Solidarity with the Syrian uprising and the Arab Spring!

By Joseph Green
(CV #47 September 2012)

This article is loosely based on a talk I gave at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group on July 29th. I have dropped the detailed discussion of events in particular countries, and replaced it with a vast amount of additional material on the attitude of the left to democratization. I have also referred to relevant events since the talk, such as the infamous Marikana massacre in South Africa. -- JG

Every day brings more news about Syria. The uprising continues and grows despite many hardships and deaths as the regime strikes back at villages and cities with heavy weapons: tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships, etc. The uprising has spread throughout the country until there is even fighting in Syria's capital Damascus, and now in Syria's main commercial center and largest city, Aleppo. The determination of the Syrian people, and their hatred for the decades of tyranny and torture, has undermined the dictatorship of the Ba'ath Party under Bashar al-Assad. The despotic regime is still able to carry out massacres, but its grip on power fades from day to day.

In Egypt, a different type of struggle is presently taking place. The tyrant Mubarak was toppled from power, but the "deep state" behind the Mubarak regime -- the generals, senior bureaucrats, and privileged business kleptocrats who were the base of Mubarak's power -- still have most of their power, and they are seeking to make their power permanent. Meanwhile the variegated mass front that opposed Mubarak has divided: the bourgeois Islamists, having won the parliamentary and presidential elections, are seeking their own rule through compromise with the military; many Egyptian bourgeois liberals have been supporting the "deep state" in fear of the Islamists; and the more radical section of the masses are not sufficiently organized to seriously challenge the situation. The euphoria of victory over Mubarak has been replaced by worry over whether there will be Mubarakism without Mubarak, and by concern over how the left has to change in order to be a major force.

In this article, we take the balance-sheet of the last year of the Arab Spring. Syria and Egypt represent two different aspects of the Arab Spring. In most countries, struggles continue with the aim of overthrowing entrenched regimes that trampled people's rights for years. But in Egypt, Mubarak was overthrown; in Tunisia, Ben Ali fled; and in Libya, the Qaddafi dictatorship was smashed. In these countries, the euphoria of victory has been replaced in varying degrees by concern over what comes next.

We are not disillusioned and disheartened by this outcome. On the contrary, we see that the Arab Spring has continued to reverberate around the world. And we see that the Marxist view of the democratic struggle and of its role in the working-class movement provides insight into the new developments in the Arab Spring.

It's also time to examine again the opposition of much of the American left to some of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Recent years have been hard times for the left. But the existence of trends which set themselves against some of the most important struggles and uprisings of millions upon millions of people shows that some of the problems of the left are self-inflicted. The skepticism of the left, both here and elsewhere in the world, towards the rising to new political life of the working masses of the Middle East and North Africa can only give rise to a reverse skepticism of the masses towards such a sorry left. The disarray in the left over the Arab Spring shows that the differences in the left aren't simply a matter of squabbling. The present-day crisis in revolutionary theory and orientation can't be avoided; and it is necessary to puncture the pretenses of revisionist trends, such as Trotskyism and Stalinism, to be Marxist.

Different views about democracy

Different classes and political forces have different ideas about democratic movements. The bourgeois market-fundamentalists want to use the overthrow of tyranny to speed up market reforms, and they would like to see the "deep states" of the dictators remain the behind-the-scenes power.

The petty-bourgeois democrats believe that democratic reforms mean the complete economic and political liberation of the masses. They idealize the democratic struggles they support and fail to see the need for an independent working-class movement which has goals that go beyond democratic reforms. And so, when they see the actual mixed and gritty character of a particular democratic struggle, they may regard it as a fraud.

The Trotskyists preach that the struggles of the Arab Spring will amount to nothing unless they lead directly to workers' power or socialist revolution. This results in an attitude to democratic struggles that can be strikingly similar to that of the petty-bourgeois democrats: the struggle will either lead to complete liberation or it is a fraud.

In contrast, Marxism-Leninism holds that the democratic struggle leads not to utopia, but to the possibility of a broader and wider class struggle. It emphasizes the difference between democratic change, however radical, and the socialist revolution, and yet it recognizes that democratic struggles are of vital importance to the exploited masses. The democratic struggle can lead to a more conscious political life among the masses, and to greater knowledge by the working class of its own interests and of the exploitative nature of the bourgeoisie. The setbacks and zigzags that follow the overthrow of the tyrants; the breakup of the old coalitions; and the development of new alignments are not just difficulties: they are a situation in which people learn to recognize and fight the real aims of the various exploiting classes and of outside imperialisms.

Last year we discussed the Arab Spring in the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group. We looked at the divided and complex nature of the insurgent movements and noted that

"The present upsurge is shaking the old Middle East. But it has its particular conditions. Everywhere the insurgent masses are split up into disparate groupings, and nowhere is the uprising led by a solid revolutionary movement. Everywhere different class factions take part in the struggle, and everywhere different class interests are expressed." And we said that "The result is that the Arab Spring will be only one step in a long struggle for liberation, albeit an important step that revitalizes the mass struggle in the Middle East and North Africa and reverberates around the world."(1)

Democratic euphoria

But this is not the view of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois democratism. Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst for Al Jazeera, evaluates the Arab Spring from an outlook that doesn't see beyond democracy in and of itself in his new book The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution. He writes with passion of the historic role of this movement, saying

"... today's Arab generations are finishing the job their grandparents started several decades ago by extending the liberation of the land [decolonialization--JG] to its people [democratization--JG], and in the process, recovering their personal and national dignity. That's why today's revolutions are the culmination and embodiment of the social and national consciousness that rejects the repressive Arab state order and favors democratic change. Those rushing to count the losses and gains and to judge the casualties of each passing Friday are missing the point about the historic transformations sweeping through the region. Regardless of barriers and setbacks, the genie has now left the proverbial bottle. This break with the past may not necessarily bring about positive and/or immediate change, but the decisive break has been made." (p. 176)

He expresses an enthusiasm that every person who is in solidarity with the working people of the Arab world should feel. He reflects the optimism of the great movement that is taking place, and is right about its significance going far beyond the immediate results. He accepts that there will be bumps and setbacks and hard work ahead, and in a section entitled "Fasten your seatbelts" writes that

"The next few years promise to be difficult. The revolution's aftershock could be dangerous if people are not prepared to combat the looming forces of counter revolution, which manifest in the region's pervasive dictatorships, in its reactionary political and religious movements, sectarian groups, and with the cynical regional and international powers. The revolutions have added new elements of unpredictability to a region bridled with instability and conflict..." (p. 224)

But he doesn't let the problems and sacrifices to come obscure that change is coming. Nor does he see that change as anything but democratic change: he doesn't even consider the question of major change in the economic system,

Bishara writes at a time where the disintegration of the present democratic movement into its component class fractions is still, in most places, a matter of the future.(2) It hasn't entered into his consciousness yet. He sees the democratic change and downfall of utter tyranny as the solution to all the problems of the region, including poverty. He doesn't see that exploitation continues and even expands with the downfall of tyranny, and that class struggle intensifies. His stand is that of a pure-and- simple democrat.

It's not that he doesn't see that poverty and desperation provided the fuel for this uprising. He talks of how

"Unemployment and repression began to alter the structure of Arab family life, as a whole generation could not afford to marry or to have children." (P. 65)

And it's not that he doesn't see that the working class has played a major role in this historic movement. Indeed, he criticizes the media for

"neglecting the vital role played by the Egyptian and Tunisian labor unionists and activists in 2011 and the likes of Hached [head of the General Union of Tunisian Workers until his assassination in 1952 by a French paramilitary hit squad--JG], decades earlier. Tunisian and Egyptian workers have a long history of clashes with the authorities and the military in the 1970s and '80s, the result of which is that labor unions and middle-class syndicates in both countries evolved quite sophisticated, highly networked, and democratically organized membership and leadership structure -- regime-controlled syndicates and unions notwithstanding." (pp. 100-1)

Indeed, he points out that

"Between 1998 and 2004, there were more than one thousands cases of collective worker action throughout Egypt. ... The turning point, however, came on April 6, 2006, when more than twenty thousand workers went on strike in Mahallah, a major center for textile production. In December 2006 and September 2007, civil servants and white-collar labor groups joined the movement." (p. 104)

And it's not that he doesn't see Western economic policy as a problem. He writes that

"As their debt-laden economies deteriorated in the late 1980s, most Arab countries interested in foreign loans and investments had to take new austerity measures and 'reform' their economies in line with Western diktats." (p. 45) And he writes about "the failure of the U.S.-led neo-liberal policies of the 'Washington consensus'..." (pp. 231-2)

He even has some feeling for the peculiar position of Al Jazeera, which itself is based in monarchist Qatar, and he writes that

"The fact that Al Jazeera belongs to the Qatari state ... adds another paradox to the complicated world of Arab television." (p. 188)

But in his view, the working class is just one part of a broad coalition. Bishara doesn't see that this coalition has seriously different class interests, and he imagines that the cherished unity of the people against tyranny will continue into the future after tyranny falls. He writes that

"I doubt the Arab revolution could have taken down regimes if it were not for its pluralistic, diverse, and creative nature, and I believe more of the same is needed for the post-revolutionary stage of the revolution to succeed. Nationalists, leftists, Islamists, and others put their differences aside as they were led by an ad-hoc coalition of young activists, students, the unemployed, labor unions, bloggers and artists, the religious and the Marxist, and women and men, who adapted to emerging realities." (p. 216)

And indeed, at the high point of the struggle against tyranny, it appears that everyone -- except a few privileged kleptocrats -- is united for freedom. The thought that, as time goes on, the class antagonisms between the workers and various bourgeois strata also oppressed by the old tyrannies might break into the open is beyond him.

He does see some serious problems facing the people after the dictators are overthrown. He is concerned to assure that "Arab democrats and open-minded Islamists" work together in constructing a new world; and he looks expectantly towards various "moderate" but very bourgeois Islamic parties, writing that "The ruling AK Party in Turkey has shown the way forward in accepting the parameters of the secular civic state, and it seems An-Nahdah, the party that won more than two-fifths of the Tunisian parliamentary seas, will follow in its footsteps." (p. 221) And no doubt the relationship of the masses to the Islamic trends is an important issue for the future. But he doesn't trace the evolving relationship of these trends to the local bourgeoisie or suggest that class issues could be hidden under the Islamic garb.

His pure-and-simple democratic standpoint is also reflected in his economic views. Yes, he denounces the poverty, "austerity policies, waste, fraud, and underdevelopment", and so on. But he sees all this as a result of "political suppression, economic corruption, discrimination, gender politics, instability and war", of "waste, fraud, and underdevelopment", of lack of transparency, and of the utter greed of leaders who raped their countries. And surely that's part of the story -- a very real part of the story. But that's all he sees. He doesn't see that capitalist development itself, even when combined with democracy and relative transparency, also leads to inequality and misery. He sees the aspect of the Washington consensus that hypocritically imposed the interests of a small section of the bourgeoisie on the entire country, but he doesn't have the faintest idea that the basic operation of the market leads to devastation. It's a bit amusing that, at one point, he denounces the old regime for having "ignored fiscal discipline, tax reform, or securing copyrights..." (p. 53). Copyrights? That was the problem facing the masses? Or the lack of the fiscal discipline, which the bourgeoisie deals with by taking away the subsidies that let people survive while in poverty? And, while praising the ruling AK Party in Turkey and An-Nahdah in Tunisia, it never strikes him to ask whether the market-fundamentalist policies of these parties can really lift the yoke of unemployment and poverty from the masses.

Non-class anti-imperialism

Bishara radiates enthusiasm and confidence from the point of view of pure democratism. And that's probably the main way in which pure democratism is reflected in countries where the people are rising in struggle. Such a viewpoint has strong roots among the working masses of the Arab world, who have been subjected to decades of dictatorship.

But not all people with a merely democratic outlook sympathize with the Arab Spring. In the US left, petty-bourgeois democratism sometimes results in opposition to some of the popular uprisings. The people and trends involved may take part in a number of struggles against racism, war, and poverty, yet they sneer at the struggle against dictatorship in such places as Syria and Libya. They regard themselves as the truest and most staunch anti-imperialists, but they are championing non-class anti-imperialism, a stand which is anti-imperialist only in pretense, because it is detached from the mass struggle in the countries of dictatorship. Non-class anti-imperialism is more concerned with how a democratic struggle might affect the momentary power balance between the big powers, or even the sales of some oil company, than whether the masses of a country are free or how to encourage the class struggle. The non-class anti-imperialists have more faith in benevolent despots (at least many of them seem to persuade themselves that these despots are benevolent, although the legions of victims of these regimes might dispute that) than in the people these despots rule over.

In a way, the non-class anti-imperialists are still fighting the Cold War. They didn't understand in the past that both US capitalism and Soviet state-capitalism were both enemies of the working class. And today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European bloc, they don't recognize that not just the big powers of the West, but Russia, India, and China are imperialist countries, and that siding with one imperialism against another is a betrayal of the struggle against world imperialist system. So they side with any regime which is, or was historically, a bit closer to Eastern imperialism than Western imperialism.(3)

Serious anti-imperialism must base itself on the struggles of the masses. Anything else is play-acting. It's only the working masses who have a consistent interest in destroying imperialism as a system. But at a time when democratization struggles are rarely directed explicitly at imperialism, the non-class anti-imperialists have lost faith in the peoples of many countries. And when the Arab Spring erupted, they were shocked to see not just the regimes closest to US imperialism, but also their favorite dictatorships under attack, and they are engaging in a diehard defense of them. They generally sided with the bloody regimes of Qaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria. The worst of the non-class anti-imperialists have slandered the Arab masses standing up against dictatorship as reactionaries, jihadists, Al Qaeda memberss, racists, and Western agents. Their terms of abuse against the heroic activists of the Arab Spring often closely resembled those of the Western imperialists in their "war on terror".

Despite their belief that they are the most righteous anti-imperialists, the non-class anti-imperialists have much the same outlook as the imperialists themselves. The Western imperialists have constantly expressed skepticism and doubts about the uprisings and sought to replace them with compromise solutions. Thus UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared on Friday, August 3, that the Syrian conflict had become a "proxy war" between outside powers, and called on the big powers in the Security Council to come together and impose a settlement. This was immediately echoed by the social-democratic Institute for Policy Studies. Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the IPS and director of their "New Internationalism" project, wrote that "even UN Secretary-General Ki-moon acknowledges the conflict has become a proxy war between world powers" that has supposedly "drowned out" the democratic aspirations of the masses. She writes that "right now unfortunately, that outside super-power game remains dominant."(4)

Bennis and the non-class anti-imperialists believe that, when they quote imperialist officials denigrating a mass uprising, this is irrefutable. She even think it strengthens her case to point out that Ban Ki-moon "usually represents Washington's positions". It never strikes her or other non-class anti-imperialists that their zealous agreement with such assessments by people representing Washington's positions might show a common outlook with this or that faction of the imperialists. Instead, she believes that the good fight is to support a compromise solution, such as that sought by Ban Ki-Moon, in which the masses lay down their arms, and there is a diplomatic settlement agreed to by the dominant foreign powers. And yet such a solution is the goal of the "outside super-power game", an actual "downing out" of the democratic movement, and a denial of the people's right to root out the Assad dictatorship.

Non-class anti-imperialism gets a certain plausibility from the complicated and rapidly-changing political situation in the Arab Spring. In the Arab Spring -- as in most revolutions and uprisings in the past, including those supported by the non-class anti-imperialists -- there are many intrigues and interventions by outside powers favoring one or the other side or trend.(5) There was even the US/NATO air war in Libya, which occurred at the same time that the Western imperialists expressed doubts about the insurgent Libyan masses. But it isn't that hard to see that what is taking place in the Arab Awakening is a genuine movement of the democratic masses. It's the dictators that cry out that it's all a foreign plot, just as the segregationists used to shout that the civil rights movement in the South was the result of "outside agitators".

The non-class anti-imperialists are responsible for presenting the left in an ugly light before the working class. They demonstrate repeatedly their willingness to overlook or even back the most outrageous repression of the masses of this and that country. Today they vilify key parts of the Arab Awakening. Yesterday they backed the bloody Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq when US imperialism invaded. They couldn't distinguish between the people of Iraq and the regime, and couldn't realize that there were three sides of the struggle in Iraq, not two: the clearest sections of the Iraqi masses were opposed to both the Hussein regime and the US occupiers. Some, such as the Workers World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, go so far as to support the Taliban's struggle as supposedly anti-imperialist: they don't understand how to support the Afghan masses against both enemies, the Taliban and the Western imperialist occupiers.(6) And it's common for them to support the oppressive regime in Iran as some sort of anti-imperialist bastion in the Middle East: indeed, they defend the theocratic Iranian regime at the same time as they denounce the Syrian democratic movement for allegedly being an Islamist plot.

Another example of non-class anti-imperialism comes from the Communist Party of the USA, a Stalinist party that still regards the state-capitalist system in the late Soviet Union as socialism. The CPUSA has its criticism of Stalin, of course, as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself had, but it still defends the old state-capitalist dogmas. And it, too, is uneasy about the Arab Awakening. While paying lip-service to some of the grievances which the people in Syria and Libya may have had, the CPUSA supported the Qaddafi regime against the uprising and presently supports the Assad regime. This is similar to the stand of most Stalinist parties around the world. It turns out that Stalinism and Trotskyism aren't as different as the Stalinists and Trotskyists would like one to believe.

Permanent revolution and the Arab Spring

The WWP and PSL are from the wing of Trotskyism that likes to slur over theoretical differences and unpopular positions. A number of Trotskyist groups that pose as more revolutionary than WWP and PSL like to make a big deal of Trotsky's version of "permanent revolution". And indeed, it was the first really distinctive theory put forward by Trotsky, and it remains to this day a core concept of Trotskyism. So it's not surprising that various Trotskyist groups have insisted that "permanent revolution" provides the orientation for the Arab Spring.

But if most Trotskyist groups have judged the Arab Spring with the yardstick of the "permanent revolution", the experience of the Arab Spring, in turns, serves as a test for "permanent revolution". And it's a test that "permanent revolution" has failed badly. It gives rise to the idea that the democratization movements and the Arab Awakening will either go on to workers' power and socialist revolution, or they will fail, giving rise to nothing. According to "permanent revolution", to even imagine anything else is to be a Stalinist believer in the "theory of stages" or "two-stage revolution" and amounts to betrayal of the workers' interests.(7)

Yet a year and a half into the Arab Spring, in the countries where dictators have fallen, there is neither workers' power nor retrogression to the past. Instead the repressive secret police apparatus has been curtailed to this or that extent in those countries; there is a greater mass political activity; and the discussion over what comes next has spread to larger parts of the population than ever.

How can this be described as a useless outcome for the masses? And yet, in order to save the theory of permanent revolution, this is what the Trotskyists have to do. The Trotskyist Spark, for example, faced with the fall of Qaddafi, first carried articles presenting the outcome as a horror, and then fell silent about Libya.(8) It doesn't present a realistic picture of the difficulties and struggles facing the Libyan working people, but instead pictures a hell on earth. There is no mention in the Spark of anything positive that has resulted from the fall of the Qaddafi regime, such as the increased political activity of the Libyan people, liberation from the political police, the attempts to reconcile the various ethnic groupings, the improved status of the Berbers, and the successful holding of elections. Instead, Spark is much more concerned with oil deals than with what the masses are doing in post-Qaddafi Libya. It has discovered, decades after the rest of world was clear on this fact, that foreign oil companies are interested in buying Libyan oil, and it implies that these oil companies are now all Western ones by leaving out that China is also involved with the post-Qaddafi Libyan oil industry.

The Trotskyist League for the Revolutionary Party claims that the fate of the uprisings "confirm our warnings that the struggles against imperialism and for democratic freedoms cannot succeed if they remain trapped within capitalism."(9) So the LRP denies that there have been any advances on the grounds that there can be no improvement in "democratic freedoms" so long as capitalism and imperialism still exist. They back this up by seeking to prove that Libya after Qaddafi is a racist hell, as Spark does, and by demonstrating that the need for mass struggle continues in Tunisia and Egypt, as if this proved that nothing had changed. Their general standpoint is simply that nothing short of socialism is of any value, and they stress that it is essential to "raise no illusions that there is any other solution to the masses' problems than socialist revolution".(10) No doubt, socialism is the only way to end capitalist exploitation and the repression used to back it up. But surely it is essential to "raise no illusions" that mass struggle under capitalism is futile and can't achieve definite gains of use to the masses.

The problem the Trotskyists have with the Arab Spring is that there was never a chance that it was going to lead to immediate workers' power anywhere in the Arab world: not in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya; not in Yemen; not in Syria or Bahrain or elsewhere in the Arab world. For the time being, this is not a possibility. In the Middle East and North Africa, as elsewhere in the world, the conditions aren't yet ripe for it; the working class is too disorganized; and the revolutionary movement is too much in crisis. In these circumstances, Trotskyist theory should lead to opposing the Arab Spring and its struggle against dictatorship. As a result, the advocates of "permanent revolution" either have to glorify various struggles and pretend that, if only there was Trotskyist leadership, socialism is near, or to denounce these struggles. The best of Trotskyist writing on the Arab Spring reports on developments in the workers' movement that aren't discussed in many other places. But their need to force the situation into the general pattern predicted by the theory of "permanent revolution" results in biased and unreliable estimates of what they report on, with the Trotskyists either presenting each upsurge of the workers' movement as a sign that socialist revolution is near, or one-sidedly presenting everything in the overall movement as an unparalleled disaster. And ultimately, it results in their discreetly falling silent when events too blatantly contradict their dogmas.

One of the Trotskyist groups, the International Marxist Tendency whose website is called "In Defence of Marxism" (IDM), has been enthusiastic about the revolt against Assad, and polemicized against certain groups on the left that denounce it.(11) But this is only because it managed to convince itself that what is going on in Syria is the first steps of a socialist revolution, not a democratization struggle, and that Syrian socialism was close. It believes that if only there were "a genuine leadership", the insurgents would not only overthrow the Assad dictatorship but "establish a genuinely democratic and socialist Syria."(12) It reports on the establishment of popular local councils in Syria, and implies that they are the truly revolutionary force which could carry out the socialist revolutionary program.(13)

To give IDM its due, however, its idea of socialism is quite different from ours and easier to implement. In its view, the economy was already socialist under the Assad dictatorship, at least until neo-liberal reforms began in the 1990s. It identifies socialism simply with an economy with a big state sector, just as the Stalinists do. It recognizes that the ruling party under the Assad dictatorship, the Ba'ath party, "centred the nationalized industries in the grip of a tiny clique at the top of society", there was "not a degree of democratic control of the economy by the workers", and the Ba'athists "suppressed any attempt of workers to build independent organizations".(14) But still, in its eyes, this was not state-capitalism, but socialism. And the IDM doesn't see that the turn towards neo-liberalism by the Assad dictatorship in the 1990s and the 2000s had economic roots in the state-capitalist economy; for the IDM, it was supposedly simply a political decision by the Assad dictatorship, which responded to the collapse of what the IDM regards as socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by looking towards China.

Thus IDM's enthusiasm for the Syrian insurgents was based on euphoric and unrealistic expectations. So it may not be surprising that within five months of its major polemic in defense of the Syrian uprising, the IDM came down with a case of the blues and began backtracking. It carried an article entitled "Syria: Reaction on Both Sides of the Divide!", which declares that the Syrian uprising, whose prospects were so bright just a few months previously, was lost if it doesn't take up the socialist program.(15)

Democratization and socialism

Real Marxism -- as opposed to the mockery that Stalinism and Trotskyism has made of Marxism -- has a very different idea of the role of democratic struggles than is put forward by the theory of "permanent revolution". It sharply distinguishes even the most radical democratic reforms from the socialist transformation of the economy and society. At the same time, it by no means declares that the benefits of the democratic struggle are an illusion.

Marx, writing over 150 years ago about a radical democrat of his day, said:

"Whereas we say to the workers: 'You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power', you say on the contrary: 'Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.' " (16)

Thus Marx doesn't say, the workers' struggle is useless unless it immediately gives rise to workers' power. Instead he says that workers' power is inconceivable unless the masses engage in one struggle after another against exploitation and oppression. This includes democratic struggles. Marxism holds that democracy doesn't lead by itself to the end of exploitation. Instead it leads to a wider, broader, and fiercer class struggle. But in doing so, it brings the day of socialist revolution closer.

The Arab Spring may go through various zigzags and horrible setbacks. While some dictators have fallen, others are resisting heavily. And when the old dictatorships fall, there is the question of what follows them. And even where there are no sharp setbacks, the Arab Spring is likely to prove disappointing on the economic front. The participation of sections of the bourgeoisie in the movement, the strong influence of neo-liberal ideas, and the lack of much idea of what an alternative policy would be, preclude that. The wave of market fundamentalism which was being taken up by the dictatorships may continue in another form after the dictatorships fall. The best possibility is that sections of the masses will achieve a more organized opposition to it.

This will not prove that the democratic struggle was a fraud or an empty shell because socialism wasn't achieved. Instead these prospects demonstrate some of the ways in which democracy gives rise to sharper and broader struggles of all types. The anti-dictatorship struggle may be followed eventually by a period of depression, as the various class sections of the movement go their own way, and the hopes for economic liberation fade. The democratic uprisings will leave a legacy that demonstrates the power of the masses, but they will need to be followed up by the coming forward of an independent working class movement.

From the Marxist-Leninist point of view, the only path forward in the Arab world as well as elsewhere is through the increased organizational, political, and ideological role of the working masses. The Trotskyists say the only thing lacking for socialist revolution was leadership; they say if only the masses were led by leaders committed to Trotskyist permanent revolution, socialism -- indeed, regional socialist regimes -- could have been achieved. Marxism says that what is needed for this is the working class transforming itself through many struggles. And what is needed for revolution even then is the existence of a revolutionary situation.

In brief, Marxism says that, if the working class organizes itself as an independent force, the immediate struggles will bring socialism closer, while Trotskyism says these struggles are futile unless they immediately result in socialism. That's why Marxism is a more realistic guide for the working class movement, while Trotskyism boils down to the repeated complaint that another wonderful opportunity has been lost.

The Marikana massacre and democratization

The experience of the democratic struggle against apartheid in South Africa sheds some light on the Arab Spring. In South Africa, apartheid was completely destroyed, and the African National Congress (ANC) obtained political power, but the new ANC government has carried out an utterly market fundamentalist policy which has left the majority of the black masses in deep poverty. It is going to take the organization of an independent working class movement, independent of the ANC and the new black bourgeoisie as well as of the white bourgeoisie, in order for the masses to advance. And yet, the fall of apartheid was still an important and essential step..

The extent to which the ANC government has become simply another capitalist oppressor is revealed by the recent shocking slaughter of mine workers. The massacre by police on August 16 of 34 striking platinum miners at Marikana, South Africa is a shocking atrocity. It recalls the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 which took place under the apartheid government of the time, in which the police opened fire on black people protesting the racist pass book laws, killing at least 69 people and injuring many more, with the majority of victims shot in the back as they fled. At Marikana, the strikers were shot down while gathered on a small out-of-the-way hill, with the intent of smashing their strike, and many of them too were shot down as they fled or sought to surrender.

But the apartheid government of the time of Sharpeville is long gone. It is the ANC, the largest resistance organization against apartheid, that has ruled South Africa for almost 20 years. And yet here again there is an atrocious massacre of black workers, and moreover of miners, the poorest of whom are living under conditions similar to what black miners had faced under apartheid.

When apartheid was overthrown, the black masses expected improvements in their horrible living conditions. The ANC Freedom Charter had proclaimed not only the equality of all the people of South Africa and the end of the color bar, but that the people would have education, housing, medical care, labor rights, nationalization of big industry, redistribution of land, etc., and made special mention of the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class. Yet after the ANC took power, it tore up many of the promises of the Freedom Charter, and increasingly implemented a harsh market fundamentalist policy, hand in hand with the World Bank and other agencies of the world bourgeoisie.

This shows that the criticism of the ANC and the associated Communist Party of South Africa from anti-revisionist communists was justified. In the last decade of apartheid, the ANC leadership adapted a policy of seeking a deal with the National Party, the ruling party of apartheid and the party of the dominant Afrikaner section of the white bourgeoisie, at the expense of radical reforms. The ANC leadership's idea was to offer to leave the white bourgeoisie and the basic economic structure of the country untouched, but to end apartheid, and to achieve this compromise with the help of the Western bourgeoisie. This required watering down ANC objectives to what was acceptable to the Western bourgeoisie and the big powers. Negotiations were held between the ANC and the leaders of the National Party, the Afrikaner Broederbond (a secret organization of the Afrikaner leadership), and the apartheid government. They bore fruit when the apartheid government legalized the ANC, released Nelson Mandela from jail, and began the several-year-long transition that led to the end of apartheid and the elections that first brought the ANC to power in 1994. But they also bore fruit for the bourgeoisie in the form of a neo-liberal economic policy.

The result has been pretty much as foreseen back in 1990, when critics wrote that

"a black elite may be given a portion of power and privilege" and "the workers and poor may be able to breathe a little easier with the loosening of repression and discrimination, but the miserable economic conditions in which the masses live won't be changed."(17)

Does this mean that the struggle against apartheid was a sham which accomplished nothing, another promising struggle which was unfortunately "hijacked"? No. Apartheid denied the rights and humanity of a majority of the South African population. It made South Africa into a country that was a bastion of racism and reaction extending far beyond its borders. So long as the apartheid regime existed, South Africa was a slave-labor camp for the majority of its population. The fall of apartheid was a historic event for South Africa and the world.

But it means that the fall of apartheid did not bring economic liberation to the working masses of South Africa. The conditions of struggle for the masses have changed, but the need for struggle remains. But this struggle will more clearly raise class issues, and will eventually reach a broader and deeper level than proved possible under apartheid.

Democratization doesn't bring about utopia. The conservative form of democratization in South Africa preserved harsh economic conditions for the majority of the black masses. It was not inevitable that the fall of apartheid would bring in such a conservative, neo-liberal government; the ANC leadership and its revisionist allies are guilty of a tremendous betrayal of the ANC rank-and-file and of the movement in general. Moreover, had there been independent working class organization, additional advances might have been achieved despite the ANC. Democratic changes don't bring socialism in themselves, but radical democratic changes can bring much greater economic benefits than what the ANC has delivered. But there is no guarantee that the Arab Awakening will do any better than the ANC has done.

Still, one way or another, atrocities such as apartheid and the bloody dictatorships of the Arab world will be cast aside. One way or another, the old political world is coming to an end, and good riddance! Something new is developing. The task facing working class activists is not to imagine that socialism is around the corner. It is to fight for as radical a change as possible during democratization. But it is especially to fight to develop a class-conscious workers movement, that will seek to utilize the gains of democratization to develop as broad a class struggle as possible. For some, this may seem too prosaic a goal to be worthy of support. But from the Marxist standpoint, this is the real motor of history.

Particular features of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring takes place under its own particular conditions that neither the pure democrats nor the Trotskyists take very seriously into account.

* First of all, the working class movement in the Arab world, as elsewhere, faces severe crisis. It is not simply divided into a few big pieces, such as reformist organizations versus revolutionary organizations, but it is often fragmented into small pieces: there are many political groupings, fractures along religious lines, national and ethnic issues to resolve, etc. This is compounded by the current crisis of revolutionary theory. To change this, there will need to be careful attention to how to unite the workers on a class-wide basis, and with the revolutionary outlook that will enable them to mobilize the entire oppressed people around them.

* The Arab Spring has been motivated not just by the hatred for political tyranny, but by deep economic grievances. Poverty and inequality have been growing in the Arab world, even as economic development transformed the Middle East and North Africa. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, bourgeois economic development has brought increasing poverty and despair. Yet at the same time, there is massive confusion about the alternatives to market fundamentalist policy. Various dictatorships claimed to be "socialist", and there has been no widely-influential refutation of this by the left. On the contrary, such trends as Stalinism and Trotskyism have reinforced such claims by these dictatorships. This helps create doubts as to what an alternative policy to present-day market reforms would be. The liberal bourgeois elements of the anti-dictatorship movements simply want a more open capitalist system, rather than the crony capitalism of the dictatorships, and the pressure of world capitalism reinforces that. But there is also confusion among the working masses themselves.

* The outside powers, both the major world powers and regional regimes, are all seeking to influence the Arab Spring. These are all conservative forces that stand against the need for radical change, and that pose a threat to the popular character of the various uprisings. Nevertheless, these outside powers have conflicting interests among themselves, and their inability to unite to impose a settlement on the region has given an opening for the struggle against certain regimes. It is not the outside powers who have imposed the Arab Spring on the masses, but the insurgent people who have made the Arab Spring into a reality that the whole world has to acknowledge.

* While there is anger among the masses at the way that outside powers have propped up the local dictatorships and backed the Israeli government, the Arab Spring is not an anti-imperialist movement. Nevertheless, the fall of the dictatorships will in the long-run reinforce anti-imperialism in the region. It does not, however, help unite the masses or increase their hatred of imperialism when their democratic struggles are condemned in the name of anti-imperialism. Perhaps the non-class anti-imperialists might consider which is a more powerful force for change: the Qaddafi and Assad families and their hangers-on who made fabulous fortunes by raping their countries, or the millions upon millions of people who were economically and politically raped by these dictatorships.

* And the Arab Spring takes place at time when further crises loom: economic, political, and environmental. The world depression continues, and it has its impact in the Middle East and North Africa. The environmental crises, including but not restricted to global warming, are having an impact that can only intensify over time. This makes it timely that the various dictatorships are falling, because it makes it easier for the masses to respond to future crises. And it makes it unlikely that any new despotic regimes in the region can be as stable as those of the past. <>


(1) DWVDG meeting notice, 19 June 2012. See pages 30-31 of this issue of Communist Voice.

(2) The Arab world has sharp class conflicts, but in the heat of the desperate and determined struggle against the entrenched dictatorships, the movement appears as something in which class differences, other than with the very rich, are muted in the face of the common grievances against tyranny and the denial of all rights. In fact, the different classes have had different aims and a different attitude to and role in the struggle from the start. But the consciousness of the class differences and their importance gets muted for a time.

(3) The difference between such regimes isn't as clear as the non-class anti-imperialists believe. For example, in recent years Qaddafi's regime was embraced warmly by European imperialism, literally, as various European leaders welcomed Qaddafi personally. While Qaddafi's regime was slightly closer to Eastern imperialism, and Tunisia to Western imperialism, Qaddafi himself warned against the downfall of Tunisia's Ben Ali, displaying the solidarity of one dictator for another.

(4) "Syrian Uprising Morphed Into Regional and Global Wars", August 10,

(5) In periods where an old reactionary system is being broken up, the forces of the old are usually in crisis, divided, and veering this way and that. If all the foreign reactionary and imperialist powers were united in direct opposition to the struggle, and rendering a united support to the local reactionaries, it would be hard for any change to take place. This doesn't meant that the reactionaries are friends of the masses: the outside forces of the old world are seeking to utilize the situation for their own advantage, even when they intervene to some extent against dictatorships they supported until yesterday. But it does mean it's absurd to announce that Arab Spring has been "hijacked" by imperialism -- as non-class anti-imperialists have done with respect to various of the struggles -- simply on the evidence that these divisions exist and weaken various Arab dictatorships. The outside powers seek to find one way or another to keep the masses enchained. But their desires and what they can accomplish are two different things. They did not achieve a compromise solution in Libya; they do not end up with military bases in Libya; and there's no guarantee they will do any better in Syria.

Lenin famously pointed out that one of the features of a revolutionary situation is that "it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; ... there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the 'upper classes', a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for 'the lower classes not to want' to live in the old way, it is also necessary that 'the upper classes should be unable' to live in the old way. (In Sec. 2 of "The Collapse of the Second International", 1914, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 213.) He by no means meant that the revolutionaries should unite with the frenzied attempts of the upper classes to find a new way to continue their exploitation. He did mean that the divisions caused by the fractures in the upper classes are one of the features allowing mass action to burst out of the bounds ordinarily imposed by the harsh suppression of the ruling classes.

(6) The Workers World Party's view of the Taliban as anti-imperialist is discussed in such articles as "The socialist debate on the Taliban: Trotskyism slips on the supposed anti-imperialism of the Taliban" ( and "Anti-imperialism and the class struggle: Part 2 of 'the socialist debate on the Taliban'" (, the latter of which discusses the similarity between Stalin's and Trotsky's idea of anti-imperialism.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation prefers to be even more evasive on such issues than the WWP; that's its idea of how to unite activists. But in such talks as "Iraq, Iran and U.S. imperialism in the Middle East" by Heather Benno at PSL's 2010 National Conference on Socialism, she praises "the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan", while making no mention of the masses fighting against both the Taliban and the occupation. Thus she is referring, however evasively, to the Taliban as part of the forces which, in her view, are an "inspiration to all who are fighting imperialist domination. By bogging down the U.S. war machine, they have given breathing room to other U.S. targets, such as Iran. Their struggle is an international struggle; they are one with the struggles of working-class and oppressed peoples around the world." (

(7) A common opportunist position on the democratic struggle, taken repeatedly by the Stalinist CPUSA for example, is that the working class should simply trail behind the bourgeois liberals. The Trotskyists claim that the only way to avoid such a serious blunder is to deny the difference between democratic and socialist movements. They denounce the recognition of this difference as the "theory of stages" or "Stalinist two-stage revolution". It is astonishing that Trotskyists could regard as the fount of wisdom the idea that the revolutionary struggle can never go through distinct phases or stages, based on the particular conditions of the time. How dogmatic can one get? But in any case, in so doing, the Trotskyists are in fact denouncing Marxism, which, from the first, has stressed the class differences between democratic and socialist revolutions. Revolutionary Marxists have used this recognition to show the working class the need to have its own independent stand during even the most radical democratic struggles or revolutions. This is discussed in my article "Leninism and the Arab Spring" in the Nov. 15, 2011 issue of Communist Voice (, which pays special attention to Lenin's book Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.

(8) See "The Imperialist Race for Oil and Gas", September 19, 2011,, "Libya: Local Thugs Hunt Immigrants ... with the Complicity of the Big Powers", October 31, 2011,, "New Libyan Regimes: Promising Nothing Good Backed by Western Leaders' Hypocrisy",

(9) "Land Day 2012: Only the Workers and Poor People Can Lead the Arab Revolutions to Victory!" (

(10) "Egypt: In the Face of the Coup Boycott, Protest the Presidential Elections!". June 15, 2012,

(11) See "In Defence of the Syrian Revolution: The Marxist position on the revolution and Assad's so-called 'anti-imperialism' - part one", March 15, 2012 This article roundly condemns the stand of "some organizations, which claim to be 'leftist' but denounce the insurgents as "a band of thugs". The article names, in particular, two Stalinist parties, the Communist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of Syria, but is silent about the various Trotskyist groups with a similar position.

(12) "In Defence of the Syrian Revolution: The Marxist position on the revolution and Assad's so-called 'anti-imperialism' - part two", March 16, 2012,

(13) Ibid. The article, after denouncing every other section of the resistance in Syria, says that "The establishment of popular councils where the people have been able to establish control, temporarily replacing the old state regime, is also a significant development. So far, these have only lasted for short periods of time and in limited parts of the country. In spite of this, these are symptomatic of what would be possible with a genuine mass revolutionary leadership." No doubt, the attempt to build popular councils shows the mass ferment that is going on in Syria. But the IDM website has little evidence that these councils go beyond the democratic aims of the other insurgents. The article "Syria: Declaration of the Free Local Council of Zabadani", 29 January 2012,, expresses the hope that "other places will be inspired by it [the local council in Zabadani] and follow its example". But the declaration that it reproduces does not go beyond the bound of democratic enthusiasm.

(14) See footnote 11.

(15), August 15, 2012. It declares: "So, where is Syria going and what is the revolution, or, quite arguably, what remains of the revolution, going to produce?" (Emphasis added) At the end, it says "We believe that the only way the revolutionary forces can defeat reaction is if they put forward the following:..." and proceeds to elaborate a program for the imminent establishment of workers' power.

(16) "Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne", Karl Marx, 1853. Section 1. Preliminaries.

(17) "On Mandela's tour of the U.S. and the prospects for South Africa", The Workers' Advocate Supplement, vol. 6 #6, July 15, 1990. In the same issue, the leaflet "Apartheid No! Revolution Yes!" from the New York Workers' Voice is reprinted that states that "The deal being discussed may put an end to many harsh and hated features of the apartheid regime. And a black elite may be given a portion of power and privilege. But the oppression of the black working people would remain in force. The workers and the poor may be able to breathe a little easier with the loosening of repression and discrimination, but the miserable economic conditions in which the masses live won't be changed." The Workers' Advocate Supplement was a journal of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the USA, which dissolved in November 1993. The Communist Voice Organization comes from those activists from in or around the MLP,USA who have continued to uphold communism.

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