Roy Ratcliffe gives his view on recent social and political upheavals.
In Uprisings and Revolutions – 1, I attempted to condense my own research on the development of uprisings and revolutionary processes along with the general stages they pass through on their way to either defeat or success. That research was prompted by a growing realisation that, despite our frequent use of the word, many of us on the revolutionary anti-capitalist left, had no clear understanding of the processes or stages involved in such epoch-making socio-economic changes. It now appears that there is also only a vague understanding of the socio-economic content of such changes. Hence this second article.
The above noted encounters also convinced me that the majority of those classifying themselves as revolutionary anticapitalist were, to a greater or lesser extent, also sectarian dogmatists. Their lack of understanding of ‘revolution’ was therefore only one of the characteristics of their sectarianism. Namely the characteristic of operating by means of idealised abstractions and being satisfied by logical deductions – irrespective of whether these deductions corresponded to the actual events considered – or not. A characteristic which continues in the 21st century. [See Sectarianism Parts, 1, 2, and 3.]
The sectarian view of unfolding reality is always adjusted to make sure – as far as possible – that their dogma (often misrepresented as principles) prestige and self-esteem remains untarnished. Since the reality is always complex it is possible for sectarians to select from it so as to confirm their pre-existing views. Rarely are their views seriously questioned or checked to establish whether they still correspond to reality as it unfolds. In other words,an ideological method of reasoning is adopted. This involves separating ideas from the material foundations upon which they arise and then transforming them into superior ideas that the sectarian considers are the most ‘advanced’.
Reading recent articles and statements by some revolutionary anticapitalist of the situation in Egypt and Syria, it has become obvious that this mode of operations still characterises much of the left. Since real ‘revolutionary transformations are infrequent events and there has been none since the early 20th century, it has become too easy to operate using such abstractions derived from previous ones. Some on the left have witnessed the mass uprisings in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries and based primarily upon the large numbers involved, have drawn the conclusion that actual revolutions have taken place.
This then becomes a serious problem. Having classified them as such everything else they describe about the situation in these countries flows logically from that primary (and as we shall see mistaken) assertion. Any serious or temporary fluctuations in the struggle between the contending political formations in these countries of uprising must then be dualistically interpreted as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ without any regard to their specific content – or even lack of it. Their reliance on second-hand abstract formulations allows them to mistake the ‘form’ – initial mass uprisings – as being sufficient ‘content’ in itself to make it a revolution.
Distinguishing form from content.
Yet a study of historical cases, suggests there is a marked difference between an uprising which is predominantly motivated by being against something and one which is also clearly motivated for something. If it is only against something, then an uprising is unlikely to attract and sustain sufficient numbers to support it. Any absent, undeveloped or counter-productive content of an uprising does not bode well for its future success. Even if the uprising obtains popular support and succeeds in temporarily defeating the object against which it is directed, without a some kind of positive alternative and a future focussing and unifying perspective, it can immediately begin to flounder and become, aimless, bogged down, or subverted.
All three of these possible effects have been clearly demonstrated by the 21st century uprisings in the Middle East and the Nagreb. In Tunisia the massively popular uprising against Ben Ali, became bogged down and subverted into sectarian electoral politics. In Egypt, the protests against the Mubarak regime, also became deflected (or subverted) into sectarian political channels and is now almost back to before (Tahir) square one with arbitrary military rule dominating Egyptian society. In Libya the popular uprising against Gaddafi, was also subverted and after the sadistic bombing by Europe and the USA, has become bogged down in sectarian and regional conflict.
In Syria, the initial uprising against Sadat has also become subverted and bogged down in what amounts to a tri-party civil war between the government, secularists and Islamists for control of the state – or at least a breakaway slice of it. And in this case again – as with Libya – with the neoliberal west once more poised to dump its surplus weapons production on innocent and guilty alike. In Bahrain protest was brutally crushed and elsewhere in the region protests were bought off with force and huge tranches of accumulated petrochemical super-profits.
In each of these cases there was little or no systematic development of a positive content to the popularity of the uprisings even though the potential for this content was visible from the outset. The young graduate, who set fire to himself in Tunisia, which provided the spark to set the Arab Spring ablaze, epitomised the growing regional dissatisfaction in the economic and social conditions of the bulk of their respective populations. In Egypt it was the slogan ‘peace, bread and justice’ which summed up – albeit in an abstract form – the real potential revolutionary content of the uprising there and elsewhere.
Yet in these two countries this positive and potential revolutionary content does not appear to have been developed into a consistent, widespread and high-profile message with practical measures and suggestions attached to it. Nor does such a perspective appear to have materialised in any other of the countries involved in the Arab Spring Uprisings. This initial unifying ember among the tinder of resentment and anger seems to have been neglected, rather than being fanned into a roaring blaze. There has been no modern widespread unifying slogan transcending differences of class, politics, religion and region, such as – ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ – that emerged in 20th century Russia. Nor is there any positive vision of a future postcapitalist form of economic and social reconstruction.
A revolutionary content is essential.
Yet a positive content is required for all successful revolutions. It is true that the English revolution of 1641 – 50, was highly motivated by anger against the king continually exercising his dictatorial prerogative. However, anger with the king was not what sustained participants through the years and harsh winters of the English civil war. The Parliamentary leaders and their followers were also motivated by their desire to pursue freedom to sustain and develop bourgeois economic relations as well as religious alternatives to the existing dominant ones. Another socio-economic form was proven to be possible and worth fighting for. The same (or very similar) can be said of the motivations behind the French Revolution and the American Revolution of the 18th century. That is to say economic reasons underpinned all the religious, moral, legalistic and political rhetoric the contending parties articulated.
It is also true, to some extent of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the 1930′s Maoist Revolution in China – before both became fatally transformed into totalitarian forms of state-capitalism. What sustains an uprising beyond its initial flashpoint and the consequent short-lived momentum of being against this or that ’system’, is an evolving idea (its growing revolutionary content) of what life should be, and could now be and what is needed to transcend the underlying cause of the popular unrest. Indeed, both types of motivation (for and against) can coexist, but if an angry uprising is to be transformed into a determined revolutionary movement then sooner or later, there needs to be a clear and popular understanding of what the positive aspects of the protests are and what they are aimed at achieving.
It is clear that in the growing systemic crisis of the capitalist mode of production, there is a rising tide of anger and frustration against capitalism. Every country in the world is dominated by the neoliberal phase of capitalism and consequently in every country there is visible large-scale, structural unemployment, institutionalised poverty alongside obscene levels of wealth and plenty. At the same time there is awareness of widespread corruption at every level of government and civil society institutions – including the financial sectors. Paralleled with these obscenities are catastrophic levels of atmospheric, land and ocean pollution. Yet the machinery, technology and scientific know-how exists for sustainable production which could ensure a satisfactory level of well-being for everyone on the planet.
Finally, there is increasing oppression by the elite controllers of capitalist states against their own citizens as well as those of other countries. The world is awash with capitalist produced armaments being used to fight over the capitalist produced conditions of poverty, exploitation and oppression. In the 21st century, there are multiple reasons to be against the capitalist mode of production and potentially astronomical numbers of people wanting something different from the current unsustainable corruption and chaos from the domination of capital. The potential for revolution is therefore global. But here is the rub. There is also a huge crisis on the left and not just in terms of its extraordinarily low numbers. There is now a dearth of unified, inclusive anticapitalist ideas and associated economic system vision to replace the present outdated and self-destructive one. There is no positive example of a large-scale alternative. This possibility was negated by the vanguard elitism of a previous generation of anticapitalists.
So it cannot be surprising that – as yet in the 21st century – there is no positive and clear content to the existing and any future uprisings against the system. Given the outcomes of previous attempts by an anticapitalist to transcend the capitalist mode of production, the anticapitalist project has been rejected by all but a few. On the one hand, the numerous examples of reformist ‘socialist’ experiments in Britain and Europe, have only succeeded in maintaining the capitalist mode of production with a few patronising charitable ‘benefit systems’ for capitalisms human rejects – now after several decades to be taken away. During that period of Social Democracy the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the capitalists successfully corrupted the so-called ‘representatives’ of the working and oppressed classes. Labour and Democratic Socialist reformism, metaphorically and literally has proved a dead end – particularly in their support for wars.
On the other hand, the ‘communist’ examples of Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, North Korea etc., stand as massive negative examples of what can become of the lives and welfare of those who followed the 20th century ideas and practices of those who classed themselves as ‘communists’. This has proved itself yet another tragic and brutal cul-de-sac rather than a positive way forward. Truly revolutions – betrayed. These two generic examples of what a postcapitalist society would look like – epitomised by 1945 Britain on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other – offer no convincing or appealing potential ‘content’ to any present or future uprisings in the middle east, Europe, North America or elsewhere. To pretend otherwise or ignore this glaringly obvious fact is emulate an ostrich.
We now have a capitalist system again in world-wide terminal meltdown and, as noted, not even a partial vision of what could positively transcend it to enthuse the majority of earths humanity – who sooner or later will be compelled to rise up against it! But for what?. Indeed, there is not even an attempt to come up with an accepted version of what form a postcapitalist mode of production might take among those few remaining elements within the Leninist and Trotskyist anticapitalist tradition. Split into competing sects and bogged down in sterile polemics over whom has the ‘correct’ understanding of Leninism or Trotskyism, there is nothing but confusion and dogmatic pettiness among much of this section of the anticapitalist left.
Having classified the uprising of 2011 in Egypt as a revolution, many such self-certified revolutionaries have now had to classify the recent military coup as a ‘counter-revolution’, when in fact it is just a re-imposition of a naked military rule. The military had never left the economic, political or financial seats of power in business or the state. They had merely assumed a posture of tolerance, donned a form of democratic camouflage and retreated slightly into the background. The reality is that despite the sacrifices made in Egypt, there has never been a revolution. And any potential revolutionary content has been sidelined by a focus on politics and political outcomes. Have some on the left contributed to this focus on political solutions? You bet.
A 21st century contentless and visionless ‘left‘?
Indeed, there has never been a full development of the uprisings, based upon their original socio-economic motives, which started in 2011. There was no general recognition among those who assembled in Tahir square to protest, that changes in who governs the system would be insufficient to solve the problems of food, housing and justice, facing the population now or in the future. If there where any voices which articulated this aspiration and warned of the danger of illusions in bourgeois democracy, they were drowned out by those who thought differently. Otherwise, the masses would not have been deflected for so long into the sterile cul-de-sac of bourgeois electoral politics or into internecine, self-defeating sectarian violence .
Does this lack of understanding and consequent mistaken classification really matter or is it just being unnecessarily pedantic to point out this dismal fact? I suggest it does matter. I further suggest careful analysis and accurate classification is a prerequisite for those active in a relationship to large-scale uprisings and civil-disorders. If those who count themselves as revolutionaries do not understand revolutionary processes and make such fundamental mistakes it is likely that they will misunderstand many other things – and worse still – pass these misunderstandings onto others. This is exactly what many are currently doing.
A similar confusion arises over the difference between a civil-war and a revolution. The fact that in both cases (civil-war and revolution) citizens of the same state are struggling violently against each other for some particular outcome, does not exhaust the question for a revolutionary anticapitalist. A civil war can be a contest between one party or faction and another – over control of the state – under the existing mode of production. In this case the contest is over who has a power to govern. The form may be a militarised civil-war, but the content is political. These are not revolutions in the sense revolutionary-humanists, and other anticapitalist define them.
The necessary content of anticapitalist revolutions.
Since the time of Marx and other anticapitalist, a revolution requires a different purpose and content for the struggle against the ruling capitalist and pro-capitalist elite. Uprisings, demonstrations, petitions and changes in government personnel will not solve the basic problems for the bulk of humanity. Due to the degenerate nature of the capitalist system, modern revolutions are required to be epoch changing and radically alter the present mode of production. The task is not to replace one entrenched ruling elite with another by means of an uprising or even a civil-war, but to change the entire mode of economic production and along with it the mode of social relationships. The means of struggle for this end may initially take the form of a civil uprising and possible/probable civil war between the states elites, their supporters and the majority of the population, but the content – and even the form – is indisputably different.
In other words,the ‘form’ and ‘content’ of an anticapitalist revolution is a protracted struggle to overcome the existing dominant ideas and economic practices along with the ruling class who control these ideas and practices and transform the entire mode of production. This includes eliminating the class structure and transforming the form of governance of populations into self-governing communities, jointly controlling the means of production and producing for ecologically sustainable human needs. The ‘form’ of a revolutionary movement to achieve this as a consequence needs also to match the content. The revolutionary form needs to be fully participative, truly democratic and inclusive, nonsectarian, and inspired by revolutionary-humanist values.
In contrast the ‘content’ of a nonrevolutionary civil war has more political limited purpose and a more political form. To achieve its purpose ‘civil-war’ only requires charismatic leaders and an obedient and energetic led in both the political and military arena’s. There are of course other, more nuanced, differences also between a civil-war,and a revolution but the above is an important and fundamental difference. It is interesting in this regard, that the pro-capitalist elite in Europe and North America have colluded in the description of the Arab Spring uprisings as revolutions.
Knowing that revolutions are legitimate – their predecessors having come to power by these means – the pro-capitalist elites in the west and elsewhere can then adopt a somewhat positive attitude toward these. Effectively saying; ‘you’ve had your revolution so now get back to work and we will help you to reconstruct your politics, infrastructures and economies to get them back on their feet. Colluding with this terminological confusion, by the left therefore, serves the neoliberal capitalist elite well. However, elite and media false characterisations of reality and potential are not the only problem. So too is the sloppy thinking by some on the revolutionary left, for it means there is no serious voice to contradict this naive or deliberately engineered neoliberal misperception.
How to avoid being part of the problem.
Those on the left who automatically classify large-scale uprisings and vicious civil-wars as revolutions also sow confusion amongst themselves and the working class. To avoid this they should seriously study past revolutions and uprisings. If they do not the workers and oppressed can be ‘led’ by them into thinking that they have done enough if they have massed in uprisings and offered themselves as martyrs for an imagined revolution, which has brought them nothing. Disillusionment can then set in when their misdirected efforts and huge sacrifices produce little or no positive results.
Alternatively, they can be sucked into the ranks of those who are engaged in a civil-war struggle to think it a revolution and become naive shock troops drawn behind one or other competing faction in a struggle for control of an existing country or state. For example, thousands of working people who thought themselves ‘socialists’ in the 20th century, fell for this and joined the Bolsheviks in Russia and the National Socialists in Germany. Look where it got them! They became the exploited wage slaves of totalitarian states. Others calling themselves ‘communists’ stood aside in the struggles against the Nazis – thinking their time would come. It did in Hitlers concentration camps. There are countless other examples of the left being part of the problem and not part of the solution.
In the complex, shifting, confusing events which swirl around any large-scale civil unrest, it is important that those engaged in support of the anticapitalist perspective are clear about what ‘content’ is present, absent or what pseudo-content is being projected into those struggles to deflect them into dead ends. In the context of an uprising or potential civil-war, the anticapitalist ‘content’ of any struggle – if it does not dominate spontaneously – needs to be introduced by the revolutionary anticapitalist. Even huge events are not potentially revolutionary if they do not gain such a content or produce one in the developing process.
Even if any ‘revolutionary’ content is drowned out by more powerful voices then it still needs to be persistently promoted and become a pole of attraction for those engaged in the struggle at whatever level they entered it. And who is to do this if not the revolutionary anticapitalist, if they are not to become part of the problem? It is clear that in the case of the Arab Spring uprisings and those demonstrations now occurring in Europe, the real revolutionary content is socio-economic and not political. The focus should be on this socio-economic content, together with the nonsectarian self-activity of the workers and oppressed. It should not be on the construction and conduct of formal politics involving political parties and bourgeois elections.
Attempts to obscure, deflect or subvert that socio-economic content in favour of a political content, can only aid the cause of the ruling elites and those reactionary forces which have an elitist agenda. Any failure by the anticapitalist left to leave out the full implications of the capitalist mode of production and its current fivefold crisis, is to assist the reactionary elements within society and to misdirect the efforts of those struggling against this or that aspect of oppression or exploitation. Any clinging onto a dogma, any failure to admit mistakes, any continued use of outmoded and discredited organisational forms and any defence of half understood abstractions by the left will be a barrier which workers and the oppressed will need – sooner or later – to pass round or dismantle and climb over.