Socialist Studies Socialist Studies


In a discussion about the ‘Arab Awakening’ on BBC NEWSNIGHT (14 February 2011), one speaker asked this important question:

How do unarmed people defeat tanks, torturers, riot police and repressive regimes, backed by Western politicians?

However, in no Arab country has power actually been surrendered - so far. Individual autocrats can be got rid of but their governments still remain.

For instance, Tunisia’s Ben Ali fled abroad but his cronies stayed in power. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is no longer in power but his friends in the armed forces have formed an ‘interim government’: who knows how long it will be before they actually get round to holding those promised elections. The King of Jordan sacked his government and replaced those placemen with another set, also appointed by himself. In Saudi Arabia, some concessions were made: out of the kingdom’s vast oil revenues with some $6o billion being allocated to welfare. Even in Libya, Gaddafi decided to hand out cheques to appease the people.

This has been the general response by rulers to the wave of Arab unrest, sweeping through region, from the Atlantic to Iraq, threatening the power of autocrats - whether of the Napoleonic ‘strong man’ type, or simply hereditary sheikhs and monarchs. In order to safeguard the continued power of the ruling elites, concessions of a limited nature – political and/or economic - are made. Then they play for time so as to allow divisions to emerge among the protesters, with their differing demands. “Divide and Rule” – an old British Empire maxim.

Libya has been the most overtly violent in its response. The streets of Tripoli have been deserted by day and disturbed by gunfire at night. Colonel Gaddafi in an incoherent televised rant (25 February 2011) had conflicting messages for ‘his people’. Accusing the protesters of being drunk or on drugs, he alternated between threats - “Libya will turn into a burning hell!”, and in the next breath telling them to “Dance and sing! Joy and rejoice!” (An echo here of how Stalin used to force his Politbureau members to dance for his amusement.) In addition, Gaddafi used the power of religion to make further terrifying threats in the mosques: “Those who fight the rulers will die as infidels!” Their fate would be horrible - eternal damnation.

Which brings us back to that key question: “How do unarmed people defeat tanks, torturers, riot police and repressive regimes?” There is a romantic, revolutionary myth, urging ‘direct action’. In the 19th century, the 1848 year of revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871, saw the working people take to the streets, using barricades and cobblestones against the armed forces of the state.

In the Arab states, where popular protests have not been about Socialism, so far any successes have been achieved only when the armed forces have switched sides or refused to fire on their people.

Media commentators argue that the people in these Arab countries are unhappy but that each country is unhappy in its own way. (Egypt is not Jordan, Bahrain is not Yemen.) But there are some features which all these countries have in common: their autocratic or monarchic form of government, without any accountability; the high proportion of the population who are under 30 years, often well-educated, and now all too often unemployed – disappointed and discontented. There is hunger too, as world food prices have soared. In all countries, there is the system of wage-labour and commodity production.

Like Marx, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has consistently argued that the only way to overthrow capitalism is by political organisation to take over control of the machinery of government and of the armed forces. It is only by doing this that a democratic Socialist movement of the working class would be able to get rid of the capitalist class system.

But to do this would require what we have yet to see in any Arab revolt or protest movement: an awareness of the exploitation of the working class as a class, and an understanding of the international nature of the class struggle, the global conflict of interests between wage-labour and capital.

While it would be nice to suppose that such a revolution could succeed simply through logical argument and the power of persuasion, it would be suicidal to rely on this alone. A class whose vital interests are threatened is likely to resist, violently, with whatever weapons and forces it has at its disposal.

There are many lessons from history to support our argument. Socialists cannot forget the tragic fate of the Communards, when the French government did a deal with their Prussian ‘enemy’ to crush the Paris Commune. Or the Peterloo massacre of workers who supported an opposition movement. Or the Russian Tsar’s use of Cossacks in 1905 to attack people in Petersburg, etc.. So if Gaddafi uses mercenaries from other countries to attack those he sees as his enemies, that is simply typical of any regime which sees a threat to its grasp on power.

As for American and other foreign friends of freedom and “universal human rights”, their real concern is not liberty but oil and their strategic interests. Where those are concerned, they would do any deal necessary, typically preferring ‘stable’ dictatorships to less reliable democracies. The Arab protesters seek only better forms of government, reforms of the political system; they are not a threat to the capitalist system, and class exploitation will continue, whether or not they succeed in their sadly limited demands.

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