While sitting idly in jury duty over the past couple of days, it began to dawn on me that events in Egypt provide an excellent case study for evaluation of different hypotheses I’ve seen advanced on the Marxism list and other left-oriented listservs over the past decade or so. (Please excuse the way I have phrased this. This is a function of serving as a sounding board for my wife as she pursued her dissertation for the better part of this same period.)
These are the points that I will be covering in this post in the light of ongoing events in Egypt:
1. Does economic crisis lead to revolutionary upsurges? Why did Egypt erupt now rather than at some other time in the past 30 years or so? What is the relationship between mass suffering and mass protest?
2. Mass action versus bold “exemplary” actions. What is the difference between the battle over Tahrir Square and breaking Starbucks windows?
3. What will lead to fascist bids for power? What conditions could have led to the attack on Tahrir Square, which comes straight of the Nazi Party’s cookbook? Why are such attacks so unlikely in the U.S. now?
4. Was the left wrong to emphasize political Islam as the most likely expression of radical politics in the Middle East?
5. Given the contacts between key activists in Egypt and the American State Department, can we assume that the U.S. is orchestrating events from behind the scenes as was the case in “color revolutions” of the recent past?
6. Does Egypt need a revolutionary party? If so, how can it be built?
Does economic crisis lead to revolutionary upsurges?
The answer to this is yes but with lots of qualifications. In 1929, the American economy collapsed in a way that had not been seen in the past. The normal expectation is that high unemployment would have led to a massive upsurge but the actual outcome for several years was despair and paralysis.
The initial challenges to the system took a good half-decade as momentum grew for the industrial organizing drive in steel, auto, teamsters and other key sectors of the American economy. As workers saw their brothers and sisters achieving breakthroughs, they were inspired to take action themselves.
This in effect is what has happened in the Middle East. Tunisia inspired Egyptians to take action, helped in part by a number of powerful actions against the Mubarak government that were centered in working class communities and that prepared the way for the great explosion this month.
The scorched earth policies of the world bourgeoisie starting in the early 1970s with the triumph of Pinochet and that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union have put working people on the defensive and the organized left feeling impotent. In other words, we have been going through a long retreat similar to that of the immediate post-1929 period. Except for the Bolivarian revolution in Latin America, the ruling class has been on the offensive, not us.
That has begun to change in a major way. While the economic suffering has been something of a constant for close to 40 years, the political response has been muted especially in the industrialized countries. But once a spark ignites dry brush, a mighty flame can ensue. While it would be foolish for me to try to predict the future, it should be clear from what is happening in Egypt today that history can experience what Stephen Jay Gould called punctuated equilibrium. Or as Lenin once put it: “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” (Cited in a Counterpunch article on Egypt by Esam Al-amin.) by In biology, this entails rapid change occurring against a backdrop of long periods of stability. In politics, it amounts to the kind of deep-going radicalization that led to the Russian Revolution, the class battles of the 1930s, and what historians call “the sixties” even though it lasted well into the seventies. My gut tells me that something like this is in the offing.
The battle for Tahrir Square versus breaking Starbucks windows
There has been a most unfortunate tendency among young “anti-globalization” activists or anarchists (obviously there is a big overlap) to romanticize confrontations over control of a fence, violence directed against corporate targets like a bank or Starbucks, or anything that smacks of barricade battles. Such “militancy” is seen as more revolutionary than peaceful protests such as the kind that have in every single case been the intention of trade unionists, NGO’s or other constituencies anxious to put a halt to neoliberal trade treaties or other policies favoring the rich.
A careful study of the unfolding events in Egypt leads to one and only conclusion, namely that the masses prefer to express themselves through massive, peaceful demonstrations. The spectacle of a million anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square is much more revolutionary than any bold or violent action taken by a small and determined minority. Those who have reached anti-capitalist conclusions are best advised to study ways in which they can serve as a catalyst in bringing out such huge numbers of people.
When the masses pour into the streets in such a fashion, they will inevitably encounter counter-revolutionary violence, however. Although the battle for Tahrir Square might have superficial resemblances to “black block” confrontations with the police over the past 10 years or so, there is a key difference. The Tahrir Square militants are fighting for the right to assemble peaceably not to show how tough they are.
They understand that it is through ever-increasingly massive demonstrations involving the bedrock of society that the army will either be neutralized or won over to the revolution. In essence, the mass demonstration is a way to convince fence sitters that they should join the revolution. That is why Mubarak wants to crush the protests. They undermine his authority and that of the Egyptian ruling class.
The most class-conscious elements of the mass movement, what might be called its vanguard, has always understood that violence is necessary but only when it is understood and supported by their social base. The vanguard also understands the need for defensive formulations, tactics that always put the revolutionaries in the position of defending the kind of liberties enshrined in the American Bill of Rights. When Mubarak’s mobs try to drive people from Tahrir Square, it is the right and obligation of fighters for social change to defend the right of assembly even if requires Molotov cocktails to enforce it.
Where does the fascist threat come from?
As I have tried to explain over the years, there was absolutely no fascist threat in the U.S. under Republican presidents, our versions of Hosni Mubarak. While there is very little difference in the way that George W. Bush and Mubarak see the world, Bush would have never sent thousands of his supporters in buses armed with clubs and guns to break up a peace demonstration in 2003. This is not to speak of the unlikely prospects of such violence being directed against working people in the U.S. who have not mounted a serious challenge to capitalist rule since the mid-1970s.
In the face of a massive movement to remove him from power, Mubarak dispatched his police who proved inadequate to the task of forcing hundreds of thousands of demonstrators off the street. In a very real sense, the only force capable of achieving such an objective is the army but given the social ties of soldiers at the lower ranks to the urban and rural poor, it is a risk that can backfire.
That led Mubarak to mobilize what amounts to a paramilitary made up of his party members and bureaucrats with a vested interest in the status quo. They were whipped into a frenzy by Mubarak’s top lieutenants and ordered to go to Tahrir Square and beat the protesters into submission. Such fights took place all throughout the Weimar Republic and were key to Hitler’s rise to power. Even though Mubarak’s thugs were seeking to preserve a reactionary government rather than put one into power, the logic is the same: use brute force to intimidate your enemies on the other side of the class divide.
In the U.S., there is no Tahrir Square that the tea party or other reactionary forces need to attack. The good news in essence is that we are safe for the time being from broken bones or a bullet to the head. The bad news is dialectically related to the good news. In the absence of an insurgent working class, there is no need to organize paramilitaries that seek to break the power of a proletarian and revolutionary mass movement.
What role will political Islam play in the Middle East?
In a December 9, 2007 article titled “Anti-Americans on the March,” the Wall Street Journal reported:
Some of Hezbollah’s biggest fans are in Europe. There, the hard left, demoralized by the collapse of communism, has found new energy, siding with Islamist militants in Lebanon, in Iraq and in a wider campaign against what they see as an American plot to impose unrestrained free-market capitalism.
“We are all Hezbollah now,” read posters carried through London this summer during an antiwar protest march. Earlier, London Mayor Ken Livingston, once known as “Red Ken,” invited a controversial Egyptian cleric to the British capital, arguing that his views have been distorted by the West.
You can only assume that such a “hard left” must have been based more on empiricism than historical materialism. In a few short years, the star of political Islam has lost a lot of its luster. When the U.S. in Iraq bought off the Sunni militias, the balloon deflated almost immediately.
There are obvious exceptions to this tendency, most pronounced in the online publication MRZine that effectively functions as editor Yoshie Furuhashi’s blog. Most recently she has chosen to post an article that claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is playing an “important role in this revolution.” While the author of the article describes himself as a leftist with not much in common with the brotherhood ideologically, such a statement in isolation from more critical analyses gives this religious-political sect respect it ill deserves.
Virtually every report on the brotherhood, except of course from screwballs like Glenn Beck who want to turn it into a handmaiden of global Marxism in order to frighten his viewers in East Jesus, Nebraska into joining the local tea party, describes it as irrelevant. An op-ed in today’s NY Times by anthropologist Scott Atran puts it pretty well:
…the Brotherhood did not arrive at this historical moment with the advantage of wide public favor. Such support as it does have among Egyptians — an often cited figure is 20 percent to 30 percent — is less a matter of true attachment than an accident of circumstance: the many decades of suppression of secular opposition groups that might have countered it. The British, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat all faced the same problem that Hisham Kaseem, a newspaper editor and human rights activist, described playing out under Mr. Mubarak. “If people met in a cafe and talked about things the regime didn’t like, he would just shut down the cafe and arrest us,” Mr. Kaseem said. “But you can’t close mosques, so the Brotherhood survived.”
If Egyptians are given political breathing space, Mr. Kaseem told me, the Brotherhood’s importance will rapidly fade. “In this uprising the Brotherhood is almost invisible,” Mr. Kaseem said, “but not in America and Europe, which fear them as the bogeyman.”
Was the State Department behind the movement to overthrow Mubarak?
I have enormous respect for William Blum, the author of two books on American foreign policy I consider essential, but I part ways with him in his anti-Empire piece on developments in Egypt. Blum writes:
In July of 1975 I went to Portugal because in April of the previous year a bloodless military coup had brought down the US-supported 48-year fascist regime of Portugal, the world’s only remaining colonial power. This was followed by a program centered on nationalization of major industries, workers control, a minimum wage, land reform, and other progressive measures. Military officers in a Western nation who spoke like socialists was science fiction to my American mind, but it had become a reality in Portugal…
Washington and multinational corporate officials who were on the board of directors of the planet were indeed concerned… In 1976 the “Socialist” Party (scarcely further left and no less anti-communist than the US Democratic Party) came to power, heavily financed by the CIA, the Agency also arranging for Western European social-democratic parties to help foot the bill. The Portuguese revolution was dead, stillborn.
The events in Egypt cannot help but remind me of Portugal. Here, there, and everywhere, now and before, the United States of America, as always, is petrified of anything genuinely progressive or socialist, or even too democratic, for that carries the danger of allowing god-knows what kind of non-America-believer taking office.
Ever since the Balkan Wars, many leftists have understandably fallen victim to a kind of mechanical anti-imperialism in which politics is reduced to looking for clues of American support for dissidents overseas. While there is no question that such a methodology works well for Yugoslavia, Lebanon, or Georgia, it cannot do proper justice to the movement against Ahmadinejad in Iran or against Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Imperialism, for its own reasons, will often place money on a horse. It will also place money on two different horses in the same race, in an effort to hedge its bets. Considering how Goldman-Sachs routinely doles out millions to Democrats and Republicans alike in the same presidential race, this should not come as any surprise.
If you are looking for “proof” that the U.S. is orchestrating events in Egypt to bring Mubarak down, one needs go no farther than an article in the dreadful Daily Beast, a repository of inside-the-beltway thinking second to none. There you will find an article by The State Department’s School for Revolutionary Bloggers by Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio who reports:
In December 2008, a prominent Egyptian opposition activist walked through the crowded airport in Cairo. When packing, he had been careful not to leave any evidence of where he was going among his belongings, and in the departure hall, he walked up to a security desk and told the guard to search him. “I am on your watch list,” he said. “So please get this over with so I don’t miss my plane.”
Three days later, the Egyptian sat in a room on the campus of Columbia’s Law School in Upper Manhattan, listening to presentations from three key staffers from Barack Obama’s social media team: Joe Rospars, Scott Goodstein and Sam Graham-Felsen. Given that the three had just helped the first black man get elected U.S. president, there was a buzz in the air. After all, the three staffers represented the revolutionary potential of new social media tools, and, as Graham-Felsen puts it now, their speeches revolved around how to give “ordinary people the power to connect.”
In the last week, since the eruption of protests in Egypt and the release of more State Department cables by Wikileaks, much has been made of this 2008 meeting, and how it points to “America’s secret backing” of Egyptian “rebel leaders.”
While all sides involved have an interest in either downplaying or emphasizing the political significance of the summit, this was hardly a covert effort. For one thing, organizers openly advertised the summit’s program as well as its keynote speakers who, in addition to Obama’s young social media staff and an outgoing official from George W. Bush’s State Department, also included Whoopi Goldberg, the ABC morning show host—and an unlikely person to invite, if the organizers wanted to fly underneath the radar. (At the time, the conference organizers did protect the activist’s identity to guard against retribution from Egypt’s police state.)
Although the NGO that organized the summit—the Alliance for Youth Movements—did receive funding from the State Department, the event was squarely focused on the power of social media and other connective technology like SMS as an organizing tool—and carried no one particular political agenda, beyond “pushing against repression, oppression, and violent extremism,” according to Stephanie Rudat, a cofounder of AYM.
Now, one can only ask oneself what matters more in power politics. Training in social media or the billions of dollars in military aid that Egypt receives each year? I almost feel idiotic posing the question.
The least that can be said is that these Egyptian youth only met with people like Whoopi Goldberg. Thank goodness they didn’t meet with the CIA that William Blum frets so much about. They might turn out like this legendary tool of American foreign policy:
“I had most contact with what was the civil resistance movement,” Chapman says. “They formed a group to support the revolutionaries, and I had very good contact with them. And I occasionally had contact with the underground itself, the 26th of July Movement. It was great because there was action taking place at all times.”
Some writers have alleged that Chapman covertly aided Castro and his followers, even that he personally directed $50,000 in CIA funds to the rebel group.
Chapman vigorously denies such allegations, saying he was suspicious of Castro and dutifully reported that the Cuban had Communist connections. But Chapman says the CIA officer who immediately preceded him in Santiago, Bill Patterson, was indeed sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, and says he doesn’t rule out the possibility that Patterson may have given Castro’s movement some material support.
The crisis of leadership
Although I no longer consider myself a Trotskyist, events unfolding in Egypt strike me as close in spirit to those described by Leon Trotsky in “History of the Russian Revolution” despite all the obvious differences. This is a book that I read during the May-June events in France 1968. If you have never read Trotsky’s classic, this is a perfect time to do so since they will illuminate today’s events to an amazing degree, starting with this brief passage:
Throughout the entire day, crowds of people poured from one part of the city to another. They were persistently dispelled by the police, stopped and crowded back by cavalry detachments and occasionally by infantry. Along with shouts of “Down with the police!” was heard oftener and oftener a “Hurrah!” addressed to the Cossacks. That was significant. Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones, and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers. Around the barracks, sentinels, patrols and lines of soldiers stood groups of working men and women exchanging friendly words with the army men. This was a new stage, due to the growth of the strike and the personal meeting of the worker with the army. Such a stage is inevitable in every revolution. But it always seems new, and does in fact occur differently every time: those who have read and written about it do not recognise the thing when they see it.
As a leader of the Russian Revolution, he came away from it with a passionate conviction that a vanguard party was necessary. He understood that if the ruling class has the police, army, bureaucracy, and state apparatus in general at its disposal, the working class needs a centralized political instrument to counter the bosses. If the struggle is dispersed geographically, culturally and politically, it has little chance of succeeding.
What Trotsky did not grasp was the way in such a party is built. He assumed, as most Bolsheviks leaders did, that it was sufficient to adopt a kind of blueprint through the Comintern that could be applied on a worldwide basis. In the hands of Stalin, such a methodology became an instrument of bureaucratic and counter-revolutionary control. In the hands of the Trotskyists, it became a recipe for sectarian disaster.
In actuality, a revolutionary party can only be built out of a mass movement, such as the kind that has been developing in Egypt for some years apparently. It will be necessary for those who struggle on behalf of the working class and against the corrupt, neoliberal state to find a way to unite on the basis of a common denominator that puts extraneous doctrinal matters to the side. Indeed, this task might be the most necessary and demanding since the formation of the Bolshevik party itself.