The bourgeois-democratic revolutions known as the Arab Spring have ruthlessly exposed the methodological and analytical deficiencies of many Marxists. Evidence-based, detailed, rigorous, and critical evaluation of the social, political, and human contradictions driving these revolutions is rare (rarer still is any sense of what is to be done to aid these struggles) while lazy thinking, abstractly correct positions, and we’ll-have-to-wait-and-see-how-things-turn-out passivity are common.
These deficiencies became painfully obvious once the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Syria. The revolutions that swept Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power were “clean” and “pure” for Marxists because they were against U.S.-backed dictators and vindicated our bias towards general strikes and working-class action.
This was the good Arab Spring.
The revolutions in Libya and Syria, on the other hand, were unclean and impure, tainted by U.S. imperialism, backed by reactionary powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and quickly devolved into armed struggle, with little or no role played by the working class acting as a class. These revolutions were not nice, worker-based, and peaceful but vicious, militarized, and complicated by foreign powers and Islamic extremists who played a prominent role.
This was the bad Arab Spring.
Missing from both the good and bad Arab Spring narratives are the complex layers of interlocking contradictions between and within classes, parties, governments, and peoples as well as any appreciation of the intangible, non-material factors that revolutions involve (the moods of the masses, the feeling in the streets). Instead, Marxists have used each revolution as fodder for pre-set political morals – “strikes are more effective than arms” (Syria), “no to U.S. intervention” (Libya), “the need for a revolutionary Marxist workers’ vanguard party” (Egypt) – without any regard for the actual political, social, or historical terrains or even the wishes and aspirations of the people making these revolutions.
Every revolution could be Russia 1917 all over again, if only (fill in the blank).
By refusing to grapple with these revolutions as they are, the self-proclaimed proponents of historical materialism have turned out to be practitioners of its opposite: ahistorical idealism.
Salus Revolutionis Suprema Lex
The Marxist left’s “no to imperialist intervention” stance served as a distorted prism for viewing each stage of the Arab Spring’s development. The wars in Libya and Syria were not analyzed as “politics by other means“; instead, every movement, organization, and figure in these revolutionary wars was subjected to a simple litmus test: for or against imperialist intervention. Such a starting point would be correct if the Arab Spring was fundamentally a war between an occupying power and an occupied people (such as the Palestinian struggle) and not a struggle between revolution and counter-revolution where “the success of the revolution is the highest law” as Georgi Plekhanov put it.
For example, the U.S. intervened into Egypt’s revolutionary process in February of 2011 by directly warning mid-level officers of the military not to shoot peaceful protesters. This intervention helped restrain counter-revolutionary violence by Egypt’s military junta, allowing millions to flood the streets and strike without fear of being mowed down by machinegun fire.
This was the first instance of a revolutionary movement benefitting from U.S. intervention in the Arab Spring but it would not be the last.
Syria: Death Agony of a Dictator
British Marxists John Rees of Counterfire and the Stop the War Coalition and Richard Seymour of the Lenin’s Tomb blog and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) share the intervention litmus test approach despite their disagreement on the importance of imperialism vis-à-vis the class war in Syria. Rees assigns primary importance to the former while Seymour assigns primary importance to the latter. While Seymour was and continues to be right against Rees, his underlying reasoning is flawed. In defending his position on Marxmail, he wrote:
“There are two conditions that could make me change my mind about the Syrian revolution. The first is if [sic] it’s leadership were to succeed in calling in imperialist bombers with no resistance from the rank and file. The second is if the Free Syrian Army started waging a supremacist war on Alawis and others. Those two outcomes would tell me very conclusively that the revolution was no more.”
Thus the existence of a Syrian revolution for Seymour hinges on its congruence with his positions on imperialist intervention and sectarianism. That might explain why he chose to cite an 11-month old statement by Local Coordinating Committees opposing intervention while ignoring the tens of thousands rank-and-file Syrians who voted to call for foreign intervention on the side of the revolution at least four times since 2011.
Homs, Syria: anti-regime demonstration in Al-Khaldiah district
on the Friday of “Immediate Military Intervention,” March 16, 2012.
Closing our eyes to facts we do not wish to see guarantees that we will be blindsided. Our political preferences as Marxists should not serve as a litmus test by which to judge the choices of others. Most movements and organizations will be found deficient and unworthy of support using such a method (a problem that has dogged Seymour on Venezuela for a decade).
Litmus tests are woefully insufficient for analyzing revolutions because revolutions by their very nature involve all kinds of contradictory elements – sectarian and nationalist, pro and anti-imperialist, religious and class-based, pro and anti-capitalist, sexist and feminist, progressive and reactionary – elements that may call for imperialist intervention one day and reject it the next (as in Syria). Similarly, some forces fighting to topple Assad like salafis are sectarian towards religious minorities while other forces appeal to those minorities to join the fight on the basis of Syrian nationalism.
Even if the elements that we Marxists find abhorrent were the dominant strand in the Syrian uprising, it would still be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, an armed struggle against tyranny and political oppression. A struggle’s class and political content is not reducible to the character or program of the political forces leading it, dominating it, or that end up in power as a result of it. Bourgeois-democratic revolutions have almost always been led by undemocratic forces and led to less-than-fully-democratic outcomes. The American revolution was led by white male property-holding slaveowners bent on ending British rule so they could finish exterminating the indigenous peoples and colonizing their land. The Iranian revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah and led to the creation of a police state with some democratic trappings after Islamist forces gained enough popular support to crush the left.
To conclude from these facts that the American revolution was no more in 1776 or the Iranian revolution dead in 1979 would be a mistake. Revolutions do not cease to exist simply because political forces we Marxists oppose become dominant or make choices that contradict our principles.
While Seymour is right for the wrong reasons, Rees is wrong all along the line, from his arguments to his conclusions. He sees the negotiating tables at imperialist conferences in Washington, Paris, London, and Ankara as the decisive battleground for Syria’s future rather than the streets of Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia, and Damascus.
Rees has it exactly backwards.
The gains of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its salafi co-fighters on the ground in Syria over the past six months have shifted the terrain under the imperialist negotiating tables abroad. Russia let the cat out of the bag, stating that the revolution’s victory “cannot be ruled out.” Iran has begun planning for a post-Assad Syria. President Obama partially reversed U.S. policy after deriding the Syrian opposition for almost two years as too divided for American patronage (although the U.S. continues to starve Syrians fighting Assad of the heavy weapons they need to defend themselves from jets that bomb Palestinian refugee camps and other civilian targets such as Aleppo University).
Out of an understandable desire to oppose imperialist meddling in the Syrian revolution, Rees argues that Western activists should oppose “their” governments arming any segment of the FSA.
This is mistaken for two reasons.
As a matter of principle, Western activists who believe that oppressed peoples have the right to self-determination and to armed self-defense have no business telling the oppressed who they can and cannot take arms from or make dirty deals with. Warning them of the strings imperialist powers will attach to arms shipments or funding is one thing; attaching strings to our support for their fight by means of a litmus test is another.
As a practical matter, Syrian revolutionaries do not have the luxury of obtaining heavy weapons from non or anti-imperialist sources since organizations like Counterfire and Stop the War Coalition are in no hurry to provide them or the funds to purchase them. Western imperialist powers have starved the FSA of heavy weapons and money (as Rees advocated), creating an opening for arch reactionaries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm their favored Syrian factions at the left‘s expense. The rise of Jabhat al-Nusrah and similar right-wing trends was not inevitable but became inexorable as the West’s self-styled internationalists – unlike Islamist states, parties, and individuals – failed to send money, guns, volunteers, or humanitarian aid to people defending themselves from the death agony of a dictatorship.
The revolution came and the international left did not even vote “present.”
The reality that Rees and many Marxists are unwilling to face is that living revolutions are full of contradictions and are always morally compromised by the imperialist and capitalist contexts that give rise to them. As Lenin famously put it:
“So one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism’, and another, somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”
Pretending that imperialist intervention into a revolutionary process is synonymous with the end of that process does nothing except provide a convenient excuse for us to do nothing. The point of interpreting revolutions is to find ways to aid them concretely if Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach is more than just a clever aphorism. That we have not done so is a testament to the political paralysis caused by litmus test “thinking” and knee-jerk isolationism disguised with rhetoric about national self-determination.
Libya: Smashing the State Machine
Marxist opponents of NATO’s intervention on the right side of Libya’s revolutionary war have paid scant attention to developments there since Ghadafi was overthrown. Doing so would force them to re-examine their dire predictions of catastrophe and mayhem that would result if Western imperialist powers took military action against the regime in conjunction with the revolution from below.
The reality that Libya and Libyans are much better off today with the victory of a “tainted” revolution than the victory of Ghadafi’s counter-revolution is unconscionable for those who argued that “imperialism could play no progressive role in the situation” (Committee for a Workers’ International [CWI]) or that “the actions of NATO and the U.S. will make matters worse” (Socialist Worker) because they view imperialism as an evil tree that can only bear evil fruit.
This is moralism, not Marxism.
Libya’s is the most radical of the Arab Spring’s bourgeois-democratic revolutions because Ghadafi’s 42-year-old state machine was utterly destroyed by popular revolutionary militias, by the “self-acting armed organization of the people” as Engels put it. This development made an Egypt-style transition (and with it, Western imperialist manipulation of Libyan politics from above) all but impossible. Instead of noting and studying the political significance of this fact, Marxists focused instead on the “chaos” and “lawlessness” created by the triumph of the popular militias. CWI held up the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens by Islamists in Benghazi as evidence of the chaos and lawlessness wreaked by NATO to vindicate its opposition to intervention and concluded:
“The creation of independent, democratic workers’ organisations, including a workers’ party, is vital. This is the only way working people, the oppressed and youth would be able to overcome the growing divisions and begin a struggle to achieve a real revolutionary transformation of the country and thwart the imperialists’ plans, end dictatorship and transform the lives of the mass of the people.
“To achieve their goals a workers’ movement would need to defend all democratic rights, involve and defend the rights of migrant workers, and oppose the privatisation of Libya’s assets.”
“End dictatorship”? Here, CWI completely ignored not only the bourgeois-democratic revolution that smashed Ghadafi’s state apparatus and made such organizing possible but the actual strikes and militant protests by Libyan workers (including in the oil industry) which are the only hope of successfully resisting neoliberal attacks. Like Libya’s workers, the long-oppressed Amazigh people are taking advantage of their hard-won political freedom to fight for their interests, organizing to push for official recognition of their language alongside Arabic.
Since the overthrow of Ghadafi, Libya has been a seething cauldron of mass self-activity and democratic agitation with the formation of new civic associations and political parties, new media outlets, militant street protests, sit-ins, and even armed occupations of parliament. The aftermath of Ambassador Stevens’ assassination showed the newfound confidence of the Libyan masses who organized marches numbering in the tens of thousands that ran Islamist extremist militias out of Benghazi.
Acknowledging any of the above would force CWI to confront the erroneousness of its spokesman Peter Taaffe’s determinist claim that “nothing remotely progressive” could result from NATO’s military action because such action would “not strengthen the working class, increase the sense of its own power, to see itself and its organisations as the real and only lever for achieving its ends.” Tripoli’s carefully planned and meticulously executed grassroots uprising that toppled the regime in August 2011 and the subsequent explosion in self-activity by the masses, including the working class, prove that they did not become passive nor rely on NATO. Quite the opposite.
This inability to acknowledge reality on the ground in Libya is not unique to CWI. Socialist Worker, in place of serious analysis, continues to write-off the Libyan revolution with one word – “hijacked” – and attributes Ghadafi’s fall to NATO airstrikes, as if foreign airstrikes have ever toppled a dictator let alone uprooted a dictatorship. The fruits of the Libyan revolution – free and fair elections for a national legislature and the creation of a democratic republic (which Lenin described in State and Revolution as “the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat”) – are sour grapes for so-called anti-imperialists rather than cause for celebration. What the Libyan masses fought and bled for counts for nothing because they did not fight and bleed according to puritanical Marxist schemas and therefore what and how they won does not even merit critical examination. All that matters to Socialist Worker is that the revolution was “compromised” by imperialism.
Libya should be of special interest to Marxists for two reasons.
- The destruction of a bourgeois state machine and its replacement by popular militias (a very old element of the orthodox Marxist program) is an exceedingly rare occurrence, one that poses unique challenges for Marxists and working-class forces given the Arab Spring’s bourgeois-democratic content.
- NATO’s effort to derail the revolution and preserve the old regime’s special bodies of armed men was decisively repulsed by Libya’s revolutionary forces. Only Marxist Gilbert Achcar was scrupulous enough to analyze the struggle between NATO and the revolution in detail as they acted against Ghadafi. The Libyan revolution was not hijacked but contested, and the hijackers failed. Not one instrument of Ghadafi’s rule was left behind.
Egypt’s Unfinished Democratic Revolution
Before the Libyan and Syrian revolutions broke out, the first sign of willful blindness by Marxists to the ugly realities of the Arab Spring was the failure of a single socialist news source to mention Lara Logan’s rape and sexual assault by hundreds of men in Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011 during the massive celebration of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Whether this was because of some hopelessly utopian notion that the revolutionary masses are, by definition, incapable of sin or the result of anti-Logan bias due to her fawning over General David Petraeus and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is unclear. (Journalist Nir Rosen’s apalling “anti-imperialist” justification for Logan’s rape also escaped the notice of the socialist press.)
What is clear is that this “see no evil” approach allowed the Islamophobic right to own the narrative around Logan and helped obscure the issue of public sexual violence against Egyptian women, a problem undoubtedly connected with the explosive rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. If hundreds of Egyptian men could attack a famous Western woman reporter and her camera crew in the middle of a historic event, what is daily life like for the women of Egypt who have no fame, fortune, cameras, or security details to protect them as they travel to work or school?
The Brotherhood’s prominence is both a symptom and a cause of the fractured state of left, working-class, and secular-democratic forces. These forces fielded four candidates in the first round of Egypt’s presidential election in 2012.
|Khaled Ali||Social Democratic||134,056||0.58%|
|Abul-Ezz El-Hariri||Popular Socialist Alliance||4,090||0.00%|
Instead of presenting a united front at the ballot box, Egypt’s far left worked at cross purposes with itself. The Revolutionary Socialists (RS) did not endorse a candidate but also did not call for a boycott. The Socialist Renewal Current (a split from RS) endorsed liberal Islamist Abouel Fotouh. Tagammu opportunistically endorsed the candidacy of Hisham El-Bastawsi. Only the self-described “upper middle class” Social Democratic Party endorsed the working-class candidate in the race, labor lawyer Khaled Ali, who began his run as an independent.
The divides on Egypt’s far left are reflected among Marxists in the West by the fact that each trend focuses exclusively on the activities and statements of its respective franchises. CWI promotes the statements of its Egyptian section, the U.S. International Socialist Organization and British SWP promote the Cliffite RS, and the U.S. Socialist Equality Party’s World Socialist Web Site denounces everyone because they have no affiliate of their own to promote.
Every Marxist trend treats its counterparts as competitors not comrades in the class war.
The only exception to this sectarian tunnel vision occurred during the second round of Egypt’s presidential election when RS was condemned by every Marxist Web site and blog on the planet for conditionally endorsing the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in a runoff against the military junta’s Ahmed Shafiq. Their endorsement was the practical realization of Cliffite theorist Chris Harman’s slogan, “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.” After the universal outcry, RS quickly decided that this was not one of those times after all and boycotted the runoff without acknowledging or explaining its initial position.
“Competing” Marxist currents attributed RS’s mistake to moral failings: either crass opportunism or capitulation to the pressure to choose the lesser of two evils. In fact, RS’s error was entirely political and flowed logically from its understanding of the Brotherhood as “reformist.” According to RS, there are three basic forces at work in Egyptian politics: the counter-revolution of the bourgeoisie and its generals to defend the status quo, the revolution of the workers, the poor, the youth, and other oppressed groups to upend the status quo, and the reformists like the Brotherhood who wish to tinker with but not radically alter the existing institutional arrangements.
This description does not correspond well with reality. It is not the case that the generals resist any and all change – they threw Mubarak and his family to the wolves when it suited them and made a strategic alliance with the Brotherhood against the revolution, masking their rule behind Morsi’s façade and broadening the counter-revolution’s social base. They do not fear change or oppose reform in post-Mubarak Egypt because they are firmly in control of its pace, scope, and character.
For its part, the Brotherhood has been more than happy to function as the military’s “plan B” for ruling the country despite corrupt elections and repression because political power – not bourgeois democracy – is what it needs to impose its religious and social policies on the people. The Brotherhood’s agenda conflicts with basic bourgeois-democratic aims – freedom of (or from) religion, rights for women and children, the right of workers to associate and strike – and this conflict is the bedrock of their partnership with the generals. This means the Brotherhood is not a left but a right-wing force and has nothing in common politically with genuine reformists like the left nationalist/Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi or Khaled Ali, both of whom it would have been absolutely correct to support in a runoff election against Shafiq.
The Brotherhood’s occasional ambiguity towards the military junta and the street protests is the result of their shift from reluctant opposition to indispensible collaboration, not reformist vacillation between the revolution and the counter-revolution as RS asserts. Missteps and tensions between the military and the Brotherhood should not be mistaken for thoroughgoing conflicts of interests rooted in class antagonisms, nor should the Brotherhood’s mass following among the oppressed and exploited obscure their counter-revolutionary hostility to bourgeois-democratic aims.
On this point, there should be no confusion among Marxists.
The unwillingness to face facts in Egypt by Marxists has also manifested itself regarding the prospects for a second, socialist revolution when the first, democratic revolution has yet to be completed. Within a week of Mubarak’s resignation, the International Marxist Tendency declared that a “break with capitalism” was “both necessary and possible” while RS and CWI called for the formation of soviet-style workers’ councils. These calls were not based on thoroughgoing assessments of the state of the workers’ movement nor were they a response to a burning need felt by the masses for greater self-organization to accomplish widely supported immediate steps such as coordinating strikes, ousting managers, controlling production, or forming workers’ militias. Instead, these calls seemed to be based solely on subjective desires to repeat Russia’s February 1917 revolution when workers’ and soldiers’ councils emerged seemingly spontaneously with the fall of the Tsar, as if the Egyptian working class that struggled mightily just to create and sustain semi-legal unions over the previous decade was remotely comparable to the working class that created soviets 12 years prior to 1917.
A more realistic appraisal of immediate tasks would have focused on wrestling control of the state-controlled unions from the grip of Mubarak’s apparatus, creating new independent unions, campaigning to drive out all the “little Mubaraks” from management positions in state and military-owned enterprises, forming a united independent workers’ party, taking tentative steps to organize the military’s rank and file, and launching serious campaigns to disband the secret police and convene a parliament to replace military rule, all with the understanding that a second, socialist revolution is simply not possible without first winning political freedom. Being able to assemble, strike, march, and organize without fear of being shot or tortured is an achievement that cannot be skipped if the working class and the oppressed are going to reach the level of self-organization necessary to contest and displace capitalist management of existing economic, political, cultural, and military institutions.
A necessary corollary of the above perspective would be to liquidate the organizational boundaries between marginal socialist groups to maximize collective effectiveness. Old 20th century disputes mean little to the working masses we must orient towards today if we are serious about winning socialism in the 21st century. If every difference of opinion over live issues like how to deal with the Brotherhood leads to irreversible organizational schisms, the socialist movement will forever resemble the early Christian movement – tiny groups promoting allegedly incompatible doctrines and competing for individual converts to save them from the heresy of their rivals.
Since January 25, 2011, Egypt’s far left has participated in a dizzying array of divided unity initiatives, coalitions, and fronts – Popular Socialist Alliance, Coalition of Socialist Forces, Egypt Bloc, Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, Revolution Continues Alliance, the Democratic Workers Party (DWP), and the Revolutionary Democratic Coalition (RDC) – most of which have come and gone with little progress in developing a following among workers and the oppressed. RS’s effort to create a broad church, the DWP, secured the support of some unions and other socialist groups but appears to have been a false start. Although RS took the lead in creating the DWP as a broad-based workers’ party, it then pushed within the DWP to boycott the parliamentary elections (it was one of only two left parties to do so, the other being Egypt’s Communist Party). The point of creating a workers’ party is to fight the parties of other classes for state and legislative power. In practice, abstaining from elections (however undemocratic, flawed, and limited in importance given the continuation of military rule) meant ceding those contests and powers to bourgeois liberal and Islamist parties, undermining the DWP’s reason to exist. This abstention may be part of the reason why the DWP seems to have died a quiet death.
Speculation aside, the point is that what happened to the DWP and why is anyone’s guess since Marxist organizations almost never publicly engage in critical self-reflection or detailed assessments of the results of their initiatives. This is a bad habit (one of many) that Marxist forces will have to shed if we wish to learn from the mistakes we make and become central to shaping the revolutions of the 21st century.
We will never overthrow capitalism if we cannot even bring ourselves to look in the mirror.
The intensifying contradictions between Egypt’s military rulers, the collaborationist Brotherhood, and the way secular-democratic forces are not represented in parliament have led to increasingly volatile street clashes in recent weeks.
|Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood)||235 seats||47.2%|
|Al-Nour Party||121 seats||24.3%|
|New Wafd Party||38 seats||7.6%|
|Egyptian Bloc||34 seats||6.8%|
|Non-party (independents)||26 seats||5.2%|
|Other parties||18 seats||3.6%|
|Reform and Development||8 seats||1.8%|
|Revolution Continues||7 seats||1.4%|
|Military/presidential appointees||10 seats||‒|
Nearly 10 million people or 50% voted for secular candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Ahmed Shafiq in the 2012 presidential elections and yet secular parties constitute less than 20% of a legislature that, in Carl Finamore’s words, “failed to enact even one meaningful reform.” The impotence of secular-democratic forces in the face of the artificial, crushing predominance of Islamist forces that used their parliamentary majority to rubber stamp the new constitution before it was ratified in a referendum has fueled angry frustration among young secular revolutionaries who have adopted Black Bloc tactics in recent anti-Morsi demonstrations. The Brotherhood struck back with smears, claiming that Black Block is:
“part of the alleged revolutionary movements, such as anarchism and the Revolutionary Socialists. These movements reject the existence of a political, judicial or parliamentary system at all. They call for societies without the state. In order to achieve this, they adopt all forms of violent and barbaric acts, such as killing and burning. These anarchic sabotage groups are not revolutionary groups. Rather, they use the revolution as a cover to cause chaos.”
Here, the Brotherhood called for order to prevail.
As with Libya and Syria, these ominous developments failed to conform to CWI’s political preferences and thus the actors shaping them were found wanting. In “Mass Demonstrations and Brutal Repression,” Aysha Zaki continually stressed what a mass workers’ movement led by socialists would do to fight the Brotherhood, prevent Black Blocs from developing, stop the National Salvation Front (a secular coalition) from negotiating with the generals, overcome sectarianism, nationalize banks and industries under workers’ control, appeal to workers all over the region, and eventually, form a “democratic, socialist, workers’ government in Egypt” – would, if such a movement with such a leadership existed. Zaki used the word “would” in this manner eight times while what could or should be done, by what means, and who could begin to constitute such a movement or leadership – the burning questions – were not touched upon.
Here, Marxism becomes a guide to hypothetical action instead of serving as a starting point for an all-sided interrogation of reality, the precondition for developing working hypotheses that could serve as the basis for practical policy.
With regards to defending female protestors from rape and sexual violence, Zaki declared Black Bloc tactics to be bankrupt compared to those advocated by CWI:
“Many female protesters have faced violent sexual assault in Tahrir Square. But it is not relatively small numbers of masked youth that can successfully stop these attacks but the organized movement of workers’ and youth. The CWI advocates building mass self-defence, organized democratically, to ensure protesters have secure stewarding, which should be linked to a programme to change the social system.”
The problem is that Black Bloc did exactly what Zaki declared was impossible for them to do. At least four women were rescued by activists armed with makeshift flamethrowers from Black Bloc and the Dostour Party (a bourgeois-liberal constitutionalist party founded by Mohamed ElBaradei):
“Suddenly men wearing black ski masks and carrying long knives and clubs were jumping the fence to our left. It was impossible to tell which side they were on, but they turned out to be from the Black Bloc and joined those protecting us. Some of them were now trying to rescue another woman stripped naked by the mob metres away.”
Calling for a youth and worker-led, democratically organized, mass self-defence force armed with “a programme to change the social system” did not save anyone in Tahrir Square but the Black Bloc’s courageous action did. Deeds and actions outweigh words and calls on the scale of revolutionary struggle. Criticism of the Black Bloc must be based on their actual activities and practical impact rather than on their unwillingness to embrace the Marxist party line on the centrality of the working class or the need for a revolutionary party.
The only left force with mass influence is Hamdeen Sabahi who leads the newly founded Popular Current. The relationship of the far left’s RDC to the Popular Current beyond joint protests is unclear. However, standing aloof from the current Sabbahi leads because his politics fall well short of the Marxist ideal would be a mistake. Marx did not approach the First International this way, despite its extreme organizational and ideological heterogeneity. As he explained:
“[W]e do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”
In accordance with these words, Marx joined the First International and helped guide it.
Following Marx, Lenin urged communists to work with the British Labour Party and throw themselves into reactionary craft unions, parliaments, and even pigstys to reach the working and oppressed masses struggling to assert themselves where ever they happened to be or whomever they happened to follow. Today, millions follow Sabahi because his anti-free market, pro-democracy, ideologically inclusive rhetoric resonates with those who risked their lives to forcibly end Mubarak’s reign. Their aspirations for an Egypt without poverty, corruption, and repression are combined with illusions about “the good old days” under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many even view Sabbahi as something of a 21st century Nasser; at his rallies, the chants are “Nasser! Nasser!” rather than “Sabahi! Sabahi!” As Akram Ismail of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party explained, “In the mentality of people in villages there’s only Islam and Gamal Abdel Nasser.”
Between these two trends, Marxists cannot remain neutral.
Nasserism’s enduring popularity is not indicative of enduring support for Nasser’s reactionary crackdown on communists and extermination of independent workers’ organizations. There is little memory of either among the masses because repression – combined with the old left’s fatal mistake of equating bourgeois nationalism with proletarian socialism – succeeded. This, along with the turn of Nasser’s successors towards the U.S., Israel, and neoliberal economics, explains why the newly awakened millions groping for a progressive language and ideology to express themselves reached first for Nasserism in the person of Sabahi. Only by working among Sabahi’s followers will it be possible to influence them, to help them shed their illusions through their own experience and struggle, to outgrow Nasserism for Marxism.
Never in human history have so many people from so many nations moved so quickly and forcefully to assert themselves and their humanity in the face of murderous barbarism. Marxists ought to seriously study these revolutions and the peoples making them as they actually are and look unflinchingly at all of their ugly and unpalatable dimensions instead of bemoaning their “failure” to conform to previous models or our own romanticized notions. The worst thing we can do is vivisect and force-fit the Arab Spring’s contradictions into our favorite schemas and shibboleths. Surely we in the West who have failed to resist austerity have more to learn from than teach revolutionaries who rapidly overcame murderous military machines and decades of political passivity by the masses to topple their bloody dictators “left” and right alike.
Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” The Arab Spring is not this “first step” but a prerequisite for it. Fundamentally, it is a struggle to win the battle for democracy, for bourgeois democracy, one that necessarily involves a different set of classes than the socialist revolution – namely, the urban poor, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, and even segments of the ruling bourgeoisie and various imperialist powers at times.
The diverse class nature of the Arab Spring has a number of important implications:
1. Although there is some overlap in aims between different class forces as they struggle against the common enemy of counter-revolution, the working class cannot rely on other classes or their parties to fight for its bread and butter or look after its interests. The working class must do both independently of (and often in opposition to) its erstwhile allies. The greater its strength, independence, consciousness, organization, and militancy, the more it will be able to impose its agenda on its allies in temporary, conditional but nonetheless necessary agreements as well as shape the revolution’s methods and outcome.
2. Whether or not the working class ultimately wins or loses in material terms once the battle for bourgeois democracy is won is by no means guaranteed. The transformation of the Eastern Bloc in 1989-1991 into standard-issue bourgeois democracies presaged the vicious and wholesale destruction of peoples’ living standards as working classes throughout Eastern Europe were unable to organize effective resistance on either the economic or political fields. The left in these countries fell into a trap of either championing hated police states because of their social welfare policies or championing free markets in the name of political freedom. A similar danger for the left exists in the Arab Spring as pro-capitalist liberal and Islamist forces win elections in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. Because it is possible for the working class to both win the battle for democracy while losing the battle of democracy, weak-kneed elements on the left will inevitably hanker for the old discredited dictators like Assad and Ghadafi or otherwise conclude that the Arab Spring was for naught because pro-neoliberal (or pro-U.S.) forces came to power instead of fighting and defeating the Islamists and the liberals on the battleground of bourgeois democracy.
3. Here it is important to revivify what might be called the classical Marxist view of the democratic and socialist revolutions or the centrality of democracy to the socialist project as outlined by Lenin in Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. A century ago, one of the defining features of Marxism was its fierce advocacy of bourgeois-democratic revolutions which anarchism in those days tended to dismiss as leading to phony democracy, capitalist trickery, fraud for working people, and otherwise not worth fighting for since it would simply create new, capitalist ruling classes in place of old, feudal ruling classes (all true, aside from the value judgment). Lenin answered thus:
“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.”
The difficulty in re-coupling the socialist and democratic projects that were, in reality, always inseparable lies in the actual course and outcome of the Russian revolution launched in 1917, both of which introduced virulently anti-democratic and anti-human strains into the Marxist tradition. Lenin’s legacy is one of terrible irony: having spent three decades of his life fighting for political freedom as the only path to socialism, he ended it presiding over a party-state that banned factions within its ranks and forbid organizing outside its ranks. Since then, Marxists have frequently been on the wrong side of the barricades during popular revolutions against “left” police states (allegedly socialist, anti-imperialist, or otherwise “progressive” compared to [fill in the blank’s] capitalist government), having “arrive[d] at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense” Lenin warned against so long ago.
Attempting to “solve” this paradox is beyond the scope of this essay; putting it on the table is not.
4. Although Lenin’s Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution contains many insights directly relevant to the Arab Spring, it is also woefully insufficient because it was written in a different time for a different country, namely, his own. Perhaps the biggest difference is that feudal social formations are no longer a major factor in democratic revolutions while the modern petty bourgeoisie is a very different and more influential force than it was in Lenin’s day. For example, Mohamed Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation ignited the Arab Spring, was not a proletarian but a fruit vendor. Bouazizi’s plight exemplifies the desperate scramble to survive that dominates the daily lives of tens millions throughout the Middle East and North Africa as doctors work second jobs as cab drivers and workers alternate between wage labor and petty commerce to make ends meet. Neoliberalism has frayed and destabilized the boundaries between the proletariat, the lumpenproletariat, and the petty bourgeoisie, creating difficult and unique challenges for Marxism as a class-based strategy. Combating sexism, religious sectarianism and obscurantism, and the special oppression of minorities like the Amazigh in Libya or the Bedouins in Egypt are tasks that must be integrated into and become integral to a revitalized and consistently democratic Marxism.
The relevance of Two Tactics is not so much about any particular position he held but rather his method – rigorously and carefully dissecting Russia’s socioeconomic structure, its classes, their parties, the class content of their politics, and how precisely their interests coincided and collided.
The path to a horizontal, classless society lies not through “left” police states or “socialist” autocracies that deny democracy and freedom to the masses but through radically extending democracy and freedom for the masses first into the political sphere and then into the economic and social spheres in an all-encompassing manner. Economic and social freedom can only be achieved in and through the exercise of political freedom. Only on that basis can we explode contradiction inherent in the phrase, “bourgeois democracy.”
- “Have Islamists Hijacked Syria’s Democratic Revolution?”
- “How ‘a Plague on Both Your Houses’ Aids Counter-Revolution in Syria”
- “Eclectics or Dialectics? Unpacking PSL’s Defense of Racist, Collaborationist Tyrannies”
- “Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong“
More analysis of the Arab Spring from The North Star:
- “The American Left and the Arab Spring” by Clay Claiborne
- “Praying for a Wind” by Manuel Barrera
- “Israel and the Revolution in Syria” by Darth Nader
- “Marxism versus Conspiracism” by Louis Proyect
- “Lenin and the Arab Spring” by Joseph Green
- “Syria: It Is Right to Rebel!” by Patrick Muldowney
Special thanks to Ben Campbell and Jeff Meisner for their thoughts and comments on drafts and to Joseph Green for his work through Communist Voice on Lenin, Trotsky, Trotskyism, and the Arab Spring.