that a new day is dawning in the Arab world.

The insurgent people have been motivated not only by hatred for political tyranny, but by the increasing poverty and inequality in the region. This economic misery has been aggravated by the market-fundamentalist or neo-liberal reforms of the last period. The waves of privatization and cutbacks have sharpened inequality, pushed down wages, and left a large section of the youth and workers unemployed and hopeless. On top of that, the recent sharp increases in food prices has brought economic distress to a boiling point.

Nevertheless, a particular feature of the present movement is that it hasn’t been directed at the bourgeoisie as a class. The working class in the Arab world, as elsewhere throughout the world, faces disorganization and an ideological crisis. This is true even in Egypt, where years of courageous strikes and workplace actions, undertaken despite government bans, paved the way for the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak. The strike wave that has followed his downfall has drawn more workers into action and is one of the most promising developments in the current situation, but it is still only a start in strengthening working-class influence on the movement. Meanwhile, throughout the Arab Spring, sections of the bourgeoisie have taken part in the movement; indeed, a certain part of the movement even advocates more market fundamentalism as the way out for these countries, even though it is pro-market policies that have deepened the region’s economic misery.

Meanwhile, despite the collapse of the old colonial empires, world imperialism has continued to oppress the Arab masses. The imperialists of East and West have propped up the dictatorships and monarchies, and they have also helped entice the local Arab bourgeoisie deeper and deeper into market fundamentalism. US imperialism still backs Israeli denial of the national rights of the Palestinian people, threatens and wages one war and military intervention after another, sends drones to carry out assassinations, and allies closely with the most reactionary Arab forces, such as the Saudi monarchy.

Yet it is a particular feature of the present movement that, even when it puts forward demands in favor of the Palestinian people, it isn’t generally aimed at imperialism. Instead there are many illusions in Western imperialism especially, and influential elements in the movement advocate friendship and alliance with the big powers, and trust in the United Nations. This is true not just in Libya, but throughout the region. Demands may be raised against certain policies of imperialism, but the Arab Spring has not been an anti-imperialist movement.

What does this add up to? Despite mass participation and the bitterness engendered by the bloodshed, the present uprisings are not profound social revolutions, but are struggles over liberalization. And what has happened in country after country elsewhere is that some political rights are gained in liberalizations, but economic inequality has increased. Parts of the democratic movement in those countries had hoped for more profound results: in Eastern Europe, for their own idea of socialism; in Mexico, for progressive changes, and the uprooting of the entire old repressive apparatus, not for the conservatism and pro-business policies of the resulting PAN presidencies; and so forth. But again and again the overall result was merely liberalization, and this is the present perspective in the Arab world as well. Indeed, it is quite possible that new governments arising out of the currents struggles may even seek strengthened neo-liberal measures.

Yemeni women and the flags of Yemen, Tunisia, Palestine, Syria, and Libya.

That said, the overthrow of Arab and North African tyrannies is still an advance. Moreover, this mass uprising takes place at the start of what is likely to be a long period of world economic depression and growing environmental crisis. Whatever the movement starts at, is not necessarily what it will end as. This depends on whether the working class is able to ensure that the Arab Spring doesn’t simply replace some personalities, but actually brings substantial political freedoms, and whether the working class is able to use the situation to develop its own independent class movement. This would be a radical change in the politics of the region. And, as we shall see, it is Marxist tactics that would facilitate achieving this.

The Situation at the Time Two Tactics Was Written

In the opening years of the nineteenth century, the tsarist monarchy in Russia was in crisis. The masses were stirring against the semi-feudal autocratic system in Russia, while even the exploiting classes were uneasy and quarreling among themselves. 1905 would see an attempt at democratic revolution that would shake the tsarist tyranny in Russia and contribute to the ferment among working people elsewhere, especially in Asia.

Moreover, the 1905 revolution wasn’t simply aimed at the denial of political rights under Tsardom. The working class had given rise to communist organization, and it fought against its lack of economic rights as well as political ones. Meanwhile the majority of the population were peasants, who were oppressed by the feudal landlords who dominated the countryside. Peasant anger was boiling over, and the struggle in the countryside for land would add weight to the working-class struggle in the cities.

Thus the possibility existed that the outcome of the democratic struggle would be a profound social revolution. This depended in large part on what happened in the countryside. Tsardom survived the 1905 revolution, although it would eventually fall to revolution in February 1917. In an attempt to prevent future peasant uprisings, the tsarist autocracy tried its own method of transforming the countryside. The Tsar’s hangman, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, combined bloody repression with an attempt to gradually transform the semi-feudal conditions in the countryside: his policy was to bourgeoisify the landlords and enlarge the peasant bourgeoisie.

The Stolypin policy didn’t succeed, and the peasants rose up in even larger numbers in 1917 than in 1905. But it wasn’t inevitable that the Stolypin policy would fail. Lenin pointed out that the success of the Stolypin method of eliminating feudalism “would involve long years of violent suppression and extermination of a mass of peasants who refuse to starve to death and be expelled from their villages. History has known examples of the success of such a policy. It would be empty and foolish democratic phrase-mongering for us to say that the success of such a policy in Russia is ‘impossible’. It is possible! But our business is to make the people see clearly at what a price such a success is won, and to fight with all our strength for another, shorter and more rapid road of capitalist agrarian development through a peasant revolution. A peasant revolution under the leadership of the proletariat in a capitalist country is difficult, very difficult, but it is possible, and we must fight for it.”(1)

So, Lenin said, a Stolypin-style transformation of the countryside would eliminate the social basis for a profound democratic revolution in Russia. In this case, “Marxists who are honest with themselves” would put aside their hopes for the democratic revolution in the countryside, and “say to the masses: ‘… The workers call you now to join in the social revolution of the proletariat, for after the “solution” of the agrarian question in the Stolypin spirit there can be no other revolution capable of making a serious change in the economic conditions of life of the peasant masses.'”(2)

Two Tactics was written on the eve of the 1905 revolution. Since the possibility existed that the peasants would rise up in revolution, it discusses what the tactics of the working class in such a situation would be; it sets forward the goal of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants; and it even refers to the circumstances under which a democratic revolution might soon be followed by a socialist one.

But the situation in the Arab Spring is different. The countries involved already have, generally speaking, capitalist economies, and the local exploiting classes have been bourgeoisified. True, there may be significant pre-capitalist survivals, as well as one-sided economies. There are also special conditions in the countryside that must be paid attention to. But the conditions for a general peasant uprising for the redistribution of the land have faded. These are major economic differences with 1905 Russia. They undermine the basis for a profound democratic revolution, and suggest that the next profound social-economic revolution can only be the socialist revolution.

Yet at the same time, the socialist revolution is not imminent in these countries. The disorganization of the working class; the one-sided economic development; the pressure of neighboring reactionary regimes and of world imperialism; the temporary tarnishing of the idea of socialism as a result of it being used as a banner by oppressive regimes in the region and around the world; the confusion over what socialism is even among the most radical parties; and other factors all speak against an immediate socialist uprising. Instead there is going to have to be a series of intermediary struggles in which the working class gets organized, wins allies among the rest of the downtrodden population, and develops the ability to take advantage of revolutionary situations.

Does this mean that the working class should just surrender the democratic movement to the bourgeoisie because a revolutionary-democratic outcome is unlikely, while socialist revolution isn’t close? Not at all! The basic tactics and Marxist class analysis set forward by Two Tactics still hold, although some of the perspectives concerning the democratic struggle have to be modified.

Democracy Gives Rise to a New Class Struggle

So let’s look at how Marxism analyzes the democratic struggle. To begin with, Marxism doesn’t see democracy as the economic liberation of the working masses. Instead, it holds that democracy creates a situation which facilitate a direct class struggle between the workers and the capitalists. The more democratic the system, the more this struggle against the capitalists appears, not as the struggle against some clique of privileged elements, but as one against an economic class.

“Where are the poor? I don’t see them!”

In Egypt, the fall of Mubarak has not resolved the problem of poverty, but instead has led to a broader and wider strike movement. It has also led to the development of a new trade union federation as well as an attempt to spread radical politics among the masses. The military government has repeatedly demanded that strikes end, while liberal figures in the democratic movement have worried about the leftward movement of working-class activists. So already, while the movement to achieve democratic rights has only made its first steps in Egypt, it has brought forward class issues. How far the Egyptian masses actually achieve rights, and how far the military, or the conservative, business-oriented leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, is able to clamp down on things, will depend largely on how widely the working-class movement spreads.

From the point of view of pure-and-simple liberalization, the working-class movement is an abuse of freedom: once the tyrant is overthrown, the liberal trend sees the mass strike movement and militant working-class action as destructive, disruptive, and utopian. From the point of view of bourgeois liberalism, democracy should blunt class differences; from the point of view of Marxism, “the democratic revolution … clears the ground for a new class struggle.”

The Class Nature of Democracy Under Capitalism

This renewed class struggle stems from the class nature of democratic movements. We see, in the Arab Spring, not just working people, but the Facebook activist Wael Ghoneim, who is a Google engineer and manager; imperialist bureaucrats (like Mohammad ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission); and even one of the richest capitalists in Egypt, Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding SAW, who has founded the Free Egyptians Party. Some of these figures are, of course, simply looking to join the winning side. And the imperialist powers feign sympathy for the Arab Spring in order to retain influence in the movement and keep it within bounds. This might make it seem as if it is merely a matter of treachery or an accident that the bourgeoisie has connections with the movement. But there is more to it than this.

Marxism distinguishes between bourgeois-democratic movements, whose aims don’t go beyond the bounds of what is achievable under capitalism, and the socialist movement, which aims to eliminate capitalist exploitation and build a new, non-exploiting economic system. Moreover, Marxism shows that democratic changes, while they may strike down certain sections of the exploiters, may strengthen the rule of the bourgeoisie as a class. So Lenin endorsed the words of the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party that “under the present social and economic order this democratic revolution will not weaken, but strengthen the rule of the bourgeoisie, which will inevitably try, stopping at nothing, to take away from the Russian proletariat as many of the gains of the revolutionary period as possible”.

The big bourgeoisie seeks to keep democratic changes as restricted as possible. Nevertheless, even when the democratic revolution takes up radical aims, this doesn’t mean that it has gone beyond capitalism. Lenin, writing about the most radical peasant demands, said: “the democratic revolution is a bourgeois revolution. The slogan of a Black Redistribution [confiscation of the landlords’ land, which would then be redistributed to the peasantry – ­JG], or ‘land and liberty’–this most widespread slogan of the peasant masses, downtrodden and ignorant, yet passionately yearning for light and happiness–is a bourgeois slogan.” “Black redistribution” would sweep away landlordism in a thorough and revolutionary fashion, but it would not be a socialist transformation: instead, it would dramatically accelerate the growth of capitalist relations in the countryside.

How could this be true in the Arab Spring? Wouldn’t the overthrow of tyranny, and of those big capitalists and landlords who have worked with the tyrants and profited from their rule, weaken the bourgeoisie?

But while the police-state governments ruled hand-in-hand with certain privileged capitalists, were their political representatives, and showered a rain of gold on them, they held back other capitalists and the mass of small producers. The overthrow of the police states might produce regimes backed by a broader mass of capitalists, small producers, and professionals than backed the tyrants. It might represent more of the bourgeoisie as a class, rather than as a small clique. These new regimes will, moreover, seek to stabilize countries which had been turned into powder kegs, ripe for explosions, by the narrow social basis of the police states. What the big bourgeoisie and the outside imperialists are aiming at is more broadly-based bourgeois regimes.

Democracy and the Working Class

Why, then, should the working class care about merely democratic movements, if all they can bring about is bourgeois-democracy? Lenin explained it as follows:

“The democratic revolution in Russia is a bourgeois revolution by reason of its social and economic content. … In general, all political liberties that are founded on present-day, i.e. capitalist, relations of production are bourgeois liberties. The demand for liberty expresses primarily the interests of the bourgeoisie. … Its supporters have everywhere used the liberty they acquired like masters, reducing it to moderate and meticulous bourgeois doses, combining it with the most subtle methods of suppressing the revolutionary proletariat in peaceful times and with brutally cruel methods in stormy times.

“But only the rebel Narodniks [Populists], the anarchists and the ‘Economists’ could deduce from this that the struggle for liberty should be rejected or disparaged. … The proletariat always realized instinctively that it needed political liberty, needed it more than anyone else, despite the fact that its immediate effect would be to strengthen and to organize the bourgeoisie. The proletariat expects to find its salvation not by avoiding the class struggle but by developing it, by widening it, increasing its consciousness, its organization and determination.” (emphasis added)

Indeed, Lenin stressed that:

in a certain sense, a bourgeois revolution is more advantageous to the proletariat than to the bourgeoisie. This thesis is unquestionably correct in the following sense: it is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie to rely on certain remnants of the past as against the proletariat, for instance, on the monarchy, the standing army, etc. … On the other hand, it is more advantageous for the working class if the necessary changes in the direction of bourgeois democracy take place by way of revolution and not by way of reform; for the way of reform is the way of delay, of procrastination, of the painfully slow decomposition of the putrid parts of the national organism. It is the proletariat and peasantry that suffer first of all and most of all from their putrefaction.” (emphasis as in the original)

The Arab Spring is unlikely to bring social revolutions, but the basic idea Lenin expressed remains true. It is in the interest of the working masses to destroy as much of the old apparatus of repression as possible. They need, not just a change in ruler from Mubarak to another tyrant, but a destruction of the repression that has banned worker organizations, a sweeping away of the apparatus of bigotry that has fanned sectarian warfare between different religious factions and ethnic groups, and an extension of basic social services so that the masses can survive without desperation. It is more important for them than for the bourgeoisie, because the big bourgeoisie will always be satisfied by large profits and the maintenance of “order”, while the working class needs to organize for the class struggle.

Creating an Independent Working-Class Movement

Why, then, is it important to distinguish between bourgeois-democratic and socialist movements, if both should be supported? It’s in order to be able to champion the specifically working-class tasks needed in the period of the democratic movement. It’s the working masses who are always asked to risk life and limb in these struggles. But that’s not enough. The working class has to put forward its own aims in these movements. And to do this, it has to recognize that its aims go beyond those of the bourgeois democrats and the pure-and-simple liberalizers.

One of the most important questions in the Arab Spring is whether the working class will develop its own independent organization. In Egypt, for example, the strikes of the last few years played a major role in undermining the regime. But this doesn’t mean that the working class was well organized, or that it had clarity on its class tasks. How far the present strike wave and political ferment among the workers spreads and gives rise to militant organization, political as well as economic, and how far class consciousness spreads among the workers, will be one of the main factors determining the fate of the Egyptian struggle.

If there is to be a chance for such an extension of working-class organization, the workers have to go beyond simply being militant participants in the general movement: in addition to fervently striving for democracy, they have to put forward their own demands, and recognize the different class sections of the movement. There should be demands to push the democratization as far as possible and eliminate as much of the old government tutelage over political life as possible, rather than simply accepting moderate liberalization. But there should also be demands for broad social measures, guarantees of mass livelihood, and freedom for the class struggle.

And above all, the workers need to strive to develop their own independent class movement, rather than simply merging with the general movement.

To do so, they have to recognize that, even when the democratic movement is militant and people are heroically fighting against police states, the democratic movement is still not a socialist one. Even when social demands are taken up in the democratic movement, this does not make it socialist, nor will it mean that a socialist revolution is imminent in these countries. Instead, the fight to develop a truly independent working-class movement is a specifically working-class task; it is, in a certain sense, an immediate socialist task, for such a working-class movement can only develop if it is inspired by the goals of the class struggle and the ultimate replacement of capitalism.

Lenin stressed that the outcome of the democratic revolution in Russia “depends on whether the working class will play the part of a subsidiary to the bourgeoisie, a subsidiary that is powerful in the force of its onslaught against the autocracy but impotent politically, or whether it will play the part of leader of the peoples’ revolution.” In the Arab Spring, where radical social change is unlikely and the working class will, at best, only be able to achieve leadership of the struggle sporadically, it’s still the case that the outcome depends on how far the working class develops its own initiative and class stand. It will take time and effort and many attempts to build up working-class parties that really stand for the class struggle. It will take time and effort to overcome the various divisions in the working class, as well as to spread a revolutionary perspective among the workers and its organizations.

Yet however modest these goals may seem, they are what would radically transform the current situation.

The development of such a working-class movement is not something that will be taken up by the democratic movement as a whole. It’s not just that the present military rulers of Egypt, representing the old repressive apparatus, have issued repeated and futile bans against strikes and worker organizing. But as well, various sections of the Egyptian liberalization movement are expressing doubts and misgivings about working-class action. It is not an accident that this division within the democratic movement is taking place. It is a basic feature of what can be expected in a democratic movement. The recognition of the bourgeois-democratic, rather than the socialist, nature of the present uprisings would prevent activists being taken by surprise by such divisions in the movement, and encourage recognition of the need to build mass organization that can stand up against the bourgeois wing of the democratic movement.

The Bourgeoisie Recoils from the Democratic Struggle

Indeed, Lenin stressed that one of the major tasks facing the working class in the democratic revolution is to fight against the vacillations, half-heartedness and treacheries of the bourgeois sections of the movement. He argued against the Mensheviks and their policy of holding back the working class, for fear of alienating the bourgeoisie, from seeking leadership of the democratic movement. Chapter 12 of Two Tactics is entitled “Will the sweep of the revolutionary movement be diminished if the bourgeoisie recoils from it?”

Lenin answered no, on the contrary, the sweep of the revolution will deepen as it spreads among wider and wider sections of the working people, who will be carrying out those actions that cause the bourgeoisie to recoil; he wrote that “the Russian revolution … will really assume the widest revolutionary sweep possible in the epoch of bourgeois-democratic revolution, only when the bourgeoisie recoils from it and when the masses of the peasantry come out as active revolutionaries side by side with the proletariat.” (12.109) . He wrote that “every resolute and consistent democratic demand of the proletariat always and everywhere in the world causes the bourgeoisie to recoil” and “the bourgeoisie, in the mass, will inevitably turn towards counterrevolution, towards the autocracy, against the revolution and against the people, immediately its narrow, selfish interests are met ….”

In Egypt, the bourgeois sections of the movement are already recoiling from the strike wave and other actions that they regard as excesses of the working masses. Thus even under conditions of the present democratic movement, the deepening of the struggle goes along with alienating the bourgeoisie.

It is often claimed that recognizing the bourgeois-democratic, rather than socialist, nature of a struggle means trailing behind the bourgeoisie. And certainly the Mensheviks trailed the bourgeoisie in the Russian revolution of 1905, and there is no lack today of political forces which trail the bourgeoisie — either glorifying the police states or backing the bourgeois section of the opposition. But the Leninist policy for the democratic movement shows that it is possible, even when the socialist revolution is not imminent, for the working class to have an independent class stand. And that’s crucial. If revolutionaries closed their eyes to the actual conditions of the present struggle, their opposition to reformist policy would be hit-and-miss guesswork or simply impotent play-acting.

Different Sections of Bourgeois Democracy

Lenin pointed out that in analyzing the forces of bourgeois democracy, it was important to distinguish between its different class sections. He wrote that “There is bourgeois democracy and bourgeois democracy. The Monarchist-Zemstvo-ist, who favors an upper chamber, and who ‘asks’ for universal suffrage while secretly, on the sly, striking a bargain with tsarism for a curtailed constitution, is also a bourgeois-democrat. And the peasant who is fighting, arms in hand, against the landlords and the government officials and with a ‘naive republicanism’ proposes to ‘to kick out the Tsar’ is also a bourgeois-democrat.” And he ridiculed those who fail “to draw a distinction between republican-revolutionary and monarchist-liberal bourgeois democracy, to say nothing of the distinction between inconsistent bourgeois democratism and consistent proletarian democratism.”

It is generally the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses who, at a time of upsurge, constitute the revolutionary bourgeois-democracy. It is common to misrepresent Lenin’s talk of the revolutionary bourgeoisie as referring to the big bourgeoisie, and hide that he was referring to the insurgent peasant and petty-bourgeois masses. Lenin distinguished the different factions of the bourgeoisie and reproached the Mensheviks, pointing out that a communist party “operating in a bourgeois society, cannot take part in politics without marching, in one instance or another, side by side with the democratic bourgeoisie. The difference between us in this regard is that we march side by side with the revolutionary and republican bourgeoisie, without merging with it, whereas you march side by side with the liberal and monarchist bourgeoisie, also without merging with it.”

In the Arab Spring, the working class, as it takes part in the democratic movement, often finds itself fighting side by side with various sections of bourgeois democrats. To avoid merging with these forces, and to be vigilant about which forces have already begun to recoil from the struggle, it must be conscious of this.

Class Differences Among the People

But let’s look more closely at this difference between the various forces of bourgeois democracy. Marxism distinguishes, not just between the basic masses and the big and middle bourgeoisie, but also among the working masses.

In the conditions of 1905 Russia, Lenin sometimes referred to basic masses as “the ‘people’, that is, the proletariat and the peasantry”. But while grouping them as the people, he also brought out the differences and contradictions among them. So, for example, he recalled that Marx, in analyzing the democratic revolutions of 1848, “always ruthlessly combated the petty-bourgeois illusions about the unity of the ‘people’ and about the absence of a class struggle within the people. In using the word ‘people,’ Marx did not thereby gloss over class distinctions, but combined definite elements that were capable of carrying the revolution to completion.”(3)

So, depending on context, when Lenin talks of the bourgeoisie in Two Tactics, he is referring to the big and middle bourgeoisie (the bourgeoisie which is outside the “people”), or he is talking of the entire bourgeoisie, including the petty-bourgeoisie.

These class differences are why, even when the democratic movement is militant, it is not the same as a movement for socialism. Indeed, Lenin pointed out, referring to a peasantry that still saw its salvation in small-scale ownership, that “the peasantry is attached to the revolution not only by the prospect of radical agrarian reform but by its general and permanent interests. Even in fighting the proletariat the peasantry stands in need for democracy, for only a democratic system is capable of giving exact expression to its interests and of ensuring its predominance as the mass, as the majority.”

It is often advocated that, since the entire people is oppressed by big capital, then it all has a similar interest in fighting the bourgeoisie. But it’s one thing that capitalism oppresses the mass. It’s another whether the petty-bourgeois sections of the people still see petty production and participation in commodity production as its bastion.

These class differences among “the people” give rise to the need for the working class to avoid simply merging with the democratic movement. The failure to recognize these differences can give rise to a glorified view of democratic struggles, and constant disappointment in their outcome.

From Democracy to Socialism

Lenin famously put forward in Two Tactics that the imminent democratic revolution in Russia might conceivably lead to an immediate socialist revolution. And he discussed the conditions need for this to happen (more on this in a moment).

In the Arab Spring, this is not a possibility, but that doesn’t mean that socialism is irrelevant. By building its own independent trend and not restricting itself to the tasks of the general movement, the working class carries out preparatory work for socialist revolution.

One down, one to go.

Lenin wrote that “In answer to the anarchist objections that we are putting off the socialist revolution, we say: we are not putting it off, but we are taking the first step towards it in the only possible way, along the only correct road, namely, the road of a democratic republic. Whoever wants to reach socialism by a different road, other than that of political democracy, will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense.”

And indeed, we have seen that groups who denigrate mere democratic movements, if they have no prospect of leading to immediate workers’ power, have often ended up giving political support to police states and notorious tyrants, such as Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Ahmadinejad in Iran, on the plea that these rulers, even as they suppress all political life among the working masses, are somehow anti-imperialist despots.

A Change in Class Alliances

But what are the conditions that would allow the democratic revolution to be followed immediately by a socialist one? Lenin wrote that:

The proletariat must carry to completion the democratic revolution, by allying to itself the mass of the peasantry in order to crush by force the resistance of the autocracy and to paralyze the instability of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat must accomplish the socialist revolution, by allying to itself the mass of the semi-proletarian elements of the population in order to crush by force the resistance of the bourgeoisie and to paralyze the instability of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.” (emphasis as in the original)

In other words, it’s not a matter of choice whether a revolution will be democratic or socialist. It depends not simply on whether revolutionaries wish to see a socialist revolution, but on whether the conditions exist to allow a democratic movement to pass over to a socialist revolution. There are different class alliances in the two revolutions, and so it depends on the attitude of different classes, and on the objective conditions that influence that attitude.

For example, a crucial question is whether the peasantry is still acting as a unified whole in its support for small property, or has split up on a class basis, with a semi-proletarian section close to the working class in its conditions of life and economic aspirations. Here, it’s not only important whether a semi-proletarian section exists, but whether it has become separated in its consciousness from the peasant bourgeoisie. More generally, the position and consciousness of the urban petty-bourgeoisie, which is extremely large in a number of countries, has a similar importance.

Other Views

The Marxist views on democratic revolution differ from that of other trends that have sought support among the working class. Pure-and-simple democratism sees democratic change as full liberation, and hence is always disappointed in its expectations. Reformism sees socialism as simply moderate capitalism with a humane and caring government, so it has no reason to distinguish democratic and socialist movements, and looks for accommodation with the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, naive revolutionism sees whether a revolution is described as democratic or socialist as simply a sign of how militant the observer is.

Another challenge to the Marxist view of the democratic struggle comes from Trotskyism.

One of its main dogmas is denouncing “two-stage revolution” as the worst reformism. This is its way of denouncing the idea of the different social nature of movements, bourgeois-democratic or socialist. It regards the Marxist view of the different social nature of democratic and socialist struggles as outdated. In its view, all revolutions are essentially socialist, although they may, at the start, clothe themselves in democratic language as a way of gaining support. This may sound radical and revolutionary. But it leaves Trotskyism in a quandary in dealing with democratic movements. It either has to denigrate them, pretend that they are socialist, or fudge the issue.

Tactics based on such large doses of fantasy are likely to lead to frequent fiascoes, and are doing so once again. A separate article in this issue of Communist Voice deals with the confusion and hesitancy of most Trotskyists in the face of the Arab Spring. Some Trotskyists have even taken the opportunity to be zealous apologists for despotic regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime in Syria, or the recently fallen Qaddafi regime in Libya.

Meanwhile, Two Tactics was written mainly against that section of the Russian social-democrats who would later be known as Mensheviks. The title, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, referred to the clash between the reformist tactics of trailing the bourgeoisie put forward by the Mensheviks, and the revolutionary tactics put forward by Lenin. At the time the book was written, the communist movement was referred as social-democracy, and so the book refers to the two different paths being set forward for the social-democrats.

But political terms would soon change. In 1914, when World War I broke out, the leadership of most social-democratic parties, and of the Second International itself, betrayed their past vows and the cause of the working class by siding with their own bourgeoisies in the war. The social-democrats of one country would incite their nation’s workers to back a war against the workers of other countries. This resulted in one of the most important splits in the workers’ movement. The term “social-democrat” became, in the eyes of those workers and activists who undertook revolutionary action against their own bourgeoisie, a shameful term denoting treachery, betrayal and spinelessness. Within several years, a new world revolutionary organization was formed, the Third or Communist International. This was the most successful and revolutionary workers’ movement that the world had ever seen, until its political stands were undermined by Stalinism, and it was eventually dissolved in 1943.

Meanwhile the Second International, broken up by national rivalries during World War I, was re-established in 1923 as the Labor and Socialist International, and gradually moved closer and closer to the bourgeoisie. This was the grouping that the Mensheviks supported. It dissolved in 1940, but was again re-established in 1951 as the Socialist International. The Second International still exists, but it has long joined arm-in-arm with the dominant bourgeoisie in Europe and elsewhere; it has renounced even the pretext of following Marxism; and it has repeatedly been entrusted with the leadership of the government in major capitalist countries. In the current world economic crisis, “socialist” governments are among those imposing drastic austerity upon the working masses. For example, the present Greek government, infamous for its extreme austerity, is led by George Papandreou, the current president of the Second International. And when the Arab Spring broke out, it overthrew the tyranny of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Ben Ali’s party being a member of the Second International, and Mubarak in Egypt, Mubarak’s party also being part of the Second International, both parties being expelled from the  Second International only as they fell from power.

The role of social-democratic parties in imposing austerity in Europe and running two police states in North Africa shows the struggle over what is a real socialist party, and what is a reformist party, is not a mere sectarian squabble. Ultimately, it concerns whether the party is in league with the bourgeoisie or not.

(1)Lenin, On the Beaten Track!, April 16 (29), 1908, Collected Works, vol. 15, pp. 40-47, emphasis as in the original.


(3)So, depending on context, when Lenin talks of the bourgeoisie in Two Tactics, he is referring to the big and middle bourgeoisie (the bourgeoisie which is outside the “people”), or he is talking of the bourgeoisie among the people (the petty-bourgeoisie), or he is referring to the entire bourgeoisie.

Moderators note: although a great deal of this text deals with Lenin and Russia, try to contextualize whatever disagreements you might have with the author’s arguments with reference to the events of the Arab Spring. Perpetually re-litigating 1917 in and of itself serves no useful purpose.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian S. December 23, 2012 at 7:02 pm

This is really a very good text: a serious and realistic attempt to engage with the development of the Arab Spring in concrete terms rather than just invoking universal formulae, And it’s extremely encouraging to find people on the left who are at least clear about what side they should be on, even though they come from a different political tradition than I do.
While I agree that Lenin has something to teach contemporary radicals, and have always regarded Two Tactics as a valuable (if seriously flawed) text, I’m not sure that this is the best way to approach an understanding of the Arab Spring. But as long as people have arrived at the right place, I’m not inclined to interrogate too closely how exactly they got there
The highpoints of this analysis for me are:
1. A recognition that the current democratic phase of the popular movements in the Arab worlds (and by extension elsewhere) is positive, in terms of its role in the movement towards a more progressive social order (and, I would add, in simple human terms).
2. Acknowledgment that further onward movement in historic terms – towards socialism – is not going to be immediate, but the result of a substantial (if indeterminate) period of further development.
3. Its emphasis on the importance of independent working class organisation as a key accomplishment for shaping the course of future development.
4. A perceptive characterisation of the socio-political transformation that is underway: “What the big bourgeoisie and the outside imperialists are aiming at is more broadly-based bourgeois regimes”
But there are also flaws in this analysis:
1. A failure to fully consider the differences between the contemporary epoch and the world of 1905-1917
2. A failure to distinguish between the specific national situations of the countries involved in the Arab Spring:
Egypt, for example, has a continuing land question ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/feb/08/egypt-landless-mubarak )
Libya, on the other hand, is a middle-income oil state, where there will be a significant gap between national citizens of all classes, and a proletariat of disenfranchised migrant workers (my thanks to Aaron Aarons for highlighting this issue in previous discussions on this site)
3. Similarly, key issues present themselves in different way is different countries:
“It is in the interest of the working masses to destroy as much of the old apparatus of repression as possible.” Quite right – and the key task for the movement in Egypt. But that has largely been done in Libya, and the issue there concerns the building of new “apparatuses” (of repression?) to defend the new democratic political order (See the discussions regarding Bani Walid and Libya on this site)
The article acknowledges that “the position and consciousness of the urban petty-bourgeoisie, which is extremely large in a number of countries, has a similar importance” but fails to give sufficient weight to the ideological dimension of this: the urban petty bourgeoisie – especially the youth and intelligentsia – are significantly influenced by the ideology of liberal democracy, and this can be as powerful a force in shaping their political behaviour as material factors (Lenin is much clearer on this).
I very much like the concept of “ the sweep of the (democratic) revolution”. I have voiced in previous discussions on this site my unease about applying the term “bourgeois revolution” as a simple, strictly-bounded category; this concept expresses much more clearly the flexible and at least partially open-ended nature of the current struggles.
The article refers to “confusion and hesitancy of most Trotskyists”. This is a fair enough comment – but it hardly applies uniquely to Trotskyists. The index of “confusion and hesitancy” does not correlate well particular traditions – there is a full-spectrum from utter confusion to near clarity to be found among trotskyists as there is among other currents (certainly those in the “marxist-leninist” tradition If the authors are serious about wanting to develop new ideas for an understanding of the Arab Spring (and indeed the 21st century)they would do better to step outside the confines of this sectarian box.


Pham Binh December 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I’ll take this opportunity to continue the debate begun in a previous thread about permanent revolution and Lenin’s perspective of an uninterrupted two-stage revolution. I think is an important issue because Marxists historically (prior to 1917 anyway) were the biggest and most forceful champions of bourgeois-democratic revolutions since without them the desired socialist transformation was impossible. This was one of the hallmarks of Marxism that distinguished it from anarchism (which held that bourgeois democracy was little more than a fraud for the working man) and liberalism (for whom capitalist democracy was the end point for humanity), and it was precisely this distinguishing feature that attracted young Russian radicals like Lenin to its banner. This tradition was to a large extent lost among Marxists because of the undemocratic outcome of the Russian revolution among both followers of Stalin and Trotsky; Stalin and Bukharin abandoned Bolshevism’s and the early Comintern’s uninterrupted two-stage perspective in China and revived the old Menshevik view that the working class’ job in a bourgeois revolution was to tail the bourgeoisie while Trotsky went on to claim that national liberation (and all manner of bourgeois-democratic tasks) were “impossible” without a dictatorship of the proletariat. Following in this vein, the International Socialist Tendency’s (IST) Alex Callinicos argued that the end of apartheid was impossible or highly unlikely short of proletarian revolution: “Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, according to which bourgeois-democratic demands can only be realized by the dictatorship of the proletariat, … applies to South Africa not as an abstract theorem but as a direct inference from a concrete analysis of the alignment of class forces in South African society.”

This same tendency to eschew or skip over the immediate and urgent bourgeois-democratic tasks is evident in many Marxist discussions of the Arab Spring. A couple of examples:

In neither of these articles is the fact that Tunisia’s secret police force has been disbanded ever mentioned, surely a historic gain for the working class there. Based on a Google search I did (https://www.google.com/search?q=“secret+police”+tunisia+site%3Ahttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.socialistworker.co.uk) for the terms Tunisia and “secret police,” it doesn’t look like Britain’s Socialist Worker mention this fact at all in their coverage.

Another example CWI’s summation of the past two years in Egypt: http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/5534

Here, the talk of a “second revolution” when the first one hasn’t even been completed. Democratic demands are either conflated with socialist tactics or dismissed (“The liberals’ almost exclusive concentration on democratic demands and secularism gets little echo among those struggling daily to feed their families”).

And outside of Clay Claiborne no Marxist seems willing to delve into the details and analyze the radical destruction of Ghadafi’s bourgeois state apparatus by (paradoxically) a bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movement.

I agree this document has some shortcomings, but the main argument that the author is making is that Marxists need to study the concrete features of these countries and come up with strategies unique to their national contexts rather than being lazy and sloganeering about “permanent revolution” any and every where. (Thanks Brian for the clue about Egypt’s landless, a problem I had no idea existed.)

The last point I would make re: the urban petty bourgeoisie is that this class not only gravitates towards liberalism but also towards the Islamism of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, especially when the workers’ movement is too divided and weak to pull them in its wake. Failure to appreciate the Brotherhood’s political and class character is a big part of the reason the IST group in Egypt, the Revolutionary Socialists, initially and mistakenly endorsed Morsi in the runoff against Shafiq on the grounds that he was some type of reformist(!) (they later rescinded this endorsement). (I haven’t figured out if or how precisely the question of the democratic/permanent revolution exactly plays into this debacle, but I tend to think it is related.)


Brian S. December 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I think there are two discrete, issues here : 1. the historical issue of whether or not Lenin had an “uninterrupted two stage revolution” theory distinct from Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution” (as presented in Results and Prospects)?
2. Whether Trotsky’s understanding of the particular nature of the Russian revolution as “permanent revolution” provides a general theory of social development, encompassing the whole of subsequent human history, including the recent “Arab Spring” ?
The answer to the first is a definitive NO: the concept of an “uninterrupted two stage revolution” is an oxymoron – if the revolution is “uninterrupted” in what sense can it have distinct “stages”; doesn’t a “stage” necessarily entail an “interruption” – otherwise what does it mean? (Lenin’s various textual wafflings around this question just demonstrates what an absurd notion it is)
The answer to the second is a Qualified NO. Trotsky’s concept may apply in certain contexts (e.g. in 1920s China) and may not apply in others ( most of the modern world). The problem lies with substituting universal theorisation for theories grounded in particular, concrete circumstances. The contemporary world is in so many ways distinct from the world of 1917-1945 that we cannot mechanically transfer theories from the latter period to the present day.
I therefore agree with many of Binh’s points re South Africa and the Arab spring. (Although I am inclined to sympathise with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists’ stance in the Egyptian elections – certainly methodologically: a concrete analysis rather than a universalist theory)
But I think there is a wider question involved here than Binh acknowledges: we are not just dealing with socialist tactics in the face of popular democratic upheavals, but an an understanding of the whole process of transition beyond capitalism: this it seems to me entails a passage THROUGH democracy. To adapt a formula from the Trotskyist tradtion ( Michel Pablo) – we may be facing “centuries of deformed bourgeois democracy”. This violates my preference for the concrete over the universal, so there may be exceptions to this rule, but in the tradition of leninist “stick bending” I think its not a bad rule of theumb to start with.


Pham Binh December 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm

the concept of an “uninterrupted two stage revolution” is an oxymoron – if the revolution is “uninterrupted” in what sense can it have distinct “stages”; doesn’t a “stage” necessarily entail an “interruption” – otherwise what does it mean?

Everything passes through stages of development. One of the hallmarks of Lenin’s April These is his claim that the 1917 was in a process of transition from the first stage of the revolution to the second. If I really wanted to, I’d do a Google search of the words “stage” and “stages” through the index of his writings to demonstrate how often Lenin referred to stages without interruptions in his writings.

Trotsky really butchered this issue in his writings and analysis. No wonder he had to wait until poor Lenin died to write things like Lessons of October and to pretend that Lenin, in effect, became a Trotskyist in spring of 1917.

On point 2 I think we are in agreement. I really don’t care if people throw around the term “permanent revolution” if the content of what they are arguing and their analysis is basically right. For example, the text that Jamie Allinson translated of the Syrian Revolution Left’s “Transitional Programme” (http://the19thbrumaire.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/the-transitional-programme-of-the-syrian-revolutionary-left-translation-part-1/) I think is right on in that it stresses the main democratic tasks and working class political independence. They can call it anarchist-Bakuninist-horizontalism for all I care, but the fragment in English I think is solid politically.

we are not just dealing with socialist tactics in the face of popular democratic upheavals, but an an understanding of the whole process of transition beyond capitalism: this it seems to me entails a passage THROUGH democracy.

That’s what Two Tactics is all about. Accomplish the bourgeois-democratic revolution on the way to socialism; or to get to socialism, win the most thoroughgoing, radical bourgeois-democratic transformation possible to create the most favorable conditions for the working class as possible.


Brian S. December 30, 2012 at 10:19 am

@Binh.I tend to agree that this is what Lenin thought Two Tactics was about when he wrote it (and that’s why it may continue to hold relevance today) – he envisaged a lengthy interval between the overthrow of the autocracy and the establishment of bourgeois democracy and the next “stage” of the socialist revolution. What would intervene in this period would not just be a new set of political institutions, but a period of capitalist economic development that would strengthen the social weight of the proletariat and resolve the agrarian question.
But the problem is, this bears no resemblance to what happened in 1917. To suggest that the first stage was completed in the 2 months between February and April makes no sense – nobody was really in power in this period (remember “dual power”), no major policy measures were implemented, and the Russian economy was in decline.
What 1917 did correspond to pretty precisely was Trotsky’s notion of a proleatarian movement seizing power in the face of bourgeois supineness, and establishing a workers government (the issue of the role of the peasantry is a bit complicating here) and implementing measures that included both bourgeois and socialist tasks.
Actually Lenin’s “first stage” was sort of semi-carried out – but not between February and October, but after 1921 under NEP (and might have been more fully carried out if Stalin hadn’t taken over)


Pham Binh December 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm

What I value in Two Tactics is the kind of thoughtful openness to a variety of possible, intermediary outcomes. Lenin was open to the possibility that a provisional revolutionary worker-peasant government would only stay around long enough to wipe out feudalism, but he also stated very emphatically that socialists would begin the fight for socialism immediately. There is no contradiction between these arguments and what he argued in spring of 1917; Lenin’s basic premises and approach remained while he adapted them to the new, concrete circumstances of 1917.

You are correct in noting that he shifted his position towards Trotsky’s contention that a worker-led government would be permanent, not temporary; Lars Lih recently discussed this in a video on the CPGB web site, although Lih noted that the inner logic (or underyling political content) of their similar positions couldn’t be more different. (Going any further here would be way off-topic).

Trotsky on the other hand had an all-or-nothing view, and dismissed the possibility of intermediate outcomes. He also explicitly rejected the notion in Results and Prospects that the soviets should form a government among other errors.

This is why to me Two Tactics is a far more useful and relevant guide than Trotsky’s work on permanent revolution, especially Results and Prospects; Lenin’s reasoning and arguments are more careful, he outlines a concrete class strategy to get from A to B to C, and is open to a range of possible outcomes based on the results of living class struggle. Trotsky proceeds from general principles and makes a variety of predictions based on certain things being “impossible” and hypothetical dynamics of the struggle.

What I find unpardonable among Marxists is the continual focus on the socialist revolution in the Arab Spring when basic democratic tasks that would clear the way for it are not even close to being finished. Talking about the rule of the toilers while the number one concern of millions is undoing military-police dictatorships is the fast ticket to irrelevance and is wishful thinking. Even in 1917 it was necessary to win bourgeois-democratic freedom before the soviets could wrest power from the Provisional Government.


Brian S. January 2, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I’m responding to Binh’s suggestion that we should try to keep some coherence in the discussion thread by separating out the historical and contemporary issues. So I am making a fresh comment here, although it relates to some of the things I’v already said.
When we talk about a “bourgeois democratic revolution” there may be two dimensions involved:
1. the creation of deomocratic political institutions (elections, responsible govts, free speech etc.)
2. a period of economic and social development in which capitalist social relations develops within this political framework.
The article above is fairly clear about this and makes a first stab at looking at its implications:
“Wouldn’t the overthrow of tyranny, and of those big capitalists and landlords who have worked with the tyrants and profited from their rule, weaken the bourgeoisie? But while the police-state governments ruled hand-in-hand with certain privileged capitalists, … they held back other capitalists and the mass of small producers. The overthrow of the police states might produce regimes backed by a broader mass of capitalists, small producers, and professionals than backed the tyrants.
In other words the issue may be posed of a sort of social “bourgeois reovlution” even though these societies are already capitalist in many respects (this has resonances of the idea of a “national bourgeoisie”) and I have already mentioned the fact that in some cases there are unresolved agrarian questions. I think this also connects with Binh’a pertinent point about the Muslim Brotherood and political Islam (hasn’t Morsi behaved like a typical “national bourgeois” politician – crafting a compromise with the military, who are the big “state capitalists,” in order to outflank the popular movement?). This opens a number of questions – in particular can this process of reconfiguring the bourgeoisie have some progressive content, ans is there a place here for the creation of alliances with different class fractions and the working class?) I can certainly see contradictions emerging in Libya, for example, between the aims of the international oil corporations and the professional strata who staff the National Oil Corporation, and petit bourgeois currents who are hoping to benefit from its expansion. The same is doubtless true of other emerging sectors – services, tourism, IT (Libya is currently discussing contracting some of its health services to US companies.)
Obviously we can’t answer these questions here, but its worth putting them on our (or somebody’s) agenda


Pham Binh January 2, 2013 at 6:42 pm

I agree that the expansion of the social basis of bourgeois regimes is a critical insight that Greene makes here. This is exactly what SCAF in Egypt is using Morsillini and the Brotherhood to do, which makes it important to understand the class nature of the Brotherhood and how they fit into the (stalled) democratic revolution.

Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (RS; the local IST franchise) were universally condemned for briefly backing Morsi against Shafiq in round two of the presidential runoff before they decided to boycott the vote, but not enough attention has been paid to their underlying reasoning. RS characterizes the Brotherhood as “reformist,” in line with the IST schema that all parties can only be revolutionary, reformist, or centrist. What they don’t seem to get is that Brotherhood is 1) not reformist in the social democratic (SPD, etc.) sense and 2) not interested in a democratic revolution; their priority is imposing a right-wing version of Sharia law on Egypt, Coptic Christians, women, liberals, the left, and the working class be damned. #2 explains why the Brotherhood is so eager to be used by SCAF in exchange for being able to control social and legal policy. I tend to think of them as a petty bourgeois political force (I’ve seen them described as a straight bourgeois party by IMT and others) but I don’t know enough to have a hard and fast opinion on that. To encourage their disintegration, it would make sense to try to draw their rank and file into common action against SCAF, sort of like how the Bolsheviks mobilized followers of the SRs and Mensheviks against Kornilov and later Kerensky desptie Menshevik/SR support for Kerensky on a “defend the revolution” basis (as opposed to preaching/patiently explaining to them, “break from your treacherous leaders and follow us instead”).

In general, conflicts among and between bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces open up a bigger space for working class forces to act. Navigating those complicated twists and turns is no easy task and it requires a really rigorous and grounded Marxist approach, something I’m not convinced exists yet in an organized from in any of these countries. Libya seems to be the place where the working class has the most freedom because a bourgeois state machine is still not up and running, but Tunisia is not far behind with the main union federation being revitalized during and after Ben Ali’s fall.


Patrick A. December 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm

This is a fascinating discussion. I think as it it happened in Russia in 1917, there was very little space for the possibility of “intermediate outcomes” – it was either the working class takes power and carries out the democratic tasks or there would be a counter-revolution. Maybe Trotsky stumbled onto a correct conception, but I think he more correctly foresaw how events would unfold. But, also in Spain in the 1930s, it was the same thing, the democratic revolution was not completed and you had the beginnings of a socialist revolution, in terms of the working class almost coming to power.

Today, I think there are a lot of differences from the period of 1905-1917 or the period of the 1930s which means the possibilities for “intermediate outcomes” are more likely. But, I highly doubt any of these outcomes will see a stable democracy develop, although I haven’t fully considered what the oil wealth of Libya could mean, although I tend to feel it can only provide a cushion for a limited period.

Still, the working class has the decisive role to play, in my view, in leading and carrying out the democratic revolution to completion. I think this is the key point from Trotsky’s theory. I’ve always understood the substance of the difference between Lenin and Trotsky was: what class would lead the democratic revolution? Lenin had an open perspective and Trotsky foresaw the working class leading it, but also drew conclusions for what that would mean for the course of the revolution.

Looking at it this way, I don’t think applying Trotsky’s theory today to the Arab Spring – as a general guide and not as a sterile dogma – would mean dismissing the democratic tasks, and prematurely pushing the socialist tasks to the fore.

I also don’t think that it would rule out “intermediate outcomes”. But, I think we would have to say that a key reason for various intermediate outcomes today are mainly to the weakness of the subjective factor. The working class does not have it’s own organizations that are capable of providing a lead in many of these movements. This is the main factor that I think will complicate things.

I also think trotsky’s theory is a useful guide. Yes, socialists should fight tooth and nail for a sweeping democratic revolution. But, in order to see this struggle carried out to completion I look at it this way: given that there is quite a bit of unanimity (to put it mildly) on the need for an alternative to what existed before and democracy, and that there is an ongoing struggle over where the revolutionary process is ultimately going, then there is a need to emphasize the urgency of building independent working class organizations and winning support for the perspective of these organizations playing the decisive role in guaranteeing the completion of the democratic revolution. Until then, there will be all kinds of intermediate outcomes, but I think they will all be unstable to some degree because they are taking place in the context of a global capitalist system that is in turmoil.

However, if the working class does prove to be the only force that can carry out the democratic tasks of the revolution to completion, how will that impact the course of the revolution?


Brian S. January 1, 2013 at 3:49 pm

@Binh – Patrick A: On the historical questions: Binh is right that Two Tactics is a more concrete analysis than that of Trotky’s – but that reflects both its strengths and weaknesses. Trotsky was the only one (as far as I am aware) in the RSDLP to really develop a THEORY of the Russian revolution (which what R&P represents: Lenin developed his ideas strategically in response to particular situation, and it had a lot of ambiguities and gaps. If the two approaches could have been put together it would have saved a lot of time and energy, but factional considerations prevented it. To sort this out we would have to get down to some textual arguments, and Binh seems to feel that would lead us “of topic”. (I’m not so clear what “the topic” is – but agree it would overburden this site and direct us away from current issues.)
If the topic is the role of democratic demands in the Arab revolution. then I think the three of us are close to being in agreement, although arriving their from different directions: accepting the centrality of democratic demands and gains, and accepting that they may well provide the effective boundary of the movement for a considerable period.
I don’t know if you are familiar with the debate in the US SWP/ Fourth International at the end of WWII with a minority position advanced by Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman: see http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/1938-1949/ww/essay01.htm (thanks to Louis Project for this reference) with some of the documents available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/morrow-felix/index.htm; see especially http://www.marxists.org/archive/morrow-felix/1946/02/24.htm which is very interesting in this context.


Pham Binh January 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I’m just wary of comments and replies that devolve into unproductive exchanges with 8 or 9 indented mini-replies because it gets hard to follow. If you want to start that up, I suggest a fresh (meaning not a reply to an existing comment) and focused comment on the texts so people who want can explore that stuff, or someone should email a submission if they do something that is 1,300 words or more.


Brian S. January 2, 2013 at 9:12 am

A Binh. OK, fair enough. And thanks for the guidelines. I probably have other priorities at the moment, but the antiquarian in me is begging to be unleashed.


Brian S. January 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm

@Binh I will, as promised,change gear in this discussion, but I have been following your advice and listening to Lars Lih. So could I have a final word in your ear: listen to http://vimeo.com/15023171 from 49:30 to 54:30 (or beyond).


Pham Binh January 4, 2013 at 11:08 am

Yes, I’ve listened to this a few times already. Essentially, Trotsky was the broken clock that was right twice a day (so to speak). Lenin’s “ambiguities” allowed him to evolve in the right direction and adapt properly to the concrete situation. See Lenin’s Letters on Tactics:

“The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” has already become a reality in the Russian revolution, for this “formula” envisages only a relation of classes, and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation, this co-operation. “The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”—there you have the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” already accomplished in reality.

This formula is already antiquated. Events have moved it from tile realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it.

Trotsky completely misrepresented Lenin’s stances in the April debates, claiming that he had given up on the Bolshevik formula of “the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” when, as we see from this quote, Lenin did anything but. Trotsky did the same thing to Lenin’s views all throughout the pre-1917 period.

Postscript: Further on in Letter on Tactics, Lenin says the following:

…when the peasantry separates from the bourgeoisie, seizes the land and power despite the bourgeoisie, that will be a new stage in the bourgeois-democratic revolution…

…are we not in danger of falling into subjectivism, of wanting to arrive at the socialist revolution by “skipping” the bourgeois-democratic revolution — which is not yet completed and has not yet exhausted the peasant movement?

He goes on to speak of “two possible events: in the event that Russia will yet experience a special ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ independent of the bourgeoisie, and in the event that the petty bourgeoisie will not be able to tear itself away from the bourgeoisie and will oscillate eternally (that is, until socialism is established) between us and it” and touts his foresight of Two Tactics. Over the course of 1917, the peasantry as a whole did turn against the bourgeois Provisional Government and a “special ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry'” was established with its overthrow in the fall. Again, this is consistent with Lenin’s arguments advanced in 1918 in PRRK.

I’m not sure what it was exactly I was supposed to hear in Lih’s remarks that I hadn’t heard already?


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