The Arab Spring

May 7, 2011

From the new issue of NEWS & LETTERS, May-June 2011

Part I of

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2011-2012

Revolution and counter-revolution take world stage

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.


  • I. The Arab Spring
  • II. The wars at home
  • III. Japan: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown
  • IV. Revolution, organization and philosophy
  • V. Marxist-Humanist Tasks

(Parts II through V to come in the next few days)

I. The Arab Spring

Revolution and counter-revolution have forced their way back to the center stage of history. First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, revolutions have opened up tremendous new possibilities and spread the fire of their passion from Libya and across the Arab world to Iran, Europe, the U.S. and China. Counter-revolution has reared its head in many forms, from devious maneuvers aimed at co-opting the initiative of the masses to the bloody orgy of brutality unleashed by Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya.

While the U.S. has not attained the heights of revolution, battles have spread across the land to resist the far Right’s program to roll back the gains made by labor, women, African Americans and all freedom movements in the past century.

Such a moment in history tests revolutionaries and all who oppose the exploitation and violence of this globalized capitalist world–and the test sharpened when the U.S. and its NATO allies were drawn into the armed conflict in Libya.

A. High points of revolution

Our coverage has detailed the world ramifications of those revolutions and what was achieved by masses in motion. Women, workers and youth opened new struggles at work, in the streets and in ideas. In the process, as we reported, “something new was being created in Tahrir Square [in Cairo]. It was a form of direct democracy, that reached beyond merely formal freedom to genuinely new human relationships.”[1]

Many voices of people in Tahrir Square made note of this deeper freedom. “You feel like this is the society you want to live in,” declared one youth. Another said after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, “Everything is now possible. Horizons have opened up. We must now care for the revolution we have made.”

Protesters’ pride at their “leaderlessness” reflected a rejection of old forms of representation and an appreciation of the direct democracy they were building. Women reported that, for the first time, they were able to be in a public place free of sexual harassment.

From neighborhood defense committees to cleanup committees, from medical clinics in Tahrir Square to the form of decision-making practiced there, people discovered through their own self-organization new ways of acting together, before which bourgeois democracy pales.

Revolution became the determinant, so that, as we put it in our Feb. 3 statement, “What is decisive is not oil, not religion, but masses in motion fighting for self-determination and freedom….”[2] In weeks, the conceivability of revolution and a new society shook off the dead weight of years of ideological assaults.

Women and Children in Change Square, Sana'a, 2011
Women and children protesting in Change Square in Sana’a, Yemen
Photo by Raja Althaibani,

With the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali, the battles in Egypt and Tunisia have not ended but widened.

Women are fighting to end discrimination and harassment; in Tunisia, they are contending with fundamentalists yelling, “Women back to the kitchen,” and in Egypt women condemned the Army’s all-male constitutional reform panel and the amendments it pushed through.

What must be faced squarely is the counter-revolution coming from within the revolution, as women experienced in their demonstrations on March 8, International Women’s Day. As one demonstrator, Jumanah Younis, described it: “The women chanted slogans that had been used in the revolution itself, calling for freedom, justice and equality.” But the women’s chants “were drowned out by retaliations [yelled by the mob of men] such as ‘No to freedom!’…The men charged the female protestors…and shouted ‘Get out of here.’

“Many women were dragged away by small groups of men who attacked them. I remained on the platform with five other women. A small circle of sympathetic men held hands around us to protect us from the crowd, which swelled on all sides….

“As I struggled to stay upright, a hand grabbed my behind and others pulled at my clothes.”[3]

Like the women in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, what the Egyptian women demonstrators wanted was a continuation and deepening of the new human relations established in Tahrir Square, where women lived for the first time in their lives, those 18 days, without fear of the streets, without harassment, rape, or degradation. They participated equally in the revolutionary events and were treated as comrades.

Labor struggles continued too, and the strikes of the last several years greatly increased its political dimension while demanding better pay and conditions and opposing the neoliberal program of privatization. Nagaa Hamady Aluminum Factory workers held a sit-in demanding the replacement of corrupt managers linked to the Mubarak regime. Workers occupied the Shebin El-Kom Textiles factory to roll back layoffs and increase wages and job security. Employees of Al Azhar University and Cairo University protested working conditions and called for the institutions’ independence from the state. Power station employees struck to oust corrupt managers. Thousands of Suez Canal workers began striking and occupying headquarters. Teachers in Alexandria protested to demand permanent contracts.


In both Egypt and Tunisia, strikes and demonstrations challenged the military-economic-political elite’s domination of “democratic reforms.” As the Egyptian Army continued to detain and torture protesters and the cabinet passed a law to ban strikes and protests, some youth began asking, “What happened to our revolution?” They demanded the release of political prisoners, repeal of repressive laws, and an investigation into killings during the protests.

The Army’s claims to be the champion of revolution and democracy could not hide their efforts to seize the historical initiative from the masses. They managed to end the occupation of Tahrir Square, and, with support from the Muslim Brotherhood, to force through a referendum on limited constitutional changes opposed by the revolutionary forces. But their February slogan of “The army and the people are one hand” has been turned into “The army and the people are not one hand….The revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator (Mubarak), but the dictatorship still exists.”[4] On April 8, tens of thousands of people once again packed Tahrir Square, this time calling for prosecution of Mubarak and his top henchmen, some saying that the Field Marshal “dictator Tantawi” is “next.” Several military officers in uniform defied a threat of summary court martial to join the protest. Hundreds of troops and riot police stormed the Square at 3:00 AM, arresting eight of the dissident officers and killing two people. The Army had lost its halo.

And yet, with barriers to revolution’s continuation coming right from within it as well as from the military, the question arises: Will the Arab Spring be one more series of revolutions unfinished, aborted? Will the high points be lost as the movement stops at first negativity, that is, the destruction of the old and not the creation of the new society with fully human relationships? The philosophic void is seen in the talk of the need to build democracy, oppose imperialism, build a party, without a banner of total uprooting raised as the concrete need for developing the self-activity of masses achieved by the revolution. In short, what is needed to fight retrogression is unity of philosophy and revolution.

B. Libya’s counter-revolution

Libya’s civil war began as nonviolent protests, as in Tunisia and Egypt. In mid-January hundreds of poor families demonstrated and occupied vacant housing in the east and west of Libya. After an internet call for “Uprising on Feb. 17,” Qaddafi’s government stepped up repression, detaining activists. On Feb. 15, days after Hosni Mubarak was toppled, large protests broke out in several cities. In the eastern city of Benghazi, the flashpoint was Abu Salim prison, where weekly protests had been held for two years by families of 1,200 prisoners massacred there in 1996. In the western town of Az Zintan, hundreds of marchers set fire to police and security buildings and set up tents to occupy the town center. Police violence increased the protests. Qaddafi lost control of many areas across the country.

His regime struck back, shelling demonstrations from tanks and bombing rebel-held cities. Libya’s army contains many mercenaries from other countries, paid with oil money. Since February, thousands of African migrant workers have been coerced into Qaddafi’s forces as front-line fighters or human shields. Much better armed and organized than the rebels, the Army retook several cities, at the cost of probably thousands of lives. Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam threatened the masses in revolt with “hundreds of thousands of casualties.”


In the face of this “declaration of war” against the Libyan people, Ibrahim Dabbashi of Libya’s UN delegation–which had entirely gone over to the side of the rebels–called on the UN to impose a no-fly zone and cut off supplies of arms and mercenaries to the regime.[5] Even the rulers of the Arab League, none of whom want their own masses to get any help overthrowing them, submitted to the pressure from below and endorsed a no-fly zone. The Obama administration had to give up its resistance, and a resolution for somewhat more than a no-fly zone was passed by the UN Security Council, and NATO became its enforcer.

By the time France started bombing Qaddafi’s forces, they had already entered Benghazi, one of the last rebel strongholds. They were on the verge of a massacre that would have been a grave setback not only for the revolution in Libya but for the revolutionary wave echoing across the world.

The U.S.-NATO entry into Libya’s civil war disoriented much of the Left. While some groups bowed to Qaddafi as “anti-imperialist,”[6] many other groups and individuals adopted a more sophisticated line of opposing both Qaddafi and intervention, as if that did not mean Qaddafi’s victory and a defeat of revolution with global ramifications.


This disorientation reflected the Left’s longstanding philosophic void. How is it that revolutionaries are so in awe of state powers, especially the superpower U.S., that revolution itself becomes a secondary consideration, and the real determinant is the urge to oppose the U.S.? Nothing could make clearer the pitfalls of being stuck at first negativity. While many participants dissented, speakers at Chicago’s March 19 anti-war protest presented the view that the “core principle” is “anti-intervention.” Libyan state television used footage of the march with calls for “Hands off Libya,” as if that were the whole point of the march.

Many such calls did not even mention Qaddafi or the revolutionary mass uprising against him! The U.S., France, Italy and Britain will try to take advantage of the intervention for their own imperialist purposes. But facile comparisons with Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq disregard the existence of an uprising calling for aid. That does not mean that our position is to “support the intervention”; it is to support the revolution.[7]

The subordination of revolution once state powers intervene reflects how the activist and intellectual Left is permeated with the capitalistic concept of the backwardness of the masses. That includes those who have broken with the vanguard party-to-lead. Those who cannot grasp “the relationship of theory to history as a historical relationshipmade by masses in motion[8] cannot fill the philosophic void.

It is impos-sible to confront this morass of disorientation without challenging what Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of Marxist-Humanism and of News and Letters Committees, called post-Marx Marxism–not as a chronological category but as the way Marxism has truncated Karl Marx’s total philosophy of revolution in permanence. For “without a philosophy of revolution activism spends itself in mere anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, without ever revealing what it isfor.”[9]

C. Revolts across the Arab world

Syrian demostrations, 2011
Protesters in Syria call for the overthrow of President Bashar as-Assad, April 2011
Photo by Jan Sefti,

The fire unleashed by the revolution in Tunisia has encouraged revolts also outside the Arab world, as in Azerbaijan and Iran, and even spooked China’s rulers after calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” there. All of North Africa and the Middle East is feeling the heat.

  • Bahrain‘s Feb. 14 Day of Rage, called by youth inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, began days of non-violent protests, which overcame deadly police repression and eventually created a massive occupation of Pearl Square. The movement is overwhelmingly supported by the 70% Shiite majority and finds some support among the Sunnis who are not part of the ruling elite. Despite a few concessions, continuing repression led to ever more radical demands from the youth and a move toward the centers of finance and government. Emboldened by Libya’s bloodshed and under cover of Japan’s earthquake, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent in 2,000 troops to smash the movement, with tacit support from the U.S., whose naval Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. King Hamad declared a three-month state of emergency. With hundreds detained, unrest is stymied for now but is still simmering.
  • Yemen has been rocked by a movement that began as protests of unemployment and corruption, with calls for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a brutal ruler long supported by the U.S. as an ally against Al Qaeda, one of whose strongest chapters is in Yemen. Despite shootings, main squares hold protest camps all across the country, and part of the Army has come over to their side. In the capital, Sana’a, what the protesters call Change Square, modeled after Egypt’s revolutionary occupation of Tahrir Square, is breaking down divisions between tribes and sects.As in other Arab countries, women are prominent. (See “Women in Yemen show revolutionary way.”) Thousands of women marched in Taiz on April 3, calling for Saleh’s ouster, and were beaten by police. As one young woman demonstrator, Afrah Nasser, wrote, women are fighting “oppression both at home and in the public sphere.” She added, “Usually in Yemen, women get harassed all the time, but in Change Square nobody touches me.” When Saleh called women’s participation in protests “haram” (sinful), thousands of women took to the streets of Sana’a undaunted, calling for his ouster.
  • Syria has also conducted a bloody counter-revolution, killing hundreds. The turning point came on March 6, when several boys under 15 were arrested and tortured in Daraa for writing graffiti calling for the downfall of the regime. Daraa became a center of resistance, with march after march, each time in the face of police violence, and by March 15 thousands turned out in cities across the country–even in Hama, where President Assad’s father put down a 1982 Islamist revolt by butchering 20,000 and razing the city. The depth of revolt is shown by the execution of several soldiers for refusing to shoot protesters.
  • In Palestine the ruling Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank were already on edge after the Gaza Youth’s Manifesto for Change last December.[10] Hamas, Fatah, and the Israeli government could all agree that they did not want the Arab revolts to spread to occupied Palestine. What could divert from the revolt is the heating up of shelling and bombing exchanges between Israel and Gaza, threatening another war.

At this very time, Judge Richard Goldstone retracted one assertion from his UN report on the 2008-09 Gaza War, in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed and tremendous destruction was wrought in Gaza. The Israeli government and its ideologues tried to use that to discredit the whole report. Goldstone, however, backed off only from the one assertion that Israel had a policy of targeting civilians.

He did not retract the other findings: Israel had a policy of collective punishment, targeting the civilian infrastructure; war crimes had been committed by both sides; Israel had tortured detainees and used Palestinians, including children, as human shields.[11] The other three authors of the UN report indicated they had been pressured to sanitize their conclusions but that they stood by them in the interests of justice “to the hundreds of innocent civilians killed during the Gaza conflict, the thousands injured, and the hundreds of thousands whose lives continue to be deeply affected by the conflict and the blockade.”

Matters were further complicated by the outrageous U.S. veto of a UN resolution demanding a halt to Israel’s construction of illegal settlements in Palestine. In the face of Israel’s intransigence–most concretely measured by the steady construction of West Bank settlements–the Palestinian Authority has had to admit the fruitlessness of peace talks and turned to a campaign for admission as a member state of the UN.

But what both Fatah and Hamas appear to fear most is revolt from the Palestinian masses. (See “Counter-revolution targets Palestine.”)

When revolutions struggle under counter-revolution, what becomes clear is the need to work out the philosophy of revolution in permanence as an integral part of revolution and solidarity. This makes urgent a new edition of a Marxist-Humanist pamphlet on the Middle East. That pamphlet highlights the need for philosophy to prevent revolution stopping halfway–a pull that comes from within revolution itself and not only from the rulers. The Marxist-Humanist analyses of the 1979 Iranian Revolution show how philosophy can be a force of revolution, as Marxist-Humanism fought to help women, workers, youth and oppressed nationalities open a second chapter of revolution as against the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. Learning the lessons of history cannot mean only avoiding the same political mistakes but rather being philosophically prepared for the new and unexpected.

…to be continued…


1.See especially “Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya shake world order,” by Gerry Emmett, March-April 2011 N&L.

2. “Support the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia!”

3. Jumanah Younis, “Egypt’s revolution means nothing if its women are not free,” The Guardian, 3/9/11.

4. So wrote blogger Maikel Nabil, sentenced by a military court to three years in prison for his criticisms of the Army.

5. Jihad Taki, “Libyan Ambassador to UN urges international community to stop genocide,” Global Arab Network, 2/21/11.

6. Some who adulate Qaddafi’s defenders Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were able to spin fantasies about Libya’s revolution having been planned by the U.S. and at the same time linked to Al Qaeda. From the Right, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam defended “my brother” Qaddafi, the source of millions of dollars in past aid for Farrakhan.

7. Not all of the Left made abstract “anti-intervention” their ground of their position. For instance, Richard Greeman, “Libya: Whose Side Are We On?” Z Net (; Juan Cole, “An Open Letter to the Left on Libya” ( The socialist group Solidarity could not agree, so they released statements by two subgroups of their National Committee, one of which, “The Right to Demand Assistance,” is one of the best to come from a U.S. Left group.

8. Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, p. 288.

9. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p. 194.

10. See “Gaza youth shout out,” Jan.-Feb. 2011 N&L.

11. See “On the so-called Goldstone ‘Retraction,'”by Omar Baddar.

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