Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2012-2013

May 11, 2012

From the May-June 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2012-2013

Counter-revolution’s rise shows need for a total philosophy

This special issue carries our Draft Perspectives Thesis, part of our preparation for the national gathering of News and Letters Committees. We publish it because our age is in such total crisis, facing a choice between absolute terror or absolute freedom, that a revolutionary organization can no longer allow any separation between theory and practice, philosophy and revolution, workers and intellectuals, “inside” and “outside.” Join us in discussing these Perspectives.


Revolution, having forced its way to center stage over the last year and a half, cannot easily be bottled up. [1] That explains the viciousness of the counter-revolution, whether the violent police attacks on occupations from New York to Oakland or the Syrian state’s torture and heavy weapons aimed at civilians. It is seen as well in the rulers’ bringing to bear two of their most powerful anti-revolutionary tools: fascism and war.

The circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s murder spotlighted not only the perniciousness of racism rotting the heart of American civilization, but the malignancy of private forces wearing the shield of vigilantism. It is no accident that this outrage elicited comparisons to Emmett Till as well as numerous hoodie-themed protests and school walkouts.

Trayvon M demo
Protest against the murder of Trayvon Martin in Chicago, Illinois

With Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’s massacre of 17 Afghan civilians, including nine children, starkly exposing the meltdown of the Afghan war, the generals atop the military are hardly eager to embark on a war against Iran. The political chorus keeps beating the war drums in time with the Israeli government, but the brass are warning that an Israeli strike on Iran would drag the U.S. into a regional war with hundreds of deaths of U.S. troops. However, the forces driving to war must not be underestimated. The U.S., though weakened by both imperial overreach and economic crisis, is still the lone superpower and a bulwark of counter-revolution.

I. The Arab Spring confronts setbacks

A. Syria as a test of world politics

The collision between counter-revolution and revolution is occurring most sharply in Syria. [2] The Syrian state’s genocidal assault on its own people stirred such outrage across the world that governments from the U.S. to the European Union to the Arab League had to give up their efforts to stay neutral and thereby preserve the regional “stability” backed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Undaunted by their feckless rhetoric, Assad only intensified his bloody repression. After months of siege, intense shelling of Homs began on Feb. 3, hours before Russia and China vetoed a toothless UN Security Council resolution calling on Syria to accept the Arab League’s peace plan. Rhetoric aside, the Obama administration is happier with Assad than with “instability,” which is what Israel has been warning would result from Assad’s fall.

The U.S. and its “Friends of Syria” have given little more than lip service to the Syrian people, while the Arab League’s observer mission failed even at observing. Assad prepared for the April 12 “cease-fire,” negotiated by Kofi Annan for the UN and the Arab League, by stepping up his assault, slaughtering hundreds in the days leading up to it. Afterwards, the bombardment only slowed. “What ceasefire? There’s an explosion every five to six minutes,” Yazan, a Homs-based activist, told the Associated Press. (See “Syrian cry for solidarity.”)

The world’s peoples watched in horror, but governments did little to stop the atrocities as Assad’s forces bombarded Homs with artillery, tanks, helicopters, rockets and mortars. By Feb. 29, water, electricity and communications were cut off in the Baba Amr neighborhood, a rebel stronghold, as a ground assault began. Hundreds were killed, more of them civilians than fighters. Survivors who did not flee were rounded up, many executed. Government forces used hospitals as torture chambers. After Homs, troops moved on to attack Daraa, Idlib, Saraqeb and Hama–but new fighting erupted in Homs and other places, even in the capital, Damascus, dashing the regime’s illusions that it could wipe out the revolution with military force.

In giving President Bashar al-Assad a green light to proceed with his assault, the rulers of Russia and China had above all their own restive masses in mind. On the other side of the same coin, the leaders of Al Qaeda announced their “support” for the uprising to cover up their antipathy to Arab Spring. Far from aiming for freedom, which is what the Syrian masses are telling the world they want, Al Qaeda and political Islamists thirst for state power. It is only in the fevered imagination of some “anti-imperialists” that the Syrian revolt could be a plot by the CIA in league with Islamic fundamentalism.

Within the Western Left, the crisis is manifested as ideological pollution when so many insist that enemy number one is U.S. imperialism and therefore Assad must not be opposed. This lays bare the fixation on first negation, or what one is against–and that opposition is not even directed at the capitalist system but rather at one of its manifestations. Where is Karl Marx’s vantage point, the freedom of the masses? This is central to Marxist-Humanism, but is missing from the post-Marx Marxists who reduce Marx’s ideas to economic theory alone, or to working out blueprints for the future, let alone to crude “anti-imperialism.” Today’s “anti-imperialists” recapitulate the attitude to theory identified by Raya Dunayevskaya:

“The New Left, born in the 1960s, so disdainful of theory (which it forever thinks it can pick up ‘en route’), has a strange attitude toward imperialism. It is as if imperialism were not the natural outgrowth of monopoly capitalism, but was a conspiracy, organized by a single imaginary center, rather as the Nazis used to refer to the Judeo-Catholic-Masonic Alliance, or Communists under Stalin to the conspiracy of the Trotskyists and Rightists in league with the imperialist secret service….” [3]

What is needed instead is to center our analyses on the masses, not only as victims but as Subjects. Since the Tunisian Revolution opened 2011, the subjectivity of masses in motion has shaken the whole world. Arab Spring inspired the student/labor occupation of the Capitol in Madison, Wisc., and Occupy Wall Street. In turn, the people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia support the Syrian uprising. What is at stake in supporting the Syrian masses, as it is in the Arab Spring in general, is supporting the self-development of revolutionary new beginnings. As events have shown, this is a question of revolution in permanence, of continuing the development beyond first negation, overthrow of the old regimes, on to a second negation, releasing mass creativity to construct a new human society.

B. From Egypt to Bahrain, the struggle continues

Having achieved partial success by ousting the old dictators, the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have all faced serious setbacks. At the same time, the struggles continue, and voices from below make clear that a thoroughgoing, radical transformation is what many of the participants are still fighting for.

Take Egypt, where the combination of labor strikes, public square occupations and neighborhood self-defense represented a high point that refused to disappear with the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

From the beginning of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, we have singled out the vast flowering of different forms of self-organization by masses from below, of workplace struggles and of women’s challenge to sexism. The voices of people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square showed that many were reaching for freedom.

One year later, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council want to claim the mantle of revolution. Both came late to the revolution only in order to take it over. The Brotherhood and reactionary political Islamists known as Salafis dominated elections to Parliament, showing once again that bourgeois elections do not equal freedom. One year ago, the Brotherhood promised not to try to dominate the new government and not to impose Islamic values on the country. In office, they filled the panel to write a new constitution with political Islamists and virtually excluded women, youth, and the Christian minority.

Since Mubarak’s fall, young activists have been attacked by the police and jailed by military tribunals. Workers are still fighting for better wages and conditions and full recognition for their independent unions. Women have been pushed aside and subjected to vilification, street beatings and sexual assault. Far from being fooled, masses in the streets are calling for both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood to be toppled.

Last year a youth in Tahrir Square declared, “Everything is now possible. Horizons have opened up. We must now care for the revolution we have made.” This year, on Jan. 25, at a rally in the Square marking one year since the first day of revolution, unemployed worker Attiya Mohammed Attiya explained, “I am not here to celebrate. I am here for a second revolution.” Others were chanting, “Revolution until victory, revolution in all of Egypt’s streets!”

In short, calls for revolution in permanence are in the air. It is crucial to reexamine some of the dominant assumptions held by the youth movement during the heady days of occupation of the Square and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

First, too many held the illusion that the goal should stop at getting rid of the dictatorship and establishing conventional political democracy. The quest for democracy is indispensable, and at the same time represents a reach for freedom that goes much further.

As we pointed out one year ago: “We do not overlook the importance of bringing down a police state and the prospect of a real improvement in human rights. However, a far deeper democracy, a deeper freedom, was created in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and dissolving that is exactly what the rulers aim for.” [4]

The revolutionary new beginnings in the multiple forms of mass self-organization and self-activity were pointing to a much deeper kind of freedom, but key activists in the April 6th Youth Movement were too ready to abandon those beginnings, viewing elections as the arena for competition of political currents. Foreseeing that the Muslim Brotherhood would take advantage of its long-established organization, they pushed for postponement of elections, but the Brotherhood had made a deal with the military to undercut revolution.

Against a backdrop of Saudi money funneled to Salafis, weariness of economic disruption, and large segments of the population that had not been drawn into the revolution, the Brotherhood and the military used bourgeois elections to take the initiative away–temporarily–from the masses’ self-activity, which is the only basis for a true, revolutionary democracy.

We cannot overlook the contradictions in the wish to be “non-ideological.” Ideas about what should happen after the revolution, beyond “democracy,” took a back seat in the name of unity against the dictatorship. In Part IV we shall return to how ideology was still very much present. For now let us recall a vital point from our new Middle East pamphlet:

“It isn’t that class is the sole characteristic of national liberation movements that revolutionaries can support. It is that the working class nature is its essence and it is that the revolutionaries and international impact emerges from masses in motion. . ..This does not mean that we give up the struggle for self-determination, Palestinian especially. It is that we do not narrow our vision of the revolutionary struggle for a totally different world, on truly new Humanist foundations, the first necessity of which is the unity of philosophy and revolution.” [5]

Crucially, the struggle continues, as it does in the other countries that are part of Arab Spring:

  • In Tunisia the Islamist Ennahda Party won constituent assembly elections. Nabil Karoui is on trial for blasphemy after broadcasting the feminist movie Persepolis about the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Karoui was correct to declare, “This is a political trial. It is the trial of 10 million Tunisians who dreamed of having a democratic country.” Salafists have taken to the streets, beating up journalists, harassing unveiled women, calling for an Islamic Caliphate and demanding the closure of the country’s main theater. Thousands of counter-protesters have come out as well, as have thousands protesting attacks on labor union halls. Strikes and sit-ins are frequent.
  • In Yemen the old president Saleh had to resign, but his relatives and close associates control the reins of power. Protesters still occupy Change Square in Sana’a, oil workers went on a national strike on March 14 over corrupt privatization, and women are still vociferously demanding equal rights.
  • In Bahrain the movement was harshly repressed with the help of Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops, but open demonstrations have recently restarted.

While a superpower’s involvement is for its own purposes and not to secure the freedom of the masses, it would be a mistake to ascribe all counter-revolution only to that. In our time, counter-revolution also keeps emerging from within revolutions. In each of the above cases, with or without U.S. military involvement, the masses are confronting a political structure friendly to international capital and hostile to workers, usually with Islamists at the fore, though they were not prominent in any of the uprisings. And in each case the struggle continues.

(…to be continued…)

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