With extraordinary courage, ordinary people have been defying a military coup in Sudan. They have demonstrated in huge numbers, night after night. Workers in oil fields, airports, schools, hospitals and universities have struck and called for civil disobedience.
People have resisted despite arrests, beatings, shootings and many killings by security forces.
The military, which has a long history of mass murder and torture, thought it could intimidate the population of 45 million into fearful acceptance of its rule. It has instead met an enraged fightback which has the potential to accelerate change.
What began as an attempt to bury the idea of radical change could become a spur to a far more revolutionary outcome. But that depends on how the most determined and far-sighted people in the pro-democracy movement now organise.
The central battle at the moment is against the military. The strongest unity in action is needed to defeat it. But there is also a sharp battle inside the pro-democracy forces.
In 2019, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) that headed the movement gained strength from the great waves of struggle and strikes against the military. But its leaders channelled this power into securing a compromise deal.
Instead of overthrowing the killer generals, they installed them as the leading elements in a transitional government. And they have worked with these generals ever since, despite widespread anger at the slow pace of change.
The non-military members of Sudan’s transitional council undoubtedly oppose the coup. Some of them are under arrest and fear for their lives. But they also want to fit in with the global powers, particularly the US, that are central to the capitalist system.
Over the last year, the civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok had tried to extract debt relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This was achieved—at a high political and economic price.
Sudan had to persuade the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This required opening full diplomatic relations with Israel. The military pushed this hardest, but the civilian cabinet members went along with it.
In April, the Sudanese cabinet as a whole did away with a law that has existed since the 1950s which imposes a boycott of Israel. And last month Sudanese authorities seized assets of companies linked to the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas.
Justice minister Nasredeen Abdulbari, one of those detained by the military during the coup, met two Israeli government ministers three weeks ago.
Prime minister Hamdok also implemented the usual pattern of IMF economic structural adjustment—removing subsidies and moving to a floating currency exchange rate. Such moves have fueled the inflation rate which is now 400 percent a year.
It is empty to talk of “democracy” if people face poverty that is little different to the days of the dictator Omar al-Bahsir.
Now, the Sudanese Professionals Association, a leading element in the FFC, says, “There is no room for any political settlement to save the partnership or keep the military council in power.”
Good. But there is always a danger that the military can be formally sidelined while pulling the strings in reality. This is probably what the generals now want.
The only place for them should be behind bars, and facing full investigation for their murderous deeds in the Darfur area and in 2019. The military should also be stripped of its control of businesses that dominate large parts of the economy.
Those who want real change in Sudan have to fight the liberal opposition elements politically and by raising urgent working class demands over wages, union rights, women’s rights, food supplies and many other questions.
That means that the struggle for democracy has to be linked to the battle to advance the interests of workers and the poor.
In 2019, and again today, people have shown the will to develop beyond the structures of how society is usually organised.
Mohamed spoke to Socialist Worker last week from the streets of Burri, in Khartoum. He said, “The people are rising. The military are dammed by the blood of the martyrs wherever they go.
“We are organising. In my area we have set up what we call a ‘disobedience committee’. It is open to everyone who rejects the military coup.
“We want to involve all of those who are open to organising life in a difficult time when there are fears of attacks and shortages of food and other essentials.
“We are doing this because we have to. There is no other authority we can trust now except our own work with one another. And we are drawing on our experience of 2019 when the sit-ins showed we could set up structures that were both a form of protest and a form of running our lives ourselves.
“We have committees to organise parts of life. One is for medical treatment. It distributes medicines and transports seriously ill people to hospitals that we think will be safe. We also give treatment to any protesters who are injured.
“Another group works on repairs to people’s homes—electrical work, water supply and so on. For most people this is much better than what is available in ‘ordinary times’.
“Another group is responsible for making sure everyone has enough food. Nobody goes hungry, not even the street children who are often hungry. We take donations of goods and money from those who have enough to give to those who do not have enough.
“A very important group does protection for protesters and the people in the area. It might mean putting up barricades and other obstacles to the military. We could, for example, set out spikes to stop vehicles. We are trying very hard to banish fear. But we are peaceful.
“Other people do communications with other committees.
“Finally, there is a group that I can only say is about uplifting our spirits and about joy. We will have music, and stories and poetry. We will make things with the children.
“We are not the beasts that the military sees us as. We are human and will insist on our humanity.
“Can this be a long-term way of organising? I don’t know. It is positive I think. It can be better.
“We need to have elections for these committees and, although many women are already involved there must be more women—and more young people.”
These are important developments. Mass demonstrations are crucial in Sudan. But as we have seen in Myanmar, a brutal ruling class can sometimes drive people from the streets by slaughter.
That’s why workers’ strikes are so central. They are the strongest and most collective form of resistance.
If they spread and are sustained the military cannot win. And, striking workers need their own form of democracy and organisation. At first setting up workers’ councils is about running society at a time of turmoil. But these councils can become a force to challenge for state power.
The neighbourhood committees in Sudan are not workers’ councils. But they show the potential for such organisations.
The theory of permanent revolution developed by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains why the working class has to lead the battle for democracy
Trotsky developed the theory as a result of his direct experience of the 1905 Russian revolution.
At the beginning of capitalism, in uprisings such as the French Revolution, the forerunners of today’s ruling classes had fought the old feudal rulers. They carried through change under the banner of liberty and equality.
But, said Trotsky, those days had passed. In 1905 the capitalists sided with the archaic Tsarist monarchy. They opposed basic democratic and social rights, such as the removal of the Tsar, voting rights for ordinary people and land redistribution.
In the 17th and 18th century the capitalists could fight the old order without worrying about a strong working class challenge for power. The working class hardly existed.
But the expansion of industrial capitalism and the development of a modern proletariat had made the bourgeoisie a conservative class everywhere.
It feared that if workers were encouraged to reshape society they would not only bring down feudal relics but might target the capitalists’ wealth and power as well.
Trotsky concluded that only the working class, using revolutionary methods, could carry through the battle for democracy and social change.
And having spearheaded the fight for democracy, the working class in power was compelled to go beyond abstract notions of freedom or equality and to struggle for socialist change.
Then working class could lead other classes, such as the peasantry, but it had to play an independent role and lend no credibility to the fine phrases from liberals who would later betray it.
Even in countries with a small working class, this could happen because capitalism was now a world system. What Trotsky called the system’s “combined and uneven development”. He meant that different parts of the world were in very different economic situations.
Imperialism destroyed progress. But the whole globe was united by the expansion of capitalism.
No country’s workers could achieve socialism solely on the basis of a national revolution. They had to work at all times for the spreading of the revolution internationally or they would perish. Trotsky said, “Permanent revolution will become, for the Russian proletariat, a matter of class self-preservation.”
This is what happened in 1917 in Russia. The working class, led by the Bolsheviks, first broke the monarchy but then was compelled either to impose its own state or to be crushed by reaction.
And, negatively, the failure of the revolution to spread opened the door to Stalinism.
In later revolutions, such as in China, the old order was defeated by armed revolt. But instead of workers taking power it was a layer of middle class intellectuals or peasant organisations that headed up the new governments.
In Sudan permanent revolution means fighting both the military and the capitalists at the same time.
And, instead of looking to the Western imperialists, the appeal should be to the struggling workers and poor across the Middle East and north Africa.
December 2018: A trebling in the price of bread and other basic goods leads to protests. They quickly became a political revolt against the regime of Omar al-Bashir who had ruled for 30 years since a military coup. Despite repression, protests grow during the next three months.
April 2019: Instead of leaving at the end of a march in Khartoum, protesters occupied the area around the military headquarters and began an indefinite sit-in. They set up barricades to protect themselves from attack, organised food, water and security, began cultural projects and held constant discussions.
The example spread to some other cities. And workers began to protest not just as individuals but as organised groups from workplaces
11 April 2019: Fearing the scale of the protests, the military leaders announce that Bashir has been removed. But the military stay in charge. The protests and sit-ins continue and on 28 and 29 May workers hold a powerful general strike.
3 June 2019: Led by the notorious Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries, military council forces stormed the Khartoum sit-in and killed at least 110 people. But protests and strikes continue.
August 2019: Instead of building on the protests to sweep away the military, a rotten agreement sees “power-sharing” between the military and the pro-democracy movement.
October 2019: Huge numbers of people come on to the streets angry at the slow pace of change and economic hardship.
July 2020: Up to a million people march “to correct the path of the revolution”.
October 2021: The transitional agreement says the military should step aside, but they launch a coup to stay in power.
Class struggle toppled apartheid