Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Return of Revolution

This is a lightly-edited version of a talk I gave to kick off a study group on the book Revolutionary Rehearsals, which has essays on the struggles in France in 1968, Chile in '72-3, Portugal in '74-5, Iran in '79, and Poland in '80-1.

Hosni Mubarak is no longer president of Egypt. His overthrow, following that of Ben Ali in Tunisia, is already changing the world. There are protests in Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen... The imperialists of the US don’t know what to do, the colonialists of Israel are near panic, and people across the world have been not only fascinated but inspired.

Of course, by any reasonable standard I know little about Egypt - I've never visited and I don't speak Arabic. That said, I will have to focus less on what is particular to Egypt, and more on what events there show us about the dynamics of revolution.

I’ll talk first about the most obvious lessons - that protests have power and that revolution isn’t just for the history books. I’ll talk about how revolution becomes necessary. Then I’ll talk about the power of class analysis in understanding what’s happening, and the roles of the various classes. Finally, I’ll talk about the possibilities that have been opened up, the way that advance and reaction interact back on the further development of the struggle, and entrance of the subjective element of organization into history.

Just a few years ago in Egypt, street protests were typically outnumbered by police. There are a million and a half people in Egypt employed by the internal security apparatus, and hundreds of them would turn out even if there were only scores of protesters. The first time in years where the opposite was clearly true was January 25 of this year, less than a month ago. Just days later, protesters chased police off the streets. They overturned armored vehicles, burned police stations, captured infiltrators, and established control of movement in the major cities.

When the right combination of frustration and inspiration comes together, the world can change very suddenly and dramatically. Individual experiences of hunger, unemployment, wage stagnation, corruption, and police brutality, built up under the surface of Egyptian society, with little outward political expression. But by the end of 2010, Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy could write, “There is something in the air... Not a day passes without reading or hearing about a strike. No one knows when the explosion is going to happen, but it seems everyone I meet or bump into today feels it’s inevitable.”

One day, Hosni Mubarak, backed by a military regime more than fifty years old and the US, the most powerful empire in the world, seemed invincible. Just weeks later, he has resigned, and there are rumors that he has fled Egypt.

There are two things to note here. One, our rulers aren’t infinitely powerful. If we organize, we can topple them - no matter what they try. Working people can now add their victory over the police in Egypt to their victory over two attempted military coups in Portugal, and over bosses’ strikes which shut down much of the economy in Chile (and both, more recently, in Venezuela).

The second thing to note is that what seems like popular apathy can conceal a deep desire for change and a willingness to risk everything.

There’s another side to this. Electoral politicking did not topple Mubarak; when he had to, he just falsified the results. Bombings and other individual acts of terrorism by Islamists in the 70s, 80s and 90s, including Sadat’s assassination, only reinforced the Egyptian military regime. The so-called opposition parties which tried to “work within the system” of Mubarak’s rule, from the liberals to, in recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood, were left behind by the revolution, and contributed little except when their cadre jumped ahead of their leadership. Mass action on the streets, culminating in strike action by tens of thousands of workers, was needed to finally overthrow Mubarak.

Not every uprising against a dictator or against imperialism is a working-class revolution. Guerrilla strategies have sometimes succeeded, at least in the short term, as in Cuba and Vietnam. But revolutions, or near-revolutionary struggles, which involve mass action by the working class, have a special dynamic.

To all appearances, what’s happening in Egypt does deeply involve the participation of the working class. Last month, el-Hamalawy told an interviewer, “Tunisia was more or less a catalyst”, but, “Revolutions don't happen out of the blue... You can't isolate these protests from the last four years of labor strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa Intifada of Palestinians and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.”


The labor struggle goes back years. I quote from a 2007 article in the International Socialist Review by Mostafa Omar:

Over the last two years, the number of strikes (which usually take the form of factory sit-ins or occupations since strikes are basically illegal) has been steadily rising. In 2006, there were at least 220 workers’ strikes, walkouts, and street protests.


Millions of Egyptian workers have seen their real wages and benefits plummet after twenty years of the neoliberal policies of structural adjustment and privatization programs pushed on them by the International Monetary Fund and the Egyptian business class. The economy’s shift from a predominantly public sector one, where workers enjoyed a relative degree of job protection, to a privatized, free-market bonanza for the rich and foreign multinationals, has led to rising unemployment (officially estimated at 13 percent), increasing levels of poverty, and simmering anger.


That strike wave interacted with a protest movement which had an independent impetus. Starting in 2000, the Second Intifada in Palestine inspired Egyptians to take to the streets in solidarity. That movement fed into an anti-war movement when Bush announced plans to invade Iraq. That movement in turn fed into the Kifaya or “enough” movement, which demonstrated against Mubarak himself in 2005.

The workers who struck in 2006 were given confidence by these earlier political struggles, and their economic demands had to quickly turn political because the official Egyptian unions are controlled by the regime, and independent trade union organization is illegal. So the political and economic struggles have been mutually reinforcing.

The protests which started on January 25th were called against the police murder of Khaled Said, a middle-class young man, and initiated on Facebook. Though many people left work to attend mass demonstrations in the following week, strikes organized through workplaces did not spread across the country until a few days before Mubarak left. But these strikes, which had both political and economic demands and included crucially the workers in the Suez canal, very well may have been the final tipping point.

There is a very direct parallel here to France in 1968, where student protesters who battled with police and showed that resistance was possible sparked the largest general strike in history.

The military, which still controls the state, has now cleared protesters out of Tahrir Square. If the revolution is to go further, it will have to rely on workers organizing at the point of production. The military junta is right now trying to get workers to go back to work, which thousands have refused to do until more of their demands are met, which include wage increases as well as freedom for thousands of political prisoners who remain behind bars. According to the Times, Suez canal workers just rejoined workers in “textile mills, pharmaceutical plants, chemical industries, the Cairo airport, the transportation sector and banks” who are on strike right now.

Nearly all of Egyptian society was fed up with Mubarak by the end; the regime could only turn out pro-Mubarak demonstrations by putting police in plain clothes and paying cash to desperate people. The Egyptian working class has an interest not only in the overthrow of Mubarak, but also in the radical transformation of Egypt, the right to organize, the rolling back of neoliberalism, and ultimately a different kind of society based on workers’ control.

The Egyptian middle classes, on the other hand, such as the employees of the state bureaucracy and small businesspeople, have a stake in democracy and stability; they don’t want to face arbitrary beatings by regime goons, but their jobs may also be at risk if the state machinery is dissolved, or tourism dries up, or their workers strike. Mohammed el-Baradei, the former UN official, and Wael Ghoneim, the Google manager who some TV outlets are treating as the face of the revolution, seem to represent these groups. They opposed Mubarak and support democracy, but are far from socialist or even anti-imperialist. And both men have indicated they may be willing to compromise with the country’s military rulers if that is what is needed to keep order.

On February 10, Mubarak’s last full day, el-Baradei tweeted, “Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now.” He is now calling for a slow, one-year transition to civilian rule. Ghoneim has met with the military junta now ruling the country, along with an unaccountable handful of others, and on February 13, after military police had cleared demonstrators out of Tahrir Square the night before, he tweeted, “I am in Tahrir Square and can't believe the scene. Its amazingly clean!”

As the situation develops, we can expect that some protest leaders of this type will be pulled to the right and away from the revolution, while others will be pulled to the left and radicalized.

We can see something similar happening with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest organized opposition group, which has a base among the poor but a middle-class leadership. Its leadership has been cautious and conservative, while its activists on the street have been pulled into struggle by events - as well as an conscious effort to involve them by parts of the left. This dynamic has been at work for years but was on display again in January as the organization endorsed the protests only after the first seemed successful.

The Egyptian army, too, has internal class divisions. The generals are a major part of the ruling class - many of them are capitalists in their own right, managing army-owned industries. The rank-and-file, often conscripted, are part of the working class. Junior officers, like other mid-level state officials, are caught in between. Liberal commentators in the US have often been mystified by the army’s seeming paralysis. An article in Time even gave credit for the army’s restraint to its officers’ training in the US (too bad that’s never worked in Latin America). But if you understand that the ordinary soldiers have no interest in common with the military as an institution, it’s easy to see why the generals wouldn’t want to give orders that might not be obeyed.

The protesters very wisely made a systematic effort to befriend the soldiers who were deployed around the demonstrations. However, according to reporters on the ground, there is a real reverence for the army among many ordinary Egyptians, which is a danger. The experience of Portugal, where the military initially led the revolution but would only take it so far, provides a warning here, and that of Chile, where a military coup undid the revolution and murdered 30,000 activists, an even darker one

The generals, like the rest of the ruling class, were happy with Mubarak, until the point where his attempt to stay in office seemed like more of a threat to the regime than did a coup against him. The capitalists can be forced into confusion and made to turn on their own representatives by popular struggle. Of course, if they will fight each other, they will certainly be willing to murder even those representatives of the working class who abandon their own class interests in an attempt to appease capital, as they did Allende in Chile.

A quick note on Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, etcetera. These are obviously very useful tools. But the revolution continued and grew stronger during a full week when the entire Internet was shut down. Organization in physical space was decisive. The people who give credit for the revolution in Egypt to Western technology companies are putting out condescending, racist bullshit.

What’s going to happen going forward? Given the political forces on the ground in Egypt, we can’t say socialism is the most likely the outcome. But we can’t know what will happen. There could be a dramatic advance, if not to socialism than at least to a really independent democracy, or the old ruling class could ultimately survive more or less intact.

In Chile in ‘73, the revolution was drowned in blood. In France in ‘68, a great upheaval had a lasting cultural impact but led to no change in the basic political economy of the country. In Iran in ‘79, the old ruling class with its ties to Western imperialists was overthrown, only to be replaced by a new and equally vicious ruling class using Islam as cover. Likewise in Poland in the ‘80s, the movement was first defused and then turned towards a “liberalization” that benefited only those at the top. In Portugal in ‘75, fascism was defeated for good, but the historically new society that might have been remained just a glimpse - as in South Africa, with the overthrow of apartheid, and right now in Venezuela.

In a revolutionary situation, very little is certain and nothing stands still. Developments are hugely compressed, maybe even more in the electronic era, but process can still be years-long. Radicalization can swing to reaction and back again repeatedly. And no gain for our side is safe while state power is still in their hands.

In France, the Stalinized Communist Party and trade union bureaucracy were the only forces that could end the general strike. But shortly thereafter, they were decisively defeated in a general election, with their supporters demoralized and waverers seeing no left path forward. In Chile, the initially very threatening bosses’ strike lead by the truckers led to an upsurge of working-class organization, in the cordones, the workers’ councils. Allende and the reformists calmed things down, with the aim of “consolidation”. But that just gave the capitalists time to regroup, and the demobilized workers could not stop a coup. The workers of Iran defeated the Shah. The state power in the hands of the clerics started out as mostly symbolic, while the worker’s shoras filled the vacuum. But the left did not guide the working class towards a struggle for power, and the clerics made their power real.


There are real barriers in the way of Egypt becoming a civilian democracy or obtaining real independence from the US, let alone in the way of it going socialist. But each barrier is at the same time an impetus for the revolution to develop to the next level. When their current methods fail, people turn to more radical ones, if given the opportunity.

In Egypt, there have already been dramatic swings. After the initial protests on January 25, people have gone from terror as Mubarak appeared to be preparing a massacre on February 2, to euphoria as his resignation was announced on the 11th.

There is no dual power as yet. Egypt has no equivalent to the shoras or cordones or soviets, the alternative structures which have developed in every workers’ revolution in parallel and eventually in opposition to the capitalist state.

However, the Egyptians have proved their capacity for both creativity and self-organization. We have seen Christian-Muslim solidarity emerge in the face of old hostility, with followers of each religion guarding the backs of the others as they prayed in the streets. We have seen incredible organization develop overnight, as neighborhood watch committees arose across the country and established checkpoints to prevent looting when Mubarak’s strategy was to associate the revolution with chaos and criminality, and as liberated Tahrir Square developed barricades with shifts, then field clinics, then kitchens and a system for sharing satellite phones.

Lenin described revolution as “the festival of the oppressed”. We’ve seen that in a more literal sense than he meant it in Egypt, with a near continual dance party in Tahrir in the midst of periodic battles. Socialist Worker has published some eyewitness reporting by Mostafa Omar and Ahmed Shawki which gives a great sense of the scene there.

But even short of dual power, a different crucial kind of organization is still missing, if Egypt is going to see the kind of change that will really overcome poverty and tyranny in the lives of ordinary people. There is no mass party with both a revolutionary goal and the centralization and popular roots to seize the moment to drive through a transformation of society. It is one thing for the ruling class to abandon Mubarak’s government, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. If they are threatened as a class, enough will come together to fight for their existence, by whatever means necessary. Power will not fall into the hands of working people spontaneously; they will need to organize to take it.

The most influential single organization on the ground is still probably the Muslim Brotherhood. But so far it has shown no capacity for decisive action, and if the Muslim Brothers were to rule Egypt, that would be far from a liberated society. There are old, self-proclaimed left parties such as Tagammu, which includes the remnants of the Egyptian Communist Party. But these have been thoroughly corrupted and defanged by cooperation with Mubarak.

There is not much of an organized actual left in Egypt. There are the Revolutionary Socialists, an important group, but they are not a mass party, and have no established legal organization. Of course, something similar was true in Portugal in the ‘70s, while in Chile, France, Iran, and Poland, the left was dominated by Stalinists and social-democratic reformists. That did not prevent things from reaching the stage where the question of workers’ power was on the table, and in some cases tantalizingly close to becoming a reality.

Whether Egypt may come to that point is something we will have to see. But whatever country or region does next enter that sort of crisis, the outcome will not be predetermined, but will be historically subjective, dependent on the actions of individual people. And history allows us to be pretty confident that we won’t get rid of the horrendous system under which we live without the existence of a deeply rooted, consistently revolutionary mass party - which is something that might conceivably develop quickly, but might have to be built by a core of people committed through periods of upswing and downturn, over the long haul.

3 comments:

thepolicytensor said...

Excellent article. I was aware of the increasing frequency of industrial action but you really bring it into sharp relief. As usual, I have a few disagreements (what would we do if we agreed all the time).

Facebook maybe a Western technology but that does mean it didn't play a significant role. The entire initial mobilization in Egypt was on Facebook. And as you correctly point out, the existing organized political left is completely delegitimized and the Brotherhood did not jump in till it reached critical mass. Its not a stretch to claim that the revolt wouldn't have taken place without Facebook.

You end with saying a real revolution won't happen without a mass based party with a core cadre of committed activists, and that it can only be built over the long haul. This is a big mistake. The moment for mass organization is right now. Industrial activists ought to be forging links with the connected urban youth who were at the forefront of this revolt. They should create a credible political front that can take power in the coming election. What we really need is a secular, liberal, progressive, pro-working class party that can win and reverse the neoliberal reforms. I think they get it, which makes me hopeful.

Kal said...

Thanks.

I don't want to deny that Facebook & similar sites are very valuable tools or that they played an important role. I just think it's also important to push back against some of the hype - around Facebook/Twitter & also around Gene Sharp for example - that implicitly denies agency or creativity to Egyptians.

I actually don't say that a revolutionary party can only be built over the long haul. I say that it needs to be built, and that maybe it can only be built over the long haul, but that it "might conceivably develop quickly", and I think it's pretty clear that I think that's an urgent task right now. But it's hard to build a party, and it's especially hard to build one capable of handling ups and downs without the opportunity for its cadre to experience things together. Think the Bolsheviks in 1917 versus the Spartacists in 1919. It's absolutely something Egyptians should work towards. However, talking soberly, it's possible that we might look back in five years and say that the Egyptian revolution couldn't triumph because the left wasn't organized and mature enough going in. And the practical implication of that for us in the US is that we shouldn't wait for a revolution here before we start organizing...

Anonymous said...

RE: Facebook/Twitter etc. Facebook doesn't start revolutions. If it was only that easy! Technological developments under capitalism make it easier for people to organize and disseminate ideas. In Marx & Lenin's time it was the newspaper, the printed press. A little later it was TV & Radio, although these were quickly privatized and became inaccessible to public control (except for the few public access channels that no one watches). The internet and all the social networking tools on the other hand have so far been unregulated and in the hands of the people (so to speak). While Facebook/Twitter accelerated the revolutionary process and made it easier to coordinate protests, it's ludicrous to think the revolution wouldn't have happened without them. The whole article here points to the dynamics that led to this, that wouldn't change if Facebook disappeared tomorrow.