The battles that took place on the streets of Cairo last week may have looked like something from a bygone age. The barricades, people fighting street by street, people breaking stones and making catapults to beat back dictator’s thugs—this could have been the battle for the Paris Commune in 1871 or a European revolution of 1848.
But this is a thoroughly modern revolution. From the fighter jets deployed by Hosni Mubarak to the state blocking internet access, this is 21st century class struggle played out in the most brutal and graphic way.
On the one side are the poor, the unemployed, workers, students, and farmers and peasants from rural areas.
On the other are the rich and privileged elite, their supporters among small business owners, and the forces of the state.
The events in Egypt are still being played out.
But debates and arguments about revolutions and how we can make change in society have suddenly become concrete.
We are often told the very notion of class society is outdated. Yet 40 percent of the Egyptian population lives on $2 a day—while Mubarak’s wealth is estimated to be $70 billion.
For most of the last 30 years such inequality, and the enormous apparatus of the state that enforced it, seemed to be quietly tolerated.
But under capitalism, where an elite minority extract all their wealth from the labour of the mass of ordinary people, there is always a tension, even if it’s deeply hidden.
Beneath the surface appearance of calm in Egypt, there were glimpses in recent years of the bitterness that existed.
There was a massive explosion of anger when the police murdered political blogger Khaled Said last year. There were also waves of strikes beginning in 2006, food riots in 2008 and demonstrations over access to drinking water in 2007 and 2008.
The revolutionary Karl Marx said, “The history of all existing societies is the history of class struggle.”
What he meant was that because of the inherent clash of interests between the ruling class and the mass of ordinary people there will always be conflict. This can be a riot over food prices or a strike, or it can be a fight for a free press or political representation.
The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions broke out over the impact of the economic crisis—but they quickly became a fight for something broader, for “freedom”.
How this struggle will develop is the question many are asking. There is so much at stake.
Will people accept a few reforms and then go back to ordinary life, or will the taste of struggle give them the confidence to carry on fighting for more fundamental change?
Many imagine a revolution is one night of barricades followed by an insurrection that takes power or is defeated.
But a revolution is not a single event—it is a process. A process with ebbs and flows, advances and setbacks that can take place over weeks, months and even years.
At any time the end result is not predetermined. During this process both sides are organising, pushing any advantage they can get, looking for weaknesses in the other side.
After eight million marched on Tuesday 1 February, the revolution in Egypt looked unstoppable. Only 24 hours later, Mubarak’s thugs and riot cops brutally attacked its stronghold in Tahrir Square.
Such shifts in the balance of power are taking place in days at the moment, and this can continue to develop over a long period.
Within this process key moments, moments that are decisive, can make the difference between victory and defeat.
The decision by anti-Mubarak protesters to take Tahrir Square, for example, and the decision to stay and hold it, were vital.
Days of street protests turned into something qualitively different—a revolutionary situation.
There are also key moments when the ruling class tries to reassert its control.
The rich and powerful can be the most astonished at the break out of revolt.
They are often so complacent, and so removed from the reality of their citizens’ lives, that initially they can be paralysed by a sudden challenge from below.
But this situation does not last. They regroup and begin to try and reassert control.
When Mubarak flew his jets low over Cairo’s rooftops, creating an ear splitting sonic boom, his aim was to terrify people—to say “look at the power I can unleash”.
Mubarak used both the carrot and the stick—promises of change were accompanied by violent repression.
When Mubarak announced he would stand down in September, sections of the state and supporters of the regime used the moment to regain the initiative.
What followed was a massive mobilisation of counter-revolutionary forces. This was a regime fighting for its very survival and it showed it will stop at nothing to maintain its rule.
The barbarity we witnessed on the streets of Egypt on Wednesday and Thursday of last week was only a fraction of the violence that protesters will suffer if Mubarak’s regime wins.
Counter-revolutions are the revenge of the ruling class—and they have no pity. History has shown the bloodshed that results if a revolution is defeated or half-made.
Many of the protesters are well aware of what defeat might mean. One held up a placard saying “we are not Chile”. Another put it simply: “Tahrir Square: stay or die”.
So for the thousands occupying Tahrir, how to take the revolution forward is a life and death issue. Even in the space of the first 14 days the debates have changed.
Egypt shows that revolutions are not necessarily the result of a slow building up of struggle and strikes until millions are involved.
They often explode as mass popular spontaneous movements.
A feature of the first days of such revolutions is their unity of purpose and demands that bring all opposition together.
In the Russian Revolution of 1917 it was “Bread, peace and land”. In Cairo, the word “Go!” is on everyone’s lips.
But if Mubarak goes, what next? What, or who, will replace him?
Alongside united calls for Mubarak to go there are now different emerging and pre-existing political currents putting forward ideas and strategies.
Debates about how far to take the revolution and what would be an acceptable resolution are happening on every street corner.
Combining popular uprising with the organised working class
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky developed the theory of “permanent revolution”. He argued that not every society needs to go through the same stages to achieve socialism.
For example in Russia in 1917, dominated by peasant agriculture, he argued that the small working class had the potential to lead a revolution that could go beyond winning merely parliamentary democracy.
He saw that these countries were weak links compared to more established capitalist economies and were vulnerable to revolution.
So even in Russia in 1917 he talked of the need to constantly drive the revolution forward from its first aspirations to a fundamental challenge to the system. Just because a revolution erupts onto the streets with demands about democracy it doesn’t have to stop when new elections are granted.
So if the revolution wins formal democracy in Egypt it need not be the end—the economic questions can become of paramount importance.
For us a revolution in the 21st century immediately raises the question of the very basis of capitalism itself and of the possibility of socialism.
But for the revolution to begin to offer an alternative to capitalism, the working class has a key role to play. This is true even in countries where workers are numerically in the minority.
In many countries in the world there exists what Leon Trotsky called “combined and uneven development”.
The unevenness is when you have for example primitive farming methods and production that haven’t changed in centuries alongside advanced capitalist production using all the latest technology.
So in Egypt you can see water buffalo graze within sight of a steel mill using cutting-edge production techniques.
The “combined” part is that because the world economic system is so integrated, capitalist production across all national borders is connected by links of trade, resources and investment.
Egypt’s steel mills are among the most advanced in the world and are knitted into the global economy. This puts the working class even in less industrially developed countries in a uniquely powerful position.
Socialists argue that workers’ power is rooted in their collective organisation—that society cannot function without the labour of millions.
The Egyptian working class is the biggest and most powerful in the Arab world. Yet it has just come out of decades of repression and illegality. The official trade union federation is entrenched with the old order. It even issued a statement at the start of the revolution pledging allegiance to Mubarak’s regime.
Of course this can change. In Tunisia the UGTT union broke with the regime to join the rising movement and put itself at the heart of the revolt.
Workers across Egypt have played an important role in the revolution so far. They have demonstrated in their tens of thousands and have led strikes.
But the working class has not yet led the struggles as a distinct collective force. This is not unusual.
In fact many revolutions, including the Russian Revolution in February 1917, began as mass popular uprisings. Only later in the process did the organised working class play a leading role.
As revolutions develop, the central question of who controls society becomes key.
Because of the collective power of the working class, its role becomes increasingly central and decisive.
From developing self-organisation to workers’ control
Many people ask: if the Egyptian masses can spontaneously arise and show such tremendous ability to self organise and resist, do they need political parties and leadership?
This question of leadership is the same raised around the student “Day Xs” in Britain.
But it would be a mistake to think that there are no political organisations in Egypt.
In immensely difficult circumstances, courageous political activists have organised over many years—socialists, the Muslim Brotherhood and others.
Even the emerging local committees I witnessed in Cairo are the possible beginnings of alternative organisations.
It was a coalition of groups, including youth networks, revolutionary socialists and others, that made the call for the original 25 January protests.
Although small in number, revolutionary socialists continue to meet and actively intervene in the mass movement.
But how can the mass of people be won to socialist ideas? Marx put it like this: “It can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution. This revolution is necessary therefore not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
What he meant was that the experience of revolution liberates us from ideas and divisions accumulated under capitalism and opens our minds to new possibilities.
Even if only measured in days, the sheer liberating experience of revolution can be seen in the struggles in Egypt.
The outcome is still uncertain. But millions around the world have witnessed a revolution for the first time in their lives.
The poor and working class of Egypt have proved that ordinary people have the power to make their own history.