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.
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.
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.
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.
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.