Critique Notes 56
Published: 11 April 2011
Critique held its annual conference this year on Saturday February 26th 2011, at LSE. The subject was the nature of Stalinism. The speakers discussed the nature of the USSR, Stalin, the purges, the political economy of the phenomenon, the contributions of a number of theorists, the theory of transition between modes of production and the effect of the changing nature of Stalinism on Stalinist type parties. Papers will be appearing in a future issue of Critique. Further Contributions on the subject remain welcome.
The Notes which follow are in two parts. First a more detailed interpretation of events In North Africa, by Yassamine Mather and then a theoretical discussion of the problems raised by those uprisings by the editor. The latter takes up some of themes arising from the conference mentioned above.
Part 1: North Africa in crisis
The dramatic events unfolding in the Arab world will have long-lasting effects on the political and economic situation of the region and beyond. In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen we are witnessing uprisings against dictators who have been in power for over 30 years.
These events take place against the background of the global financial crisis, as the countries of the periphery bear the brunt of the fall-out. The protests have both social and economic aspects as the demonstrators express opposition to the political and economic system demanding social justice after two decades of neo liberal economic devastation. At a time of global economic crisis as Adam Hanieh points out “ these recent uprisings show decisively that class remains the key dynamic to understanding any social transformation and, simultaneously, that the ways in which ‘class struggle’ is expressed will take a variety of forms that constantly disrupts any reductionist economistic readings.
For more than twenty the Egyptian state embarked on a policy of privatization of its industries, services and facilities - in a country where under president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70) "even the grocery shops were nationalised". Under the 'structural adjustment programme' agreed with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, 314 public sector enterprises were eligible for privatisation. By mid-2002 , 190 had been sold off. Egypt followed closely by Tunis was at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East. According to Timothy Mitchell, author of Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity  while Egypt was portrayed by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success, in reality the unfettering of markets and the agenda of privatisation were applied unevenly while the repressive measures of IMF policy were high on the state's priorities. In the World Bank's  , Egypt is named as one the top global performers in four of the past seven years. The government of prime minister Ahmed Nazif oversaw annual GDP growth of 5%-7%. Yet, in the most populous Arab country, it seems this was not high enough to sustain its population. The gap between rich and poor has continued to widen, with 40% now living below the poverty line. A fifth of Egypt's 80 million population live on less than $1 a day. Since 2008 the rate of unemployment has risen constantly. In February 2010 official figures put it at 12.9% in urban areas, although the real figure, as in all capitalist economies, is much higher. Unemployment amongst graduates is also high and many of them accept jobs with low wages to survive. Trade unions were suppressed, the public sector was shrinking, services and wages were cut, subsidies and benefits disappeared. There was little job security. While even bread became too expensive for the majority, for the elite Egypt's economy was booming. The rich in their villas around Cairo and other main urban centres in their gated communities did not listen when workers demanded a rise in the minimum wage - set at $70 per month in 2010.
As in most other third world dictatorships, businessmen connected to the ruling party ( in Egypt the National Democratic Party) bought state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolised rent from tourism to foreign aid. A “closed ruling class” the Mubarak family and his close entourage benefited from privatisation and accumulated astronomical wealth based on rental income in a country where business and government were so tightly intertwined. Mubarak's regime attempted to deliver its promise of political stability and growth by banning opposition parties and organisations. For the markets this authoritarian regime offered a degree of reliability, but in fact trouble was never far away. During 2007, strikes spread from the textile and clothing industry to building, transport, food processing, telecommunications, oil and many others. By the summer of that year white-collar employees, civil servants and professionals were in dispute with their employers or the state. In 2008 outrage against soaring inflation, the scarcity of basic food, as well as discontent with the regime, led to riots. According to Al-Ahram Weekly, "The city is burning. Thousands of demonstrators are out on the street, throwing stones, chanting anti-government slogans and defying the batons of the riot police, tear gas and bullets." Since the mid-2000s Egyptian labour activists have reported over 3,000 factory occupations, strikes and other workers' protests.
Given the worsening economic situation, and opposition to repeated electoral fraud, dictatorship and corruption - not to mention a sense of national impotence vis-à-vis Israel - the uprising in Egypt was predictable. As Egyptian workers struggled to maintain their jobs at low wages the wealth of Mubarak and his closest relatives was estimated to be between “ $3 billion and $70 billion (the higher number was repeated on many protesters’ signs). Ahmad Ezz, the General Secretary of the deposed National Democratic Party and the largest steel magnate in the Middle East, is supposed to be worth $18 billion; Zohayr Garana, former Minister of Tourism, $13 billion; Ahmad al-Maghrabi, former Minister of Housing, $11 billion; former Minister of Interior Habib Adli, much hated for his supervision of an incredibly abusive police state, also managed to amass $8 billion “. 
Yet the protests seem to have come as a shock to world markets and politicians alike. On Friday January 28, as demonstrations in defiance of bans and curfews took place in Cairo, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 166 points - the biggest one-day fall in nearly half a year. Oil prices rose by more than 4% and everyone knows this is just the beginning. The Saudi stock market, the region's largest, registered a one-day drop of 6%, entirely due to events in Egypt.
After years of implying that the peoples of the Middle East are genetically disposed to obeying corrupt dictators, the western press and media have been forced to admit that in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc the battle for democracy, better living standards and against corrupt dictatorships has entered a new phase. All this not as a result of US/Nato military intervention, but, on the contrary, action from below against pro-imperialist dictators. The humiliating retreat of one of the most important allies of the hegemon capitalist power and the prospect of the downfall of the recipient of major US loans, whose government's repressive policies were never challenged by the US or EU, will have major implications.
Last month in Davos, Masood Ahmed, the IMF's Middle East director, observed: "There is now rising concern about the chronic levels of youth unemployment in the Middle East, and these events have shown that governments need to address this. If they do, that could unlock human resources and really boost growth." Of course, the same could be said of any capitalist economy. The crucial question is, at a time of global economic crisis, capitalism relies on unprecedented rates of unemployment to maintain control of the working class. In the Middle East as elsewhere, rulers are faced with a dilemma: high levels of unemployment combined with rocketing price rises pave the way for volatile political situations. The transfer of the crisis to the countries of the periphery had been predicted. Egypt, Morooco and Tunisa are dependent on exports to Europe and were badly effected as demand for goods produced these countries dropped. World Bank figures show that Egypt's exports to the European Union dropped by 18 % between 2008 and 2009.
All North African countries also rely on income from tourism and migrant labour. Even before the current crisis the tourist industry in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco was affected by a considerable drop in the number of mainly European tourists. Contraction in the building industry , mainly in the Persian Gulf , has also reduced income from North African migrant labour. If all this was not bad enough, Egyptian workers faced rising cost of basic food and fuel. In Egypt, food prices rose by 18.9 per cent in January 2011 from 17.2 per cent in December.
After last year's events in Greece, Iceland, Iran and Ireland - all political crises shattering illusions of economic stability - how can anyone imagine the current upheavals in the Arab world will not in turn worsen the economic situation for world capital? According to the Financial Times, "Now gravity has reasserted itself; just as it did two years ago with respect to subprime loans, or Greek debt." The 'emerging' economies are crumbling with unprecedented speed.
Imperialism is worried and western leaders' show of concern for the 'transition to democracy' in the Arab world and the Middle East is too little and too late. Nevertheless pro-western dictators across the globe must be disconcerted by this sudden change of heart in imperialist capital cities
Islamist solutions favourable for business
In Davos , two ministers of Tunisia's transition government told delegates that "Tunisia is open for business again." Mustapha Kamel, the new central bank governor, tried to talk up the post-Ben Ali situation by saying there is now "a much more favourable business environment".
Someone should tell the new Tunisian government that it was the "favourable business environment" that paved the way for this year's upheavals. Unless they come up with an economic miracle, the rebellion of unemployed youth could well continue and in the absence of working class parties Tunisia may well fall into chaos.
On January 30 Tunisia's Muslim leader, Rached Ghannouchi, returned after 22 years of exile. He insisted that he had no plans to run for the presidency, and would instead help to "anchor a democratic system, social justice, and to put a stop to discrimination against banned groups. We are taking part so we can move to a true multi-party system without corruption or oppression."
It was almost word for word what ayatollah Khomeini said just before returning from exile to Iran in January 1979. No wonder some Tunisians were wary of his arrival. At the airport they held up banners reading: "No Islamism, no theocracy, no sharia and no stupidity."
Unlike Tunisia, where there is a long tradition of secularism and the Islamists are relatively weak, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood might play a significant role in any future government. Some consider it Egypt's most popular unofficial political organisation, yet it was caught unprepared for the strength of the protests that started in late January and had to rally its forces to intervene more effectively starting with its traditional stronghold, Alexandria.
The 'Brotherhood' was founded in 1928 and has long fought to establish sharia law in Egypt under the slogan, 'Islam is the solution'. On Saturday January 29 a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman was quoted on Al Jazeera TV as saying his movement was not interested in forming or being part of a government. However, the next day the organisation said it was talking to other opposition groups with a view to forming a committee to coordinate the protest movement. Some think the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood has been overstated. Khalil al-Anani of Durham University said: "There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society, and I think these demonstrations have exposed that." According to Anani, "The Mubarak regime was adept at inflating the influence of the Brotherhood and painting them as a threat to Egyptian society and to the west. It was the pretext for Mubarak's rule, and it was a lie." However no one should underestimate the influence of the Brotherhood amongst sections of population. According to Samir Amin: “ The leadership has always been a corrupted political leadership made of very rich people. They have always been financed by Saudi Arabia, which means by the USA. But they have two big influences, one in the sectors of the middle class which are pro capitalist, anti-communist, afraid of the people, and they think Muslim rule is not a bad thing. These are spontaneously with them. They are very influential among teachers, medical doctors, and lawyers etc. At the same time, they have a lumpen support in which they recruit their paid militias.” The Brotherhood has founded 'charitable' institutions, hospitals, pharmacies, schools and food distribution centres, and most of its support relies on networks built around these 'social charities' . But Egyptians should be aware that Islamists in Iran, Turkey and Iraq have set up similar social institutions to gain support when in opposition, only to use the very same institutions to accumulate wealth for their cronies, once in power. In the case of Iran, it took less than a year for the Islamic charitable organisations to become the centres of corruption and financial deceit.
In addition to holding conservative views on issues such as women's rights, it is anti-communist and has been hostile to working class organisations, in the past it has been openly against workers strikes The Muslim Brotherhood accepts the role of the market and thinks workers should do the same. Like Islamists elsewhere they consider land property and the market sacrosanct in accordance with Koranic teachings. They have constantly opposed poor peasants’ movements and on most economic issues they have been complicit with the previous regime.
Political Parties and the Youth movement
In Egypt the April 6 Youth Movement has played a prominent role in organising and coordinating the recent protests, making use of the Internet, social networking sites and Twitter until they were blocked by the regime. The group is named after the 2008 attack by the authorities on striking textile workers. Its activists are mainly secular, but they have made alliances with other anti-Mubarak forces.
They continue to express social and economic demands and many of them consider themselves anti-capitalist. Politically they abhor Egypt's submission to US hegemony and oppose the so-called peace negotiations with Israel . They have shown themselves to be effective organisers and remain popular amongst the ranks of the opposition.
Because of the brutal suppression of the left by Mubarak and Anwar El Sadat before him, there is at present no viable secular, progressive opposition party to challenge the governing National Democratic Party established by Sadat in 1978. Many of the parties considered 'left of centre' uphold sharia law.
The Egyptian Arab Socialist Party calls for "the adoption of Islamic sharia as a main source of legislation" and, although it supports freedom of religious affiliation and expression, its main concern seems to be "preserving Egypt's Islamic identity". The Young Egypt Party supports the adoption of a "socialist Islamic economic system", while boosting the private sector. Similarly the Social Justice Party, whose declared aims include enhancing the principles of democracy and socialism and protecting the gains of the working class and peasants, wants to keep Islamic sharia as a guide for Egyptian legislation. The supporters of these parties are some times called middle class but in reality they are largely salaried public sector employees (teachers, nurses, civil servants , firemen..)
On Sunday January 30 representatives of the Egyptian trade union movement met. They announced the setting up of the new Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions and committees in all factories and enterprises to protect and defend workers. They declared their intention to set a date for a general strike. Workers at the Suez Canal Container Terminal, owned by APMT, walked out on strike in Port Said on 27 February in protest over management’s refusal to enter into negotiations with the APMT Port Said Union Committee. When the army arrested striking port workers in Suez , workers and their families tried to free them. In response an army vehicle ran over and killed one woman. There are also reports of strikes in Ghazl El-Mahalla, the largest spinning and textile company. The Workers' strikes that took place in the last three to four years have paved the way for this year's uprising, but in the absence of political leadership it is difficult to envisage how the working class can respond to demands for radical economic change.
In opposition to Mubarak there was unity. Everyone - secular or religious, men and women, rich and poor - have joined forces to call for regime change from below. Political and economic divisions are already evident. The balance of class forces will decide if radical youth and the working class can make their mark on the political landscape taking shape .
Part 2: The Uprisings and the Nature of the Epoch
Critique has discussed the question of the nature of the global social system many times and of course the issue will remain open until capitalism is superseded. Trotsky’s formulation of the world entering a global period transition as a result of the failure of the German Social Democrats to take power remains a starting point for a Marxist discussion. The issue was touched on by a number of speakers at the recent Critique conference but the need for a more precise formulation has become acute with the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and the threat of possible revolts in a number of countries including China. The heritage of Stalinism hangs heavy over those events both in terms of the history of the left in those countries and as in terms of the necessity of avoiding such an awful scenario.
For the left, it is a matter of profound regret that there is no effective socialist party anywhere in the world, so it is not surprising that there was no genuine socialist movement in these recent ‘revolutions’. The word socialist itself is so debased by social democracy and Stalinism that it is widely regarded with contempt, particularly, but not only, in those countries where the rulers claimed to be socialist.
We can distinguish between the three groupings which use the word socialist. In the first instance there are the social democrats of various kinds like the French Socialist Party, the German Social Democrats and other West European parties of that persuasion. Today, their policies are in favour of capitalism, usually put in the form of supporting the market, private enterprise, and entrepreneurship. They criticise their conservative opponents, who are now in government in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden for going too far in implementing cuts in the budget and so in the public sector but they differ only in degree. They too favour cutting the public sector. Slogans distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary cuts are absurd, under conditions where all the cuts are either a result of the crisis or are using the occasion of the crisis. Any genuine socialist party would not decrease welfare payments but increase them, expand the public sector not ravage it, and go for rapid industrial recovery. This would, of course, only be the beginning of its programme, but the point is to show the complete absence of any taint of socialism left in the existing social democratic parties. The fact that workers may vote for them, just as they vote also for conservative parties, even if in lesser numbers, does not make them either socialist or working class parties. The result is that most people look at these parties with contempt. They make promises they do not keep, they imply much more than they ever fulfil. Their party members and their representatives in legislative and executive bodies of state act in their own personal interest first and foremost, seeing themselves as embarked on a political career. The old ethos of dedication to the struggle, which was famously expressed by the leader of the socialist uprising in Bavaria in 1919, in the statement that “ We, communists are dead men on leave”, has long since died both for social democrats and for Stalinists. The working class is consequently completely cynical about all politicians. Such parties cannot exert any attraction for those who want to change society in the direction of some form of control from below. It is remarkable that members of those social democratic parties do not see this reality.
Social Democracy, in the sense of a reformist socialist party, was on life support before the Second World War but was resuscitated by the effects of that war itself, with the subsequent retreat of the ruling class, in accepting the welfare state, in the context of a Stalinism which effectively prevented revolution where it could. The ruling class withdrew that compromise by the seventies, while Stalinism came to an end. Yet we have the ‘undead’ still pontificating. Such are the speeches of David Miliband and the writings of Martin Kettle in the British Guardian. They argue that the right has won elections in a series of countries of Western Europe because they have adapted to the public better than the social democrats. It has been argued many times before that the capitalist class is better at running capitalism than those who want to reform it, and many voters look at it in those terms. In the last paragraph we argued that the social democrats or their ideological heirs have no policy even for reform. We can add that, insofar as they do have a policy, they prefer to follow the conservative policy of marketization, albeit with a less harsh form of privatisation and reduction of the welfare state. It is only a matter of time before these parties implode. The fact that they continue to exist is much like the headless horseman in one of Tarkovskii’s films, Andrei Rublev. His metaphor referred to the USSR, Stalinism, whereas I am using it to refer to its twin, social democracy. The period in which the film takes place was one of transition, in which the old order was also dying.
In the second place, there are the remnants of Stalinism. They have mostly been reincarnated as varieties of social democrats but in a number of instances they continue in the form of reformed, semi-reformed and unreformed Stalinists. Such parties exist in China, Viet-Nam, Cuba and South Africa. These parties can have no future in that they have a dogmatic Stalinist ideology claiming to be Marxist but which is necessarily anything but Marxist. Where they are in power, their strength rests in their control over the organs of repression, as in the countries cited. Elsewhere they attract support through their use of disciplined parties, an appeal to nationalism and a direct call to the despairing masses. Clearly idealistic youth will be less attracted to these parties than in earlier times.
The third grouping is that of nationalist parties like the Baath party which regarded itself as Socialist. Technically, the Baath party has been in power in Syria and in Iraq. Where nationalist parties did not regard themselves as socialist in some sense or other, they usually had a socialist wing, which was frequently eliminated at some point after the nationalist party took power. Such happened to the Angolan MPLA. This, however, does not end the issue of the influence of a nominal socialism. Since nationalist parties saw themselves resting power from the imperial overlord, which was first the UK and later the USA, its successor, as global imperial power and they employed anti-imperialist, liberatory rhetoric. The latter frequently dovetailed with the language of Stalinism, which usually justified itself by quoting Lenin on the subject, not to speak of the occasional reference to Stalin on the national question. As the Stalinist countries often assisted these nationalist parties either to take or maintain power the population could identify nationalism with Stalinism, usually called communism or socialism.
Both the Stalinist and nationalist parties have failed in their ostensible aims. Apart from the USSR and Eastern Europe, where this point is superficially obvious but more complex, this point has particular application to the Middle East and North Africa. Iraq at one time had one of the largest non-state Communist Parties in the world, while Egypt had 3 communist parties, even if they were not large. As is well known, the successful evolution of Islamism into a powerful political force was assisted by the CIA who regarded it as an acceptable alternative to Stalinism and a strong Arab anti-imperialist nationalism, like Nasserism. The combination of the inevitable nationalist failure to carry out its promises to the masses, and the destruction of the Communist Parties, and such left as existed, left only two alternatives: various dictatorial forms with varying degrees of corruption or Islamism.
The political economic background lay in the dissolution of the British Empire and the replacement of the UK by the United States not as a colonial overlord but as the dominant imperialist power. Each country had a different path to nominal independence. In the case of Egypt, this was achieved partly through the nationalist-Nasserist- coup together with the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The attempt to use the USSR as an alternative to the USA inevitably failed as it did elsewhere, given the relative backwardness and poverty of the USSR. Since Stalinism generally did not support countries becoming socialist or even Stalinist, third world nationalists had nothing to fear from the USSR, but the latter simply did not have the goods, or rather sufficient resources for the purpose. Nationalism in itself could not be a sufficient doctrine to proceed in the modern world, for a third world country. The West continues to use the latter as a source of raw materials, a market and an area of investment for the production of goods by workers with low wages. During the Cold War certain strategically located countries in East and South East Asia were specifically assisted in their economic development. In reality, only a very few third world capitalist countries were able to industrialize to the point where they approached the levels of Western Europe. It could be argued that only South Korea and Japan are in that position, and that it is no accident that US troops are still in place in those countries.
While the period of industrial growth in the West allowed other newly independent countries to develop industry to a limited degree, the shift to finance capital produced a different result. There were a series of bubbles in which first Latin America and then South East Asia experienced inflows of money. These were followed by outflows, causing sovereign defaults and the imposition of austerity measures in the countries involved. The situation in the Stalinist or former Stalinist countries is different in that they continue to use the state and regulation of the economy in order to ensure economic development.
Foreign investment in third world countries was generally predicated on a rapid return with high rates of profit. This squeezed the middle layers, as well as the relatively rich national capitalist class. Furthermore, given the relative political and economic instability of third world countries, the national bourgeoisie and ‘middle class’ has tended to send a high proportion of its surplus capital to the first world.
The resultant economy has very large levels of unemployment and underemployment with substantial numbers of youth, including those who are university trained, unable to find jobs relevant to their skills.
With the global downturn, the situation has deteriorated. There has been a flow of surplus capital to the so-called emergent economies but most of it is either intended to take advantage of relatively high interest rates or is speculative investment. This has raised the exchange rates making it harder to export and left the economy highly vulnerable to a sudden exodus of funds, consequent on political economic change in the developed world. Matters have been made considerably worse by the rise in prices of food and raw materials for those countries which are not exporting commodities. Since that rise in price has a lot to do with speculative investment on the markets, it is, in fact, part of the finance capital scenario and its crisis.
From the point of view of the population in the third world, the nationalist solution is clearly unworkable in that their economic problems of unemployment, low wages and high prices cannot be solved their own governments alone. At the same time, the global economy is clearly dominated by the imperial power- the United States, and it is at least partly responsible, therefore, for their poverty. The anti-Americanism has been highly visible in Egypt, even if the opposition in Libya wants a limited foreign intervention. However, the Egyptian ruling class and its governmental apparatus bears it share of the responsibility for the condition of the population as is made clear below. Furthermore, the simple removal of the US role in Egypt will not change much without altering the exploitative nature of the world economy.
Reporting of the Uprisings
The reaction of Western governments and the reporting of the usual influential newspapers have been muddled, as might be expected. On the one hand, they have generally supported the popular demands and deplored the state violence. On the other, they have given the impression that the essential demands were for ‘dignity’, for the removal of the secret police oppression, although they also reported the grievances of the protestors over wages, inflation, high food prices, and mass unemployment. These latter demands were, in their eyes, secondary, even if they triggered the mass movements. The problem with this kind of argument is that repression is not an end in itself for even the most monstrous of oppressors. The Stalinist system has no competitor in the brutality, extent and depth of oppression in the modern world, but the atomisation of the population was necessary for the elite to maintain control. Similarly, the role of the secret police in the Middle Eastern and North African states is predicated on the extreme instability of the regimes. Clearly the similarity in the forms of control between Stalinism and those of these nationalist regimes is no accident. The difference, in that Egypt etc. evolved from nationalisation to the market is crucial in explaining why such a protest movement could itself evolve, as opposed to the USSR.
However, the ‘official’ Western press have to answer the question as to what kind of regime can provide for the demands of the protestors. That, in turn, requires some kind of characterisation of the present regime. The latter is clearly capitalist but the negation of capitalism, socialism, cannot be the obvious reply in the media. The issue is clarified by one columnist in the Financial Times as follows. He points out that the new reformers will have ‘a wrenching debate’ because the very idea of reform has been discredited by the former regimes “which ran their economies as rackets for a tight circle of kleptocrats and concessionaires”. As he indicates, the IMF and World Bank regarded those same regimes as exemplars of what is needed in the modern world. The problem, according to him, is that the privatisation process of these regimes was positive, in principle, but unfortunately it was hijacked by ‘regime loyalists’. “Instead of confronting an insiders’ economy, the regime widened the circle of insiders.” This he calls crony capitalism. The alternative, he says, is a competitive capitalism based on the rule of law.
The term ‘crony capitalism’ has its own history as a means of justifying the failure of capitalism in this or that country. In spite of the constant rhetoric of the importance of small and medium size firms, big firms rule the economy and their managers or owners play crucial roles in that economy. The close relationship, for instance, of the family of the media mogul, Murdoch, with that of the British government has been well publicised. The nature of the contemporary Russian economy could easily be described as similar to a ‘crony economy’ if one wanted to use that term. There is no crony stage to modern capitalism.
The above article concludes that the future of the Egyptian economy will be difficult because it needs to grow at 10 per cent per annum to allow for the employment of the present and future population of Egypt. As workers are striking for higher wages and better conditions, he and ‘the West’ are clearly worried.
In other words, Western Governments are concerned that the protest movements will move to the left. The logic of demands for democracy leads to demands for the elections of managers, and indeed there may be such a movement. The clumsy and farcical attempts of the UK government to send troops to Libya also reflect their worries that the region may move out of boundaries acceptable to capitalism and a presence in North Africa would help establish a guarantee. The Financial Times Leader on March 10th 2011 declared: "The EU has not covered itself in glory since the unrest began in Tunisia in December. Hesitancy and incoherence have combined with inexcusable attempts to defend discredited Arab rulers."
It is clear that the protest movement in the Middle East and North Africa has tended to destabilize the existing relationships with the Great Powers and, however subtly, threatened capitalism itself, whether in spite of itself or not. It is a paradox that at the present time, movements apparently in favour of capitalism have tended to destabilise it. This reflects the fact that the mode of production is in decline and transition. The end of Stalinism, in Eastern Europe and the USSR, and the formal installation of the market, brought the Cold War to an end and dealt a deathblow to global stability. Arab nationalism, Islamism, Moslem piety etc. cannot solve the political economic problems of those countries, just as they cannot solve them in Africa or Asia or Latin America. As argued above, the nationalism of Nasser or the Baath party has failed; Islamism in Iran is showing itself in a wholly negative light, while the Stalinism of the old Communist Parties cannot resurrect itself.
In a curious analysis, Eddie Ford argues in the Weekly Worker for an Arab Revolution, so establishing in continuity with the past of the Weekly Worker, the need for two stages, the first one being democratic. In fact, his argument is a return to supporting nationalism, of whatever kind. Given the variety of national entities in the region, this creates the need for him to add the qualification that there will have to be protection for minorities. Why the minorities, who are quite considerable in number, should be minorities without their own national state is not clear. Ever since Stalin proclaimed the doctrine of socialism in one country, Stalinism and its front organisations have been supplanting socialist revolutions with nationalist ones.
Above it has been argued that nationalism has failed as it had to fail, and any Arab, African, Asian or American Revolution cannot now miraculously succeed. Still less likely is the idea that somehow a pure democracy can establish itself in a market economy. If the Egyptian workers now demand to elect their managers, they will either be repressed or the plants will be closed down. The capitalist class will remove its money from Egypt. Such demands are part of the continuing struggle but they cannot be implemented apart from a wider struggle for socialism. A kind of surreptitious attempt to enlist workers in a struggle for socialism under the banner of democracy cannot work.
What then is happening? What can happen? In the first place, we cannot understand the events in the Middle East and North Africa in terms of its own history alone. The repression and exploitation of the population by the local capitalist class/elite in alliance with the dominant capitalist powers is a general tendency within capitalism as a whole. The one party state with an all-powerful secret police incorporating parts of the population was pioneered and possibly perfected by Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Its overthrow anywhere is a definite gain for the local population. There is, however, nothing to stop it being reinstated in a country with or without general nationalisation of the means of production, though the repression will be more effective if it is instituted. Where the controls of capitalism do not or cannot work, direct repression has always been employed.
On the other hand, it looks as if repression will be more limited for some time, and the regimes will have to make some concessions. The removal of the Stalinist type police state is a once for all act which has to be followed up with economic concessions. In spite of the attempts of various East European Reformers like Ota Sik as well as Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair to use the term, third way, it is not associated with any kind of real system. That is because there is no third way between capitalism and socialism. That would imply that the reformers in the Middle East are likely to implement a series of pragmatic reforms, which will do little to alleviate the mass unemployment, poverty and maldistribution of income. The subsequent discontent will lead to the formation of more organised left wing parties, in common with other parts of the world.
The immediate results of the events in the Middle East and North Africa have gone beyond those countries. In the first instance, it has become clear that the de facto partial failure of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented a repeat in the ‘Arab’ world. In the second place, the capitalist powers remain confused and at odds as to what role they can play. They have lost their local allies or clients and cannot control the area in the old way. In the third place, globalisation did not just mean one world economy with freedom of movement for capital but its necessary corollary was that the dominant finance capitalist power, the USA, established the overall political rules. This appeared to include the rule of law and forms of institutionalised democracy, similar to the West. On the other hand, where this would have led to the rule of forces opposed to the United States or to capital, dictatorial rule was accepted. The Western Powers are apprehensive lest the new regimes in the Middle East turn either to the left or to Islamism, but they have lost the power to impose an immediate solution. Fourthly, the protest movements have inspired people the world over, particularly in areas of the world where there is a similar form of repression as in China. As far as one can see the protest movements included everyone, old or young, but the focus has been on the youth. The effect has been to spread the word to the youth of the world that it is the time to act. The despair which many have felt at the failure of the left may begin to dissipate. Fifthly, whatever the end result of these protests, this movement is the first in the world where a simple mass protest of unarmed people has compelled a highly repressive government to stand down. It is true that there were special conditions, not present in some other countries, such as China, Burma, Russia etc., but that does not alter its significance.
Some people have compared the uprisings to 1848, at the time of the Communist Manifesto, when socialism was only beginning to establish itself. The comparison makes sense because the revolutions of the time were chaotic and the revolutionaries themselves were unclear as to their goals, even if Marx, Engels and the Communist League had a clear manifesto. The confusion of the present is partly a result of the complexity of the nature of the epoch itself and partly as a result of the continued prevalence of wisps of Stalinist fog.
There is a further comparison which can be made and that relates to democracy. In 1848, the franchise for all, irrespective of property holdings, and a representative assembly were still revolutionary demands. Today, parliamentary democracy is in disrepute and the electorate is deeply cynical in most Western countries. The demand has to be for genuine forms of control from below, ones that cannot be subverted and such can as only be introduced with the abolition of the market. The connection between money and elections is so obvious that it has devalued the elections themselves. Furthermore, government disregard of promises made before elections, under cover of Orwellian phrases like ‘tough decisions’ are blatantly undemocratic. At some point, the example of the people of North Africa must be taken further in the West.
A note on the Internet
As a side issue, one has to note that much has been made over the use of the internet for organisational purposes, and therefore its role in protest movements. When, however, it came to direct confrontation in Egypt the internet was taken down. Its restoration only came once the regime began to concede. Nonetheless, the internet did play a role before and after it was suppressed. Some people see it as a powerful irrepressible force, making change easier than in earlier times. The matter has yet to be resolved but I would argue that any regime which was truly threatened would take it down. Furthermore, one has to consider the fact that organising on the internet would be carefully watched by the police, so making it easier for them to gather the necessary information. In China, the internet is censored, something which is not impossible and only the foolhardy would use the internet as a substantial organisational tool, unless they really want to challenge authority and take the consequences. The logic of a police state is such that it would create an internet police force capable of using the internet for purposes of control. Software for this purpose already exists.
At the same time, it is clear that the internet can be used to counteract the biased nature of the media, act a means of distributing lectures, political programmes, theoretical and general left wing literature as well as providing a means of organisation.
- Egypt’s Uprising:Not Just a Question of ‘Transition’Adam Haniehhttp://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/462.php
- Interview: Robert Fisk meets Mohamed ElBaradei http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/mohamed-elbaradei-the-man-who-would-be-president-2200155.html viewed 11 March 2011
- Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity, Thimoty Mitchell, University of California Press; illustrated edition edition (6 Dec 2002), ISBN-10: 9780520232617
- World Bank Doing Business Report 2010, http://www.doingbusiness.org/reforms/top-reformers-2010/ viewed 11 March 2011
- Revolution against neoliberalism? http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201122414315249621.htmlhttp://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201122414315249621.html viewed 20 February 2011
- Mideast should spur rethink of old certainties, Gillian Tett http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d8c3b42e-2a47-11e0-b906-00144feab49a.html#axzz1GMqKfTQq viewed 20 Feb 2011
- World Bank, Global Economic Prospects: Crisis, Finance and Growth (Washington: World Bank), p.14
- Prospects Daily: Treasuries climb as demand for safe assets rises ttp://blogs.worldbank.org/prospects/archive/201102
- Mideast should spur rethink of old certainties, Gillian Tett http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d8c3b42e-2a47-11e0-b906-00144feab49a.html#axzz1GMqKfTQq viewed 20 Feb 2011
- Leading Tunisian Islamist wants democracyhttp://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/01/29/uk-tunisia-protests-islamist-interview-idUKTRE70S2YQ20110129. Viewed 11 March 2011
- Egypt in Movement By Samir Amin http://www.zcommunications.org/egypt-in-movement-by-samir-amin Viewed 11 March 2011
- Martin Kettle Guardian.co.uk, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/10/physics-david-miliband-centre-left, accessed 11/03/2011
David Gardner: “Why reform of crony capitalism will bring yet more
upheaval”Financial Times, March 9
- Financial Times, March 10
th2011, London, p.12.
- Eddie Ford: “The Unfolding Arab Revolution”