What is a Revolution?
‘Thawra,thawra, hatt an-nasr!’ This chant, the Arabic for ‘Revolution, revolution – until victory!’, has been heard repeatedly on the streets of Dublin in recent weeks. It comes straight from Tahrir Square in Cairo and is one of many slogans from Egypt chanted outside the Egyptian Embassy and at the Spire in O’Connell St as groups of Egyptians, Libyans and others gathered in solidarity with various phases of the great wave of revolt that has swept North Africa and the Arab world.
As I write this article the fate of Libya hangs in the balance – by the time you read this article there is no way of knowing what will have happened right across the region. But one thing is already clear: that anyone who wants to know what a revolution is need only look at events in Tunisia and Egypt.
Equally anyone who has ever read the great writers on revolution – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemberg etc – has been able to see their words coming to life on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi.
The Role of the Masses
‘The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats... But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime.’
These lines from what is the greatest account of a revolution ever written, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, stand as exact description of what occurred in Egypt on 25 January and the 17 days that followed culminating in the fall of Mubarak on 11 February.
‘For revolution.’ Lenin wrote, ‘it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers, or at least of the...politically active workers, should be willing to sacrifice their lives for it’. As we know over three hundred people were martyred in the struggle against with Mubarak’s cops and paid thug ’supporters’ but it was precisely this readiness to die that made victory in the battle of the streets possible.
‘Secondly’ says Lenin, ‘ the ruling class should be passing through a governmental crisis that draws even the most backward masses into politics – a symptom of every real revolution is a rapid, hundred-fold increase in the number of members of the the toiling and oppressed masses – hitherto apathetic – who are capable of waging the political struggle.’
Again what an apt description of the gigantic popular mobilisations in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and so on which continually reinforced the anti- Mubarak struggle and secured its triumph.
‘Socialism must be created by the masses, must be made by every worker. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken!’ declared Rosa Luxemburg in the midst of the German Revolution of 1918-19. The chains of capitalism are forged in its work places where workers are exploited and profits are made.
Therefore, Luxemburg argued, mass strikes play a crucial role in revolutions. It is at work that working people are organised as collectives, have the greatest power of resistance, can most effectively inflict blows on the profits of the big companies that stand behind the government, and can challenge for control of the economy by occupations and the like.
In Tunisia the trade union federation, the UGTT, which had hitherto been ‘moderate’ and collaborationist, played a key role in mobilising the movement against Ben Ali. In Egypt, it was when mass strikes and occupations started to gain momentum that Mubarak was finally forced out. And since the fall of Mubarak the workers strike movement has been one of the main ways the revolution has continued and begun to enter a new stage.
All these quotations from Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg, are developments of Marx’s fundamental principle that ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself’. And it is the demonstration in practice that the mass of ordinary people are indeed capable of this that is the principle lesson to be drawn from the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions and the so far successful uprising in eastern Libya.
The Question of the State.
‘Ash-sharb yireed iskuk an-nidam! - The People want to Bring Down the Regime!’, is another slogan that made the journey from Tahrir Sq to Dublin. It reflected the understanding among the core of the movement that they needed to remove not only the person of Mubarak but also his whole system of rule, including the hated Emergency Law, the systematic torture and the equally hated Security Police. This in turn found expression in the absolutely heroic struggle over several days and nights against the police which forced their withdrawal from the streets.
In other words the Egyptian masses came face to face with what Marx, Lenin (and all the other great Marxists) regarded as the central issue in any real people’s revolution – the question of the state.
In his key book The State and Revolution Lenin, following Marx, argued : 1) the state i.e. the army, judiciary, police etc., does not represent, as it claims, ‘the nation’ but is an instrument of capitalist class rule; 2) the central aim of the workers’ struggle and of the revolution is the winning of state power; 3) the existing state machine cannot simply be taken over and used by the workers but has to be ‘smashed’ or ‘broken up’ and replaced by a new state apparatus geared to the workers’ needs i.e. a state based on workers’ councils.
The way this can be done, as the Russian Revolution and many subsequent revolutions have shown, is not through defeating the ruling class army in a set piece battle but by winning over the rank-and-file of the soldiers and breaking them from their officers in the course of the revolutionary struggles in the streets.
On this question the Egyptian Revolution, and the Tunisian Revolution, went further than any other mass struggle of recent years, but nevertheless stopped half way. On the one there existed among some of the masses illusions in the neutrality and ‘decency’ of the army – despite the fact that the Generals had been hand in glove with Mubarak. On the other hand the Egyptian Generals did not directly use the army against the protestors. This enabled them to keep it intact until the movement had lost some of its momentum, consequently the state has held on and the revolution is not yet complete, but at the same time it is not yet over.
From Democratic to Socialist Revolution.
The issue of the state is linked to question of turning the democratic revolution into a socialist revolution. Only if the movement is able to go beyond demands for democracy, necessary as those are, to challenging capitalism and the economic power of the capitalist class, will the real needs of the mass of ordinary Egyptians be addressed. The same applies to every other revolution in the modern world. Inequality, poverty, exploitation, unemployment etc exist everywhere and are caused by international capitalism, not just individual dictators.
This in turn leads to the question of socialist organisation. The Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions, like revolutions in general (the Paris Commune of 1871, The Russian Revolution of 1917, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, France 1968 and so on) began spontaneously, but they do not end spontaneously.
To unify and focus the power of the masses, to combat the power of capitalist ideas, and to defeat the highly centralised power of the capitalist state, the leadership of a revolutionary workers party is necessary. Hopefully the magnificent struggle of the Arab masses of Tunisia , Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and the rest will aid the building such revolutionary parties across the region and throughout the world, including here in Ireland.