Talking 'bout a revolution?

Talking 'bout a revolution?

The Syrian events are a challenge for both left wing party people and revolutionaries. Part of the confusion, however, is related to matters of definition, choice of words and what they mean. One such word is 'revolution'. Does it apply? And if so, what does that mean?

The Syrian events are a challenge for both left wing party people and revolutionaries. I addressed some of the arguments in my recent blog series. Part of the confusion is related to how the facts are seen: how much Western interference is going on, and how much influence does it have on the battlefield and ont the likely political outcome? How influential are Islamist groups, how strong is the sectarian dynamics? These are matters of fact-finding and evalyation. Part of the confusion, however, is related to matters of definition, choice of words and what they mean. One such word is 'revolution'.

Left wing supporters of intervention on the rebels' side end to see the Syrian revolt as a revolution deserving victory and hencorth assistence.. The same applies to those who reject intervention but cheer the revolt with rather less criticism that important aspects of it deserve. Those, however,
who reject both the regime and the resistance fighters – FSA and others – often reject the label 'revolution' as well. As for myself, I tend to call events like these a form of revolution, although I am much more careful with that word. Still, there remains a sense wherin calling the events a 'Syrian revolution' makes some sense – as long as we are clear what is and what is not meant by the term.

The first thing to be said is that 'revolution' means different things to different people. Revolutionaries – all kinds of libcom kinds of people, anarchists, left communists, whatever we call ourselves, with all our differences – tend to use 'revolution' in a fairly strict way. The word 'revolution' for many of us is shorthand for 'proletarian revolution', anticapitalist/ anti-state revolution: an effort by working class and other oppressed people to overthrow the capitalist order, abolish wage labour, the state, all the institutions on which capitalist domination and exploitation rests. This then takes the form of strikes, demonstrations, riots, the taking over of factories and other enterprises, mutinies; factory councils, workers'councils, all kinds of assemblies come to the fore, and start to replace both state intitutions and any form of imposed management control. Revolution, in short, is working class people togother taking back their own lives and together taking over society, crushing capitalist resistance by all necessary means. Prolatarian revolutions are relatively rare. One can think of Russia 1917-1918; Germany 1918-1923; Spain 1936-37; Hungary in 1956. One can think opf more partial efforts in that direction: Italy 1918-20, and even more limited, again in 1969 and beyond; Portugal 1974-75. Poland 1980-81 and Iran 1978-79 (no, not the 'Islamic Revolution', but the oil strikes and the workers'shora's that were quickly suppressed by the new bosses) are even more distorted efforts. All were derailed or smashed.

Now, to call the Syrian revolt a revolution in this sense is silly. I have seen no reports of big workers' strike action, factory occupations, workers' assemblies and councils, nor have I read about specific anticapitalist demands and desires expressed on more than minimal scale.The red-and-black flag is not waving in the Aleppo winds. Yes, there are committees operating to run villages and towns where the revolt has got rid of regime forces. There are elements of self-organization that are interesting and should be closely watched to see where things go. Thus, Zabadani “is , by and l;arge, cntrolled by residents and fighters with the Free Syrian Army, which in Zabadani armmme made up almost entirely of local volunteers and defecting soldiers haling from the area”, an interesting article in The Nationtells us. It wopuld be wrong to treat the whole revolt only a proxy war, although it is also that; it would be wrong to treat whole of the FSA, as only a Jihadist proxy force, though in many places it certainly is. The picture varies from place to place.In one Kurdish area, there is even mention of a militia where fighters elect their own officers , although I don't know whetjher this is more than propaganda and myth-making of one of the Kurdish nationalist parties.

In many areas, local revolutionary councils have appeared. Louis Proyect extensively quotes from an article written by Anand Gopal. It describes all kinds of village councils running local effairs in districts where the revolt is very strong. Again, how accurate it all is – and how much less appealing aspects are left out of the de iscription – I cannot easily say. The thing here is, however, local councils, even elected ones, even if they impose some controls upon the local rich, ruling where the Syrian army has been driven out, are not automatically a form of proletarian/ anticapitalist democracy, self-organized anarchy or whatever term you prefer. Rather, they form a radical – and usually temporary – form of liberal democracy, probably to be replaced by formal elected organs after the regime falls and a new government takes over. Yes, the force of direct action may move such structures beyond their bourgeois limits. That, however, needs collectively-organized, consciously-exercized power from below, directly, without the usual mediation and representation. Of that, I can find no signs. Rather, the dominant forces in the revolt are FSA and other militia officers, often of a very right wing islamist character, and operating with support of the Saudi , Qatari, Turkish and American state upon which they partially depend. A broadly-based struggle, but led by reactionaries and partly instrumentalized as a proxy force against Assad who is partly a proxy force for Iran... that sums up the Syrian fight. A broad-based revolt, with deep roots in the poor population, the Syrian movement certainly is; a proletarian revolution it certainly is not. It does not even come close.

Back to the word 'revolution'. Many of those who use the phrase 'revolution' – myself partly included – mean something much wider. Revolution in this broader sense stands for the forceful overthrow of the established order, to be replaced by a different order, under the pressure and with active participation of. broadly based revolt from below, whether working class, peasants, broad middle class layers, whatever. Proletarian revolution as described above is only one form of revolution. Revolts to overthrow dictatorships, to replace them with liberal democracy, are another form. Mass peasant resistance under guerilla military leadership, to break landlords' and absolutist power structures and replace them with strong modernizing capitalist states, can be seen as yet another form. That applies to China 1949, Vietnam, Cuba. In all three forms – proletarian, liberal bourgoies, guerrilla-based capitalist - a radical break with the old order is enforced by mass involvement in struggles to overthrow that order. Revolutions in the broader sense are not at all rare. They happen every year. The overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunesian dictatorships are recent examples of revolution to replace dictatorship with liberal democracy, with – in that sopecific respect – partial success. But mass movements in that direction are not at all exceptional. The Syrian revolt is an effort by a broadly based movement with mass popular involvement, trying to get rid of dictatorship, to replace it with either liberal democracy or Islamist dictatorship, or something in between. That is radical political change, enforced and supported by mass revolt. In that sense – and without yet saying anything about whether it deserves support or sympathy – it is not wrong to call the events a Syrian revolution.

Of course, many efforts at democratic revolution fail, just like all efforts at proletarian revolution have failed up to now. We had revolutions of this type in Burma in 1988 and 2007; in Algeria 1988; in Eastern Europe in 1989; in China, 1989. They either were smashed or quickly led to superficial change, with sometimes catastrophic social results (liberal capitalism is not nicer than state capitalism). But saying that a revolution has failed is not the same as denying that a revolution has taken place. That applies certainly to current events in North Africa and the Middle East. Many of these revolutions hardly get off the ground; not all the movements we place under the umbrella 'Arab Spring' got beyond the stage of a series of demonstrations, quickly repressed end/ or contained whit timely concessions. Iyes , there was a Tunesian revolution in 2010-11, and an Egyptian one in 2011-2012; dictators were overthrown , a liberal state order took the place of the ld regimes. Many functionaries made the switch and are still (or again) powerful. Yet, there was a power shift, and revolt from below had more than a little bit to do with it.

So, it makes sense to talk about an Egyptian and a Tunesian revolutiion in a limited specific sense. It does not make sense to call the February 20 movement and its demonstrations a Moroccan revolution; it does not make sense to talk about a Jordanian, Algerian, and Omani revolutions either: the series of demonstrations could have moved in that direction but, because of a mix of repression and concessions, did not even come close to the overthrow of the old order through mass revolt. Bahrein however – where relatively enormous crowds demonstrated against ferocious state repression – is already a different matter. The revolt did not overthrow the old order. But it came close enough to make the Saudi rulers sent troops and tanks to help the Bahreini regime to suppress the revolt. Even that was only partially successful; demonstrations still occur very frequently. Here, we might speak of a liberal democratic revolution that has been stalled but has not been decicively suppressed. Yemen presents yet another case: a liberal democratic revolution expressing itself through insistent mass demonstrations, but also through frequent strikes and a number of occupations to get rid of corrupt and pro-regime managers, a phenomenon calledthe 'parallel revolution'on the weblog Notes By Noon , a phenomenon that has not gotten the attention it deserved. Clearly, there were radical things going on at the height of the whole thing, in the beginning of the year, as can be read on a democratic revolution growing so strong that the regime tolerated a Saudi-mediated power shift: getting rid of the dictator to save the regime. Tribal and regional rebellions complicate the picture even further. Yes, it was a bourgeois democratic revolution, mixed in with all kind of reactionary developments. But clearly, it was a rather radical democratic revolution, because of elements of workers' struggle mixed in as well.

Now we might say: what do we care about these bourgeois movements, even if they are mass movements, to replace wone set of rulers by another, one capitalist state form with another? In a very specific sense, this scepticism is absolutely right and necessary. No preference for one state above the other, no tasking sides for Morsi against Tantawi or the other weay around, no suppurt for either Assad or the defected officers and officials and politicians now leading the FSA and the SNC, no cheering for the new Lybian state leadership, nor any nostalgia.for Gadhaffi's leadership that went before. No taking sides between politicians, party leaderships, governments and structures-waiting-to-form-governments, i.e. capitalist managements structures! It is the strength of revolutionary communist/ anarchist ideas that they totally oppose this kind of side-taking and insist on the need of class independence and rejection of all forms of top-down control, all bossing, in the factor and in society at large. Insisting on the need of a revolution that is both anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian, and exposing all other forms as bourgeois forms, is relevant and necessary. Especially as many on the left wrongly insist on myth-making that accepts at least some of these bourgeois forces as 'revolutionary' , thereby confusing or mixing the general, 'neutral', broad sense of the word with the proletarian-revolution sense. It is here that Trotskyist attitudes radically differ from proletarian-revolutionary ones, and operate as mystifications. But I digress a bit: )

There are, however, complications. One can speak of the Tunesian revolt as a bourgeois democratic movement. It certainly ended up with the usual stuff: constitution, multi party elections, new government re-establishing order with a limited amount of formal freedom granted but the proletarian masses still in essence unfree – and continuing to revolt. Judging from the results, there is not much to cheer and applaud here. However, the young unemployd people in Tunisian towns did not take to the streets in December 2010 to call for parliament and elections. The wanted jobs. They wanted food to feed their starving families. They wanted freedom to express what they want without being shot down like dogs. They soon wanted the regime to go away. They wanted to overthrow the established order, without being clear what to replace it with. The fact that people like this continue to demonstrate and strike – these dayes, in Sidi Bouzou where it all started in 2010, as articles in Tunisia LIve and in Al Akhram describe - , shows that the desires expressed from the beginning went beyond any form of bourgeois order, even if the expressions of these desires usually do not (yet). In a specific sense the rage expressed was and is a challenge to capital, even if this was rarely consciously expressed that way. No, the Tunesian revolt was not a 'proletarian revolution'. But it would be hard – and wrong – to miss or dismiss the proletarian aspects coming to the fore in the events, only to be reduced and put back by bourgoeis politicians. Bin Ali is gone, capital still rules. But capital rules in a different way, because they know that workers have found strength in the revolt.

A similar story unfolded in Egypt in January-February 2011. The liberal Facebook activists wanted to get rid of Mubarak, his State of Emergency, censorship; they wanted to replace dictatorship with liberal democracy. But they had the sense toe include calls for higher minimum wage in their 25 January call-out, for they knew that there were social reasons for discontent as well. Some of them had connections with activistss connected to the Mahallah textile workers who had been on strike in 2008. Even if, from the activists perspective, working class issues were simply a way to mobilize more protesters to the streets, things soon got out of hand. Poor people joined the street protests in enormous nummbers. Within days, riotersd attacked police stations all over the country. State structures – the police, but also offices of the ruling National Democratic Party – came under sustained attack. Later, strikes for wages and so one started and quickly spread. These strikes were not called for by the Facebook liberal opposition. No, workers sensed the weakness of the regime, and began to flex their muscles themselves for their own demands. I think that this is one of the things that forced the generals' hands on February 11: better to get rid of the dictator now to save the state, than be confronted with a rebellion that was not only massive, but began to challenge capital and the state..

Egypt's was a bourgeois democratic revolution with liberal and Islamic politics dominating, but there were proletarian forces moving towards bourgeois limits, challenging them and potentially moving beyond them. And in Egypt, like in Tunisia, struggles are continuing, with massive strikes only recently. Workers still want higher wages, permanent jobs, and the end of Mubarak-era managers. The job of revolutionary anarchists here is NOT to cheer the revolution as a whole – up to and including the Moslim brotherhood, as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist do. However, our job is neither to dismiss the whole series of events as just bourgois and therefore irrelevant. Rather, I see the Egyption revolution – like the whole Arab Spring – as a mass revolt with formally bourgeois goals and direction, but at the same time a revolt that opened up space and possibilities for anticapitalist and anti-authoritarian demands and forces arising. Liberal democracy should not be supported as such; but the fact that under it, and especially during the move towards it, workers can somewhat more freely organize and fight than under the former dictatorship, should be used to proletarian advantage. The bourgeois character of the developments is clear. But the proletarian and anti-authoritarian elements appearing should not be neglected. Democratic revolutions have a way of getting out of hand, with crowds beginning to do their own thing and clashing with any imposed or self-imposed limits on the movement, on the streets and elsewhere. Usually, bourgois control returns, often fairly quickly. But in the meantime, we see a glimpse of possibilities to be encouraged. Only afterwards can we say for certain that not more was possible, and learn the lessons.

All this means that it makes no sense to cheer the Arab Spring as a whole, just as we cannot and should not cheer on the 'Syrian Revolution' as such. The whole phenomenon is a mixture of developments , some of which are just reactionary, while others move in a much more radical direction. We can sympathize with, and where possible support, there radical elements coming to the fore within these revolts, forms of struggle from below, demands moving beyond bourgeois limits – without taking any responsibility for the well-being of the events as a whole. In this sense, a slogan like “Victory to the Syrian revolution” is simply wrong. The revolution is not a whole that can be supported. And the main forces leading it, are as unsupportable by revolutionaries as the crumbling Assad dictatorship.


Oct 8 2012 10:29

A good blog post, which for some reason I failed to read before. It could do with some tidying up on spelling and such though.