With the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, the Egyptian uprising became a successful revolution. The question now is ‘what sort of revolution is this?’

Everyone is now asking this same question- world leaders, media commentators, supporters of the old regime, supporters of the resistance, ordinary people everywhere who have followed the events and been inspired by them.

Is it like 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down amid a wave of anti-Stalinist revolutions across Eastern Europe? Or is it more like 1979, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular insurrection and replaced by an Islamist regime led by the Ayatollah Khomeini? How does it compare with Egypt’s ‘revolution from above’ in 1952, which brought the army officer Gamal Abdul Nasser to power in the first of what turned out to be a series of Arab nationalist coups?

Or must we delve deeper for worthy comparisons? Might the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January-February 2011 have a significance comparable with the ‘July Days’ of 1789 or the ‘February Days’ of 1917? Could this be the beginning of a revolutionary process as profound as either the French or the Russian Revolutions?

Let us begin with a quick analysis of what has just taken place.

The January-February Days

That the revolution hung in the balance for 18 days is testimony to both the repressive power of the regime and the courage and resilience of the protestors. Bloated by massive US funding, the state apparatus at the command of the Egyptian ruling class has an awesome capacity for repression and terror. In recent times, the Mubarak dictatorship has received US funding and arms on a massive scale, making Egypt a pillar of US imperialism in the region second only to Israel.

Because of this, the defeat of the riot police early in the uprising shook the regime but did not break it. Egypt was not Tunisia. The regime’s strategy thereafter was an attempt to survive by wearing down the protesters in a protracted stalemate. Its central preoccupation was preventing the break-up of the army. It was for this reason that the generals would not order the troops to fire.

Mainstream commentators talk as if ‘the army’ is an homogeneous entity. ‘What the army decides to do is decisive.’ ‘The army holds the reins of power.’ And so on.

In normal times, the army of a bourgeois nation-state can be viewed in this way, since the generals stand at the top of a rigid hierarchy based on brutal discipline and a total absence of democracy. But it is the very essence of revolution that it causes the discipline of the army to fracture along class lines.

The Egyptian generals are rich, powerful, and corrupt: they are members of the ruling class and the regime. The army high command is deeply meshed into the economic and financial structures of Egyptian capitalism. Ordinary soldiers, on the other hand, are recruited from the villages and working-class suburbs, and they face the poverty, fatigues, routine brutality, and petty indignities of service life in the ranks: they are part of ‘the people’, and in many cases have family and friends among the protestors. Junior officers, mainly recruited from the middle class, occupy an intermediate position: some are simply careerists who identify with their superiors, while others sympathise with the protestors.

The generals’ strategy was to save Mubarak if they could, but to save the army at all costs. The former, in the final extremity, was dispensable; but if the soldiers, ordered to crush the protests, had refused to do so and sided with the protestors, then the Egyptian ruling class would have found itself staring into the abyss.

Stripped down to its bare essentials, the state consists of armed bodies of men (and some women) whose role is to protect the property and power of the rich – whether from foreign or domestic threats. As long as the internal discipline of the army holds, the state, however battered by protest, still stands. When the army splits on class lines, when there is a breakdown of military discipline that mirrors the crisis in society at large, then the revolution ceases to be merely ‘political’ – a change of personnel at the top – and becomes ‘social’ – where the distribution of wealth, power, and opportunity across society begins to be actively contested.

Egypt’s generals have played a cautious hand. First, after the rout of Mubarak’s riot police, they moved the soldiers onto the streets, but refused to use them to crush the protests. Then, when Mubarak unleashed thousands of hired thugs and plainclothes security, they ordered the soldiers to do nothing. Meantime, away from the glare of the world’s TV and internet cameras in Tahrir Square, they were arresting and detaining activists. Hundreds were lifted, held for days, and often tortured.

The generals connived at a tentative counter-revolution which fell short of a decisive test of strength. They hoped that a mix of economic hardship, physical exhaustion, fake concessions, street violence, and backstreet intimidation would cause the movement to recede. But they were not prepared – simply to save Mubarak – to take the ultimate risk of ordering the soldiers to fire on the crowds. This was not benevolence. The Egyptian generals rejected the Tiananmen Square option because they feared mass mutiny and the end of a unified bourgeois-national army controlled from above.

Another wave of ‘velvet revolutions’?

The readiest comparison with the wave of revolutions now unrolling across the Middle East has been with the 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ which brought down the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe. How useful is this?
The immediate similarity is obvious: in the velvet revolutions, a succession of long-established, deeply entrenched dictatorships was overthrown by mass street protests demanding democratic freedom. Beyond that, however, there are many differences.

The velvet revolutions were preceded by deep splits inside the bureaucratic state-capitalist ruling classes of Eastern Europe. Preoccupied with economic stagnation and backwardness, large sections of the ruling class favoured a break with the old ‘command economy’ model of the Stalin era. The mainly middle-class leadership of the various opposition currents that led the protests shared a broadly similar view. Looking west, both reformist bureaucrats and liberal dissidents saw a model that seemed to combine economic progress with democratic freedom. Socialism, by contrast, was tainted by its equation with Stalinism, an equation deeply embedded in mass consciousness by decades of state propaganda.

Across Eastern Europe, unreconstructed hard-line Stalinists like Erich Honecker of East Germany and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania were overthrown, but most members of the old regime survived. The apparatchiks of party and state reinvented themselves as the parliamentarians and entrepreneurs of capitalist societies on the western model, fusing with the liberal dissident leaders elevated by the mass movements.

The cost was high. Cuts, privatisation, and free-market fundamentalism tipped millions into poverty as factories closed and state welfare was axed. Except for Poland, real GDP was lower in all the major East European economies in 1997 than in 1989. Disillusionment fed a surge of nationalism, warmongering, and sometimes murderous racism. In the former Yugoslavia, this took the form of full-scale war, ethnic-cleansing, and acts of genocide.

The revolutionaries of 1989 imposed this defeat on themselves by adopting the liberal-capitalist ideology of an exploitative class society. The result was a wave of ‘velvet restorations’ – the old ruling class and state apparatus survived the upheaval behind a veneer of political liberalisation.

Democratic revolution or permanent revolution?

There are good reasons for thinking that the Arab revolutions of 2011 will have a different outcome. Many of us hope so. To grasp the potential, it will be useful to review how earlier generations of Marxist thinkers attempted to make sense of the revolutions of their own epochs.

When Marx and Engels tried to analyse the defeated revolutions of 1848, they came to the conclusion that the bourgeoisie had lost its ability to lead a revolutionary struggle for democracy in the manner of the French Revolution of 1789. The bourgeoisie had shrunk from determined revolutionary action in fear of the popular social forces this might unleash.

The baton of political struggle had, it seemed, passed to the small embryonic working-class. Because the workers had no property or privilege to protect – ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ – they had no reason to hold back. The problem, of course, was that the working class at the time was very weak: it could not possibly have made a revolution on its own. What was critical was its ability, because of its distinctive class character and social position, to provide leadership, in both political and economic struggle, to a wider movement of democratic forces.

But without the property-owning bourgeoisie to act as a break on the radicalism of the movement, the possibility existed that any ‘democratic-bourgeois’ phase of revolutionary action would have an in-built tendency to grow over into an immediately following ‘socialist-proletarian’ phase. The point was that, if the workers had the power to overthrow the old regime and establish democracy, they would almost certainly use that power to further their socio-economic interests. If they discovered the power to topple an autocratic monarch and dismantle his secret-police apparatus, why would they continue to tolerate the exploitation of the mill-owner or the mine-boss?

In fact, with the partial exception of the Paris Commune of 1871, the 19th century working-class never succeeded in playing the kind of revolutionary role that would put these possibilities to the test. Instead, the main practical consequence of the failure of ‘revolution from below’ in 1848 was a series of ‘revolutions from above’ – notably Italian unification (1860-1861), German unification (1870-1871), and the American Civil War (1861-1865).

It was Leon Trotsky, reflecting on another revolution, that of 1905 in Russia, who worked out the full implications of these ideas in the concrete circumstances of early 20th century Europe. Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’ envisaged: a) an urban rising by industrial workers against the autocratic police-state of the Tsar; b) a rural revolt by the peasantry against landlordism and the remnants of feudalism; and c) a fusion of democratic-political and social-economic demands of these classes as the revolution unfolded.

Crucial to his argument was the observation that, because the peasantry was geographically dispersed and individualist in outlook, it could not provide revolutionary leadership. The workers, on other hand, were inherently a collective class because of the division of labour in large workplaces, and were also concentrated in half a dozen big cities and industrial regions.

In revolution, therefore, the towns led the countryside, and if the urban bourgeoisie was incapable of leadership (the conclusion of Marx and Engels in 1848), then the urban proletariat must provide it. But if it does this in the democratic struggle against Tsarism, it is bound to advance its own more radical demands for social transformation (to be achieved through workers’ control of the factories and the cities), and those of its rural allies (confiscation of the landlords’ estates).

An important addendum was provided by the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, also reflecting on the experience of the 1905 revolution. She identified ‘the mass strike’ as a central mechanism of working-class revolution, not simply in the sense that it represented the concentrated economic power of workers, but also in the way in which political and economic struggle reinforced one another. When workers discovered that a mass strike could shake the foundations of the state, they also found the confidence to take on the boss for higher wages; and victories in the workplace then fed back into the political struggle; and so on, in an ascending spiral of class militancy.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution proved to be an accurate prediction of the class character of the Russian Revolution of 1917. And Luxemburg’s theory of the mass strike was reflected in the giant waves of political and economic strikes that rolled over Russia during its great revolutionary year. An urban insurrection of the relatively small industrial working-class detonated peasant revolt in the countryside and mutiny among the mainly peasant soldiers of the Tsar’s army. The ‘democratic revolution’ that overthrew the autocracy in February 1917 was shortly afterwards followed by a ‘social revolution’ led by the Bolsheviks under the slogan ‘peace, bread, and land’.

‘Deflected permanent revolution’

But it did not always work like this. Trotsky’s theory explained what happened in the global wave of revolutions between 1917 and 1927. It did not explain the very different character of the later revolutions led by Mao in China in 1949, by Nasser in Egypt in 1952, by Castro in Cuba in 1959, and many others of similar character in the period after the Second World War.

Tony Cliff’s theory of ‘deflected permanent revolution’ was an attempt to update the theories of Marx and Trotsky to take account of new developments. The ‘Third World’ revolutions with which he was concerned were revolutions against imperialism, underdevelopment, and poverty. The aim was to achieve national independence, economic development, and social reform. These were essentially the tasks of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ – the tasks of 1789 – tasks which the bourgeoisie had failed to carry out in 1848 – tasks which the working class had had to undertake in 1917.

Cliff’s argument was that the pressure of global economic competition and imperialist military power created the conditions for a wave of what were, in effect, anti-colonial revolutions, in which revolutionary leadership was assumed by middle-class nationalists, usually either disaffected intellectuals (like the leaders of the small guerrilla army under Castro and Che Guevara that won control of Cuba in the revolutionary war of 1956-1959) or army officers (like the Free Officers movement under Nasser that seized power in a military coup in Egypt in 1952).

Although these revolutions were invariably directed against either colonial rule or right-wing dictatorships backed by the imperial powers, democracy was not the aim. The small educated elites who led the movements were essentially modernisers and reformers. Their purpose was to create modern nation-states with developed economic and social infrastructures. They knew what to do, and there was no time to lose, for theirs were ‘underdeveloped’ countries: that was the dominant ethos of the new rulers. All of these revolutionary regimes imposed more or less autocratic political systems. Democracy – and the popular demands for social reform to which it might have given voice – was sacrificed in the interests of rapid state-directed capital accumulation.

Islamic revolution

What of ‘Islamic’ revolution? Islamism is an obsession among mainstream commentators. This preoccupation reflects the widespread Islamophobia to which the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise. Serious analysis is minimal. ‘Islamic’ revolution is often simply a bogey to frighten Daily Mail readers, comparable with ‘communism’ in the 1950s, ‘democracy’ in the 1850s, or ‘levelling’ in the 1650s.

In reality, Islamism is not a uniform political phenomenon: rather, in its diversity, it reflects the contradictions and conflicts of the societies in which it arises. There is the Islamism of the oppressor, like the brutal and reactionary dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, which enjoys the backing of Britain and the US. There is also the Islamism of the oppressed, represented (imperfectly, but to a significant degree) by Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon, both of which are demonised by the western media. And there are hybrids, like the Islamism of Afghanistan’s Taliban, who are, on the one hand, fighting an anti-imperialist war against foreign occupation, and, on the other, organising many of the most traditional and backward sections of Afghan society.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 had this hybrid character. The Islamist movement of the Ayatollah Khomeini represented a popular revolt against a vicious dictatorship backed by the US and the oil corporations. But this movement’s principal social base was among the petty-trading communities of the traditional bazaars, and it was used to crush the more radical revolution represented by the strikes and democratic councils of the Iranian working-class. Khomeini was both anti-imperialist and counter-revolutionary.

Had the Iranian workers advanced radical demands for social transformation backed by militant mass action to achieve them, they could have divided the Islamist movement, winning over the urban and rural poor, separating them from the traditional middle-class. The outcome of the Iranian Revolution was not inevitable; it was determined by the politics of the revolutionaries.

Religion is not decisive. Muslims, Christians, and non-believers have made the Egyptian Revolution together. Islam is inherently neither revolutionary nor reactionary; the role it plays depends on the class forces represented in specific historical circumstances. The question now is not which religion will reap the rewards of victory in Egypt, but which class.

Where is Egypt going?

There are several reasons for doubting that Egypt 2011 will prove to be an Arab version of either the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the East European velvet revolutions of 1989.

The Egyptian Revolution is a revolt against dictatorship, neoliberalism, and imperialism. It was not simply that the Mubarak regime was undemocratic and corrupt. It was also that it had pursued a programme of privatisation and deregulation that destroyed welfare services and local industries, ratcheted up unemployment and poverty, and widened the gap between rich and poor into a chasm. At the same time, Mubarak made peace with Israel, forged an alliance with the US, and, latterly, participated in the Zionist blockade of Gaza by closing the southern border and lining it with armed guards.

These contradictions cannot be resolved within the framework of a liberal-democratic revolution which refuses to challenge the wealth and power of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, the multinational corporations, and US imperialism.

In the velvet revolutions, the imperial power, the Soviet Union, was itself imploding and withdrawing in on itself. In the Middle East, the imperial power has just fought a full-scale war in Iraq, and it continues to pour billions of dollars’ worth of armaments into the region every year to maintain its military proxies, principally Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Also, in the velvet revolutions, the western capitalist model became ideologically dominant in the popular movements, being pushed by both reform bureaucrats and opposition dissidents. In the Middle East, on the other hand, after some 30 years of neoliberalism, and especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, western capitalism can have few attractions for the mass of the population.

The demand on the streets for the dismantling of the police state and a thoroughgoing democratisation of society is seen by millions as a framework for radical social change – to create jobs, improve public services, eradicate poverty, and reduce the grotesque inequalities between rich and poor.

As hundreds of thousands packed into Tahrir Square on Friday 11 February, as they poured onto the streets of Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and other industrial towns, many of them were striking workers. When Mubarak fled, he did so as a general strike, built from below, gradually spread across the country, including transport, communications, factory, and civil service workers. At the same time, popular committees and militias have established themselves in many working-class districts. Eighteen days of mass struggle, including self-defence against savage counter-revolutionary violence, have engendered embryonic organs of mass popular democracy. The ‘transition to democracy’ is already happening – from below, not from above.

The left, the workers’ movement, the popular committees, and the local militias have been central to the Egyptian Revolution. And already, as the first wave of the political revolution recedes, Egyptian workers, in a living incarnation of the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg’s mass strike, are translating their new-found freedom and confidence into a wave of economic strikes. There is every possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, these forces will crystallise into a mass movement capable of pushing the revolution forwards to challenge the entire capitalist-imperialist order.

The Arab revolution has already shaken the world. If the democratic revolution grows over into socialist revolution, then 2011 could take on the significance of 1789 or 1917. We could, just possibly, be at the beginning of a wave of revolution which will spread beyond the Middle East and become a global contagion.

With thanks to Khalil Habash, Lindsey German, and Alex Snowdon for comments on this article in draft.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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