Marxism and the Arab revolutions

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 12 March 2011

Revolution is back on the agenda. The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in early January and then a month later, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, after decades of what seemed like insurmountable repression, dramatically demonstrated that revolution is the surest way to win social change. It is also the way to debunk the hypocrisy and racist ignorance of politicians and commentators in the West. Just two weeks before the revolution began in Tunisia, The Economist in Britain ran an article titled “Arab democracy: A commodity still in short supply”. It concluded “Most people are inured to authoritarian rule as a fact of life.”[1] By March, mass movements across the region from Morocco to Oman, Syria and Jordan, and even Iraq, all clamouring for democracy and decent living conditions, confirmed the inspirational impact of revolution. Every regime was offering reforms and dedicating billions of dollars for wage increases and job creation to try to save their own skins. But in country after country the masses, once aroused, refused to believe them and continued to demand they step down.

The most basic Marxist proposition – that the interests of the capitalist class are irrevocably counterposed to the interests of the vast majority – is dramatically confirmed. Pictures of massive crowds standing up for fundamental human rights flickering around the globe are something any decent person feels an affinity with. On 26 February at a 100,000-strong demonstration against an anti-union bill in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, a man held up a poster with a picture of Mubarak beside Republican Governor Scott Walker. The caption read: “One dictator down. One to go.” At the same time the stock markets were shivering in fright, business pages worrying about the “worsening” situation every time a new revolt sprang to life. As I write, the stock markets are falling as those who benefit from US support for the repressive Saudi regime watch in horror as protesters confront riot police. What is good for one side is inevitably bad for the other.

Revolution does not only shine an illuminating light on society, however. It also puts political theories to the test. And like all revolutions, the Arab rebellions have put Marxism firmly back on the agenda. This might not be self-evident. The crowds are not holding pictures of Marx and Engels or any other Marxist leader. They are not promoting the ideas of socialism. All manner of respectable commentators have sung the praises of the revolutions. Journalists who witnessed the potential for collective solidarity and the organising genius of protesters setting up committees for cleaning, provision of food and medical care, keeping order, seem at times quite exhilarated by the experience. Whatever anyone makes of these developments, the truth is they illustrate the fundamental conception which constitutes the heart and soul of Marxism: that in struggle masses of people can develop a sense of their own power, develop unforeseen creative and organisational abilities, and build their confidence. Witness the exuberance, the sense of pride in their achievements on the faces of people mobilising in the streets for peaceful protests, but also where they have fought bitter battles such as in Libya. And they want us to know about their experience, they sense they are involved in world-shattering events. Think of the placards in English for the world media. Notice how many of the activists look not at the journalist asking questions, but address themselves directly to the camera. A young man holding a rifle he hardly knew how to use was all smiles as he left on a truck to fight Gaddafi’s much better armed and trained forces. Speaking to unknown millions around the globe, he declared, “I’ve never been so happy, we’re fighting for freedom!”

The changes effected by revolution are talked about around the world because those who witness them are astonished. ABC correspondent Ben Knight reported on radio the experience his media team had on entering Libya from Egypt. In this state where international media had virtually no right of entry for the last 40 years, they crossed the border and found the old, repressive bureaucracy in Tobruk had melted away. Two men chatting on a couple of chairs welcomed them, took a cursory look at their passports and whistled for a truck to come and take them where they wanted to go. And cars were streaming across the border from Egypt with food and whatever aid people could bring for the rebels. Even in Egypt, where cities are not under the complete control of the masses, whole aspects of state control have disappeared. Before the revolution it could take ten hours for a media team to get through customs with all their cameras and other gear, and then they didn’t know if they’d be allowed entry. Since the revolution they have been greeted with huge smiles by customs officials who declared “we’re a free country now” and let them through with a minimum of fuss. So we see glimpses of what society could be like if it was truly under workers’ control.

Marxism is distinguished from all other political theories and philosophies by the fact that these experiences are integral to our whole concept of how society can be fundamentally changed. Most theories of revolution are based on the assumption that people are indelibly shaped by education and the social circumstances propagated by the ruling class. The corollary is that the masses, either duped or repressed or both, will remain passive until circumstances change. This means they need to be freed by some elite who stand above the masses and manipulate the political and social system for the benefit of those below. Perhaps the masses can be induced to protest by such an elite, who see their job as one of education, but the role of the masses is to clear the way for a new elite to take the place of those brought down by the protesters. In the Theses on Feuerbach Marx broke sharply with these assumptions and took the first step towards the profoundly revolutionary idea that the masses are capable of self-emancipation. In Thesis III he poses the problem and answers it:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice.[2]

In other words, people change themselves as they struggle to change society. Engels emphasised what a vital step this was. It provided the philosophical underpinning for his and Marx’s revolutionary ideas. He described the Theses as “the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook”.[3] Marx made this philosophical break with Hegelianism and the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment after his experience amongst French and German workers, observing their political development and their striving for political understanding. The critical turning point was his observations of the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844. By a dialectical synthesis of his analysis of capitalism and his experience of the workers’ struggles he laid the basis for his and Engels’ theory of self-emancipation which was more fully developed in The German Ideology:

The revolution is necessary, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.[4]

That’s why Engels said that Marxism is “the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat”.[5] It’s why Lenin argued in State and Revolution:

Those who recognise only the class struggle are not yet Marxists. To confine Marxism to the doctrine of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something which is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the [political rule] of the proletariat.[6]

The Arab revolutions challenge every rotten aspect of capitalist ideology. Take the sectarian religious divisions which have wracked Egypt at times, with Copts (Christians) suffering murderous attacks. In Tahrir Square the divisions were overcome as the common goal of fighting for democracy took hold. Copts defended Muslims at their prayers from attack, and joint prayers of Copts and Muslims were held.

Take the position of women. Even some activists on the left in Western society have refused to defend the rights of women to wear Muslim clothing such as the hijab and the niqab.[7] They have argued that this form of dress makes women simply subordinate to men, unable to play an equal role. And just as in all capitalist societies, women are oppressed. Nevertheless women, veiled and unveiled, have played a prominent role in all the activities. One of my favourite images was of a young woman wearing a hijab, clutching a rock almost too big for her hand. She faced the cameras and threatened that if Mubarak’s thugs returned, they’d cop it! We’ve seen women giving speeches, leading chants, doing interviews with the international media, arguing, disputing, organising alongside men. We’ve heard their stories of how they felt safe from sexual violence for the first time among the masses in the square. Activist and blogger Mona Seif commented, “There was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.”[8] The old, oppressive attitudes were pushed aside by the desire for solidarity in the struggle. Abdul Latif, a 27 year old secular writer, chatting with religious women with only their eyes showing as they drew revolutionary posters, said to a journalist:

I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that we would be talking to a munaqaba [meaning a woman in a full veil] in Tahrir Square. A secular artist is having a political debate with a fully veiled lady and having a meaningful conversation. What’s the world coming to?[9]

Every chronicler of revolutions has remarked on the joyful atmosphere, the rapid advance in political consciousness, the explosion of creativity and organisational capacities of masses of people once they move into action. Lenin argued:

Revolutions are a festival of the oppressed and exploited. At no other time are the masses of people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress.[10]

Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish revolutionary, said of her experience in the mass strikes which swept the Russian empire during 1905 that the most important thing was not the considerable material gains, but the spiritual advances of the workers. Antonio Gramsci, observing mass occupations of the factories in Italy in 1921, wrote:

It was really necessary to see with one’s own eyes old workers, who seemed broken down by decades upon decades of oppression and exploitation, stand upright even in a physical sense during the period of the occupation – see them develop fantastic activities: suggesting, helping, always active day and night. It was necessary to see these and other sights, in order to be convinced how limitless the latent powers of the masses are, and how they are revealed and develop swiftly as soon as the conviction takes root among the masses that they are the arbiters and masters of their own destinies.[11]

Compare this with what the American socialist Ahmed Shawki wrote about his experience in Tahrir Square in February:

[Egypt is] a society where the feeling of any kind of pride in being an Arab or an Egyptian is something that was lost a very long time ago. It was crushed out of people as a result of the peace with Israel on the one hand, neoliberalism on the other hand, the servile relationship of the Mubarak regime to the US on a third.

So this is one of the most spectacular aspects of what’s happened in Egypt, as in Tunisia and as in democratic revolutions historically – the return of a sense of pride. This also comes, remember, after September 11 and the war on terror, which brought with it the demonization of Arabs and Muslims around the world.

You can see just in the way people comport themselves that people have new expectations for their future.[12]

The revolutions sweeping the Arab world are not unique, and so we can learn much from previous experience that is relevant. Revolutionary movements since Marx’s day have all been similar to what we are witnessing today. Most revolutions have begun with the sense that the whole nation, apart from the most hated members of the ruling class, are united in the desire for a new order. However, this unity cannot last. The more respectable, middle class participants, once dictators fall, begin to yearn for business as usual. But for the advances made in the first phase to continue and to be built on, the revolution needs to be deepened, not settled down. And this raises political challenges for the movement.

In the first great conflict between the modern working class and the capitalist class, this lesson was learned. In February 1848, bourgeois, middle class and proletarian forces joined in a revolution against the French monarchy of Louis Philippe. This included a wide spectrum of political programs. The bourgeois republicans, as Marx put it, “wanted to keep the whole of the old bourgeois order, but remove the crowned head”. On the other hand, “What the people instinctively hated in Louis Philippe was not the man himself but the crowned rule of a class, capital on the throne.” They toppled the monarch and a French National Assembly based on universal male suffrage was established. But by June, this “beautiful revolution, the revolution of universal sympathy”, had turned into a civil war of the upper and middle classes against the workers. The former had begun to realise that the workers made the revolution not only for democracy, but to improve their own living standards. The workers suffered a bloody defeat as the capitalists turned on them under the battle cry of the need for “order”. Marx’s bitter words echo across the century and a half between us as a terrible warning against illusions in the respectable bourgeois and middle classes:

Fraternité”, the brotherhood of opposing classes, one of which exploits the other, this “fraternité” was proclaimed in February and written in capital letters on the brow of Paris, on every prison, on every barracks. But its true, genuine prosaic expression is civil war in its most terrible form, is the war between labour and capital… on the evening of 25 June the Paris of the bourgeoisie was illuminated, while the Paris of the proletariat burned, bled and moaned in its death agony.[13]

Louis Blanc and other moderates in the working class movement, sitting in the National Assembly, supporting reform measures which did not grant the rights and conditions the working class had fought for, helped sow confusion, doubt and divisions in the working class. In 1848, workers had no model to learn from. They were thrown into disarray when their former allies turned on them. In the twenty-first century, workers can learn from this history and prepare to fight independently for their own rights. The Russian revolution of 1917 confirmed the role of so-called moderates who do not unequivocally stand for workers taking control over society. The Mensheviks and the right wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries, who led the Provisional Government that was set up in February, proclaimed their revolutionary credentials. But they wanted to continue the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the trenches of the First World War.. And by November they had joined the counter-revolution. Victor Serge, the libertarian socialist, condemns them as “the socialists of counter-revolution”. These “moderates” denounced the “extremism” of the Bolsheviks. But their moderation turned to fury when the workers took power in October as the Bolsheviks were urging. They declared “all methods are good” in the fight to destroy the first workers’ revolutionary government in history.

The counter-revolutionary democrats made wise use of a ruthless weapon…the systematic sabotage of all enterprises serving the general population (food supplies, public services etc.). From its outset the war of classes broke the conventional mould of what is permissible in war.[14]

Serge called this the “tragic moral collapse” of the moderate socialists. But the experience of revolutions from 1848 to this day warns us that this was not a unique, simply moral failing. It was the logic of class conflict. Those who do not support workers’ rule, when the capitalists and their middle class backers go on the offensive to restore “order” and a “return to normality”, invariably side with the counter-revolution. At best these moderates play a disorganising role which lays the basis for a capitalist victory and workers’ defeat. In Poland in 1981, the working class, organised in its revolutionary trade union Solidarnosc, accepted the leadership of intellectuals who urged them to only carry out a “self-limiting” revolution. This caused hesitations, doubts and disarray in the face of the Stalinist state’s counter-offensive. It laid the basis for a dreadful defeat at the hands of General Jaruzelski, who installed a military dictatorship over the dead bodies of workers. The experience of these kinds of treachery by middle class radicals and moderates in the workers’ movement are too numerous to recount here. But these examples are typical and provide a guide for revolutionary movements to this day: the independent organisation of the working class and a continuing struggle for their rights is paramount.

In Egypt the respectable businessmen and middle class talked of an “orderly transition” to a new government made up of people like themselves as soon as Mubarak was forced to stand down. And their sentiments are shared by those of their class in the West. The Financial Times ran an article a few days after Mubarak’s fall headed “Strikers slow Egypt’s return to normality”. They quoted a businessman who had closed his factories during the protests in Tahrir Square: “[O]ur problem nowadays is workers…everybody has started to ask for his personal benefits and this is really starting to scare us.”[15] On the other hand the working class can lead a struggle for fundamental change, for a social revolution which would have to go much further than bringing down a government. This is in no way to denigrate the achievements of the masses in toppling two dictators and winning promises of reforms. Rather, it is to celebrate their revolutions as the first steps in a process which needs to continue. Their mass mobilisations, their determination and success in bringing down Ben Ali and Mubarak have opened the possibility of movements that can raise the question of human liberation – of socialism.

The working class is central

The role of the working class is key in taking the revolution further. Firstly, workers have power no other social class can wield, for the simple reason that they do all the work in society. The capitalists can’t maintain production, they can’t staff their banks, keep trade travelling through the Suez canal, nurse the sick, drive trains, spin cotton, weave textiles, produce oil or do any of the other basic jobs carried out by millions of workers. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined the mass street protests from the beginning, but it was when they began to act as a class with their own interests, i.e. when they began a wave of strikes, that the capitalists moved to force Mubarak to stand down. Days after the strikes began the dictator had fallen. In Tunisia, the rank and file of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) had to organise in spite of their officials, who had long-standing ties to the Ben Ali regime. And their determination forced the officials to back the actions of their members. The union played an important role in uniting employed and unemployed workers. Dyab Abou Jahjah explained the importance of the workers taking the lead:

[The UGTT] played the role of the momentum regulator and political indicator. It was clear that as long as the trade union kept on declaring strikes, the battle was on, and that was the signal to the people to stick to the streets.[16]

It has been the continuing strikes in both Tunisia and Egypt that have kept the regimes under pressure and kept alive a momentum for the movement, but they also sent a signal to the more respectable that the mass movement will not settle for a few political changes at the top. A Tunisian employer gave a sense of how much the movement was rattling capitalists there:

We are seeing everything nowadays. Workers who get rid of officials they don’t like, citizens who do not recognise any authority in court decisions and even a government which is not even capable of saying “no” to the streets.[17]

This pressure, which strikes at the very power of the capitalist class, brought further victories. Mohammed Ghannouchi, an accomplice of Ben Ali’s and head of the interim government set up after Ben Ali’s fall, was forced to resign. By March the movement in Egypt had made some important steps forward. Under pressure from strikes and ongoing street protests, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had dismissed the cabinet appointed by Mubarak in his last days. This, along with the storming of the offices of the State Security Apparatus (SSA) and the seizure of security documents, sent shock waves through the country. The removal of SSA officers from university campuses, ending their repression and stifling of academic freedoms after decades, indicated the pressure the army and the ruling class were under.

It’s not just the economic power of the working class which makes a struggle for socialism possible. The working class, organised in the workplaces, has the ability to reshape society. They can transform the organisation of production to provide for people’s needs. And since the end of the Tahrir Square occupation, you can see how the strikes go beyond a political change at the top and introduce elements of a social revolution. Take the demand for higher wages. This is not just an economic demand, separate from the revolution. It fuses economics and politics because it challenges the neoliberal agenda of the ruling class. The workers’ demands raise the question of popular control over production: that corrupt and hated bosses be sacked, that workers should have more say over the workplace. And bosses see the threat. Hisham Ramez, deputy central bank governor in Egypt, told the Financial Times: “We have made it clear we will discuss the employees’ benefits, but definitely they cannot choose which management they want, this is not open for discussion.”[18]

From the earliest days in Egypt we saw the creation of community organising committees to provide for the needs of people, running medical centres and keeping discipline at the protests. In Tunis bakers limited customers to five baguettes each to prevent hoarding by the better off. Fruit and vegetable sellers reflected the sense of solidarity and selflessness the revolution engenders. They put signs on their produce saying “Help yourself even if you don’t have money.”[19] They demonstrated the capacity for organisation people develop in revolutions. However, similar committees in the workplaces pose the question of who should determine how the most basic aspects of society are to be run. What should be produced, who should benefit, what conditions should workers have? This begins the process of building structures which could replace those which dominate our lives under capitalism, such as the market; it can challenge the very rule of the tiny minority of capitalist parasites. That’s why the respectable participants in the first stages of the revolution desperately want to see the end of the strikes. They want business as usual, and for workers to accept their place as people to be exploited for the sake of profits, not the organisers of production. The fundamental questions which confront the movement have not changed since the June days of 1848 in Paris.

Workers in revolutions during the twentieth century, from Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, to Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1973, Portugal in 1974-75, Poland 1980-81, showed how the basic organising in the workplaces can give rise to the kind of structures that could replace capitalist rule. They sent delegates to centralised workers’ councils (soviets in Russian, cordones in Spanish). Their delegates, unlike anything we see with our elected politicians, were accountable, working alongside those they represented. They could be replaced at any time if their electors disagreed with what they argued in the councils. These workers’ councils are the most democratic institutions ever seen since the rule of class societies began thousands of years ago. And they lay the basis for running society in the same democratic, collective way that workers organise to defend their rights, to go on strike, and now, to push the revolution forward.

So the organising in the workplaces, the demands of striking workers, are the first steps towards building a truly democratic society of human liberation – in other words, socialism. They just need to be developed further. They need to keep alive the involvement of the masses so that the gains so far are built on, so that the leaps in consciousness and self-confidence are developed to their full.

The role of the state

Marx concluded from his participation in the revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 (quite similar to what is happening in the Arab world today) that workers could not just take over the state apparatus and use it to build a better society, but would have to smashit. In March 1871 workers in Paris rose up in the world’s first workers’ revolution that took power. They established the Paris Commune which ruled from 28 March to 28 May. Marx wrote to a friend that his supporters’ arguments in Paris were based on his conclusions from 1848 which he’d summed up in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

The next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it [Marx’s italics] and this is the preliminary condition for every real people’s revolution.[20]

Then in 1917, during the Russian revolution, Lenin wrote his book State and Revolution, in which he restated Marx’s conclusions and developed them. He wrote: “The state is a special organisation of force; it is an organisation of violence for the suppression of some class.”[21] He recorded how Marx and Engels had revised the earlier Communist Manifesto in the light of the 1871 Paris Commune, because that experience had confirmed that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”,[22] but must break it up, smash it, if they are to build a new society free of exploitation and oppression.

So every revolutionary movement – indeed many movements far short of revolution – has to confront the violent forces of the state. Fraternisation with rank and file soldiers is something most movements instinctively attempt. They sense that the soldiers, unlike their officers, share many of the same conditions of life and therefore their grievances. Some of the most inspiring images of Russia in 1917 are from the February days when workers, often led by women, convinced the soldiers to defy their officers and join the revolution. But if soldiers are to defy their officers, they need to know the movement is determined and prepared to fight back if they are attacked. If the soldiers sense that the movement is likely to be defeated, they know what their fate will be if they have broken discipline. In Egypt it could mean ending up in Suleiman’s torture chambers, or being shot. The fact that in Egypt the early protests fought the riot police to a standstill and then routed Mubarak’s counter-revolutionary thugs when they attacked the masses in Tahrir Square showed the army that they risked an even more radical movement if they attacked. Instead the top generals chose to manoeuvre for the time being. The fact that the mass of people have fought courageously and determinedly in Libya has meant whole sections of the army, including officers, have joined the rebellion.

You can see how political theories are tested in revolution. Theories of non-violence have been popular in recent decades. Their proponents want to claim the Egyptian revolution as proof of the strength of their strategy. John Horgan claims in an article in Scientific American that “one of the most powerful, entrenched regimes in the world was toppled by a nonviolent uprising”. He quotes Gene Sharp, a non-violence proponent, as claiming that the Egyptian revolution was “the most powerful example of ‘people power’…in world history”.[23] There are many problems with these assertions. For one thing, inspiring as it is, Egypt is not the first popular movement to bring down a repressive regime. Secondly, there’s an assumption that there is some strict dividing line between “non-violent” mass movements and “violence”. Gene Sharp lists activities such as strikes, petitioning, sit downs, boycotts and non-cooperation as non-violent strategies.[24] The fact is, most mass movements begin with these kinds of activities; they are not some kind of wisdom arrived at by a philosophy of non-violence. The degree of violence depends on how the state responds. If a movement rejects the right to defend itself, then it is rejecting the possibility of victory unless the state is so weak it simply crumbles. It is an absolute denial of reality to paint the Egyptian events as proving the success of non-violence. They support the opposite conclusion. If protesters had not responded to first the riot police and then the non-uniformed thugs Mubarak sent against them, their movement would have been smashed. Sharp argues:

Nonviolent discipline is a key to success and must be maintained despite provocations and brutalities by the dictators and their agents.[25]

But in spite of his assertion that this is the way to success, he lightly dismisses the fact that yes, if the state responds violently, you can be defeated. Which reveals what is the real agenda here: one of abstract “principle”, not a strategy to change the world. Like all non-violent theorists Sharp prefers that the violence of the state prevails rather than protesters fight for a better world. He and other adherents of absolute non-violence have nothing of use to say to this doctor, speaking to the BBC from Misrata in Libya:

If we said no more fighting, who can stop this? Gaddafi will not stop this. If he occupies Misrata again he will kill everybody here.[26]

The Egyptian revolution was not non-violent as those like Horgan and Sharp and the Western media portray it. The state murdered over 400 protesters and injured thousands more. For now the army is holding back from using brutal violence, but the Marxist understanding of the state is important for those now facing the challenges of what to do next. The army has tried to end the strikes which have continued and widened since the end of the Tahrir Square occupation. The state of emergency has not been revoked at time of writing. Events of the weekend of 26 February, when army officers openly threatened to kill protesters in the Square, were a warning. The army attacked the crowds with force during the protests which stormed the SSA offices. The resolve and courage of the mass of protesters in countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, not non-violent strategies, have again and again taken the struggle forward in the face of state violence. This pattern has been repeated in every country. How could there be an opposition movement at all in Saudi Arabia where the regime moved to crack down to pre-empt protests; or in Iraq, swarming with US soldiers, if the protesters were not prepared to fight back?

The willingness to fight, to stand up to state violence, is critical at some points in a revolution. However, the key to fundamental change is not whether to be violent or not. That is only a tactical and strategic question depending on the balance of forces, the levels of violence meted out by the state, etc. The key question is the role of the working class; if workers take the lead in the revolution, they can deepen it, going beyond simply political changes to a genuine social revolution. While the need to take up arms is posed by the state, the economic and social power of the working class is the force needed to completely defeat the ruling class. If the 32 million living on less than $2 a day in Egypt are to see any justice, if all of the social and political injustices which drove people into the streets are to be addressed, this is the key.

“One world, one pain”

For decades the Marxist argument that revolution throughout the Arab world was possible has been dismissed as utopian rhetoric. Many former liberals dismissed the possibility of democracy and supported George W. Bush’s racist war in Iraq. Nevertheless, the reality of revolution has not meant that “the current of irrational thought that supports military occupation and murder in the name of virtue and decency”[27] has receded. As I write a chorus of liberal voices is urging the West to intervene in Libya in the name of a “humanitarian” solution to the brutality of Gaddafi. Liberal papers like The Age in Melbourne have editorialised in favour of intervention. Prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was given prime space for an opinion piece arguing the West could end Gaddafi’s slaughter.[28] The liberal action website enthusiastically campaigned for intervention. The naivety of their statements is mind boggling:

Enforcing a no-fly zone involves risks, but if it’s done correctly – without landing foreign troops on Libyan soil, and with utmost care for human life – then it could prevent tremendous bloodshed.[29]

Or is it naivety? For all their sentiments of humanitarianism, liberals do not aspire to a truly just society, but simply to a less barbarous capitalism. The alternative to intervention is to strengthen the revolutions that are happening so they can send aid on the basis of genuine solidarity and shared goals. This in itself is a threat to the ideal world of liberalism, raising as it does the spectre of a world not dominated by those who today are rich, powerful and respectable. If the Libyan rebels can win, they can show that even a strong state can be defeated, it can be an inspiration to other movements facing a violent state response to their struggle, and not just in the Arab world.

Whether liberals like it or not, revolution is now back on the agenda, and it has caused international reverberations. These revolutions have been compared to the popular uprisings which destroyed the Stalinist bloc of Eastern Europe and the USSR between 1989 and 1991. On the face of it, this is reasonable, but there is a crucial difference. The revolutions of 1989-91 were objectively a confirmation of Marxism in the way the Arab revolutions are. But this was not how they were perceived by millions participating in them or watching them on our TV screens. The fact that the states they rose up against had called themselves Communist, invoking Marxism as their ideology, obscured the true meaning of the movements. They were claimed by the West as anti-Communist revolutions in favour of the market. And it was true that masses of people in the Stalinist bloc had illusions that the market would be accompanied by democracy and the high living standards they could see in places like West Germany. The West hailed their victories as a triumph for free-market capitalism. Tragically, because of the strong influence of Stalinism, most of the Western left saw them in similar terms. Rather than building the left, and inspiring revolutionary organisations, the result of those revolutions was that much of the old left descended into demoralisation, fragmentation and a spiral of decline.

The Arab revolutions are clearly challenging that neoliberalism which was so triumphant in the early 1990s. They expose the brutality of capitalism with its torture chambers, its obscene wealth alongside mass poverty and misery. They expose the connivance of the imperialist nations with some of the world’s most vicious dictatorships. So while the first round has been aimed at removing dictators, we can see in the continuing strikes and demonstrations that they are much more than that. They are a rebellion against capitalism itself. They are happening at the same time as governments across Europe and the US are attacking workers’ living standards. Workers, students and the poor in Ireland, Britain, France, Italy and Greece have shown a capacity to resist these attacks. But nowhere has any working class made the kind of breakthrough we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt. However, the world crisis and the oppression it imposes on the mass of people has created fertile ground for the seeds of revolution to spread.

The alternative to the liberals’ bankruptcy is to build on the already existing instincts for international solidarity among the oppressed, which unlike calls for imperialist murder, offers the possibility of building the movements of workers world wide. The alternative is for workers of the West to take the revolutions in the Arab world as their guide. Academics, commentators, politicians sneer at the Marxist contention that the working class is an international class with international interests. They claim that workers are divided by nationality, by religion and culture. But revolution clears away the dross and reveals the reality of capitalist society. Those fighting their own battles in other parts of the world identify with the Arab masses. Events so far show us that building international solidarity among workers and students is not as utopian as hoping that the US and other imperialist powers could intervene “with utmost care for human life”. For all the racist scapegoating of Muslims and Arabs by US governments, for all the scaremongering about the threat of an Islamist government, backed up by the liberals now calling for intervention, hundreds of thousands protesting to defend union rights and oppose savage cuts to state services in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, clearly see themselves as part of the same struggle. Placards and speeches vividly invoke the links between the two struggles.

Similarly, Egyptian protesters see their common interests. A pizza shop in Wisconsin received orders from Cairo for pizzas for workers occupying the Capitol building. When the idea took off, orders flooded in from around the world until the pizza shop could do nothing but provide food for the occupying workers. A banner held aloft at a workers’ rally in Italy in early March was emblazoned with one word – Kifaya, the slogan of the democracy movement in Egypt from about 2004, meaning “enough”. Even in Melbourne a suburban paper ran a huge headline which read “We should do an Egypt, and rise up in revolt”, taking the quote from an interview with Mark Barratt, a school teacher involved in a frustrating campaign to get the council to close a polluting refuse tip. An Egyptian protester’s slogan which was beamed around the world expressed quite simply why this international solidarity seems natural to so many: “Egypt supports Wisconsin. One world, one pain”. Protesting Wisconsin workers responded in kind with placards bearing slogans such as “Tunis, Cairo, Madison”. That’s why Marx’s slogan “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” is as relevant as the day it was penned.

Revolution poses the question of a revolutionary party

Contrary to what is often taught in universities, Marxism is not determinist. Revolutions usually begin with an elemental uprising with little preparation. And they are confronted with the reality that the state does not just disintegrate; society cannot be changed by public opinion, no matter how eloquently it’s expressed by the millions in the streets. This poses the question of conscious preparation for such historical moments, and of intervention. Lenin was the Marxist who developed the most coherent theory of the need for revolutionary organisation.

Lenin saw that at all times there will be a minority of workers who are class-conscious fighters, there will be scabs, and every shade of consciousness in between. This unevenness of consciousness led Lenin to conclude that the most class-conscious need to be organised into a party before any revolutionary upheaval begins. To prepare for the tasks posed by revolution, such a party needs to study the lessons of past struggles and develop a thorough understanding of how capitalism works. This means reading books and serious study. It also needs to train a membership capable of judging political developments, skilled at winning arguments, at explaining what is necessary to take struggles forward. This means involvement in all the struggles of workers, the oppressed, students and the poor. Trotsky said of Lenin’s Bolsheviks: “Bolshevism had absolutely no taint of aristocratic scorn for the independent experience of the masses.” They took the masses as they found them: influenced by capitalist ideas which held them back from believing in their own power, bursting onto the stage of history with little or no experience. “The Bolsheviks took this for their point of departure and built upon it. That was one of their great points of superiority.”[30]

This is a radically different concept from that of parliamentary parties like the ALP or the Greens. The role of a revolutionary party is not to use the masses as a battering ram for a new elite to take over, it is not to manipulate the masses in order to take power itself, it is to take a lead in convincing the mass of workers that they need to take control of society themselves. In order to do this it must be unconditionally committed to the Marxist principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. It needs to be built on the principle that only this liberation of the working class can lay the basis for socialism. Unfortunately the revolutionary socialist forces in the Arab world are as yet tiny, as they are around the world. But the revolutions have only just begun, and there is everything to fight for. Revolutionary struggle creates the circumstances in which Marxist organisations can grow rapidly as masses of workers and students look for answers to the pressing questions they face. This is not just a challenge for revolutionaries in the Arab world. The revolutions dramatically make the case for building such organisations wherever we are.


The events in the Arab world, flashed around the globe in riveting images, are of world historical importance. Unlike the revolutions of 1989-91 they open up a new phase in which not just the question of democracy and a few reforms are posed. They are rebellions against the consequences of the neoliberal agenda of capitalism. They therefore pose a real threat to the whole capitalist system. This puts the struggle for workers’ revolution on the agenda over the coming years.

People standing up to tanks, fighting back, organising their own activity, demonstrating the untapped resources of creativity and resourcefulness of the masses, women defying the stereotypes put on them by the West – all these things have inspired millions. And they have sent shivers down the spine of those who rule. Global politics will not be the same again. The Arab rebellions demonstrate that revolution is the way to challenge our rulers. They remind us that revolution is not just something to be dreamed about, but to be prepared for. The task of building a revolutionary socialist organisation in every country is urgent. Marxism has never been more relevant, in a world wracked by crisis and turmoil. The Arab revolutions show that another world is possible, and that in the act of revolution, the mass of workers, students and the poor can dramatically throw off the subservience we learn in our society and become fit to rule. Revolutionary Marxism, the politics of socialism from below, is the only philosophy which has as its goal the realisation of that rule.


[1] The Economist, 2 December 2011.

[2] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1968, pp.28-29, italics in original.

[3] Frederick Engels, Foreword to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, quoted in the Preface to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol 5, International Publishers, New York, 1976, p.XIV.

[4] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, p.60.

[5] Frederick Engels, The Principles of Communism at

[6] V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow, n.d., p.54.

[7] See Mick Armstrong’s article in this issue.

[8] “Egypt: women in the revolution” at 20313.html, accessed 14 March 2011.

[9] Quoted by Liam Stack, in a posting on Marxmail, February 2011.

[10] V.I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, at tactics/ch13.htm.

[11] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1978, pp.419-20.

[12] Ahmed Shawki, “The Unfolding Revolution”, February 11, 2011, at, accessed 13 March 2011.

[13] Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Penguin, Ringwood, Australia, 1973, pp.130-131.

[14] Victor Serge, Year One of the Revolution, Bookmarks and Pluto Press, London, 1992, pp.87-91.

[15] Andrew England, “Strikers slow Egypt’s return to normality”,, 16 February 2011 at, accessed 13 March 2011.

[16] Information on the unions and the quote from Dyab Abou Jahjah from Matt Swagler, “A dictator falls, but what comes next?”, International Socialist Review 76, March-April 2011.

[17] Quoted by Committee for a Workers International reporter in Tunis, 25 February 2011, at, accessed 13 March 2011.

[18] Andrew England, “Strikers slow Egypt’s return to normality”.

[19] Matt Swagler, “A dictator falls, but what comes next?”

[20] Karl Marx, Letter to Kugelman, quoted in V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, p.60.

[21] V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, p.39.

[22] Quoted in V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, pp.58-59.

[23] John Horgan, “Egypt’s revolution vindicates Gene Sharp’s theory of nonviolent activism”, Scientific American, 11 February 2011 at, accessed 13 March 2011.

[24] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy. A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, Fourth edition, Albert Einstein Institution, May 2010, at, accessed 13 March 2011.

[25] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

[26] BBC online, 25 February 2011, world- africa-12575206, accessed 13 March 2011.

[27] Richard Seymour, The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso, London, 2008, p.1.

[28] Geoffrey Robertson, “How the West can end Gaddafi’s slaughter”, The Age, 7 March 2011.

[30] Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, London, 1977, pp.809-811.

Resisting barbarism: Contours of the global rebellion

Omar Hassan surveys world politics at the turn of the decade, with a focus on the exhilarating return of mass revolutionary struggle.

The Arab Spring: revolution and counter-revolution

The Arab revolutions continue. Sandra Bloodworth looks at the danger of counter-revolution and discusses the political questions and challenges for the left posed by these momentous events.

US imperialism and the war for the Middle East

Corey Oakley analyses the counter-revolutions which have swept across the Arab world since the mass revolts of 2011.