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The horse we rode in on

On July 5, I wrote the following to an old antiwar movement friend about events in Egypt:

Well, the military was badly burned by its experience of direct rule and happy to retreat into the background, provided they could preserve all their power and privilege–which the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] was happy to go along with so long as they could clamber into office. Morsi, the army, and the US had worked out a modus vivendi, but the MB fucked up, combining incompetence, lack of reform, and offensive power grabs. The felool (old regime supporters) conspired against Morsi from the beginning, but the Tamarod movement obviously struck a deep chord–the June 30 protests were truly gigantic. So I don’t think the military had this planned from the day one of the Morsi administration (although they obviously knew what was going to happen in advance, as evidenced by how smoothly they’ve staged things).

That said, I do think this is a coup–albeit one with popular support–and if the army has any brains, they will seize the opportunity to suppress not just the MB, but the society as a whole. (This is why they’re allowing violence to go on the boil, to intervene later as the “saviors of society.”) I suspect that the revolutionaries in Egypt made a very serious mistake in agitating for the overthrow of Morsi–not because he didn’t deserve to fall, but because only the army had the power to oust him and take control of the process. The revolutionaries either openly relied on the military and/or didn’t think things through, fooling themselves with the mythologies of “anti-power” and the notion that people can just keep overthrowing governments until a “good one” comes up. It’s Occupy politics taken to its most extreme and dangerous conclusions. The left should have formed a militant opposition, developed a program of deep reforms (a “transitional program” in the Trotskyist argot), and worked on building its institutional bases (political parties, intellectual/cultural centers, trade unions, etc). The left needed a long-term revolutionary strategy rather than a campaign to topple a government that would, if successful, inevitably result in military rule.

I hope I’m wrong.

Unfortunately, I was right. I quote myself from six weeks ago not to claim any peculiar powers of political prognostication; actually I claim quite the opposite: if I foresaw the development of things, it is only because their development was actually very easy to foresee. (I have quoted my entire original message, without adding or subtracting anything save the two words in square brackets.) I was open about my views and shared them with many comrades even before June 30, but I regret not writing about them publicly. I knew that I should have, but I chose not to because I felt that I lacked the “standing” to publicly criticize the Egyptian comrades; I was also, frankly, shy of the fight that it would have inevitably set off. That is a shabby attitude unworthy of Marxism.

The actuality of the counter-revolution is today broadly recognized on the left; Adam Shatz paints a grim yet accurate picture, as do Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (RS) in their “Letter to Egyptian Revolutionaries” of August 15. (For what it’s worth, while I think the RS statement is generally good, I believe that the comrades fail to address the extent to which the Tamarod movement, while genuinely popular and resting on legitimate grievances, was manipulated by felool and military forces. The letter constructs a narrative that renders the army more behind events than I think they actually were. I’m also alarmed that the problem of civil unrest/war isn’t discussed in any depth, especially since such a conflict would be an ideal context for consolidating the counter-revolution, as Issandr El Amrani argues.) But here I want to interrogate not so much what we on the left now realize, but rather why it took us so long to realize it.

I suppose revolutionaries are predisposed to see the best in the actions of the masses, although in this case one is reminded of Gramsci’s warning that “very often optimism is nothing more than a defense of one’s laziness, one’s irresponsibility, the will to do nothing.” But I think there is something even deeper going on, and it is to this that I am referring when I talk about “the mythologies of anti-power.” In particular, the project to “change the world without taking power” has been transformed, inevitably, into a kind of indifferentism towards political power.

Slavoj Žižek describes the attitude quite aptly in his critique of the Spanish indignados movement:

The indignados dismiss the entire political class, right and left, as corrupt and controlled by a lust for power, yet the manifesto nevertheless consists of a series of demands addressed at–whom? Not the people themselves: the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one else will do it for them, that they themselves have to be the change they want to see. And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.

Now one might claim that anti-power politics has nothing to do with anyone in Egypt. Well, consider how one would have thought through the implications of the Tamarod movement before June 30: if Morsi were ousted–which was the obvious aim of the movement, regardless of its formal position–then only the military would be in a position to take power in the aftermath. The military, or more accurately the top officers of the army-bourgeoisie, would subsequently proceed to rule directly; or it would pass power to a civilian government that it would control. This was all completely clear.

Given that the Egyptian left was evidently prepared to go down this road, what was its strategy for challenging the military power grab? Basically this: the masses will overthrow the government again if it gets too uppity. Thus a July 5 statement from RS declared:

Yes, the liberal bourgeois elite wanted to use this mass impetus to overthrow the rule of the Islamist elite, in order to themselves reach power with the endorsement and support of the military establishment. And it is true that the feloul [remnants of the old regime] wanted to return to the political scene by way of this new revolutionary tide. But there is a special logic to popular revolutions that will not submit to the illusions or schemes of the liberals or feloul….

[J]ust as the masses quickly left behind that propaganda in the days of Tantawi through experience and struggle, they will pass anew through the illusion that “the army and the people are one hand” in the weeks and months to come.

The Egyptian masses have managed to overthrow two presidents in 30 months. This mighty power is not reflected only in millions-strong protests, but also in the subsequent waves of labor strikes and popular demonstrations. For political confidence will transform into confidence in the social and economic struggle, and vice versa.

The problem with this attitude, which on the surface brims with confidence in the working classes, is that it assumes that only the workers learn anything from revolutionary struggle, when in fact the elites do as well. (Actually, if you want the real truth, the elites generally learn faster, since they already perceive themselves as a ruling class. A whole historic development precedes the arrival of Gramsci’s “modern prince” capable of leading the working class to victory.) Furthermore, the RS statement frames the problem of military hegemony in mostly discursive terms, deriving from media manipulation, state propaganda, etc. Yet the question is much deeper than that, especially when the military (with the felool) dominate the economy and the means of physical force. It seems that the revolution has traded one enemy for another, even more dangerous enemy.

But even if you leave all that aside–which you shouldn’t–you would still have to deal with the fact that the masses tire of revolution when it doesn’t bring, or at least promise, an improvement of life. Or as Trotsky, who knew something about revolution, says:

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime…. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses–so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. [emphasis added]

The “Occupy-ish” idea of never-ending revolt, of “kicking them all out” until someone (who?) walks in with an agenda (what?) that we like, while arguably a necessary break with the stage-managed, performative character of modern liberal reformism, itself needs to be overcome. It engenders an inattention to the concrete analysis of political power and confuses the committed leftist’s “lifestyle” of resistance–which is completely admirable and useful–with the ordinary person’s basically pragmatic orientation to struggle. The Egyptian masses were fed up enough to overthrow Morsi, but unlike the revolutionary left, they did so with (less than) zero intent to overthrow the heir apparent.

Of course the alternative strategic course that I’ve suggested–a rather longer-term process focused on program and organization–would have been quite unlikely to alter the main flow of events, given the marginal role of the revolutionary left in Egyptian society; indeed, it would have likely isolated the comrades. But isolation is preferable to going along with a mistake, since such isolation carries the possibilities of its own negation. If we’d pursued a different course, the more honest and thoughtful supporters of the Brotherhood and Tamarod would say to us now: “I did not understand you before, but today I do. You showed more wisdom than our leaders, who are risking a civil war.” Instead I fear that the left, condemning everyone and everything–probably correctly–in our little “Third Square,” look like people who clambered on the bandwagon, then started to wail when it went exactly where it was going.

So what is to be done, in Egypt and elsewhere? Here I’ll briefly respond to two comrades who have written on the question. First, Pham Binh, who writes:

Championing the democratic revolution in Egypt now means not only condemning the coup and the SCAF-controlled interim government in words but actively organizing to reverse the coup in deeds by literally breaking Morsi out of jail and returning him to his rightful office…. Breaking him out of a military jail today does not preclude arresting, overthrowing, or un-electing him tomorrow, nor does it imply an ounce of political support for the bourgeois-obscurantist Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi’s reformist ineptitude any more than the Bolsheviks’ active defense of the Kerensky government from Kornilov’s coup make them supporters of Kerensky’s strike-breaking and repression of peasant committees.

Repulsing and defeating SCAF’s power grab would embolden the increasingly despondent and apathetic masses whose plight has worsened dramatically since 2011.

It probably goes without saying that this is pure foolishness; of such an idiotic tactic, playing completely into the hands of the military’s “War on Terror,” Sisi himself would not dare to dream. The notion that such a crazy adventure would “embolden” the masses–the same masses who overthrew Morsi six weeks ago? or perhaps the substitute masses who read North Star?–is manifestly daft. (The “theoretical” aspect of the piece is basically the same argument you get from “third world” Stalinists in power looking to kick peasants off their land to make room for a factory or shopping mall. I find it unimpressive almost a century after the Russian Revolution.)

Operating at an incomparably higher political level is John Riddell’s article of August 20, which really should be read in full. I think that the critique of RS is (unfortunately) largely correct, although Riddell’s defense of Egypt’s formal democracy strikes me as improperly abstract. As Gilbert Achcar points out, this tends to suggest that “elected officials have carte blanche to do whatever they want during their term of office, even if they blatantly betray the expectations of their constituents.” And if you want the real truth, almost every government in the modern world, regardless of how dictatorial it actually is, will be more formally democratic than the revolution that overthrows it, for the simple reason that it will have always/already used the state power to organize some “election-show”–superficially encompassing the whole nation–in order to legitimize itself. Since movements and revolutionary parties can never avail themselves of such methods before taking state power, modern revolutions always have a formally anti-democratic moment, even if their substance must be profoundly democratic in order to progress.

I suspect that Riddell is tracking too closely the position of left-leaning governments in Latin America, particularly Venezuela. As sympathetic as I am to these governments, they have not been entirely principled in their international relations, which often have a highly instrumental character. Venezuela, for instance, supported the Ahmadinejad regime against the Green Movement; and backs the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition. Even if one thinks that progressive governments under imperialist capitalism have to make such unsavory alliances–personally I consider it short-sighted even as a “matter of state”–there’s no reason that grassroots activists have to follow the same line.

So again: what is to be done? In Egypt, I think the immediate task is not to get killed (seriously) and to prepare to operate illegally. Internationally, solidarity activists should demand an end to international “aid” to Egypt’s military (and demand that the Saudis not replace it, on pain of losing their own assistance). Everyone should demand an end to the “state of emergency” and the witch-hunt against the Muslim Brotherhood (which covers for a much wider campaign of social repression). The issue of the Brotherhood leadership is, to my mind, trickier: they’ve committed grave crimes, but they shouldn’t be prosecuted by people committing equally bad or worse crimes. The demand to restore the governmental status quo ante strikes me as totally abstract and disconnected from anything that might conceivably actually occur.

Over and above everything else, though, the left needs to think. We need a “story” of the Thirtieth June as deep and profound as Marx’s “story” of the Eighteenth Brumaire. My guess is that the Egypt is entering a dark time, a time when the streets may not be the primary strategic arena of action. Very well; render unto Sisi that which you can’t take from him anyway. But if they can deprive you of the use of your legs or your fists, as long as you’re living, they can’t stop you from using your brain.

  1. PB
    August 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    “Repulsing and defeating SCAF’s power grab” is “pure foolishness” and “an idiotic tactic”? Yet you want to end the state of emergency and the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, which would be repulsing and defeating SCAF’s power grab. Good luck untangling that pretzel.

    • August 26, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      “Repulsing and defeating SCAF’s power grab” would be great; “literally breaking Morsi out of jail and returning him to his rightful office” is an idiotic tactic towards that goal.

      Behold, the pretzel untangled.

      • PB
        August 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm

        As long as Morsi is in jail, the MB is repressed.

  2. August 27, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Shawn, you are quite right that we have to differentiate between defending capitalist democratic institutions against a rightist coup and defending workers’ power against a counterrevolution dressed up in “democratic” costume.

    We don’t support bourgeois democracy; we support the democratic rights that working people have been able to conquer within the capitalist framework. But when rightists try to overturn bourgeois democracy so as better to repress the workers’ and popular movement, we favour united struggle against the coupsters.

    This statement of principle is abstract. A position on Egypt must be developed out of Egyptian conditions, not by copying out of a textbook.

    Still, as I am sure you will agree, those who hailed the Egyptian coup as the culmination of a great revolutionary advance or who now favor even-handed opposition in Egypt to both the military dictatorship and the political movement it is suppressing should explain how they square these approaches with longstanding socialist principle on how to respond to rightist coups. –John Riddell

    • August 28, 2013 at 11:45 am

      Hi John, thanks for your reply. Yes, I agree that the Egyptian comrades who hailed the coup as a progressive step made a terrible mistake; I also agree that the “we condemn both sides equally” line ignores the “small fact” that one side controls the state power. These are important points, and I’m glad you’ve written about them so forthrightly.

      But coups, even military coups, are not inherently reactionary; eg, the Portuguese military coup of 1974 and indeed the Egyptian military coup of 1952 were both progressive. This is, I think, why you use the formulation “rightist coups” in your comment: it’s a question primarily of social content and not political form (which are linked but not in one-to-one correspondence). Hence the problem with July 3 coup isn’t that all coups are bad, but rather that this coup was clearly put all power in the hands of the most dangerous counter-revolutionaries. (The MB government was also counter-revolutionary, but with many more contradictions that prevented it from pursuing the all-out assault that we’re seeing today.)

      We likely agree on all this, but my criticism of your piece is that you seem to amalgamate the Marxist approach to these questions with the approach of the left governments in LatAm, which I think use a different framework, based on trying to build networks of international relations independent of/opposed to US imperialism–itself a worthy goal–yet willing to disregard the social character of governments opposed to the US. In my view these different approaches ought to be clearly distinguished (from a standpoint of critical support for the left governments).

      • August 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm

        Shawn, let me respond first on military coups and then on the ALBA position on Egypt.

        ON COUPS, RIGHT AND LEFT: You are right that military dictatorships sometimes carry out progressive measures. You mention the coup in Portugal that overturned fascism, and the coup in Egypt that chased out the British imperialists. I could mention a few more. And yes, that is why I wrote of “rightist” coups.

        But what concerns us most is promoting conditions favourable to the free development of workers’ and popular struggles. And here there is no doubt that bourgeois democracy – even when as restricted, dishonest, and repressive as in the U.S. – offers better conditions for our struggle than an outright military dictatorship. Moreover, even though bourgeois democracy is ultimately simply a form of capitalist dictatorship, it institutionalizes many democratic rights that workers have fought to achieve. Example: the right of U.S. blacks to vote, which is today under attack by 21st century Jim Crow.

        An interesting case in point is Hugo Chávez, an admirer of Juan Peron who once attempted to carry out a progressive military coup. He then turned away from that path and sought to use bourgeois democratic electoralism to help build a militant people’s movement. Interesting here is the role of Cuban leaders, who strongly advised Chávez and others to utilize democratic openings as a tool in revolutionary struggle.

        ON THE ALBA POSITION: Your comment raises again what some consider opportunistic inconsistency by the ALBA governments, whose positions I cited in my original article. I believe you have Syria in mind. A statement on Syria made today by Cuba provides a good test. Bear in mind that this is a statement not of a small revolutionary group but of a state with significant influence, operating in the terrain of United Nations politics. I think the statement sounds the right notes and its consistent with Cuba’s stand on Egypt.

        Here is a translation by the Cuban government:

        Havana, Aug 28 (acn) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cuba issued the following statement regarding the growing threats against Syria, which we reproduce below.

        The recent pronouncements of the U.S. government and several NATO allies urging military action in Syria, ignoring the efforts of some states to reach a political solution to the conflict that is bleeding that Arab nation, are alarming.

        It is necessary to remember that those who today advocate military action against Syria are the same that launched bloody wars without a mandate from the Security Council of the United Nations, under the deliberate lie about the existence of weapons of mass destruction or the pretext of civil protection, which caused substantial deaths of innocent people including children, who they qualify as “collateral damage”.

        There is a call to attack Syria, just as [its] government has authorized the UN Research Mission into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the country and this has begun work on the ground.

        Cuba condemns any use of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction and is firmly committed to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction and with the strict compliance of its provisions.

        The available information on the crisis in Syria is fragmented, imprecise and subject to frequent manipulation.

        An aggression against Syria would cause serious consequences for the already troubled region of the Middle East, would be a flagrant violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law and increase the dangers to international peace and security.

        Cuba reiterates its conviction that it is necessary to find a political solution and expresses its strong opposition to any attempt to undermine the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and the self-determination of its people.

      • September 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm

        Re: Coups. I agree with what you’ve written here.

        Re: ALBA. I thought the Cuban statement was very good. I had more in mind the stuff Venezuela has said, which has consistently gone beyond opposition to imperialist intervention (which is totally correct) into support for reactionary regimes. (See http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/6198.)

        Now I don’t think that left governments in an imperialist world system can be begrudged to take pragmatic decisions that may have a side-effect of strengthening reactionary regimes; eg, the Bolsheviks negotiated the Rapallo Treaty with the counter-revolutionary German government. But there’s no reason to lend political support, which is what the VZ government has unfortunately done.

        The ALBA position is important, and I’m glad you discuss it, but I think it could have been discussed sympathetically but critically in an article aimed at clarifying the stance that socialists should adopt.

        All that said, your piece was of course an extremely important contribution.

  3. September 4, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    I agree that some statements by Venezuelan leaders have been unhelpful. Consider Chavez, a year ago, speaking in a video: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2012/aug/02/venezuela-hugo-chavez-syria-video. Chavez’s basic point is to oppose intervention, and he’s right. But he adds that the cause of violence in Syria is terrorists sent over the border, and that’s a misleading statement that detracts from his main idea.

    For an up-to-date and rounded presentation of Venezuela’s view, see Maduro’s September 1 open letter to Obama, http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/10001. It’s an effective and moving statement.

    The article by Lance Selfa that you reference offers a couple of snippets from Venezuelan leaders but fails to mention the overall position they share with other ALBA countries: for non-intervention and a political solution. Most socialists agree on non-intervention. But socialist currents rarely take up the call for a political solution. It’s worth considering.

    The ALBA position is based on a series of attempts in Latin America to end or to head off civil wars and to open up space for the masses to organize legally and contest for government. These efforts have been successful in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia. In El Salvador, results have been mixed. In Honduras and Guatemala, results are not good. In Colombia, the jury is still out.

    The ALBA case does not deny the right to revolution. It’s based on an estimation of the specific conditions in most of Latin America today. See my review of Roberto Regalado, https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2008/01/02/review-latin-america-at-the-crossroads/.

    By contrast, the 1979 revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran provide examples where mass movements were able to overcome or neutralize the army and break it up.

    What about Syria today? Can the insurgent forces win the civil war and break up the Syrian army? I am concerned that reliance on a “win the war” policy imposes unending suffering on the Syrian people, draws in foreign intervention, and offers no clear road to a democratic outcome. There may be good cause for Syrians opposing the Assad regime to advance a perspective analogous to that of the ALBA countries.

    I would appreciate a reference to discussion of this issue by those more familiar than I with the situation in Syria.

  1. September 27, 2013 at 10:56 pm

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