Arab Spring and the missing link of philosophy

May 4, 2013

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2013-2014

IV. Arab Spring and the missing link of philosophy

A. Syria

Tunisia, Syria and Egypt show the determination of the masses to continue their revolutions in the face of vicious counter-revolution. In Syria, the doomed Assad regime has intensified its air attacks on the country’s liberated areas. The death toll continues to rise, with over 70,000 estimated killed and millions left homeless. In a civilized world, not one of the victims of these attacks would have had to die, not one person would have been tortured, not one child traumatized, not one woman raped by shabiha thugs, nor one woman or man driven to the hard choice of armed self-defense.

Rebel fighters launch a boat carrying two Syrian women fleeing across the Orontes River to Turkey near the northern Syrian town of Darkush. Photo courtesy of Freedom House

Rebel fighters launch a boat carrying two Syrian women fleeing across the Orontes River to Turkey near the northern Syrian town of Darkush. Photo courtesy of Freedom House

A civilized world would have solidarized with the long months of peaceful, heroic demonstrations against the Baathist regime. That moment tested the world. The revolution in Syria is entirely a creation of its peoples’ passion for freedom, but the counter-revolution is a collective creation of this alienated, inhuman world.

Shabiha murdered over 100 villagers in Haswiya, near Homs in central Syria. In Aleppo 65 were murdered, their hands bound behind them. Sixty civilians, including women and children, were massacred in Sanamayn in the south. Civilians were killed in the neighborhoods of Jobar, Al-Qadam, Tadamon and Yarmouk in Damascus. Scud missile attacks wiped out whole families. The death toll is averaging over 3,000 per month. That is a higher monthly toll than during the Bosnian genocide.

This poorly provisioned, orphaned revolution fights on. The Syrian revolutionaries receive lip service and crumbs from the West, paid many times over in blood. Meanwhile the lie is propagated that a “civil war” is taking place, rather than the truth: that a revolutionary people is being targeted for genocide.

The presence of well-armed religious fundamentalists has helped to confuse the issues. Al-Qaeda opposed the Arab Spring from the start, and the revolutions marginalized its reactionary ideology more effectively than U.S. imperialism or Russian genocide could ever hope to do. The masses’ humanism shamed all these powers. Now the fundamentalists are hoping to capitalize on the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the world–of which they are merely a concentrated expression–to create a new power base in Syria. They are trying to grab power away from the self-organization of the people.

Radical Islamists such as Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria–powered in part by Iraq’s decade of sectarian strife–are playing a role increasingly reminiscent of the way the Stalinists helped to destroy the Spanish Revolution from within in the 1930s, paving the way for the victory of Franco’s fascism. The Stalinists in Spain systematically undermined the more radical aspects of the revolution, including the forms of organization by which workers and peasants exerted self-activity. Islamists in Syria are undermining the masses’ self-activity in their zeal to impose their own counter-revolutionary vision.

As always, the counter-revolution that appears within the revolution serves to discredit the very idea of a different, better world, as it confirms the corrupt existing world’s good opinion of itself. This situation, in fact, creates the starkest of dilemmas. To turn aside from facing the problem is to admit that one has ceased to be a revolutionary at all. Those who continue to fight for, as one revolutionary put it, a Syria “where every human being–regardless of their ethnicity, their religion, or their gender–can live in freedom, without fear,” must be supported. The continuing, daily demonstrations within Syria include protests against Al-Nusra by those fighting against the Assad regime.

To fight this counter-revolution from within requires not only the independent revolutionary organization of the masses but a revolutionary organizing principle, a banner of full liberation.

The need for that banner cries out in each country where the revolutions of Arab Spring are being fought out or struggling to get underway. It is therefore crucial to project concretely within all these struggles the indispensable selection of Raya Dunayevskaya’s writings on the Middle East in our new publication, Crossroads of History, whose Foreword singles out how those writings relate to the question of revolution in permanence.

This question has become the most significant issue of the Arab Spring. Efforts to deepen and continue the revolutions include the targeting of Muslim Brotherhood offices for destruction in Egypt during mass protests. They include the national general strike carried out in Tunisia after the assassination of Marxist opposition leader Chokri Belaid, accompanied by running street battles and occupations or attacks on offices of Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party. As one protester declared, “The revolution continues! Chokri’s death is a lesson for everyone!”

These actions reflect the determination of the masses not to allow a replay of the betrayal from within of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Indeed, Iran’s role in supporting Assad in Syria is a direct continuation of this betrayal, disguised by reactionary religious rhetoric. However, as in Mali, the movements’ ambivalent relationship to the Islamists–as well as to other elements that would like to limit the revolution, including the liberals and parts of the old state, even the Egyptian military–shows yet again the missing link of philosophy that could give the movement a direction toward revolution in permanence.

What is involved is much more than simply stopping the Islamists and others from halting the revolution. Revolution in permanence is not just a first negation but a negation of the negation, and one that encompasses all the forces of revolution as reason, and philosophy as a force of revolution. Second negation, the negation of the negation which allows the positive in the negative to emerge, is the heart of the Hegelian dialectic. It is that which Marx recreated as the philosophy of revolution in permanence. Marxist-Humanism makes a category of the dual rhythm of revolution, the destruction of the old and the creation of the new society. That is the unique understanding of revolution in permanence developed by Dunayevskaya on the basis of the new moments of Marx’s last decade. To bring all of this into today’s battle of ideas remains the main point not only of Crossroads of History but of the forthcoming collection of Dunayevskaya’s writings on Karl Marx.

B. Egypt

Two years after Egypt’s revolution overthrew Hosni Mubarak, fierce battles continue. Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the Day of Revolt when Cairo’s Tahrir Square was first occupied, was the occasion for protests across Egypt, and renewed calls for a “second revolution.” The following day, Port Said rose up after a court sentenced 21 defendants to death for a 2012 soccer riot. In addition to doubting some defendants’ guilt in an event thought to have been orchestrated by the military, citizens compared the death sentences to the impunity of police, soldiers and officials responsible for lethal repression aimed at the revolutionaries of 2011 and protesters and strikers over the past two years. By Jan. 27, 40 people had been killed in clashes with police and President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government had lost control of the city.

The protests quickly voiced calls to bring down Morsi and the Brotherhood, and even a declaration of “the Republic of Port Said” as a repudiation of the incompleteness of the revolution. Workers, students, shop owners and even police officers joined in strikes and protest marches. Unrest spread to cities including Muhalla and Mansoura, with highway and railway blockades and campaigns to stop paying utility bills.

After the vicious gang rapes in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 6, second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, thousands of women and supporters marched to Tahrir Square, denouncing Morsi and calling for an end to political sexual terrorism. Photo courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim

After the vicious gang rapes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 6, second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, thousands of women and supporters marched to Tahrir Square, denouncing Morsi and calling for an end to political sexual terrorism. Photo courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim

A nationwide wave of strikes and industrial actions broke out, advancing both political and economic demands. For 16 days in February 1,200 striking temporary workers shut down shipping–except for basic foodstuffs and tourism–at the port of Ain Sokhna, sleeping each night in empty shipping containers until they won their demand for permanent jobs. In the same town another 100-200 workers held their seventh sit-in in March, halting construction of a power plant, with a similar demand for full-time contracts.

In Alexandria 450 workers occupied the Portland Cement Factory in February to demand full-time contracts and payment of overdue bonuses, until the paramilitary Central Security Forces stormed the plant, attacking the workers with police dogs. One month later, 18 of the strikers were still being detained.

Egyptian workers have never considered the revolution finished, holding more than 3,000 strikes or demonstrations over wages, working conditions and political demands since Mubarak’s overthrow. More than 600 workers have been fired for union activities, with five independent union leaders sentenced to three-year prison terms for leading a strike at Alexandria Port Containers Co. But repression could not stop the class struggles from below, even though the new Islamist-written constitution treats strikes as criminal, calling them “aggression against the right to work.” Morsi’s replacement of over half the executive board of the state-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation with Brotherhood members only highlighted its division from the 1,000 independent unions that have sprung up in recent years.

After Morsi claimed extraordinary powers last November in the process of pushing through the new constitution, protests started targeting Muslim Brotherhood offices. On March 22, at least six offices were attacked in different cities. Protesters chanted “Revolution renewed,” as well as 2011 Tahrir Square slogans such as “bread, freedom and social justice” from Muhalla to Cairo, where residents again formed neighborhood self-defense committees like those created in January 2011. They blocked dozens of buses transporting members of the Brotherhood from entering the area.

The deep contradictions within the opposition to the Brotherhood are seen in the fact that, at the very time the neighborhood committees, important forms of working-class self-organization from below, were revived, many protesters in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said were calling for the military to oust Morsi and retake power. When activists are still fighting to ban military trials of civilians and to free those jailed by military tribunals, when the military’s attempt to halt the revolution and its repression of strikes and protests are still fresh in the memory, such a call is a dramatic sign of the impasse at which the revolution has arrived.

Here the void in philosophy makes itself felt. Organizations of the Left, whether Marxists or the April 6 Youth Movement, allowed themselves to be reduced to choosing between tailending the military, the Brotherhood, or the pro-capitalist liberal opposition parties–just at the time when self-organization from below is resurfacing.

The neighborhood self-defense committees, the idealism of youth self-organizing their occupation of Tahrir Square, the workers’ strikes organized in opposition to both bosses and state-recognized unions, the women defying sexism to exert self-activity in strikes and occupations and fight sexual harassment: these were and are beginnings–beginnings only, it is true, needing to be developed–toward the masses building the capacity to take power in their own hands, smash the rulers’ state power, and break down capitalism, imperialism and sexism. But lack of confidence in the Idea of freedom goes hand in hand with lack of confidence in the masses’ capacity to revolutionize society.

The group Revolutionary Socialists exemplified this problem when they advocated voting for Morsi as the lesser evil in last year’s presidential election. Despite wishful thinking that the Brotherhood would be swayed by pressure from below to be revolutionary instead of counter-revolutionary, the fundamental reason for their opportunistic positions is their belief in the backwardness of the masses. The masses are not “ready” for socialist revolution, but “our position is always to be ‘wherever the masses are.'” Even if they imagine that to be behind a reactionary movement that attacks the most advanced struggles of women, workers and youth!

In truth, while Left groups fail to make a category of just those struggles and the forms of organization arising from them, and instead blur the divide between revolution and counter-revolution, the masses of countries from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria to Yemen, are determined not to allow a repeat of the political Islamists’ hijacking of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The concrete history of that revolution, philosophically comprehended, can shine a light on the current predicament, which is not unique to Egypt. The practicality of philosophy, as concretely worked out in confrontation with decades of revolution and counter-revolution in the Middle East, is the reason News and Letters Committees has just publishedCrossroads of History: Marxist-Humanist Writings on the Middle East by Raya Dunayevskaya.

“Iran: Unfoldment of, and Contradictions in, Revolution” (chapter 8 of the book) begins with the many new kinds of spontaneous organization taking on the form of a dual government and the mass outpouring of women that began on International Women’s Day, 1979. But the Left in Iran and internationally largely advocated “critical support” for Khomeini as “anti-imperialist” and therefore downplayed or even opposed the women’s fight for freedom. This once again exposed the narrowness of their vision of the future, which is at the same time a lack of theoretical preparation for revolution:

“Under these cir­cumstances of ever new forces of revolution, for male revolutionaries to disregard how total the revolution must be if it is to uproot the exploit­ative, racist, sexist society, and once again try to subordinate women’s struggles as a ‘mere part of the whole’ (as if the whole can be without its parts), is to play into the hands of the reac­tionaries, be that the ‘secular’ Bazargan government or the Ayatollah Khomeini who is trying to ‘institutionalize’ his Is­lamic ‘revolution,’ that is to say, confine it to where he can steal the fruit of the revolution–freedom–and leave the mass­es who made it at the bottom, as in any and all class societies….

“Unfortunately, Khomeini still remains very nearly unchallenged, that is, seriously un­challenged….And unfor­tunately the Left, too, had unfurled no new banner of freedom, and some are willing to settle for much, much less: being part of State Administration, that is, part of the new ruling bureau­cracy, while shouting ‘anti-imperialism.’

“…we must not permit the indigenous Iranian counter-revolution to hide under the slogan of anti-imperialism, as some in the Left are trying to do by branding not only U.S. imperialism but Kate Millett and, indeed, the whole women’s revolutionary movement as if they are ‘agents of imperialism.’ Nothing could assure the victory of the counter-revolution more than that kind of ‘anti-imperi­alism.’…The great weakness of the movement now, and not only in Iran, is the lack of theory, a theory stemming from a philosophy of total liberation such as is Marx’s Humanism.”

Soon, the dialectic of events called forth the remarkable piece “Not So Random Thoughts on: What Is Philosophy? What Is Revolution? 1789-1793; 1848-1850; 1914-1919; 1979” (chapter 10). It begins with Hegel responding to the French Revolution by elaborating the power of the Idea as “second negativity,” and how Marx worked that out in theory and practice as revolution in permanence. Marx’s insistence on the need for a total uprooting and for showing not only what we are against but what we are for was rooted in his recognition of “the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle.”

In the wake of the betrayal and collapse of the socialist Second International when World War I broke out, Lenin felt compelled to reorganize his method of thinking by returning to Marx’s roots in Hegel. This turned out to be the indispensable preparation for revolution in Russia 1917, at which time his dialectical view of revolution/counter-revolution allowed him not to fall for “critical support” of the revolutionary government.

It is on this basis that Dunayevskaya analyzed the way the pseudo-revolutionary seizure of hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran diverted attention from the completion of Khomeini’s counter-revolutionary “Islamic Republic” constitution. [9]

So today it is not only a question of recognizing Egypt’s new constitution as counter-revolutionary; it is not only a question of recognizing that calls for a new Constituent Assembly to replace that constitution are a diversion from the self-activity of the masses, which is the only force that can create a second revolution that could lead to “all power in the hands of the masses, their forms of organization, their control of produc­tion and the state, their smashing of the bourgeois state.” It is a question of releasing the power of philosophy, of revolutionaries engaging in theoretical preparation for revolution and no longer allowing the separation of organization and a philosophy of liberation, and thereby working out a new relationship of theory to practice on the way to the establishment of new human relations. [10]

Today that entails not only returning to Hegel and Marx, and comprehending the history of revolutions from their time through the Russian to the Iranian, but returning to the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism, rooted in that history of thought and actuality and at the same time developing a new philosophical breakthrough for our era. Therefore this year we return to the philosophic moment of Marxist-Humanism, its birth in Dunayevskaya’s 1953 Letters on Hegel’s Absolutes, for purposes of releasing the missing link of philosophy. (See “On the 60th anniversary of Dunayevskaya’s Philosophic Letters: Hegel’s Absolute Idea is for workers”.) That philosophic moment made a category of the movement from practice to theory that is itself a form of theory, which posed a new relationship of theory and practice; and in embryo it posed the dialectics of organization and philosophy. Our central organizational task this year is to project and develop these ideas in concrete intervention into the ongoing revolutions and social movements as well as into the battle of ideas. All other tasks, from expanding our revolutionary journalism to organizational growth, flow from this task and serve as tests of how we carry it out.

What can help us is to recognize this year’s other important anniversaries as not accidents of the calendar but the process of the self-determination of the idea. As our Constitution states, because the Marxist-Humanist trilogy of revolution, Marxism and FreedomPhilosophy and Revolution, and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution “are rooted in and parallel the movement from practice to theory of our age with our own theoretical development since our birth, they are the theoretical foundations for the Marxist-Humanist organization, News and Letters Committees. However, they are not a ‘program.’ They are a contribution to the theoretical preparation for revolution without which no revolutionary organization or grouping can match the challenge of our era.” [11]

It adds that American Civilization on Trial, completed 50 years ago, concretizes that body of ideas on the American scene and for the Black dimension.

Philosophy and Revolution, published 40 years ago this year, developed Marxist-Humanism’s original contribution as Absolute Idea as New Beginning, which our Constitution relates to “the need of integrality also of philosophy and organization. As against ‘the party to lead’ concept, such integrality of dialectics and organization reflects the revolutionary maturity of the age and its passion for a philosophy of liberation.”

Part of projecting and providing an entry into this body of ideas is completing the publication of our forthcoming book of selected writings by Raya Dunayevskaya on Karl Marx, which will help show how needed for today is his philosophy of revolution in permanence.

Philosophy as missing link means not just philosophy in general but dialectical philosophy of revolution. That means Marx’s new continent of thought, which Marxist-Humanism comprehends as revolving around revolution in permanence. In our age the question of “what happens after the revolution” moved from the realm of theory to that of staving off counter-revolution, making the vision of a new society a weapon in that concrete struggle. Negation of the negation as self-determination of the idea of freedom is a material force, needed to make the new society real.

Just as failure to listen to the voices from below blocks the development of theory and philosophy, the philosophic void prevents would-be revolutionaries from hearing the voices from below. Working out the needed historically grounded philosophy of liberation and working out a new, Marxist-Humanist relationship between theory and practice are not two tasks, but one and the same. The urgency of the task is underscored by the multiplicity of the crises and the simultaneity of revolution and counter-revolution. The aim remains the total uprooting of this racist, sexist, heterosexist, capitalist order and the creation of a new society on truly human foundations.

–The Resident Editorial Board, April 17, 2013

Notes for Part IV:

9. Crossroads of History, p. 81.

10. Crossroads of History, p. 69.

11. See the Constitution of News and Letters Committees, available through the literature listing

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