Reacting to Egypt
Andy Libson is a member of La Voz, a schoolteacher, and member of United Educators of San Francisco and the reform caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union. He’s been keeping a close eye on Egypt, which he’s written about extensively. Below is an interview Libson did with CounterPuncher Mike Whitney on the recent happenings in the country.
Mike Whitney: The situation is Egypt is very hard to grasp, so let’s go over some of the basics. Was Islamist President Mohamed Morsi democratically elected in a fair election? Were leftist or liberal groups involved in his ouster? Do these leftist groups claim that the military coup that toppled Morsi is a “continuation of the revolution”?
Andy Libson: Most socialist groups that I have read have called the toppling of Morsi a “continuation of the revolution” including groups like the Revolutionary Socialists who are active inside Egypt. I think they are completely wrong in this but I think its worth asking why do they say this, and why do they continue to say this even as the military dictatorship surges back to power even stronger and more brutal, and with more legitimacy than prior to the 2011 uprising. They even say this in the face of the former dictator being released from jail.
There are two mistakes they are making. First, they are drawing parallels between the military’s removal of Mubarak in 2011 and the military’s removal of Morsi in 2013. What do they have in common? They both were acts of the military and they both took place in the context of massive demonstrations. But there are huge differences that socialists are ignoring.
1) Mubarak was a dictator whose legitimacy was based on his widespread support by the military, the Egyptian bourgeoisie and US imperialism. Morsi was popularly elected, was not supported by the military and had dubious support from US and other Western powers.
2) The removal of Mubarak and demonstrations in 2011 ushered in a political regime of democratic reforms that led to the election of Morsi. The removal of Morsi led to the return of direct military rule and the suspension of all democratic reforms won in 2011.
3) The demonstrations in 2013 which culminated in the coup were supported by millions of workers and students but also involved the mass participation of the old regime (feloul), the military, and sections of the Egyptian bourgeoisie who promoted these demonstrations over the media. The demonstrations in 2011 were not nearly as heterogeneous and had to build much more pressure over a longer of time to force concessions from below. In a nutshell, large sections of the Egyptian bourgeoisie supported the demonstration of 2013 where they did not in 2011, and were forced to bend (although partially) to the will of the people.
Second, many of these socialists are looking at developments in Egypt and the Arab Spring through the lens of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and are seeing all the things that are taking place in the region as a continuous, and unending ‘revolutionary process’. So they are sort of forced to look at all development in the region as a ‘continuous’ process (even events that represent a complete reversal, like the recent coup) because their interpretation of this theory leads them in that direction. It is not the first time socialists have made the mistake of forcing reality to fit our theory no matter how absurd. I honestly believe Trotsky if he were around would be astonished at how his theory in being used. But he is not around and we socialists here need to learn how to think for ourselves and use Marxism as a living theory, not psalms to be read and repeated no matter what is going on in the world.
Whitney: Has the military coup that removed Morsi from power weakened state power and strengthened democratic institutions or set the clock back to the tyrannical Mubarak era?
Libson: The military has killed over a thousand Muslims, they have jailed the leaders of the only political party in Egypt capable of posing an organizational threat to it, and US imperialism and its regional allies are flooding the new government with billions of dollars. The brutal crackdown has won widespread support from the liberals and leaders of the Tamarod, the leaders of the Egyptian trade union has joined the coup government, they have arrested the democratically elected leaders with the widespread support of these groups (who opposed the dictatorship in 2011), and now they have sprung Mubarak from jail.
But the story is worse than that, what has also been accomplished by the coup is the splitting of the working class movement along sectarian, religious lines. The fact that millions of workers are either supporting or standing idly by as the military brutally attacks Muslim workers across the country is a political disaster for our side of the highest order. A key precondition for the possibility of the socialist revolution is the uniting of our class across racial, gender, sexual orientation, national and religious lines. This unity is being systematically destroyed before our eyes and each time the socialist left remains neutral, or gives even the barest hint of justification for it, we expose ourselves as completely incapable of being up to the task of uniting our class and pointing it in the direction of revolution.
And I say this knowing that we are small and puny, but even if we were big, we are not up for the task with this level of confusion in the socialist ranks.
Whitney: Should leftists or liberals want to see the repressive Morsi returned to power in order to restore democracy or is there another alternative?
Libson: I can’t speak for the liberals because I am not one, but I can say the most immediate task before socialists, in Egypt and outside of it, is the defense of our Muslim brothers and sisters who are being slaughtered by the military. This means calling on our government to withhold any support of the coup government and to condemn the massacres, and this means demonstrations opposing the bloodshed. Has that happened? Well, the fact that the left did not respond that way exposes how backward our response has been. Once this has been stopped and the military pushed off the streets and back into the barracks, I believe it would be appropriate to call for organizations of workers and student to take direct control of the government if such institutions came into existence in the building of working class defense of Muslims. In the absence of this independent movement of the working class, we would likely have to accept the leadership of liberal bourgeois rule and the restoration of democratic reforms and elections. But again, the first task before us is to stop the coup government from killing Muslims.
Whitney: The original protests against Mubarak focused primarily on economic issues, particularly the neoliberal economic order imposed on Egypt by international capital. Here’s a short clip from an article titled “Don’t Expect The Situation In Egypt To Cool Down Anytime Soon” by Patrick O. Strickland in Mint News Press that helps to clarify the point:
“The neoliberal economic order, imposed on Egypt in exchange for billions of dollars in American military aid, “has generated hunger, poverty and inequality in Egypt since the 1980s.”
For a large part of the three decades of Mubarak rule, the country’s economy underwent a process of liberalization that aimed to foster free-market capitalism and deregulation in order to attract foreign investment. The result was severe income inequality. “For Egyptians,” Hickel noted, “privatization means having to pay large sums on healthcare and education” as well as food and other basic necessities that were once supported by state subsidies.
The corresponding GDP growth only benefited the small wealthy class — such as the immensely influential multimillionaire Khairat el-Shater — while the overwhelming majority of Egyptians “have seen their portion of the economic pie shrink significantly over the same period.”…
This excerpt seems to imply that the roots of the ongoing revolution in Egypt are the growing discontent with the existing system. If that’s so, then how do you explain the fact that—as you say—“Not a single movement in any region of the Arab Spring has an independent working class organization or expresses independent working class demands”?
Libson: There is little doubt that the problems that capitalism creates for the working class are accumulating before us as you say above, and I believe workers everywhere are dismayed and fed up with the way things are going. I believe you can also include the devastation of the environment, the wars across the globe and the increasing centralization of authority within the State as all indications that something is very wrong and needs to be changed.
But socialists have some problems, our organizations are tiny, our ideas (Marxism) are largely seen as foreign to the class (despite them being fed up with various aspects of capitalism) and our alternative (socialism) now has a ‘track record’ in power in the minds of millions of workers. Marx says the past weighs like a nightmare in the minds of the working class and that is no less true with our own history of struggle and revolutions.
Now I may believe that the only genuine working class revolution that has occurred in the last century is the Russian Revolution and that Stalinism represented the complete overturning of socialism in Russia, but that does not matter. For the vast majority of workers, they associate socialism with Stalinist rule, or one party rule in China or Cuba, or corrupt regimes that developed in Nicaragua or Viet Nam or the brutal regimes that developed in North Korea, Cambodia and of course the sell-out betrayals of socialist parties across Europe and South America.
I may also have an explanation about how every one of these developments has nothing to do with ‘socialism’ but that is not how these regimes reported it to the class, that is certainly not how the bourgeoisie reported it (who only went on to exaggerate these offenses), and it is certainly not how the working class sees it. I think socialists today have a huge NEW task before us in revitalizing the prospects of revolutionary socialism in the face of what most workers see as a century of failure.
The fact that our organizations are so small and feeble does not help us with this. But it does explain why winning a hearing and eventual leadership within the working class is a tall task, and why so many movements have occurred with virtually no impact by socialists as an open, leading force within the class. That is our task today and it is our responsibility to begin to learn how to lead and apply Marxist politics in the very small and nascent struggles we are inside of today.
Whitney: How does Egypt get out of the mess it’s in? It’s clear that massive protests and unfocused rage can lead to cosmetic changes in the system, but the basic exploitative structure remains the same. So, it all gets down to leadership, doesn’t it? Leon Trotsky commented on a similar situation in 1938 –where the preconditions for socialist revolution were ripe, but there was no vanguard to lead the charge. The historical crisis of mankind, he declared, “is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” Can this same rule be applied to Egypt?
Libson: The issue of leadership is clearly important and has proven crucial yet again in Egypt as the leadership of these movements has fallen once again to sections of the bourgeoisie and the military, and they have directed the movements towards reaction and counter-revolution.
But I do not agree with Trotsky when he says that in 1938 or even today that issue can be “reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership” as if the working class itself is ready for socialist revolution but just lacks a leadership to take it there. This is at the root of the prognosis for change in his Transitional Program, and I believe it has an idealist, non-materialist basis.
There is a conception in Trotskyism (which I believe is false) that we can talk about the working class and its readiness for struggle and for socialist revolution as somehow independent of the development of the revolutionary party that would need to lead it in taking power. The need for a revolutionary party is not just something that comes into play at the peak of struggle at the moment when revolution is possible, but also requires the decades long process of party construction as the working class develops its organizations and consciousness as a class ‘in itself’ towards a class ‘for itself’. The Bolshevik party could not lead Russian workers to power in 1917 without the two decades long experience of the party learning to lead the class, and the two decades for the class to assess the party’s legitimacy as a leader. This is a two-way street that I think Trotsky dismisses, and thought could be short cut by coming up with the right program often called the transitional program.
In my opinion, this is an idealist notion of how a revolutionary party can be built and it has been an abject failure over the 70 years it has been used as some sort of guide. There is no short cut to this process of developing a layer of working class, self-identified socialists across the country who are capable of relating Marxist theory to their practice; and have a base of worker allies who may not agree with them on all points, but with who they have built bonds of trust and respect that are mutual and can be reinforced in struggle.
Here is how Duncan Hallas, a revolutionary of the British Socialist Workers Party (a tendency I used to be part of) put it. It’s a long quote but I think the idea he is getting at is really worth us all reading and absorbing.
When Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early thirties as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterization was apt. Not only did the party itself include, amongst its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of the German workers; it operated in a working class which, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought and which was confronted, especially after 1929, with a deepening social crisis which could not be resolved within the framework of the Weimar Republic.
In that situation the actions of the party were of decisive importance. What it did, or failed to do, influenced the whole subsequent course of European and world history. The sharp polemics about the details of tactics, history and theory, which were the staple output of the oppositional communist groups of the period, were entirely justified and necessary. In the given circumstances the vanguard was decisive. In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could change the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.
Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organized revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence
I’ll be generous and say maybe we have a few hundred of these people in the United States and they are scattered across the country in different organizations or working on their
own. But let’s be clear, we will need hundreds of thousands of these sort of militants welded into a common party to even begin to talk about a revolutionary leadership capable of leading the working class to power over the bourgeoisie in the United States. No one wants to talk about the scale of our project when we consider the prospect of socialist revolution in Egypt, in Greece, or in the United States because if you spell it out and you consider how pathetic our situation is I think revolutionaries get depressed.
Sorry, we are supposed to be materialists and if we are going to grapple with the project we are on it is time for socialists to stop rubbing the holy tomes of the Transitional Program like a rosary, and hoping working class struggle will spontaneously develop a leadership capable of delivering the goods. Most current Marxists, in my opinion, talk about ‘scientific socialism’ but have become hopeless utopians. The difference is revolutionaries like Robert Owen or Charles Fourier had immense optimism in the future and that fueled their beliefs. Marxists today are hopelessly depressed so they are hoping something or someone will come from outside and save us all.
Comrades, it’s not going to happen. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can start the real project of building a party capable of challenging capitalism on an international scale.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Whitney’s story on the Fed’s quantitative easing disaster appears in the August issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.