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The Predictable Result of Arab Spring

[Due to somewhat current events, I am again pushing back the second Gramsci article I had planned––so apologies to readers who were looking forward to it––but I promise that it will be written.  Um, someday… Also, while I have your attention on these editorial brackets, I would also like to draw your attention to the donate page I have added to the bar above.  Based on the feedback, both on the comments string and on private messages, I have decided to add a Paypal donate button and maybe, in the future if people are actually donating, offers for donators.  Okay, on with today's post.]

Remember the Arab Spring and how nearly everyone in the first world mainstream left was arguing that the revolution was coming to Egypt?  Tunisia was quickly forgotten, everyone focused on Egypt and its supposed "social media" revolution; anyone who argued that an intifada did not necessarily mean a revolution, and that rebellions were not tantamount to revolutionary movements, were branded as pessimistic and stupid.  One had to endorse the rebellions in an empty-headed manner, proclaim that they would change everything––that even socialism was emerging in Egypt and the World!––and not ask the hard questions that critical leftists should always ask about the hows and whys of making revolution.  Indeed, this empty-headed embrace of the Arab Spring Revolution discourse led to some well-known leftists (such as Gilbert Achcar) claiming the NATO intervention in Libya was "anti-imperialist"!

Since I was one of those who argued that the so-called "Arab Spring", despite being an uprising that should be celebrated, was not a revolution, I encountered numerous hostile responses amongst that sector of the left that over-fetishizes movementist solutions.  There were friends who wrote me angry emails that generally ignored the points I was making while making their own strange and ahistorical claims about these supposed "revolutions".  There were other blogs that, overly-valorizing the rebellions in Egypt, were angry that I dared to point out how, if any of us did a proper historical materialist assessment of Arab Spring, we would know that it was far from becoming a revolutionary movement.  There were rude commenters who attacked me for being "undialectical" though it was clear they didn't know what "dialectical" even meant outside of being a label for their dogmatism.  There were old friends at conferences who tried to say that anyone who criticized the Egyptian uprising as not being properly revolutionary were conservative and reactionary.

You get the picture.

The picture being "managed" elections

In any case, now over a year has passed.  Tunisia has dropped even further off the first world left's mental map of the world, Egypt has had its election and the Muslim Brotherhood has won.  Leaving aside the fact that bourgeois democracy hasn't really been a revolutionary demand since the French Revolution (and it is especially not a revolutionary demand in a context where the imperialists and their lackeys can rig and have rigged third world elections), the very fact that a reactionary government was elected should be proof that the uprisings that marked the Arab Spring were not the revolution promised by the over-enthusiastic left at the centres of capitalism.  As Samir Amin, the great Egyptian anti-imperialist political economist, has referred to this election and its results as part of a "planned failure" managed by Washington; he has been pretty clear, since the beginning of the Egyptian intifada, that the Muslim Brotherhood probably stood to win and that, contrary to the beliefs of some very utopian first world leftists, the Muslim Brotherhood, like Mubarak, would be quite willing to accept imperialist management.  One only needs to look at the ideology and the class composition of the Muslim Brotherhood to realize that it is a reactionary, pro-imperialist force that will form yet another compradori bloc.

And yet, even when the street rebellions of the Arab Spring were at their height and the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood was evident, there were starry-eyed "leftists" at the centres of capitalism who seemed to think––perhaps because of the virulent Islamophobia rampant in Europe and North America––that a government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood would be more "progressive" than a government formed by the other organized bloc (the liberals with an openly petty-bourgeois if not fully bourgeois agenda) attempting to control the rebellions.  Any proper analysis of imperialism, however, would tell us that Political Islam, which is as much a reactionary force as Christian Fundamentalism, is not essentially anti-imperialist.  The US props up Karzai's theocratic regime in Afghanistan, for example, and the only difference between Karzai and the Taliban is that the former is willing to be a US puppet… A difference that might soon be surmounted since the Taliban is now excepting overtures from the puppet government, its leaders entering Karzai's parliament.  Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has been "democratically" elected through managed elections, can and will follow Mubarak's example and work with the imperialists.

But I think all of this is pretty clear by now and the leftists who were overly-fetishized Arab Spring––as they have done and will continue to do with all supposedly spontaneous uprisings––are now trying to pretend that they weren't overly excited about Egypt, that they weren't wrong in their analysis.  On to the next spontaneous rebellion that will usher in a new world!  On to the same ahistorical assessments without any critical interrogation of why we were wrong before!

None of this is to say, of course, that we shouldn't have supported the rebellions that marked the Arab Spring: all rebellions against imperialism and capitalism should be endorsed, no matter how short-lived. The point, though, is that if we are critical leftists––and especially if we are historical materialists––it is also our responsibility to examine these moments of rebellion through the lens of history, make sense of the class forces involved, and be aware of the possible limits.  Not because we are trying to condemn rebellions elsewhere but because all rebellions and revolutions should teach us something about rebellions and revolutions in general.  Thus, those who overly-fetishized the rebellions of the Arab Spring did so because they were seeking precedence for their own movementist method––these would be the same people who would argue that #occupy was revolutionary.  As a critical leftist, then, those of us who argue about the limits of these rebellions are trying to challenge the movementist discourse which is hegemonic at the centres of capitalism; we are asking the mainstream left that is enamoured by these easy solutions of Draperism and/or spontaneism (easy because we don't have to do anything but sit and wait for that magical moment when the people will self-organize) to consider the limits of their own discourse by pointing out the limits of those moments they falsely believe proves their discourse.

Nor am I saying that revolutionary movements that satisfy the lessons learned from history are not themselves going to fail.  One only needs to look at Nepal and how its revolutionary party collapsed into revisionism at a key historical juncture to understand that all revolutionary movements are threatened by counter-revolution.  The point, though, is that Nepal's movement was actually a revolutionary movement before its failure whereas the Arab Spring was a mass uprising that had no coherent revolutionary content; the former had a chance of going further and it did go much further.  Moreover, even the failures encountered by actual revolutions are limits learned from history (and the lesson of the two-line struggle and how the party can become revisionist is something taught to us by Russia and China) and are more epic and tragic in their failure than the always predictable low-level failure (low level because it accomplished no revolutionary gains) of a movement without structure engaged in an incoherent rebellion.

In any case, in order to avoid the historical amnesia promoted by left movementism, let us assert the lessons that can be learned from the end result of the Egyptian intifada: a) while the rebellion was many things for many different people, it was primarily about ousting Mubarak; negative gestures do not produce a revolutionary plan; b) there was no significant left organization to involve itself in what resembled an insurrection and thus transform the masses into a revolutionary force; c) there were significant liberal and conservative organizations that possessed the means to co-opt the commendable rebellious sentiment and channel it into their organizational agendas––indeed, it even became evident within a month of the rebellions that liberal organizations were involved in a year's worth of organizational activities that sparked the rebellions; d) a class analysis of the forces most organized in the rebellion, and thus the forces that could emerge as the rebellion's vanguard, should have told us that the rebellion was quickly being managed by competing groups of compradori––either liberals or theocrats––and so those who were providing the class content of the rebellion were not at all revolutionary, indeed they were just as pro-imperialist as Mubarak and their agenda was more one of a coup than a revolutionary transformation of society; and e) the left cannot suddenly organize itself in the midst of these moments (nor can it hope the people will just gravitate towards its ranks when it has done nothing to promote its theory and practice ahead of time and other groups are better organized) but instead has to be engaged in a longer protracted process––that war of position I mean to write on, as well as pursuing a Peoples War agenda rather than waiting for the insurrectionary moment.

Unfortunately, however, I doubt the left that easily enamoured by every rebellion will bother to learn from the constant repetition of the same failure.  And since, because of the current crisis of capitalism, this will be an era of great and large-scale rebellions, the uncritical analyses of Arab Spring (and, of course, #occupy) will probably be repeated by the same people, without any attempt to assess the reasons why they were wrong before.  We must maintain that there is a difference between supporting rebellions with the critical intention of building a movement that is capable of overthrowing capitalism, versus mindlessly endorsing spontaneism with the belief that "the revolution is coming!" at every moment of rebellion.  The latter approach is utopian and contributes nothing to organizing a revolutionary movement––it is generally lazy, allowing people to ping-pong back and forth between uprisings in the hope that these uprisings will by themselves, magically for the first time in history, overthrow capitalism.  The former, though leading to harder questions of organization and history, is where revolutionary science begins.


  1. Hello again,

    I've always appreciated your attention to precision in language and definitions of concepts. Otherwise, how can we know what we are agreeing on?

    Do you have a definition of movementism that you use in your writing? I think of my politics as being broadly movementist, but I also agree with you about a lot of concrete political questions. Maybe we just mean different things when we say them?

    Is movementism just a question of rejecting the leading role of a party or political center? Does it have to do with the relationship between leadership and organization? Between cadre organizations and mass organizations? Of the balance between spontaneity and planning? Of representation? Democracy?

    Or is movementism by your lights the political organizational form of the ideas and aims of radical liberalism?

    As you no doubt know by now I'm not convinced of the usefulness of the Leninist party model as the political organizational form with which to carry out a protracted struggle against capital in the imperialist countries.

    But I also do not believe that the ideas of radical liberalism and the political organizational forms of radical liberalism are sufficient, either.

    To put it in ultra-left language, I am not hopeful of 'changing the world without taking power.' But in this period it seems important to unite with all who can be united, on the basis of what we can unite around.

    What is such a broad front if not a movement? And shouldn't we put our hopes in such a movement?


    1. First of all, I do agree that there should be united broad-based fronts. I also believe in mass organizations, unity in militancy but allowance for the diversity of line struggle… none of this is what I mean by movementism, or what has been meant by "movementism" since it first emerged as a pejorative term about five or six years ago. At the same time, though, unlike those who ascribe to movementism (which I will define), I do not believe that the unity produced by these broad-based movements is capable of becoming truly revolutionary. It is important, and it might spark revolutionary ideas and produce revolutionary cadre, but if there is no unified left (which there really can't be based on all the various lines) there is no unified leftwing movement.

      Secondly, not all theories of praxis that reject the Leninist party model are necessarily movementist, though movementism does reject this model. That is to say, I wouldn't classify classical anarchism movementist, although I would say that many forms of autonomism (especially the Holloway brand you indicated) are probably severely movementist.

      Anyhow, movementism (which comes from "social movementism") is the theory that all the various social movements will somehow add up into a revolutionary overthrow and that social movement diversity is more important than the unity of theory, as well as that we shouldn't organize because the working class must self-organize. Hence a movementist approach tends to focus more on moments of spontaneity, seeing them as revolutionary explosions of self-organization.

  2. I think that you also should emphasize the question of there necessity of dual power. I'm sure we agree on that it needs to be build in the midst of a prolonged people's war, but even if there would be a revolution October-style in Egypt there wasn't only there lack if a revolutionary party but also a total lack of parallel state power, not to mention revolutionary armed forces.

    sorry for my bad english.

    1. Hello: thanks for the comment, and the bad english is no problem––since I really only know english, your command of my language is better than my command of any other language.

      Yes, I agree that dual power is a necessity. The reason I didn't emphasize it, however, was because my critiques were aimed at a context that would precede any possibility of dual power. The ingredients that the Arab Spring lacked (and that I highlighted in my second last paragraph) were the ingredients necessary to build dual power in the first place. That is, a revolutionary party is necessary to build a revolutionary movement, which is necessary to build a parallel state power. The point is that the Arab Spring lacked the first qualification (a revolutionary party building a unified revolutionary movement) and so it was at a point that the possibility of dual power couldn't even be broached.

      Dual power is a fundamental question, I agree, and maybe my problem here was that I was simply assuming that direction rather than highlighting it… In any case, we cannot even begin to speak of it if the ingredients for its manifestation are absent. And they were, as I have argued, absent in this case.

  3. It's too soon to tell.

    1. I feel this is somewhat of blaise and dismissive comment in that it does address or engage with the arguments in this piece. If anything, it feels like the dismissals I encountered over a year ago––and this is the attitude, which is an over-fetishization of movementism, that I'm critiquing.

      In any case, if you mean it is too soon to tell because we don't know what progressive forces could have been influenced by the event of the Arab Spring and emerge to become revolutionary forces, then I would agree, because the intifada in Tunisia produced such leftist forces that understood the need to organize into militant organizations.

      But I am arguing that the uprising of the Arab Spring itself was, also by itself, not revolutionary and incapable of being revolutionary––just as any large-scale uprising of this type has been, historically, incapable of becoming by itself a revolutionary movement. And if you still think it is "too soon to tell" whether these moments can or cannot be revolutionary, then you might as well say that it was too soon to tell for #occupy––nor now for the Quebec Student Movement––which is not a scientific assessment but something of an abdication of critical responsibility.

      If there is a rebellious explosion that lacks the ingredients we know, from history, are necessary for a revolutionary movement then this explosion will not: a) become an insurrectionary moment; b) become even a moment in the process of a Peoples War. This is just a historical fact, too soon or too late, and if there is a movementist rupture from what has been figured out historically in this sense then I will be surprised, but of course will be all for it––but two world historical revolutions, as well as their echoes (from the strongest to the faintest), in the 20th century have taught us that these moments by themselves cannot be revolutionary. And this, pace movementism, is my point.

      We should note that the left coalition that emerged in Tunisia [January 25th Coalition] was releasing statements in the fall of 2011 saying pretty much this: that the rebellions were only rebellions and incapable of being more than just rebellions unless an organized and militant progressive movement needed to be founded. So the only thing these rebellions can be, if there is no organized and militant progressive force already in existence, is feeders for nascent forces or a moment to found these forces. Otherwise the structures that have the most organizational capabilities, as I've argued and has been demonstrated, will be able to channel these moments.


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