From the new January-February 2013 issue of News & Letters:
by Gerry Emmett
“However partial the industrial revolt may be, it conceals within itself a universal soul: political revolt may be never so universal but it hides a narrow-minded spirit under the most colossal form.”
–Karl Marx, “On the King of Prussia and Social Reform”
The world’s rulers would like to declare an end to the earth-shaking, world-historic events of the Arab Spring, that completely unforeseen social revolt that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and around the world. The seemingly limitless desire for a different kind of society that burned in the revolutionary hearts and minds of those who occupied Tahrir Square inspired countless millions from Madison, Wisconsin, to Barcelona, Spain, and struck terror in the rulers.
Slightly over two years since the beginning of Egypt’s revolution, those heady days can seem distant. The current government of Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, was able to push through a reactionary Constitution following a 32% turnout of voters. It includes anti-working class Articles allowing for child labor and forced labor, in certain circumstances; limits the right to form unions; and ties wages to production. It describes women’s role as one of “caregiver” and includes no guarantees of women’s equality–a lived reality during the occupation of Tahrir Square.
CONSTITUTION = COUNTER-REVOLUTION
The Constitution’s vague reliance on Sharia law opens many other areas for reaction to colonize everyday life in Egypt. Indeed, there are very real echoes of Khomeini’s Iranian counter-revolution in today’s Egyptian developments. Since December, protesters camped out around the Presidential palace have been attacked by Morsi-supporting thugs, with some being killed. The government has attempted to prosecute those like TV commentator Bassem Youssef, who satirizes Islamists, saying, “Don’t be surprised if you see the people who are supposed to be the religious ones cursing and bullying people. They look at us not as Muslims and Christians, no. As infidels, hypocrites, enemies of religion, enemies of the lord. So, we deserve to be cursed and humiliated, even if it goes as far as beating and torture and maybe after that, God forbid, killing.”
Youssef’s popularity shows that Morsi’s supporters have nothing positive to say to the Egyptian masses, especially to workers, women, youth and others who made the revolution. Morsi’s gutter anti-Semitism is the measure of him. Such a narrow-minded spirit would be laughable if it didn’t wield state power.
As the Arab Spring unfolded, the world’s state-capitalist rulers placed a priority on limiting the revolution. The strategy they hit upon–improvised as it was–involved narrowing the revolution into electoral channels. The model that presented itself was Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, with its commitment to “free market” principles coupled with religious ideology.
CAPITALISM’S PERVERSE ‘DEMOCRACY’
“Religion” was a necessary cover to roll back the new human relations, such as those between men and women as equals, that existed in Tahrir Square. By no accident whatsoever, the counter-revolution from within the revolution first expressed itself through assaults on women, including on International Women’s Day demonstrators in March 2011.
The Muslim Brotherhood, with its decades of organization, presented itself as the logical candidate for the job. They had a history of opposition to Mubarak’s regime, but at the same time were a million miles from the life experience of the new generation of revolutionaries. They were latecomers to the streets and Square. When they did appear, it was under pressure of events, and from the youth in their own ranks. It was inevitable that they would continue Mubarak’s anti-worker policies.
The lived experience of the women workers at Muhallah al-Kubra, or the youth who were inspired by their example, is not only beyond the Muslim Brotherhood’s understanding, but represents its opposite–a struggle against the dictates of capital itself. This is the red thread that runs from Muhallah in 2008, through Tahrir Square’s assertion of new human relations, to the anti-austerity Occupations in Europe. A movement so deep and international represents humanity’s effort to grasp its own essence, the drive to freedom and self-determination, in concrete historic terms.
This is the truth of the Arab Spring: It was the universalizing of the struggle against capitalism that expressed itself as the blazing, limitless humanism of Tahrir Square and beyond. This is why every effort to reduce such a world-historic event to mere political terms ends up like trying to catch mercury in one’s fingers.
Unfortunately, too often would-be revolutionaries have mistaken reactionary forces like the Muslim Brotherhood for allies against U.S. imperialism, as in the 2002-2008 international Cairo Anti-war Conferences. These rightly called for opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, but said nothing about the oppressive nature of Iraq’s Baathist state or the need for a revolution there.
SELF-DETERMINATION VS. GENOCIDE
The Syrian Revolution has actually faced the same obstacles as in Egypt, but in more extreme form. There capital has asserted its rule through genocide, with over 60,000 dead and millions more forced to flee. As this is being written, word comes of the bombing of Aleppo University, in which over 80 students have been killed and hundreds more wounded. Students have protested there, despite being under the control of the regime. This massacre is Assad’s ongoing message to the peaceful revolutionaries.
Assad’s Baathist dictatorship has long served the interests of Saudi Arabia’s theocracy, Iran’s counter-revolutionary regime, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, whatever its rhetorical relations with those states. It has served Russian imperialism, in both its Communist and post-Communist forms. And it has well served U.S. imperialism as a partner in war and torture. The peaceful Syrian uprising faced, from the start, the fully armed might of a vicious and unprincipled fascist state. There, as Marx once put it, “no kind of bondage could be shattered without every kind of bondage being shattered.”
In the face of the world’s (at best) indifference, Syrian revolutionaries have practically accomplished miracles. They have defended themselves. They have driven Assad to the wall and managed to free much of Syria from his rule. In response, today, not only have the few weapons supplied to the Syrian people’s struggle begun to dry up, but the litany in almost every article the bourgeois press publishes would have al-Qaeda as a leading force in the anti-Assad struggle. This despite the fact that most of the Syrian rebel fighters are working-class people defending their neighborhoods and families.
Al-Qaeda in fact opposed the Arab Spring from the start, and it has no affinity for the values of dignity, equal rights, and democratic practice the millions of protesters shared. Far from turning over their revolution to al-Qaeda, the Syrian people, especially in the areas liberated from Assad’s forces, continue to debate and organize their own lives and futures. This attitude also disregards the contributions of revolutionary women like Rania Kisar, who describes Syrian women thus: “They’re spreading the ideology. They’re helping the wounded. They’re teaching children. They are leading the relief aid. We do it for freedom and equality.”
‘HELL OR A POLITICAL PROCESS’
The only future envisaged by the world powers is a future in the image of their own desires, not the people’s–either a compromise with Assad, or a division of the country along sectarian lines. These projections, on the part of the world’s most powerful states, amount to open counter-revolutionary threats. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi poses the alternatives as “hell or a political process.” Clearly the powers he represents have disallowed a revolutionary victory.
Turkey has cut back its support for the revolution as it considers the possible effects of a free Kurdish territory in Syria. Israel threatens simply to build another border wall. Egypt uses the crisis to bargain with Iran.
In Syria, the counter-revolution from without and from within have joined hands, in even more insidious and violent ways than in Egypt. The same state powers that use religious ideology to impose capital’s rule in Egypt, turn right around and use the threat of religious ideology to pretend that they are powerless to aid the Syrian people. The bourgeois press bears witness. All the laws of men and gods tie their hands. These are the intellectual virtuosos of unfreedom!
Here are the limits of life under capitalism. As Marx pointed out in Capital, this ultimate violence in its own defense is something inherent in the commodity form itself. The genocide and slavery with which capitalist society was built don’t disappear into thin air, but can reappear at the terminal points of capital’s existence, when crisis and human struggle–revolution–pose a fundamental challenge to capital’s rule.
THE ROLE OF REVOLUTIONARIES
“We have been living this lie altogether too long. State-capitalism has reincarnated both Religion and Science as moves away from real human needs and new human relations. The turning of the clock backward must be stopped and will be stopped when we stop separating the philosophy of revolution from social revolution.“
Crossroads of History
In both Egypt and Syria the role of revolutionary ideas is now vital. Morsi represents the face of world capitalism to the Egyptian workers, but his coming to power was also aided by the blind spots and misconceptions among revolutionaries. Too many Leftists failed to develop a critique of the Muslim Brotherhood, presuming that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That attitude not only has caused confusion among Egyptian revolutionaries, but left many of them ill-prepared to see their own revolution as a world phenomenon.
It would be equally an illusion to imagine a fundamental conflict of interest between the Egyptian military, still a pillar of reaction, and the Muslim Brotherhood. They have known each other, intimately, for decades and wouldn’t be together if they had fundamental conflicts.
In Syria it is literally a life-and-death matter to clarify the revolution’s aims. The profound internationalism of Arab Spring can still be a powerful revolutionary force, both in breaking down the barriers of sectarianism (which have been deliberately exacerbated by Assad) and in finding allies among the oppressed masses in Iran, the Assad regime’s most active supporter. The goal of human self-determination can’t be subjected to state power rivalries. That goal applies equally to Kurds, Bahrainis, Palestinians, Yezidis, Israelis and Iranians. Women and men.
People in the liberated areas of Syria are, even now, struggling over the shape of the future–asking the question, what kind of society should we create from this revolution? They are under attack by all the world’s oppressive powers. At such a moment, silence from “revolutionaries” would be disgraceful–far more so than the expected hypocrisies of the rulers.
The Arab Spring shows that world-historic freedom struggles have a necessary philosophic content. As Raya Dunayevskaya wrote of the 1979 Iranian revolution, “What is needed is the working out of a theory that would never again separate itself from the actuality, any more than the actuality can be separated from theory.” From the moment the Arab Spring began in 2010, these revolutions have necessitated a recreation of Marx’s philosophy of revolution in permanence for our time. If not now–when?