Tag Archives: Revolution

The Sparks of Rebellion


[Fair Use excerpt only]

I am reading and rereading the debates among some of the great radical thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries about the mechanisms of social change. These debates were not academic. They were frantic searches for the triggers of revolt.

Vladimir Lenin placed his faith in a violent uprising, a professional, disciplined revolutionary vanguard freed from moral constraints and, like Karl Marx, in the inevitable emergence of the worker’s state. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon insisted that gradual change would be accomplished as enlightened workers took over production and educated and converted the rest of the proletariat Mikhail Bakunin predicted the catastrophic breakdown of the capitalist order, something we are likely to witness in our lifetimes, and new autonomous worker federations rising up out of the chaos. Pyotr Kropotkin, like Proudhon, believed in an evolutionary process that would hammer out the new society.  Emma Goldman, along with Kropotkin, came to be very wary of both the efficacy of violence and the revolutionary potential of the masses. “The mass,” Goldman wrote bitterly toward the end of her life in echoing Marx, “clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry Crucify!”

The revolutionists of history counted on a mobilized base of enlightened industrial workers. The building blocks of revolt, they believed, relied on the tool of the general strike, the ability of workers to cripple the mechanisms of production. Strikes could be sustained with the support of political parties, strike funds and union halls. Workers without these support mechanisms had to replicate the infrastructure of parties and unions if they wanted to put prolonged pressure on the bosses and the state. But now, with the decimation of the U.S. manufacturing base, along with the dismantling of our unions and opposition parties, we will have to search for different instruments of rebellion.

We must develop a revolutionary theory that is not reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers. Most manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and, of those that remain, few are unionized. Our family farms have been destroyed by agro-businesses. Monsanto and its Faustian counterparts on Wall Street rule. They are steadily poisoning our lives and rendering us powerless. The corporate leviathan, which is global, is freed from the constraints of a single nation-state or government. Corporations are beyond regulation or control. Politicians are too anemic, or more often too corrupt, to stand in the way of the accelerating corporate destruction. This makes our struggle different from revolutionary struggles in industrial societies in the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in the less industrialized Slavic republics, Russia, Spain and China and uprisings led by a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement. This is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college-educated sons and daughters of the old middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered déclassé intellectuals essential for successful revolt.

It is not the poor who make revolutions. It is those who conclude that they will not be able, as they once expected, to rise economically and socially. This consciousness is part of the self-knowledge of service workers and fast food workers. It is grasped by the swelling population of college graduates caught in a vise of low-paying jobs and obscene amounts of debt. These two groups, once united, will be our primary engines of revolt. Much of the urban poor has been crippled and in many cases broken by a rewriting of laws, especially drug laws, that has permitted courts, probation officers, parole boards and police to randomly seize poor people of color, especially African-American men, without just cause and lock them in cages for years. In many of our most impoverished urban centers—our internal colonies, as Malcolm X called them—mobilization, at least at first, will be difficult. The urban poor are already in chains. These chains are being readied for the rest of us. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread,” Anatole France commented acidly.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan examined 100 years of violent and nonviolent resistance movements in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works.” They concluded that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings. Violent movements work primarily in civil wars or in ending foreign occupations, they found. Nonviolent movements that succeed appeal to those within the power structure, especially the police and civil servants, who are cognizant of the corruption and decadence of the power elite and are willing to abandon them.

“History teaches that we have the power to transform the nation,” Kevin Zeese said when I interviewed him. Zeese, who with Dr. Margaret Flowers founded PopularResistance.org and helped plan the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., continued: “We put forward a strategic framework that would allow people to work together in a common direction to end the rule of money. We need to be a nationally networked movement of many local, regional and issue-focused groups so we can unite into one mass movement. Research shows that nonviolent mass movements win. Fringe movements fail. By ‘mass’ we mean with an objective that is supported by a large majority and 1 percent to 5 percent of the population actively working for transformation.”

The foregoing is an excerpt from the article which may be read in its entirety at Truthdig. The excerpt is provided as a fair use to encourage discussion and to promote access to the original publication.

SOURCE: http://www.truthdig.com (September 30, 2013)



Alfredo Saad Filho

The mass movements starting in June 2013 were the largest and most significant protests in Brazil in a generation, and they have shaken up the country’s political system. Their explosive growth, size and extraordinary reach caught everyone – the left, the right, and the government – by surprise. This article examines these movements in light of the achievements and shortcomings of the democratic transition, in the mid-1980s, and the experience of the federal administrations led by the Workers’ Party since 2003.

A Summary of the Facts

On 6 June, the radical left Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre, MPL), an autonomist non-party organization that has been active in the country for several years led a small demonstration demanding the reversal of a recent increase in public transport fares in the city of Sao Paulo, from R$3 to R$3.20. The movement was criticized by the press for blocking the traffic and making unrealistic demands, and the demonstration was attacked by the police. The MPL returned in larger numbers in the following days, and the police responded with increasing brutality, beating up demonstrators and passers-by indiscriminately, and wounding several journalists.

In two weeks, the demonstrations had exploded in size while also spreading across the country. They attracted well over one million people in hundreds of cities, and movements are still taking place almost every day, including a large national mobilization led by the left on 11 July. They involve mainly young workers, students and the middle class, and localized movements of poor communities and categories of workers with demands that may be more or less specific to their circumstances (bus drivers, lorry drivers, health sector workers, and so on).

In mid-June, the mainstream press and TV networks suddenly changed sides, and started supporting the movement. They immediately engaged in a full-scale attempt to lead the movement, offering blanket coverage, effectively calling people to the streets, and – very importantly – sponsoring the multiplication and de-radicalization of demands, toward a cacophony focusing on broad citizenship issues and, especially, state inefficiency and corruption, in order to drown out the left and delegitimize the federal government.

From this moment on, the demonstrations became much more white and middle-class in composition. They included banners about a whole range of issues, among them public services (for); FIFA, the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup (against); gay rights and the legalization of drugs (mainly for, but most churches are against); compulsory voting (mostly against); abortion and religious issues (all over the place); public spending, privatizations and the state monopolies (unclear); president Dilma Rousseff and the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) (strongly against), the return of military rule (an ultra-right-wing pipe-dream), and, especially, corruption (against which everyone can happily march together). Anyone could come up with their own demand, and if they were individualist and anti-political this was even better TV. It was especially paradoxical to see middle class people expressing indignation over public services that they do not currently use, and have no intention of using any time soon.

In common with recent movements elsewhere, the Brazilian demonstrations were largely organized through social media and TV. Unusually, they often had no clear leaders and no speeches. Frequently, groups of people organized themselves on Facebook and Twitter, met somewhere, and then marched in directions that were frequently unclear, depending on decisions made by unknown persons more or less on the spot.

Police repression was sometimes accompanied by riots, and then the police pulled back, partly because of concerns with their public image; at other times, the police would attack the demonstrators while leaving the rioters alone. Infiltration by the police and the far-right was both evident and widespread. Some marches were, somehow, proclaimed to be ‘party-free,’ and left-wing militants and trade unionists were harassed and beaten up by thugs screaming ‘my party is my country.’ During this period, the mobilizations continued to grow; as they did so, they became both more radicalized and more fragmented. When the federal government finally pushed Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to reverse the transport fare increases, by offering them tax breaks accompanied by the threat of leaving them alone to sort out the mess, the mobilizations were already out of control.

In late June, the left made a co-ordinated effort to regain leadership of the movement, while the presidency attempted to take the initiative from above with a call for political reform and initiatives to increase spending in public services and improve health provision. The demonstrations have subsequently dwindled in size, except for the large nationwide strike on 11 July.

Three Lessons

The first lesson from the movements is that they have confirmed the unremitting rejection of former president Lula da Silva, president Dilma Rousseff and the PT by large segments of the upper and middle classes, and the mainstream media. Their hatred, which has been displayed prominently in the marches and in the accompanying press coverage, is not due to narrow economic concerns. Lula has plausibly insisted that the Brazilian elite never made so much money as they did during his administration, and this may still hold true under Dilma. Nevertheless, fractions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes resent their loss of privilege because of the expansion of citizenship since the democratization of the country and, especially, under the federal administrations led by the PT. To their profound irritation, the Brazilian elites have realized that they can no longer drive Brazilian politics alone.

The redistribution of income and the expansion of social programmes in the last ten years, marginal as they have been, have benefitted tens of millions of people, while consumer credit, perverse as it is, has allowed many poor people to visit shopping centres, fly across the country, and buy a small car. The left ought to criticize some of these aspirations, and point out that they may be socially undesirable, environmentally unsustainable, or both, that they have not been accompanied by the expanded provision of infrastructure, and that they were often promoted by the government in order to support large capital – but, at this point in time, they express the demands and aspirations of tens of millions of people. The result is that Brazilian roads and airports are full, and their previous (elite) users complain bitterly about the lack of space to accommodate all those poor people moving about, and now with a sense of entitlement.

While large capital did well economically in the last decade, and even longer, the middle class did not. So-called ‘good jobs’ in the private and public sectors are relatively scarce, higher education is no longer a guarantee of ‘good’ income, and the young find it hard to do better economically than their parents did. Middle class groups desperately want economic growth, but they remain ideologically attached to a neoliberal-globalist project which slows down growth. They are also frightened by the supposed ‘radicalism’ of the government, despite the PT’s extraordinary moderation, and terrified of Brazil becoming another Venezuela.

The second lesson from the protests is that, under favourable economic circumstances the ‘left neoliberal’ policies implemented by the PT, and the greater legitimacy of the state which has accompanied Lula’s election, can disarm the political right and disconnect the radical left from the masses of the population. Lula ended his second administration, in 2010, with approval rates touching on 90%, and Dilma Rousseff had 60-70% approval rates until recently, which had never happened to any Brazilian president in their third year in office. No party has ever prospered to the left of the PT and, until recently, the right-wing opposition was hopelessly disorganized. For a brief period, the PT achieved something close to political hegemony in Brazil. Now the PT and the country are locked in political confusion.

The third lesson is that the achievements of the PT administrations have raised expectations as well as incomes. The emerging poor want to consume more, larger masses of people want social inclusion, and both want better public services. The middle classes oscillate between indifference and open hostility to the poor, but would like to benefit from good public services at some point in the future. They are, however, absolutely opposed to paying higher taxes in order to have them. They claim that they pay too much already, that corruption spirits away a large chunk of the government’s revenues, and that ‘their’ taxes have been supporting a parasitic mass of undeserving poor through the federal transfer programmes. At the same time, the press and the middle class completely disregard the fact that nearly half of the federal budget is committed to servicing the domestic public debt – effectively a welfare programme for the rich – and that this dwarfs the cost of social spending and federal transfer programmes.

These enormous demands upon the state come in the wake of the decomposition of the traditional working-class and the demoralization and disorganization of the left parties and trade unions, after the transition to democracy, the transition to neoliberalism, and the elections of Lula and Dilma. Their outcome is that, while the middle class is confused, angry and disorganized, the workers are unhappy, mostly for different reasons, marginalized, and also disorganized. This is a recipe for political volatility, and it poses difficult problems for the left.

Left Dilemmas

Dilma Rousseff was elected president by Lula’s social base, mainly the poor, with the support of large capital. But Dilma had a limitation: she has always been a technocrat, had never been elected to public office, and did not have her own political base. Even worse, the economy was bound to decelerate during her administration, after the boom years in the mid-2000s, and Brazil’s extraordinarily successful bounce-back after the 2008 global crisis.

The economic slowdown would necessarily create social and political tensions because of existing dissatisfactions and conflicting aspirations, and the shrinking ability of the state to address them, for example, because the entire (broad) left controls less than one-third of seats in Congress. This makes it impossible for the PT to govern without alliances with undisciplined right-wing parties and unsavoury individuals, which have to be managed under the gaze of a relentlessly hostile press and the scrutiny of a right-wing judicial system.

The space to manage these contradictions has shrunk further in recent months. Inflation, the current account deficit and the fiscal deficit are rising, and the currency is falling because of the global decline in commodity prices, poor exports, growth slowdown in China, and capital outflows because of the unwinding of quantitative easing in the U.S., UK and the Eurozone. This has led the Central Bank of Brazil to raise interest rates, state-owned banks to cut lending, and the federal government and the state-owned enterprises to cut spending and public investment. The economy has stalled, and it has become difficult to continue to reduce inequality without directly hurting established privileges. These difficulties have been magnified by a relentless press campaign suggesting that the government is out of touch, that corruption is more prevalent than usual, and that the economy is out of control. Dilma’s approval in the opinion polls has plummeted.

Let us now return to the demonstrations. Although they had complex, overlapping and contradictory determinants, we can now identify four of their political implications.

First, confusion, which has been intensified by the lack of organized working-class intervention. Under neoliberalism, the restructuring of capital has reconfigured the working-class, disabled its traditional mechanisms of representation, including trade unions, associations and left-wing parties, and largely destroyed the workers’ sense of collectivity. Brazil now has a working-class socialized under neoliberalism, atomized, inexperienced in collective action, attached to direct web-based communication, and reluctant to accept traditional mechanisms of representation, including parties and trade unions. There is also a narrowing of ambition among this class, and a widespread rejection of collective aspirations to change society: their goals tend to be limited by the frame of reference imposed by neoliberalism. This makes it difficult to articulate class demands and campaign effectively, both because the targets have become more diffuse under neoliberalism, and because the workers are predisposed against collective action.

Second, the protests express a confluence of dissatisfactions, including against the expansion of citizenship, which has squeezed the middle class and, on the part of the workers and the poor, demands for the further widening of citizenship, better public services and improved living conditions. Both groups also protest together, because of their perception of dysfunctionality and corruption in state institutions, which the right-wing press has highlighted with gusto, as if they were new and had been created by the PT. These contradictory demands could probably be managed if the Brazilian economy was growing, but it is not, which makes every grievance more urgent, and every constraint tighter.

Third, there is political confusion to the right of the government, and a political vacuum to the left.

Fourth, the common factor across most of the demands and dissatisfactions expressed in the June-July movement is the state – not just current state policy, but the structure of the Brazilian state. In this sense, whether implicitly or explicitly, the demonstrations are about controlling the state and, secondarily, controlling state policy.

If the movement were united, if it had a clear working-class character, and if it were led by left organizations, Brazil could be moving toward a revolutionary crisis. But this is not happening: there is no revolutionary party able to mobilize and lead the working-class, no perception that the state must no longer be dominated by bourgeois class interests, and no shared programme for social, economic and political transformation. Summing Up

The protest movements in Brazil express deep frustrations and even despair, because it has become impossible to channel discontent through the traditional forms of social representation, which are either tightly controlled by the elite or have been disempowered by the neoliberal reforms. Yet, dissatisfaction without organization tends to be fruitless, and spontaneous mass movements with a mixed class base and fuelled by unfocused anger can be destabilizing without being constructive.

The need for organization, delegation of power and compromise within the movement and with outside institutions suggests that recomposing the working-class, and overcoming its material fragmentation and the cultural separations imposed by neoliberalism, requires collectivity in practice. This means talking and doing things together, more than interacting through web-based media. Twitter and Facebook are good ways to exchange discrete morsels of information, but they do not allow the exchange of ideas and the formation of bonds of trust.

The Brazilian left has reacted with maturity to the challenges posed by the protests and by the attempted kidnap of the movement by the mainstream media and the far-right. Left initiatives have been focusing on the convergence of sectional programmes, especially through common activities and a national co-ordination of movements, organizations and parties, to propose specific goals for the movement around political reform, the limitation of working hours, state investment in health, transport and education, the decommodification of public services, democratization of the media, and reform of the police. The point, now, is to identify platforms which can bring together the workers and the poor, marginalize and fragment the middle class and the right, and put pressure on the federal government, while allowing a radical working-class movement to work together with some state institutions in order to raise, from below, its influence over policy formulation and implementation.

The left ought to stick to this approach instead of falling into an infantile (and, fortunately, marginal) radicalism, targeting the federal government and, inevitably – because of their insufficient weight – joining in a subordinate position the destabilization campaign being led by the political right, the middle class, and the right-wing media. There is no doubt that left-wing administrations tend to implement more progressive policies and be more accommodating of mass movements than right-wing ones. If the current government lost coherence and became paralysed, this is extremely unlikely to foster a socialist revolution in Brazil, because there is no ideological, organizational, social, material or international basis for it to happen now. It would, instead, almost certainly facilitate a right-wing victory in the presidential elections next year, and contribute to the demoralization and disorganization of the Brazilian left.

The response of the federal government to the movements, after considerable hesitation, was precisely to seek left support, and propose a programme of political reforms and expansion of public service provision which could bring concrete gains to the workers and the poor. The left should engage in a dialogue with the government, while insisting that a predominantly parliamentary strategy to effect these Constitutional reforms is bound to fail. The government must, instead, align itself with the workers’ organizations and the left, in order to push through democratic reforms including state funding for the political parties, the break-up of the media monopolies, and improved education, health and public transport services.

It is disappointing, but also sobering, to conclude that Brazil is not going through a revolutionary crisis, and that the current political mobilizations are unlikely to trigger one. Nevertheless, this is unquestionably the most important social movement in Brazil in the last thirty years. The point, now, is to continue to fight on the streets, workplaces and schools, continue to broaden and radicalize the movement, bring out the working-class with its specific demands, defeat the right and disorganize and attract part of the middle classes, and push for progressive constitutional and policy changes. If this can be achieved, it would shift the political balance in the country, and it could lead to concrete long-term gains to the workers and the left in Brazil.

“There’s Gonna Be a Revolution, Don’t Ya Know?” . . . BEATLES

From Istanbul to Brasilia the people are rising up. The media would have us believe that the civic disturbances are merely disgruntled youth but in country after country and in the United States as well, while young people are prominent, the protests are intergenerational. The demonstrations in Turkey were guided by labor unions and the feminist movement objecting to sweatshop working conditions and the subjection of women. In Brazil, it is not a grievance about excess tuition or class scheduling but a deep criticism of a Government that has forgotten the common man and woman. This is not a mere rebellion, it is Revolution.

A guiding role has been assumed by an octogenarian philosopher, Gene Sharp —

Sharp, who has been described as “a revolutionary’s best friend, or, perhaps more accurately, as a dictatorship’s worst nightmare,” and “the Machiavelli of Nonviolence” in 1973 outlined “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” in the first of many of his works that provide a road map for orchestrating protest movements around the world.

Beyond its discussion of tactics as basic as public speeches, petitions, picketing and vigils, Sharp’s list defines how to create a unique and recognizable identity for a movement. It recommends establishing“symbolic colors,” slogans, caricatures, sounds and symbols in service of the greater cause, and draws upon the myriad ways a political party or company creates an identity for voters or consumers to associate with its candidates or products, as McDonald’s has done with its red-and-yellow color scheme, Ronald McDonald and the Golden Arches.

Copies of Sharp’s works have been disseminated around the world despite government bans in nations from Myanmar to Venezuela, and the results are evident even in uprisings where individual protesters may not be familiar with his work, but whose leaders are.

When Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort to force reform in 2005, its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government to achieve the movement’s aims, Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist who later played a key role in the successful overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, told the NY Times. Maher said the group stumbled upon Sharp’s writings while examining the Serbian movement OTPOR, which he had influenced, and used them in the Egyptian uprising.

Sharp’s recommendations were also evident in the successful ROSE REVOLUTION in the nation of Georgia in 2003 — an image of a red rose was used to rally supporters under one common symbol — and in the Iranian uprising, which followed the 2009 presidential election and grew out of the Green Movement remembered for its masterful appropriation of the color and for embracing the cry “We Are Neda”after a young girl was killed by government forces.

And, of course, they were evident in the Occupy Movement in the United States, which arose after the financial crash of 2008 to protest systemic financial inequities. Occupy relied on overarching slogans such as “Whose Streets? Our Streets. Occupy Wall Street” with a logo depicting a ballet dancer atop the New York City financial district’s iconic bull statue, as well as the catchy “Occupy [fill-in-the-blank]” franchise. The template for the Occupy Movement was replicated in countries across the world.

At 85, Sharp continues to actively guide young radicals who trek to London to meet with him. The difference, today, is that the tactics of branding have been amplified through the use of common accoutrement and global communications technology, the latter of which is beyond Sharp, who uses neither Facebook nor Twitter.

SOURCE: http://www.ibtimes.com/branding-global-dissent-occupy-wall-street-rio-de-janeiro-1315009

Les Miserables

The film LES MISERABLES premiered nationally on December 25. The audience in the theater in which I sat  broke into spontaneous applause at the film’s conclusion and what a conclusion it was, set during the June Revolution of 1832 in Paris, the camera pans the streets of Paris to see that the people have erected barricades throughout the city, while in the foreground, the characters mount a barricade and all sing the finale:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France!

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

And, God bless us, everyone! Merry Christmas.

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

Second President of the United States

Prospects for a Working-Class Revolt

Mark Thoma

Many of the policies enacted during and after the Great Depression not only addressed economic problems but also directly or indirectly reduced the ability of special interests to capture the political process. Some of the change was due to the effects of the Depression itself, but polices that imposed regulations on the financial sector, broke up monopolies, reduced inequality through highly progressive taxes, and accorded new powers to unions were important factors in shifting the balance of power toward the typical household.

But since the 1970s many of these changes have been reversed. Inequality has reverted to levels unseen since the Gilded Age, financial regulation has waned, monopoly power has increased, union power has been lost, and much of the disgust with the political process revolves around the feeling that politicians are out of touch with the interests of the working class.

We need a serious discussion of this issue, followed by changes that shift political power toward the working class. But who will start the conversation? Congress has no interest in doing so; things are quite lucrative as they are. Unions used to have a voice, but they have been all but eliminated as a political force. The press could serve as the gatekeeper, but too many news outlets are controlled by the very interests that the press needs to confront. Presidential leadership could make a difference, but this president does not seem inclined to take a strong stand on behalf of the working class despite the surprising boldness of his job-creation speech.

Another option is that the working class will say enough is enough and demand change. There was a time when I would have scoffed at the idea of a mass revolt against entrenched political interests and the incivility that comes with it. We aren’t there yet – there’s still time for change – but the signs of unrest are growing, and if we continue along a two-tiered path that ignores the needs of such a large proportion of society, it can no longer be ruled out.


David McReynolds: Egypt & Revolution

Rarely have I written something so certain to be outdated, perhaps even before you get it. This is not really about Egypt but about revolution, something we have just seen in Tunisia and are certainly seeing in Egypt. Revolutions are baffling things because while we can “explain them” after the event, we can’t predict them before they arrive.The revolutions in the United States, Russia, and Cuba share one thing in common ‐those against whom the revolt was carried out generally were driven out of the country. In the US the loyalists (perfectly decent folks, for the most part) fled to Canada, the British West Indies, or back to the home country. In Russia the Civil War killed a great many of the White Russians, and those who did not die, fled into exile.

Cuba wisely permitted dissenters to leave ‐ the Mariel boatlift being an example of how the regime nonviolently eliminated a chunk of opponents. In France, despite the violence of the revolution, most of the opposition survived and in some ways France has suffered from this division to the present day.

We shall see, certainly, a longing in Egypt for order. Revolutions are great fun during their early days. (Despite the violence, there is an extraordinary exhilaration to them ‐ those who have seen Before Night Falls, which is generally seen as an anti‐ Cuban film, as it tells the story of the poet, Reinaldo Arenas, will have to concede that it captures the early excitement of the revolution very well). But food runs short, there is disorder (as we see in Egypt), travel is disrupted, the economy grinds to a halt, and there is a longing for a return to a sense of order. Even Lenin had to reverse course early in the Soviet Revolution, introducing his New Economic Policy (NEP) to save a foundering economy. But for now we are seeing one of the rarest of things ‐ a moment when the people lose their fear of the state, when, as the Chinese say, “he mandate of heaven has fallen”and it is only a matter of time before the old regime must yield. We saw this for a few days in France in 1968, when it seemed as if a true revolution was about the sweep the country. Those my age who were active in the Vietnam anti‐war movement saw it for a brief moment after Kent State. I remember being at a meeting of the anti‐war leadership at Cora Weiss’house in Manhattan when the news broke that the US had invaded Cambodia. We knew we had to make an immediate response, there was no time for a mass demonstration, and so we decided to go to Lafayette Park in front of the White House where, even though we could only rally a few hundred people, we would be sure to be arrested under the rules then in place, which limited the number of demonstrators. We sent out the call to our networks. But between the time we met, which I think was on a Friday, and May 4th, which was Monday, the students at Kent State were shot dead by the National Guard.

This led to a general strike of students all across the nation. Campuses simply closed down spontaneously. So, on that Saturday we didn’ have a few hundred people ‐we had close to 100,000 in Washington D.C., rallied in a week’ time. We were nervous, not knowing if Nixon would give the order to shoot. He was nervous too ‐Lafayette Park was ringed with buses, nose to nose so that no one could get in. But Nixon permitted the demonstrators to gather on the great lawn behind the White House for a “legal rally” The end of the war was still five years in the future, but in a sense that day marked the end of the legitimacy of the war in the eyes of the majority of Americans. In Vietnam there were open revolts within the armed forces. It was an exciting time to live through . . . but of course it was not a revolution. Nixon was allowed to resign and Henry Kissinger is still able to appear on TV news channels as a foreign policy adviser, when he belongs in prison.

I wander, which is what happens when I try to write quickly under time pressure. A far more important and genuine revolution was that in Iran, where a general strike in October of 1978 led, first, to efforts to control the people by firing live ammunition into crowds of youth surging the streets (those youth wore sheets of white, symbolic of death, meaning they were prepared for burial), until the police finally abandoned their posts, and in January the Shah had to flee for his life. The violence of the Iranian Revolution was almost entirely on one side ‐ the Shah’ military. Ironically, despite massive US military aid, the Shah had few of the standard crowd control weapons, such as tear gas. So secure did the regime feel, that the last place it expected a revolt was in the streets of Teheran.

The Russian Revolution is called the October Revolution, because the Bolsheviks took power on October 25 of 1917, but it actually began in April of that year. We may expect the Egyptian Revolution ‐ if, as I expect, it succeeds, to follow a similar uncertain path. To sum up thus far: no one knew in advance that Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt would be swept by revolutionary fervor this winter. And no one can be sure, at this writing, what is going to happen in North Africa and Egypt.

We can, however, note several things. One is that the US, while it doesn’ know which way to turn at the moment, had been pressuring for change ‐ some of the US aid funds had been going to pro‐democracy contacts in Egypt. This doesn’ mean the US favors democracy in Egypt ‐ it doesn’. It meant that at least some in the State Department and the CIA knew that Mubarak’ situation was not stable. US policy, not only in the Middle East but around the world, has been to favor “table”regimes, which has meant military dictatorships. Egypt has been notorious for its authoritarian ways, its lavish use of torture (as was the Iran of the late Shah). But the US has been happy to pour billions of dollars into Egypt to buy a secure alliance.

Israel also had a strong interest in discouraging democracy in Egypt ‐ since Mubarak kept the Muslim Brotherhood under control, and had acted to establish peace with Israel. Democracy has never been a favored choice by the US leaders. During the Cold War we were happy to support Franco, the Fascist dictator in Spain. We engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in order to install the Shah. We, and Israel, had urged democratic elections in the Gaza strip, on the assumption the Palestinian Authority would win ‐ unhappily, Hamas won and Gaza has been on the shit list of both the US and Israel governments ever since.

I remember the painful lesson I got in how “iberals”view free elections during the struggle of the Vietnamese. Robert Pickus, who had had financial backing from the War Resisters League to set up a group in Berkely called “cts for Peace” in 1958,before Vietnam was on the agenda, opposed those of us who called for unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam, on the grounds this wasn’ fair to the Vietnamese, because it would leave them “t the mercy of the Communists” We pointed out that it was the US, which had blocked the free elections Vietnam had been promised in 1956. Pickus argued that we had to insist on a peace settlement which would guarantee not one, but two free elections. He knew that Ho Chi Minh would win the first ‐ he hoped that with time and US funding of the opposition, the Communists might lose the second.

The Establishment is never in favor of free elections if it thinks it might lose. If one looks back at the US policy (and that of Israel) in the Middle East for the past fifty years it has been a series of gambles that did not pay off. In Israel’ case, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 lead directly to the creation of Hezbollah, which is currently taking control of the government of Lebanon, thus extending Syrian influence further into Lebanon. The US managed to block Iranian control of Iran, but in the end lost out to the radical Muslims, who now play a key role in Iraq (the invasion of which was among the most remarkable blunders the US has ever made).

We do not know what will happen tomorrow or next month. But we do know that the map of the Middle East is going to be very different by the end of the year. The US is almost certainly to lose its long‐term alliance with Egypt. It is very uncertain what will happen in Tunisia or Yemen, but in all cases US influence will be greatly weakened. In Iraq the latest political developments insure that Iran will have more influence there than the US. In Lebanon, Syrian influence has been strengthened.

Whether any of this will induce Israel to make peace is hard to say. But to look at the range of events in the past six months strongly suggest that, once more, the brightest and best can win many short‐term victories but achieve major long‐term losses. The most serious question is what we do here ‐ since neither you nor I have any influence on the events in Egypt. And what we need to do is to give our strong public support to the democratic forces in Egypt, even though we cannot know how long they will be democratic. The one thing is quite certain, we cannot determine the policies of those nations. We can wish them luck and reach out to them now.

 They have uncertain beginnings, and uncertain endings. I remember, in High School, reading Lincoln Steffens Autobiography, (which is probably still in print). In it he discussed the Mexican Revolution and the Russian Revolution (Steffens is remembered for his quote, after his return from the Soviet Union in the early days of the revolution, when he said “I have seen the future and it works”). He was concerned with the issue of “Thermidor”, a term that comes from the French Revolution, when on July 27, 1794 ‐ “ Thermidor”under the revolutionary calendar, the deputies, weary of mass executions (1,300 in June of that year), ordered the arrest of Robespierre and other members of the “Committee of Public Safety” and had them guillotined ‐ marking the end of the Revolution and the consolidation of at least part of the old order.

— David McReynolds was a past Chair of War Resisters International, and the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1980 and 2000. He is retired and lives on the lower East Side of Manhattan with his two cats.