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How to win a revolution

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Over the past decade revolts revolutions have exploded across north Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Nick Clark says Anne Alexander’s new book Revolution is the Choice of the People can help us understand them
Issue 2814
thousands of people crowded around Tahrir Square, during the 2011 Egypt occupation

Tahrir Square, Egypt occupation during the 2011 revolution. (Picture: Gigi Ibrahim)

Revolution is more than a theory or a distant piece of history. The past decade has been filled with revolts, uprisings and revolutions across the globe.

And in every ­uprising, questions about ­revolutionary strategies and goals—and even what a ­revolution actually is—have been more than abstract debates. For the masses of people who make the revolution they are questions of life and death.

For everyone else ­watching on—and who sees in them the key to a radically better world—the answers to those questions are ­invaluable lessons. Even now, uprisings in Sri Lanka and Sudan face these immediate questions. 

Both revolts can look to the experiences of the ­revolutionary waves across the Middle East and north Africa over the past decade. A new book Revolution is the Choice of the People, by Anne Alexander draws those lessons out. 

It’s more than simply a retelling of those revolutions. It’s an analysis of the conditions that produced them, the social forces involved, how they lost, and how they could have won.

It’s a book about the ­process of revolution itself. And it begins with the most fundamental question—what is a revolution?

Anne looks to the definitions worked out by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. They analysed the ­revolutionary process from the one they helped to lead and organise, the Russian Revolution of 1917.

For Lenin, a ­revolutionary situation arises when the system enters such a profound crisis it begins to break down. Ultimately, that crisis is rooted in a fundamental ­contradiction at the heart of capitalism itself—between those whose labour produces the wealth in society, and those who exploit labour for profit.

Those in charge can no longer rule as they have done. But crucially, those at the bottom also have to feel they no longer live under their rule. 

The crisis draws ordinary people into revolt, where they start to tear down the old ­society and to shape it in their own interests.

Profound change is an ­integral feature of revolution. It can, for example, produce a change from dictatorship to ­liberal, capitalist democracy.

But it can also go much ­further. The clash between the exploiters and the exploited can become a battle over how society is run. The outcome depends on whether workers use their power to break apart the old society and build a new one themselves.

Revolutions never begin demanding complete system change, instead it seeks changes such as political reforms or a new type of government. As Anne writes, “Participation in mass popular mobilisations which dislodged the dictators and opened the ­floodgates of revolution did not automatically lead to the conclusion that deeper and more radical change was required.” 

Often the people and ­political forces that benefited from initial revolutionary explosions were those that wanted to  contain them and limit change. These forces, writes Anne, play “a special role in revolutionary crises, as they provide an essential ‘safety valve’ for the capitalist system.

“They work systematically to channel the pent-up energy of the revolutionary pressure from below into parliamentary institutions,” or the fringes of the state.

In the Middle East and north Africa, these reformist currents came in a variety of political forms including Islamists, ­liberals, nationalists or socialists. Often they were led by ­elements of the middle class that had their own grievances with the old regimes and hoped to benefit from a change at the top.

All of them sought ­accommodation—a “Faustian pact”—with the existing system and the state. And it meant disaster. Not only did it mean having to manage the same failed economies that had produced revolts in the first place.

It also meant bargains that kept the military in key ­positions of power. In both Egypt in 2011, and Sudan in 2019, this meant allowing the generals a direct role in government. Both went on to launch bloody coups.

The ­problem wasn’t simply that the new governments had failed to constrain the military with the appropriate checks. They’d left the power of the generals untouched because they sought to preserve and manage the state.

Anne reveals the direct ties between many of those militaries and the US—which ­provided them with training and funding. But she also outlines their direct involvement in the economy and industry.

Through the 1970s and 80s, free market reforms “opened up” industry in the Middle East and north Africa to the US. Where once the states had controlled and nurtured their own industries, now they facilitated profiteering by private companies.

In many cases, privatised industries ended up ­managed by close relatives of state bureaucrats. And in Egypt, the military itself acquired a vast, private business portfolio central to the country’s economy.

Anne shows in concrete ways how all this demonstrates one of Lenin’s greatest insights—how the state is an instrument of class rule. It not only tries to facilitate profit-making for its “own” capitalists. 

It is also fundamentally a tool of repression that protects the system from revolt from below. That means rather than ­seeking reforms within the existing state, revolutionary movements have to confront it.

Anne returns to Lenin and Trotsky and the theories they developed on “dual power” and “permanent revolution.” Dual power describes the ­situation in which workers’ forms of organisation, thrown up during the revolution, become a direct challenge to the rule of the capitalist state.

Permanent revolution is the process that creates the conditions for such a challenge to happen. As the revolutionary movement develops, it throws up challenges that draw ­working class people to go beyond calls for reform.

Bodies such as workers’ ­councils or revolutionary committees, begin as ways to ­organise during protests or strikes. But they can begin to take on the functions of the ­failing capitalist state.

They’re not just substitutes for the capitalist state—but are opposition to it. They bring together the political and economic demands of working class people in revolution. And they form the basis for a new society based on ­workers’ control.

Permanent revolution also describes how the weak links in the old system open up space for revolutionary movements to spread across borders.

In the Middle East and north Africa, Anne describes how the revolutions began in countries “lagging behind their regional competitors compared to their potential economic power, such as Egypt, or where neoliberal reforms had dramatically widened social inequality between different regions such as Tunisia and Syria.”

The revolutionary ­movements at the focus of Anne’s book all at least showed the potential of developing along a process of permanent revolution, or throwing up forms of workers’ power. In Egypt and Tunisia, ­workers, organised in trade unions, drove the revolution forward—combining political and economic demands.

But in Tunisia, workers never managed to break free of the union bureaucracy that sought to negotiate with the government.

Meanwhile in Egypt the street protests and square occupations also opened up space for workers to strike. Yet while the two strands of the revolution fed into each other, neither really overcame the separation between their political and economic demands.

Anne argues that ­overcoming all these obstacles—­pushing workers’ organisation ­forwards along a process of permanent revolution towards ­confrontation with the state—needs a revolutionary party.  Such a party existed in Egypt. The Revolutionary Socialists attempted heroically to draw the different strands of ­revolution together.

But as one activist, Ezzat, told Anne, “The problem was—and this was a problem with the revolution as a whole—we weren’t ready to develop the movement. But the state was ready.”

In Sudan, resistance ­committees have become formidable organisers of the revolution, but also begun to develop their own alternative proposals for government. It’s a sign that the ­revolutionary process that began in 2011 hasn’t ended. And the uprising in Sri Lanka shows the same sort of revolt can explode, out of similar conditions.

Success in all of them depends on whether working class people can stamp their own demands on the movement—and have the organisation to do so.

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