Not Real Revolutions? Achcar and Co. on the Arab Spring

8 Apr

wantIn reviewing Trotskyist academic Gilbert Achcar’s book on the Arab Spring The People Want, Louis Proyect asserts that “classical Marxism” retains both its analytical and strategic validity and yet what is offered up seems to indicate the opposite. Proyect contrasts Achcar’s method in evaluating the Arab Spring’s revolutions with the method of renegade Tariq Ali who baldly claimed that there were no revolutions, not in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, nor Yemen in the 2010-2014 period.

But just because Ali was wrong does not make Achcar right.

The Proyect-Achcar response to Ali’s lie that political power in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria never changed hands in class terms was not to examine the class shifts in these countries but to concede that none of these revolutions was “real” because they were not socialist revolutions. In surrendering to rather than challenging Ali’s glib idiocy, Proyect declares that Vietnam never experienced a “real” revolution: “Vietnam had no revolution when it drove out the American imperialists. Just look at the millionaires in Vietnam today, profiting off of sweatshops.” According to this view, the expulsion of the Americans and the overthrow of the landlord-capitalist clique in Saigon by the national revolution in 1975 changed nothing in terms of which class ruled.

This absurdity is the result of Trotskyism’s rejection of classical Marxism’s understanding of different types of revolution. Trotsky’s permanent revolution held that no revolution could succeed except as proletarian revolution; anything less just isn’t “real.” Since only socialism can create “real democracy,” so only socialist revolution can be “real revolution.” The bourgeois, democratic, national, and agrarian revolutions that Marx and Lenin discussed throughout their careers just don’t count.

Because Trotskyism refuses to recognize any revolution that is not socialist revolution as revolution, it misjudges every political force to its right – liberals, nationalists, reformists, and Islamists – as counter-revolutionary because they all oppose socialism, as if the Arab Spring was a socialistic and anti-capitalist rather than a democratic and anti-fascist struggle. In Egypt, this error led the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) to form a bloc with the deep state-sponsored Tamarod who aided that state in reversing all the tenuous democratic gains of January 25 and restored the unchecked power of the old regime in a full blown counter-revolution. RS justified its alliance with the counter-revolution’s left flank on the grounds that President Mori was counter-revolutionary and that therefore Tamarod was leading a “second revolution” in ousting him.

This tendency to see counter-revolutionaries everywhere they aren’t blinded Achcar to Tamarod’s counter-revolutionary essence. He characterized Tamarod’s anti-Morsi protests as “ambiguous” even though their sponsorship by the deep state and Mubarakist mass media outlets was unambiguous long before General Sisi ousted President Morsi on July 3. Like most of the international left, he failed to recognize the counter-revolution because it came bearing petitions instead of bullets, because it utilized ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric about tyranny and organized street demonstrations, because it re-branded itself “rebellion” (Tamarod) once “remnant” (feloul) became too discredited.

A Marxism so easily fooled by form is no Marxism at all.

Like RS, Achcar wrongly asserted that Morsi was simply a new Mubarak who favored the same type of neoliberal capitalism:

“Morsi’s basic continuity with Mubarak, however, appears in Egypt’s manifest dependency on GCC capital — with the difference that Qatar has replaced the Saudi kingdom as the new regime’s main source of funding, as is only natural in light of the Muslim Brothers’ relationship with the emirate. Qatar has granted Egypt a loan of $2bn and pledged to invest $18bn over a five-year period in industrial and petrochemical projects, as well as tourism and real estate; it is also considering acquiring Egyptian banks. Moreover, Morsi’s government has applied for a $4.8bn loan from the IMF, making it clear that it is entirely disposed to comply with the IMF’s conditions as far as budgetary austerity and other neoliberal reforms go.”

Elsewhere, Achcar claimed that Islamists (whom he inaccurately labels “fundamentalists”):

“…just continue the economic policies and perpetuate the socio-economic structures that existed previously. They just continue the same relationships with international financial institutions. They accept the conditions of the IMF, with as much zeal as the regimes that were overthrown.”

This is misleading at best and dishonest at worst. Morsi never received the IMF loan he applied for because he balked at the austerity measures they demanded. His actual record in office is almost the exact opposite of the picture Achcar paints:

“[U]nder Morsi, the efforts of the handful of ministers around him who were appointed by him led in one year of government to a 12% growth in tourism, a 3.7% growth in industrial and agricultural exports, and a drop in imports of 9% due to import substitution, resulting in particular from a growth in local wheat production. There were 800 business start ups per month in that period, up 25% from the previous year, and a 100% increase in inward investment. One of the most interesting reforms Morsi made was in the petroleum sector, where gas exploration rights were granted to Gazprom to end BP’s monopoly in Egypt, which under Mubarak made no money at all for the state treasury. With tax revenues up 30% in the year, half of which was due to Morsi’s efforts in claiming unpaid taxes from NDP oligarchs, the health budget was increased by 5 billion Egyptian Pounds and the education budget by 14 billion Egyptian Pounds.”

Collecting back taxes from oligarchs, increasing the health budget by 18%, fostering the growth of small and medium-sized businesses, and promoting domestic rather than international capitalism through import substitution are not the actions of an IMF stooge or a neoliberal ideologue hell-bent on austerity but of a petty-bourgeois reformer. Furthermore, Morsi didn’t shoot nearly 1,000 protestors who peacefully took to the streets against him as Mubarak did, nor did he close a single media outlet that criticized him, so if Morsi was a tyrant then Mubarak was a democrat.

What Achcar and Trotskyism generally fail to see is that the Muslim Brotherhood is counter-revolutionary from the standpoint of socialism but not from the standpoint of democracy, reactionary from our standpoint as socialists but progressive compared to the fascist and autocratic killing machines that the Muslim Brotherhood is struggling against. Their founder’s declaration that “the Qu’ran is our Constitution” is not the slogan of reactionaries trying to turn the wheel of history backward to the 7th century (when constitutions did not exist) but an assertion that constitutional rule, separation of powers, rule of law, consent of the governed, inviolability of person, and due process are all desirable and consonant with the teachings of Islam. Those who reject the view that democratic impulses can be expressed in devoutly religious and un-secular language have learned nothing from Engels who championed peasant rebels that called their oppressive landlords “godless” tyrants and traitors to Christ’s teachings in The Peasant War in Germany. These German peasants might have looked backward in time ideologically to the days of Jesus in Jerusalem but their feet were marching forward, towards the destruction of feudal slavery; the people chanting and shouting “God is Great” in the streets of Cairo and Aleppo against Sisi and Assad today are much the same.

Achcar’s rejection of the Marxist notion of democratic revolution ‘flattens’ and distorts his assessment of counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt, so for him the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are equally dangerous and equally reactionary – after all, they are equally opposed to the socialism the people (supposedly) want. This false equivalence informed his stance on Tamarod since he favoreda truly independent third way rejecting both the old regime and the Islamic fundamentalists” and Tamarod presented itself as such. This policy of rejecting any alliance with Islamist forces as if they were the military guarantees that the left in Egypt will remain hopelessly isolated from the millions of people who are becoming actively involved in the struggle between two great camps: the counter-revolutionary anti-democratic deep state on one side and the pro-revolutionary pro-democratic Rabaa or R4bia movement on the other.


Perpetual political irrelevance is the inevitable outcome of a third campism that rejects joining hands with either with the counter-revolution or the revolution.

Achcar’s analysis of Syria is similarly hamstrung by seeing every force that opposes socialist revolution as counter-revolutionary in the midst of the democratic revolution. For him, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia – which is supplying the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with Chinese anti-tank missiles and enabling recent battlefield gains against the regime – is counter-revolutionary, as is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as is the regime, the Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra, who together make up the majority of the combat forces battling the regime and its foreign allies. But if the FSA is armed by counter-revolutionaries, funded by counter-revolutionaries, has Islamist brigades (who are for Achcar by definition counter-revolutionary), and collaborates with counter-revolutionaries (such as the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, and previously, ISIS), doesn’t that make them counter-revolutionary as well? Achcar never goes that far but this conclusion is inescapable if we accept his analysis that nearly every major force, foreign and domestic, involved in the Syrian revolution is playing a ‘counter-revolutionary’ role. What non-imperialist, non-capitalist, non-counter-revolutionary state the FSA is supposed to get arms and money from he does not say. Perhaps the newly formed non-counter-revolutionary People’s Liberation Faction will find such a state and save the uprising from the counter-revolutionaries spearheading it.

While Proyect in his book review – following Achcar – claims that an “orientation to the working class” of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the way to go, the reasoning that underpins this seems to support the opposite conclusion:

“Oil and gas production in MENA is an industry that generates ground-rent in terms understood by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. This simply means that unlike manufacturing, the means of production can largely do without labor. Wealth is being generated but not jobs. This goes a long way to explain the disproportionately large informal sector in MENA. If factory jobs are virtually non-existent, then the only recourse is to emigrate (the region is known for its massive export of labor) or becoming a street peddler. When a state that has grown indifferent to a non-taxpaying base and has nourished corruption and payoffs throughout the body politic, no wonder someone like Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit peddler, could have touched off the Arab revolts through his self-immolation after years of paying off the cops or being beaten and harassed by them.”

If capitalism in MENA is characterized by largely labor-free profits and the proliferation of informal occupations (such as street vendors), what sense does it make to strategically orient on a nearly non-existent manufacturing worker class?

It is this special feature of capitalism in MENA – and not “archaic” or “feudal” social forms such as cleric/clan-based rule (neither of which are archaic or feudal in character) – that poses special challenges for classical Marxism as a political strategy since it was born in the Europe of the industrial revolution, a bygone stage in capitalism’s history. Factory-based Marxism simply does not work in the absence of factory-based capitalism, either in MENA or in the post-industrial West. This special feature has profoundly different implications for each country within MENA. In some cases, like Syria, the country’s class structure (even before the war) was markedly petty-bourgeois/lumpenproletarian and its labor market was characterized by an outflow of people hunting for work in nearby states. In other cases, like Libya, much of the workforce (particularly in the oil industry) have historically been imported right-less laborers; this is also true for Saudi Arabia, although the country absorbs a fair number of skilled/educated immigrants on visas as well.

This vast unevenness and the opposite features of each country within MENA are obscured with broad claims about the region such as: “with the inclusion of oil and gas rich states like Saudi Arabia and Algeria, the poverty rate is 39.9% for the region as a whole.”

Actually, Saudi Arabia has the 10th lowest poverty rate in the world; two-thirds of its 27 million population are Saudi nationals, the remaining one-third being mostly Arabs from other countries. The oil-rich states tend not to export but import labor for oil production (and on a short-term basis for construction projects) and exploit skilled immigrants on temporary visas to meet their administrative, managerial, business consulting, and white collar/mental labor needs. Some of these Gulf states have diversified their economies away from the oil sector as opposed to what Proyect would have us believe. He points to the Emirate of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa Tower, the world’s tallest building, as the epitome of MENA capitalism’s inability to provide gainful employment and expand beyond “crony capitalist” speculative investments, but the tower’s occupancy rate is roughly 80%, the emirate enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the world, and oil and gas revenues account for only 7% of state revenue; according to the emirate’s Wikipedia page, “real estate and construction (22.6%),trade (16%), entrepôt (15%), and financial services (11%) are the largest contributors to Dubai’s economy.”

In effect, the crushing poverty and pauperization of the laboring classes of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Palestine fuels the regional migration that powers the capitalist economies of Lebanon and the Gulf states. One set of states MENA are indeed “massive export(ers) of labor” as Proyect says but the other set are massive importers of labor; the irony (contra Proyect’s assertion) is that the oil-rich states are in the latter category and usually have fewer problems with poverty and unemployment. Yemen might be the only country that actually matches his characterization of MENA capitalism’s contradictions.

These structural and historical differences between MENA nations manifested themselves in the way the Arab Spring unfolded. The countries where democratic revolutions gained enough force to topple governments were the ones afflicted by high and persistent unemployment (usually not the oil-rich states). The specific forms of struggle that characterized each upheaval reflected the violent contradiction between a given country’s unique political conditions and superstructure and the equally unique class and economic structures underpinning them. Engels long ago declared that a properly organized proletariat, imbued with ever-greater socialist awareness, could take advantage of political liberty or semi-liberty to strike, vote, and organize its way to political supremacy over the bourgeoisie and therefore the days of bloody fighting on street barricades that marked the 1830, 1848, and 1871 revolutions were over. The Arab Spring confirmed both predictions. In the Tunisian and Egyptian democratic revolutions – where unions and parties existed in conditions of restrictive semi-freedom for a decade beforehand – strike action by the proletariat played a key role in ousting hated tyrants while in the Libyan and Syrian democratic revolutions armed struggle, street barricades, and urban warfare were central. When Ghadafi declared war on the people in February 2011 and the people replied by waging revolutionary war, oil production ground to a halt as foreign companies shut down production and the right-less migrant workers staffing the oil industry went home to avoid the storm of bloodshed. In Syria, thanks to its disproportionately petty-bourgeois character and in keeping with a tradition of struggle that stretches back almost a century to the days of the French mandate, the 2011 revolution’s Dignity Strikes were all-class rather than working-class affairs, with small and large businessmen shuttering their stores and market stalls to protest the regime’s brutality.

There are two lessons here:

  1. The more murderously autocratic conditions prevail, the more democratic revolutions will need to utilize some or all of the ‘outdated’ forms of struggle Engels referred to – barricades, street fighting, guerilla/partisan warfare, sabotage, clandestine conspiracy – to gain victory. For this reason, the concepts and practices of protracted war, guerilla war, and people’s war developed by Mao Tse-Tung deserve serious study, as do the methods of struggle developed by Europe’s anti-fascist resistance forces during World War Two.
  2. Modern (meaning post-feudal) democratic revolutions spring from the action of not only wage laborers but also farmers, small proprietors, the perpetually unemployed and under-employed, street vendors, urban and rural poor, and oppositional elements of the bourgeoisie. These classes are the material and economic basis of these revolutions.

In none of the Arab Spring’s democratic revolutions did oil workers rise up. Why? The workforces of the oil-rich states are disproportionately right-less migrants, far from their native African, South Asian, or MENA homelands, whose physical survival and housing depends on the goodwill of their employer. All of these factors combine to make them among the most savagely oppressed sections of MENA’s exploited classes and therefore the least likely to revolt. It should be no surprise that the Arab Spring largely left the spigot of oil profits untouched given the wretched conditions in which they toil.

The single greatest factor determining whether a MENA country’s laboring classes organize and assert themselves on the economic and political fronts is the degree of political freedom. A brief survey of a few countries demonstrates this:

  • Tunisia leads the way with its powerful and militant union federation and 10,000-strong leftist political alliance, achievements made possible by the post-revolution parliament’s dissolution of the secret police in 2011 and the thoroughly secular-democratic constitution passed with the support of one-half of parliament’s Islamists and despite Islamist extremists assassinating two leading leftists. The 2013 World Social Forum was also held in Tunisia and attracted between 30,000 and 50,000 attendees, one-third of them from the Arab world. Although the democratic revolution ended in victory, the bourgeoisie is not about to be overthrown by socialist revolution any time soon despite facing the most militant, organized, and politically advanced workers’ movement in MENA. Fighting unemployment remains the most pressing problem since it is still stuck at nearly 20% nearly four years after the revolution and vendors are still immolating themselves in protest.
  • Libya might be described as being in second place thanks to regular strikes (general and enterprise-specific), a development enabled by the complete and utter destruction of Ghadafi’s armed forces and secret police at the hands of people’s militias. It is the one MENA country where oil workers are striking and organizing unions to defend their interests and this was made possible only by the democratic revolution’s victory. Today, the ruling bourgeoisie’s grip on power is tenuous at best, but as of yet there is no identifiably leftist or class-based political party or movement to take advantage of this weakness.
  • Post-coup Egypt is in third place, its union movement split between the old state-controlled federation and the new independent federation (whose general strike against Morsi failed to materialize) at a time when a newly confident counter-revolution is handing down death sentences by the hundreds and whose repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has decapitated several unions. As in Libya, there is no class-based party or political movement and what leftist elements there are remain stuck in self-imposed isolation from the mass anti-coup movement.
  • Syria is in last place, an inevitability given the fascist regime’s all-out war on the people. The country’s first independent union in Manbij was stamped out by the black boot of fascism when ISIS occupied the city in January 2014 after an armed uprising against their tyranny led by the Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Army of Mujahadeen, and the Syrian Revolutionary Front.
  • In the absence of huge numbers of people driven to the streets by their hunger for change, jobs, and bread, fully veiled women have been the vanguard of the democratic revolt in Saudi Arabia, organizing small protests against the unjust detention of their loved ones or posting selfies on Twitter in unison of themselves driving without a husband, father, or brother in cars. (These protests are small compared to Tahrir Square or Hama; they are probably some of the largest in Saudi Arabia’s history.) While these acts are less ‘cool’ to riot porn/spectacle-obsessed Westerners and fall well short of a real revolution overthrowing a ruling class or smashing a state, standing up to one of the most tyrannical states and patriarchal social orders in the world is nonetheless revolutionary. The West’s early feminists began their long march towards liberation with similar steps of individual rebellion and the calls for suffrage as their Saudi sisters are undertaking. The democratic tsunami has even begun to affect the ecclesiastical hierarchy at the core of the Saudi elite’s power; dissident-turned-state-approved salafist cleric Salman al-Awda became a staunch democrat as a result of the Arab Spring. Despite the government banning him from the media and travelling abroad, he maintains a following of 4.5 million Twitter followers and his video lectures have millions of views on YouTube.

Clearly, freedom is what the people want and freedom is the indispensible ingredient for the development of working-class organizations, struggles, and socialist awareness. “The more democratic the system of government, the clearer will the workers see that the root evil is capitalism, not lack of rights.” (Lenin)Where freedom is absent, it is the mission of communists is to fight for it. When fascist and theocratic autocracies resist this fight with force, they must be overthrown by real revolutions of a democratic type because democracy is the political prerequisite for socialism just as capitalism is the economic prerequisite.

The classical Marxist notion of democratic revolution retains its basic validity even though the modern and thoroughly capitalist MENA states no longer contain any feudal or pre-capitalist social relations so long as political freedom and democratic regimes are the exception rather than the rule. Despite being written a century ago, these words ring true even today:

“The socialist revolution is not one single act, not one single battle on a single front; but a whole epoch of intensified class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., battles around all the problems of economics and politics, which can culminate only in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the struggle for democracy can divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, or obscure, or overshadow it, etc. On the contrary, just as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent, and revolutionary struggle for democracy.”


8 Responses to “Not Real Revolutions? Achcar and Co. on the Arab Spring”

  1. Manuel Barrera April 8, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    “trying to turn the wheel of history backward to the 7th century (when constitutions did not exist) but an assertion that constitutional rule, separation of powers, rule of law, consent of the governed, inviolability of person, and due process are all desirable and consonant with the teachings of Islam. Those who reject the view that democratic impulses can be expressed in devoutly religious and un-secular language have learned nothing from Engels who championed peasant rebels that called their oppressive landlords “godless” tyrants and traitors to Christ’s teachings in The Peasant War in Germany.” I don’t know whether Louis said that or someone else, it’s unclear from the post. However, that statements is making an interpretation rather than stating anything factual. In an otherwise, excellent post, I think this predilection for “lawyering” for the MB is a very dangerous approach because it can easily lead to the kind of misjudgments the author criticizes the RS for doing; with the obvious disastrous results. Such enabling of support for democratic revolutions by giving the protagonists–in this case, Morsi’s government–more due than they deserve makes it difficult to engender the support of the veritable revolutionary aspirations of the masses that had come behind the revolution in the begiinning, especially women and the youth. I doubt that the MB or Morsi really intended to engage in “due process . . . [as] desirable and consonant with the teachings of Islam” unless you really believe that a deeply religious framework like that of the MB are truly based on a democratic impulse. Engels, like any revolutionary, should jump at the chance to channel democratic impulses by whatever means the masses choose: just because T. Ali is wrong does not only mean Achcar is correct it also doesn’t mean a) the permanent revolution is a sectarian concept or that Trotsky was too sectarian (at least not because he championed the idea) or that Louis or whomever wrote this too enabling post are correct in their interpretation of the impulses of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    I know it’s hard to stop championing revolutions devoid of championing “protagonists” or denouncing antagonists, but it is what a revolutionary should try to do. It is possible to believe in the aspirations of the masses who protested Morsi without either kowtowing to the Tamarod or accepting Morsi’s stuttering footsteps toward democracy as anything but the pressure to support the aspirations of those very same masses. It’s also difficult to see all these actions of reform, revolution, and counterrevolution when there are no good leadership alternatives–as yet. But it is also necessary for us to do what we can NOT to engage lawyering while still supporting the revolutionary aspirations and processes of the masses. Yes, I realize that seems romantic. It just seems better than trying to shoehorn Morsi into an actual democrat or discredit and reject Trotsky’s permanent revolution because left sectarians are the only ones around to “interpret” it.


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