In Marxist lexicon, there are two types of revolution: democratic and socialist, or more scientifically, bourgeois-democratic and proletarian-socialist. These two types of revolution involve different class alignments, have different tasks, and lead to different outcomes, although a two-stage uninterrupted revolution that is initially democratic and becomes socialist is possible. The socialist revolution is a battle between the whole of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for political supremacy and ends with the victory of either the capitalist or socialist social systems. The democratic revolution is a battle against autocratic rule that removes fetters on capitalist development between a great variety of classes – peasants, workers, students, landlords, capitalists, small business owners. In democratic revolutions, bourgeois forces can be found on both sides of the barricades (unlike in socialist revolutions) and their concrete outcomes can vary tremendously because of their class heterogeneity. Making accurate generalizations about democratic revolutions is difficult since they have occurred on every inhabited continent in one form or another beginning at least 300 years ago.
Part of the inability by Marxists to understand the Arab Spring as democratic rather than socialist revolutions is due to the experience of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions that ended feudalism in Europe centuries ago. Those transitions from feudal to capitalist social relations were accompanied by shifts from rule by lords and monarchs to rule by elected representatives and parliaments as a kind of “package deal.” Based on this limited experience, Marxists such as Neil Davidson have erroneously concluded that bourgeois-democratic revolutions can only occur in countries with pre-capitalist social formations. One example of a bourgeois-democratic revolution that did not involve anti-feudal class content is Portugal in 1974-1975 when a fascist dictatorship was overthrown, paving the way for a transition to bourgeois democracy. After four decades of fascist repression, Portugal’s workers’ movement was simply not in a position to put proletarian rule on the agenda in the revolution; the same is true today of the proletarian (and non-proletarian toiling) classes of Libya, Egypt, and Syria, all of whom are only beginning to create their own organizations. None of them have created their own parties much less acquired socialist awareness on a mass scale. The following remarks by Lenin about the Russian revolution of 1905 are surprisingly relevant on this issue:
“Only the most ignorant people can ignore the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place; only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the masses of the workers are informed about the aims of socialism and about the methods of achieving it. And we are all convinced that the emancipation of the workers can be effected only by the workers themselves; a socialist revolution is out of the question unless the masses become class conscious and organized, trained and educated in open class struggle against the entire bourgeoisie. 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. If any workers ask us at the given moment why we should not go ahead and carry out our maximum program, we shall answer by pointing out how far the masses of the democratically-minded people still are from socialism, how undeveloped class antagonisms still are, how unorganized the proletarians still are.”
Marxists tend to fall prey to the very naïve optimism Lenin warned against by viewing the Arab Spring’s revolutions as incomplete or as failures so long as they fail to overturn capitalist social relations. This is a real failure on our part to evaluate these struggles on their own terms and properly appraise the human aspirations driving tens of millions of people to risk life and limb toppling tyrants from Tripoli to Damascus. Overwhelmingly, the revolutionary masses of the Middle East and North Africa desire democracy – capitalist democracy, democracy on the basis of generalized commodity production – not socialism, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, and certainly not a horizontal society without rich and poor. We Marxists may not like this, but it is what it is. The masses are fighting for progress, not perfection, to end insufferable tyrannies, not to end capital’s tyranny over labor.
We seem to have forgotten the axiom that while socialism is impossible without democracy, democracy is possible without socialism. This truism has been confirmed by the victorious democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, neither of which are examples of Trotsky’s permanent revolution since they accomplished the democratic tasks he mistakenly believed were “conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Socialists fight for and in democratic revolutions not as an end but as a means, as a necessary, unavoidable, but nonetheless transient stage in our long-term struggle to end capitalism. As Engels explained, “the workers can never win their emancipation” without “freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, universal suffrage, local self-government” despite the “bourgeois character” of these gains.
We must first win the battle for democracy before we can win the battle of democracy.
Confusion over Egypt’s Revolution
Failure to comprehend the January 25 revolution as democratic rather than socialist in nature has led Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (RS) to erratically tail events instead of charting clear course along which to guide the masses towards the revolution’s goals.
On the one hand, RS initially called for a vote against the old regime’s candidate Ahmed Shafiq during the 2012 presidential runoff by casting a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammad Morsi. On the other hand, RS characterized the overthrow of Morsi by the old regime on July 3 as “the height of democracy.” So RS backed an Islamist democrat against a fascist autocrat in 2012 but took the exact opposite position in 2013! On July 5, RS hailed the anti-Morsi demonstrations as “the historic beginning of a new wave of the Egyptian revolution” only to express buyer’s remorse on July 25 that “the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown to deepen the revolution, not to support the regime” after it became indisputable that the anti-Morsi demonstrations led by Tamarod were only organized to provide popular veneer for the regime and its campaign of repression.
For initially backing Morsi to defeat Shafiq in the 2012 presidential runoff, RS was wrongly condemned by practically every Marxist organization, publication, and blog the world over on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood is an equally reactionary anti-working class force as Shafiq and the fulool (meaning Mubarak’s army, police, judiciary, the media, and associated business interests). While it is true that both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are bourgeois, pro-capitalist, pro-neoliberal, and counter-revolutionary from the standpoint of socialism, only one is counter-revolutionary from the standpoint of democracy. One stands for autocracy and the other stands for bourgeois democracy, one stands for rule by the bullet and the other stands for rule by the ballot, one is an institution of tyranny and the other is a mass party with a huge following among the oppressed classes. In a conflict between these two anti-worker forces, the interests the working class and the democratic revolution in general demand a vigorous, unrelenting fight against the military side by side with all democrats – Islamist, secular, and even neoliberal – not because these forces will accede to the formation of an Egyptian Soviet republic but because the working class has a direct and vital interest in defending democratic gains (however tenuous, insufficient, and underdeveloped) from military attack, in fighting for bourgeois-democratic rule against bourgeois-fascist rule alongside allies no matter how temporary, shaky, or devious they might be.
Anything less from socialists would be treason.
Since 2011, RS’s statements have correctly claimed that Egypt’s revolution remains incomplete and that its goals remain unaccomplished but without explaining what steps or measures taken together would constitute the revolution’s completion. Without the strategic goals that flow from understanding of how the democratic and socialist revolutions differ from one another, developing a strategic line of march to either political destination is impossible and tailing events is inevitable.
For example, RS’s February 2011 statement demanded the nationalization of privatized enterprises as if putting more economic power into the hands of the fulool would be a step forward for the revolution or the working class. This demand was dropped from subsequent statements without explanation.
The other measure RS demanded in February 2011 was the creation of elected popular councils and indeed an entire hierarchy of delegates from such councils. What these councils should do, how/where they would be elected (through neighborhood, workplace, campus, and/or barrack assemblies?), and whether these councils should assume executive, legislative, judicial, or sovereign authority either over or against the existing state machine RS did not say. Whether these councils should carry out democratic or socialist tasks (or both) RS also did not say. This vague demand for councils disappeared from subsequent statements but reappeared after the July 3 coup. Here, RS coupled their call for councils with new demands:
- Immediate steps to achieve social justice for the benefit of millions of poor and low-income. These are the people who paid the greatest share of the price for Mursi’s failure to implement the goals of the revolution—and that of the Military Council before him.
- Election of a Constituent Assembly, representing all sections of the people—workers, peasants and the poor, Coptic Christians and women—to write a civil, democratic constitution which entrenches the values of freedom and social justice.
- The drafting of a law of transitional justice which holds to account the Brotherhood for the blood it has spilled, as well as the Military Council and the symbols of the Mubarak regime, and achieves retribution for the martyrs and injured of the revolution.
These demands raise more questions than they answer. “Steps to achieve social justice” for the poor – what steps? What of the first Constituent Assembly that was dispersed by a fulool court – should it be reconvened, or does RS oppose such a move since the Assembly faithfully reflected the parliament’s freely and fairly elected Islamist majority? Should the already-written and voter-approved constitution be suspended or restored? How could a transitional law holding the military and police accountable be drafted by a military-police government headed by Mubarak’s Supreme Constitutional Court justice, Adly Mansour?
So despite acknowledging in its first statement after the July 3 coup the need to “overthrow … Mubarak’s state, including its security, military, and judiciary institutions,” over the past two years RS has not outlined what such an overthrow would mean in practice, in terms of achieveable goals.
First Thing’s First
There can be no serious talk of socialism in Egypt or of a second revolution until the first revolution is completed, that is, until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is arrested by the armed people, until the mukhabarat is disbanded, until every fulool institution from the judiciary to the media is obliterated, purged, and/or castrated by revolutionary-democratic organs and measures which are the only way to guarantee the masses complete political freedom. Until then, Egypt’s democratic revolution (or what is left of it) will be in permanent danger, the people’s victories will remain tenuous at best, and the socialist revolution will stand far beyond the political horizon.
Defeating the fulool will require revolutionary-democratic measures. In Libya, these measures were carried out by force, by civil war; Ghadafi’s poorly equipped army refused to slaughter protestors and defected. There, the armed struggle to smash the tyrannical state machine necessarily preceded the peaceful struggle to set up institutions of democratic governance such as a sovereign national legislature.
By contrast, Egypt’s army has proven to be the deaf, dumb, and blind instrument of SCAF time and time again since 2011, ousting the country’s first democratically elected president without producing mutinies or even individual defections. Here, the peaceful struggle to create (or rather, recreate) institutions of democratic governance such as an elected popular assembly must precede an armed struggle and be coupled from the outset with revolutionary (meaning illegal) measures such as:
- Declaring the assembly to be the sovereign institution in the Egyptian state, its decisions inviolable and not subject to review or annulment by the dictatorship’s judiciary.
- Dismissing all judges except those specially designated by the assembly, their vacant positions to be filled by elected judges at a later date.
- Creating popular militias to defend the assembly from the inevitable police, military, and paramilitary attacks and provide security for neighborhoods the police abandon to punish the residents with lawlessness.
- Firing all mukhabarat and police personnel, arresting their commanders, purging military intelligence, closing and physically occupying the Interior Ministry.
- Most importantly of all, establishing democratic civilian control of the armed forces. Soldiers should only follow orders from or co-signed by assembly representatives; orders without such endorsement are null and avoid, and those that issue them or follow them are traitors and must be treated as such. Each unit should elect recallable delegates at mass meetings who will report directly to the assembly or its representatives since the existing officer corps has repeatedly betrayed the people. Only revolutionary-democratic measures such as these can force the entire army, unit by unit, to choose who it is loyal to – the people and their elected representatives or the fulool. Swaying the army’s bayonets and separating the ranks of the honorable and the patriotic from the treacherous and the corrupt will require laws and proclamations from above by authoritative and respected revolutionary bodies as well as intensive mass mobilizations from below such as peaceful mass rallies and occupations where ever troops are garrisoned.
This approach to Egypt’s “deep state” stands in stark contrast to that of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood whose conciliatory, reformist attempt to tame the fulool by means of negotiations, backroom deals, and miserable compromises left counter-revolutionary institutions intact and fully operational. (The political police – the State Security Investigations Service – was simply renamed and retained all its powers and functions!) Their method was not an accident nor a mistake but sprang from the Muslim Brotherhood’s bourgeois nature and class policy which makes them averse to the kind of dramatic, sweeping, risky, and disruptive moves needed to crush the fulool once and for all.
The social classes in Egypt with an interest in carrying out the revolutionary measures needed to really begin the democratic revolution are the working class and non-proletarian toilers in alliance with the lumpenproletariat (the urban poor and chronically unemployed who dwell in ashwa’iyyat) and petty proprietors – in other words, the people, the 99%. A revolutionary-democratic struggle by these popular classes would pit them directly against the fulool and indirectly against the compromising, vacillating oppositional segments of the bourgeois elite – the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamad El-Baradei, Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabahi – since this class has no interest in waging a determined, relentless, all-or-nothing struggle that will wreck and radically re-make Egypt’s state institutions. Such a fight could split the Muslim Brotherhood, whose self-contained “deep state” and 700,000-800,000 members make it the country’s only mass party, into revolutionary and opportunist wings and draw support from the myriad of petty-bourgeois salafist parties since all of them have been victims of the fulool’s anti-Islamist demonization and persecution campaigns.
Of course, effecting the foregoing scenario is far more difficult than outlining it, especially when the power of SCAF and the fulool is dramatically increasing and sweeping away the precious few democratic gains of the January 25 revolution. Even so, having strategic goals, even if they are increasingly difficult to reach, is far better than not having them at all. Proper orientation and progress on a journey are impossible without first having selected a destination and the only possible path to a socialist Egypt is the road of democracy.
Good News and Bad News
The good news is that Lenin’s two-stage scenario of a democratic revolution that grows over into a socialist revolution without interruption faces much brighter prospects in modern Egypt than it did in semi-feudal Russia, with its 180 million peasant proprietors and the apocalyptic devastation wreaked by world, civil, and revolutionary wars. One-third of Egypt’s 26.5 million-strong labor force works in agriculture, producing 15% of the country’s GDP, and two-thirds of its 85.3 million people live outside the cities, which makes the class war in the countryside of decisive importance for the revolution’s future.
The fellahin are not a force inherently hostile to democratic economic planning. The biggest obstacle to improving their horrible living conditions is unrelenting state repression and so their interest in shattering the fulool state and completing the democratic revolution is as great as that of the urban workers if not more so, given that the landlords that oppress and fleece them are often state officials, well-connected businessmen, army and police commanders, or judges. The fellahin’s desire for land and land reform is thoroughly bourgeois but nonetheless progressive compared to the “new feudalism” of exponential rent increases that pushed millions into desperate poverty and the precarity of sharecropping after the reversal of the 1952 land reform. Their equally bourgeois demands for replacing corrupt, monopolist “free” markets with fair markets for their produce are coupled with pleas for sensible, human need-based economic planning by the state.
Egypt is a major food importer because state policy favors lucrative export products like flowers rather than less profitable items like wheat, which in turn favors capital-intensive agribusinesses over poor and middle-income families of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Implementing mass consumption-driven food and agriculture policies would not only be in the interests of the fellahin, it would be in the interests of the hungry in the cities who scrape by only because the government subsidizes bread imports at tremendous cost. Such a policy orientation would also alleviate sharp bread price increases due to fluctuations in the world market while reducing the state’s exploding deficits, freeing up funds for greater social spending on health care and job creation.
All of this illustrates that “Bread, Dignity, and Social Justice” – the January 25 revolution’s slogans – can only be realized by a victorious alliance of the urban workers, rural farmers, unemployed, and those engaged petty commerce over the fulool classes in a democratic revolution that can alone prepare the battleground for a worker-led socialist revolution to put people before profits .
The biggest barriers to this people’s democratic revolution growing over uninterrupted into a workers’ socialist revolution are not so much products of objective socioeconomic development as they are subjective products of a historical, political, and organizational nature. This brings us to the bad news regarding the possibility of an uninterrupted democratic-socialist revolution in Egypt.
Despite the dizzying array of new and growing parties on the Egyptian landscape, the working and toiling classes do not have a party or a political instrument of their own with which to fight for and in the democratic revolution against the other classes. Without its own party, the working class is impotent politically and is drawn in tow behind the parties and politics of other classes, hence why the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys strong support in white-collar unions, hence why the workers’ candidate in the 2012 presidential race, Khaled Ali, received only 134,000 votes while the bourgeois radical Hamdeen Sabbahi received 4.8 million (see Appendix).
The socialists – whose task it is to merge with, help organize, and lend purposiveness to the workers’ movement – are badly divided and ineffectual. RS’s attempt to form a class-based party, the Democratic Workers’ Party (DWP), received promising support from labor organizations and leaders but fizzled almost immediately because party names based on class or religious identity are against the law. The Muslim Brotherhood and the salafists had the common sense to get around this restriction by naming their parties Freedom and Justice and Party of the Light rather than anything overtly religious. The error of dogmatically insisting on an illegal name was compounded by RS’s decision to push within DWP to boycott what ended up being one of the few free and fair parliamentary elections in Egypt’s history. The end result of this policy? When tens of millions went to the polls to consider who to vote for, they could only give their votes to the parties and candidates of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes – Islamists, salafis, liberals, and fulool – and so these classes can exercise political muscle and fight for mass support while the working class can do neither properly.
Immediate Tasks: Reverse the Coup, Free Morsi
Championing the democratic revolution in Egypt now means not only condemning the coup and the SCAF-controlled interim government in words but actively organizing to reverse the coup in deeds by literally breaking Morsi out of jail and returning him to his rightful office. The weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons, condemnation without action is phrasemongering.
Marxists are not supporters of Morsi, but letting him rot in a Republican Guard cell and allowing the coup to proceed as planned is a death-blow to a democratic revolution barely begun and without the freedoms its victory will bring, no powerful proletarian movement can develop. Our loyalty is not to Morsi (who we will not hesitate to overthrow and defeat) but to the working class specifically and the democratic revolution generally. Breaking him out of a military jail today does not preclude arresting, overthrowing, or un-electing him tomorrow, nor does it imply an ounce of political support for the bourgeois-obscurantist Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi’s reformist ineptitude any more than the Bolsheviks’ active defense of the Kerensky government from Kornilov’s coup make them supporters of Kerensky’s strike-breaking and repression of peasant committees.
Repulsing and defeating SCAF’s power grab would embolden the increasingly despondent and apathetic masses whose plight has worsened dramatically since 2011. A revolution that does not put more bread on the table cannot go on indefinitely because indefinite hunger among the working masses – although it can provoke stormy rebellions and desperate revolts in the short run – can only lead to listlessness, cynicism, and submission in the long run.
Today, the fate of Egypt’s democratic revolution hangs in the balance. Either a renewed upsurge against the fulool forces them to relent, concede, retreat, release Morsi, and ease up on anti-Muslim Brotherhood repression; or, the January 25 revolution remains permanently incomplete thanks to a series of rotten deals between servile liberals, secularists, and salafis on the one hand and a reinvigorated fulool on the other who, having succeeded in smashing Egypt’s only mass party, effectively end the Arab Spring as we know it.
Appendix: Electoral Results of Democracy in Egypt
March 2011 Constitutional Referendum
|Elect Representatives First||14,192,577||77.3|
|Write Constitution First||4,174,187||22.7|
December 2011-January 2012 Lower House Parliamentary Elections
|Democratic Alliance for Egypt (led by Freedom and Justice Party [Muslim Brotherhood])||10,138,134||37.5|
|Islamic Alliance (led by Al-Nour)||7,534,266||27.8|
|New Wafd Party||2,480,391||9.2|
|Revolution Continues Alliance||745,863||2.8|
|Reform and Development||604,415||2.2|
|National Party of Egypt||425,021||1.6|
|Egyptian Citizen Party||235,395||0.9|
|Democratic Peace Party||248,281||0.0|
|Arab Egyptian Unity Party||149,253||0.0|
January 2012 Upper House Parliamentary Elections
|Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood)||2,894,922||45.04|
|Democratic Peace Party||95,273||1.5|
May 2012 Presidential Race (Round 1)
|Mohamed Morsi||Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood)||5,764,952||24.80|
|Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh||Al-Nour (endorsed)||4,065,239||17.50|
|Mohamed Selim Al-Awa||Independent||235,374||1.01|
|Khaled Ali||Social Democratic||134,056||0.58|
|Mahmoud Hossam Al-Din||Independent||23,992||0.10|
|Mohamed Fawzi Eissa||Democratic Generation Party||23,889||0.10|
|Ahmed Hossam Kamal Khairallah||Democratic Peace Party||22,036||0.09|
|Abul-Ezz El-Hariri||Popular Socialist Alliance||4,090||0.00|
June 2012 Presidential Race (Round 2 Run-Off)
|Mohamed Morsi||Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood)||13,230,131||51.73|
December 2012 Constitutional Referendum