An Open Letter from the Internationalist Socialist League (Israel/Occupied Palestine) and the League for the Revolutionary Party (U.S.)
The following is a response to the statement “Glory to the martyrs! Victory to the revolution!” issued by the Revolutionary Socialists group in Egypt, published on February 1 (e-socialists.net/node/6445) and circulated widely in English on February 6 (see, for example,
February 8, 2011
With sincere respect for your place among the courageous fighters against Mubarak’s bloody dictatorship, we must share with you some serious criticisms of your statement of February 1. We know that your role in the Egyptian masses’ great struggles can only be properly appreciated by considering all that your group has said, as well as all that it has done in practice. However your February 1 statement is the first to be translated and circulated by your comrades in the International Socialist Tendency, so it deserves to be paid special attention.
You are right to say that Egypt’s revolution is being stolen from the working class and poor. The move by prominent opposition figures to enter into negotiations with the government shows their willingness to compromise the masses’ most basic aim of ending their oppression and winning democracy by driving Mubarak’s NDP from power. Your insistence that the economic demands of the workers and poor must not be sacrificed in the struggle for democracy is certainly correct, as are your arguments for the creation of elected councils of the struggle. You are also right to warn that the army cannot be trusted to protect the masses and that the rank-and-file soldiers will have to be rallied to split from their officers.
These points express the fact that the Egyptian revolution is at a dangerous turning point. The prominent figures claiming to represent the masses who are now negotiating with the dictatorship are acting according to their bourgeois class interests. As you know, bourgeois and middle class elements like the imams, businessmen and landowners who dominate the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, or professionals like the diplomat ElBaradei, can all be satisfied by being given a little more space at the top of Egyptian society. No wonder they are anxious for the workers and poor people to leave the streets and return to their old lives of quiet suffering as soon as possible.
A Stable Capitalist Democracy Is Impossible In Egypt
The treachery of these bourgeois opposition figures confirms Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, a perspective that we know you subscribe to: only the working-class and poor masses can be relied on to continue the fight to overthrow the dictatorship and win democracy for all Egyptians, because only the working class and poor have no interest in maintaining the capitalist society that the dictatorship defends.
It is essential to recognize that the reality of class exploitation and imperialist oppression means that whatever course the struggle takes, there cannot be a stable democracy in Egypt for as long as imperialist capitalism rules the region. At this time of economic crisis, with the world sliding toward another Great Depression, capitalism cannot offer a better life to the masses. Aside from the most temporary concessions granted to quell mass struggles, capitalism offers only worsening poverty and exploitation. In dominated and exploited neo-colonies like Egypt, enforcing these conditions is ultimately only possible by means of dictatorship.
Indeed, the Egyptian state is essential to imperialism’s domination of the whole of the Middle East. It governs vital shipping routes including the Suez Canal. Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel is another wall in the Zionist settler state’s prison-house for the Palestinians. The struggle for democracy in Egypt thus threatens the imperialists’ most vital interests and will face their most violent resistance. A stable and genuine democracy will be only possible in Egypt after imperialism’s client states in the region are overthrown, especially the racist colonial settler state of Israel. Working-class socialist revolutions throughout the Middle East are the only solution to the problems faced by the workers and poor of the region. The speed with which the uprising of Tunisia’s workers and poor people inspired similar rebellions across the Arab world shows the potential for this strategy to succeed.
Under these conditions the opposition leaders’ treacherous moves to negotiate with the dictatorship do not merely threaten to prevent the masses from winning their demands. By demobilizing the struggle, especially before the working class and poor can establish their own independent mass organizations, these bourgeois leaders are helping the dictatorship regroup its forces. While the mass struggle in Egypt today has proved too great for the state to crush, that balance of forces cannot last forever. The dictatorship, as well as the imperialists who rely on it to keep order, will inevitably turn to bloody repression when it thinks it can and must.
Put simply, the Egyptian masses’ struggle will either triumph as a socialist revolution of the working class that defeats imperialism by spreading the revolution throughout the Middle East, or it will suffer a bloody defeat. Workers’ revolution is the only hope of avoiding a nightmarish counterrevolution.
Working-Class Leadership Needed
That socialist revolution is the only solution to Egypt’s crisis is of course a conclusion that most Egyptian workers seem far from embracing today. Workers and poor people (semi-employed and unemployed workers as well as impoverished vendors and others from more middle-class occupations) account for the overwhelming majority of protesters on the streets, but at least at first they for the most part participated simply as members of “the people,” without emphasizing specifically working-class demands. Unlike in Tunisia where unions organized protests from the beginning of the uprising and general strikes were widely observed, workers in Egypt are mostly only just beginning to turn from street protests to engaging in strikes and workplace occupations demanding Mubarak’s ouster. However the announcement of the formation of a new federation of independent unions, and the example of militant struggles by tens of thousands of textile workers in Mahalla and of strikes and workplace occupations by factory and service workers in Suez and elsewhere are sure to spread.
But the experience of struggle against the Mubarak dictatorship has given the working class a sense of the tremendous power it has when united in collective action and the role played by the various opposition leaders is already providing powerful confirmation of the revolutionary socialist perspective. Those lessons will be lost, however, if the revolutionary strategy is not put forward clearly and openly. That is why we were disappointed to see that in your statement of February 1 you expressed yourself not in the clear language of Marxism, which speaks of specific classes having specific interests, but instead in the vague rhetoric of populism. Complaining about “elites” hijacking the “popular revolution,” you call for the working class to support the other forces making the revolution, but you do not call for the workers to lead the revolution. Thus instead of calling for workers’ power through socialist revolution, your statement raises the purely democratic populist slogan, “All power to the people!”
Comrades, this slogan of “power to the people” may not seem so bad – it sounds a lot better than Mubarak’s rule! But “the people” include not just the masses of workers and poor but the capitalists and petty bourgeoisie as well. For as long as the revolution is promoted as being in the interests of all, it will be limited to the demands for limited democratic change that seem acceptable to most people of all classes. If revolutionaries do not insist on working-class leadership of the struggle, power will by default fall into the hands of those with the greatest resources, the bourgeoisie.
Your February 1 statement says:
“The revolution is a popular revolution. This is not a revolution of the elite, political parties or religious groups. Egypt’s youth, students, workers and the poor are the owners of this revolution. In recent days a lot of elites, parties and so-called symbols have begun trying to ride the wave of revolution and hijack it from their rightful owners.”
But while the masses of workers, poor people and youth are the great force behind the revolution, they have never “owned” it. How could they have, without a working-class political party leading the broader masses in an open struggle against not just the Mubarak dictatorship but against all the representatives of capitalism?
If it is to move forward, the limits of Egypt’s “popular revolution” must be transcended and the masses’ struggle transformed into a conscious struggle for the working class to seize power. That requires leadership by a revolutionary socialist political party of the most far-sighted and determined workers and youth that is prepared to win the support of the masses in seizing leadership of the struggle from the pro-capitalist and reformist figures that currently dominate it. Until that takes place, any talk of the masses’ owning the revolution is nothing more than wishful thinking, and populist sloganeering about a “popular revolution” giving “power to the people” can only obscure the class conflict and delay the working class from realizing its tasks.
A General Strike and the Army
Sadly, the wishful thinking of your group’s February 1 statement doesn’t end there. In calling for the working class to join the revolution by launching a general strike, it puts forward an irresponsibly naïve vision that the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship will be easy. Thus we read:
“The demonstrations and protests have played a key role in igniting and continuing our revolution. Now we need the workers. They can seal the fate of the regime. Not only by participating in the demonstrations, but by organizing a general strike in all the vital industries and large corporations.
“The regime can afford to wait out the sit-ins and demonstrations for days and weeks, but it cannot last beyond a few hours if workers use strikes as a weapon. Strike on the railways, on public transport, the airports and large industrial companies! Egyptian Workers! On behalf of the rebellious youth, and on behalf of the blood of our martyrs, join the ranks of the revolution, use your power and victory will be ours!”
Comrades, you are right to call for a general strike. Such workplace-based action would give a mighty impulse to the struggle against the dictatorship and provide a powerful basis for building new mass organizations of the working class. A general strike alone (without an uprising that literally breaks the regime’s control of the governmental, police and military apparatus) could certainly provoke Mubarak’s final departure from power, along with some of his top cronies. But as we have seen in Tunisia, such moves would go no further than superficial changes at the top of the government in order to help save the state apparatus that keeps the masses down.
We have to say, however, that your statement’s suggestion that the entire regime would fall within hours of a general strike is ridiculous. As you know, the dictatorship’s state of police and soldiers is still intact and the imperialists have shown how determined they are to save it. While your statement correctly raises the prospect of splitting the ranks of the army from their officers, that has yet to be achieved and will not happen automatically. Moreover, the police and other security forces may have been forced to retreat, but they are waiting for the opportunity to exact revenge upon the masses.
By bringing the country to a crawl and paralyzing much of the government’s powers, a general strike would point toward the need for an armed insurrection to disarm and destroy the regime’s repressive state forces. It would also raise the danger of a violent crackdown by the state. Your statement correctly warned against illusions that the army would protect the people, explaining that for as long as the dictatorship’s officers remain in charge there is the danger that “the army will either suppress the demonstrations directly, or restructure the police to play this role.” How, having said this, could your statement then say the dictatorship would fall within hours of mass strike action, without any confrontation with the dictatorship’s armed guards?
Comrades, it is the duty of genuine revolutionaries to consistently warn the working class of the dangers it faces from the forces of counterrevolution and explain how it can defend itself. Calls for a general strike against the dictatorship and for the building of elected councils of struggle and other new mass organizations of the workers and poor must be coupled with calls for the working class to arm itself and organize for self-defense.
As we are sure you will agree, the police sign up for their jobs expecting to enforce law and order on the general population. As a result, they can be expected to remain stubbornly loyal to the dictatorship and the working class will have to disarm and disband the police by force. The military, on the other hand, is somewhat different. The rank and file of the military are conscripted from the working class and peasantry and do not expect to be asked to be ordered to repress their brothers and sisters. The soldiers’ identification with the masses’ struggles make them an unreliable force for repression.
The example of the working class and poor masses becoming more organized in their struggle, building councils of democratically elected leaders, can have a great effect on the ranks of the army. Revolutionaries should encourage the ranks of soldiers to organize councils of their own and to fight for the right to elects their own officers. Fears among soldiers that officers appointed from above by Mubarak will order them to repress the masses can make such ideas particularly appealing. Revolutionaries should also call on the soldiers to help arm the workers’ organizations to defend themselves against attacks by the police and other counterrevolutionaries. Of course the officers will resist all these moves, but the experience of struggle within the army’s structures will go a long way to proving to the ranks of soldiers that they must overthrow their officers’ chain of command and join with the workers and poor people’s organizations.
However for rank-and-file soldiers to be expected to break the chain of command held by Mubarak and the officers, they must see an alternative working-class leadership that expresses confidence in the working class’s ability to seize state power and build a new society of abundance and freedom, and which in turn is gaining the confidence of the masses. For this, a vanguard revolutionary party of the working class is necessary.
Finally, we must note how your February 1 statement, instead of advancing a confident vision of a revolutionary socialist future, instead expresses itself in a strange spirit of nostalgia for a supposedly lost time of justice that existed in the past, before Mubarak came to power. We do not think that you comrades long for the days of Nasser or the early years of Anwar Sadat’s rule, but your statement of February 1 repeatedly suggests otherwise.
For example, it describes how the economic policies of the last 30 years concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny minority and “turned the majority of the Egyptian people into the poor, landless and unemployed.” Now, your statement concludes, it is time to “return” the country’s wealth to the people. But as you know, the country’s wealth has never been in the hands of the Egyptian people. Under Nasser it was still in the hands of capitalists, and the majority of Egyptians were still poor workers and peasants. Today, however, Nasser’s socialist rhetoric continues to confuse workers’ developing class consciousness and encourages illusions among them that a nationalist, military-backed regime could answer their needs.
In the same spirit, after correctly warning against trusting the army to protect the people, your statement says: “This army is no longer the people’s army. This army is not the one which defeated the Zionist enemy in October 73.” Comrades, we believe that the Egyptian masses and anti-imperialists everywhere are right to celebrate the blows dealt to Israel in ’73, but we cannot believe that you really think that the Egyptian army under Sadat was “the people’s army.” The soldiers may have fought for the Egyptian people, but any illusions they may have had about who the army really served were quickly laid to rest. As you know, after the war Sadat predictably and immediately used Egypt’s expanded power to cut a better deal with U.S. imperialism and the Zionists, betraying both the Palestinian and Egyptian masses. Some army officers did lead soldiers to later rebel against Sadat, but they did so only from a bourgeois nationalist and Islamist perspective.
Leaving no doubt that our impression of your statement’s affection for these days gone by is not mistaken, when your statement raises the need to oppose U.S. and Israeli imperialism, it does so not with an eye to a socialist revolution in Egypt spreading throughout the Middle East and beyond, but again looking backwards. “Revolution,” your statement says, “must restore Egypt’s independence, dignity and leadership in the region.” To what past time of regional leadership could your statement be referring to?
Comrades, these poor formulations may seem secondary, but speaking in the language of the past will not help the working class recognize the tasks it faces in the present. Worse, at a time when bourgeois and middle-class forces in the movement are working to restrain the working class’s independent struggles and prevent it from recognizing its independent interests, reminiscing about an imaginary time when the Egyptian people were united can only serve to blunt the message that the working class needs to hear: that the workers, poor people and peasants can only rely on their own strength to fight for their own interests and that to save Egyptian society they must rise to lead it.
Socialist Revolution is the Only Solution!
Comrades, you of course know that in 1917 the Russian working class overthrew the Tsar but it was not convinced that it should not allow bourgeois representatives to hold power. Lenin’s bold declaration of the aim of socialist revolution – “No Support to the [capitalist] Provisional Government” – helped the workers embrace the perspective of socialist revolution. Likewise, the Egyptian working class needs its leaders to assert loudly, clearly and unceasingly that socialist revolution is the only solution.
The working class has played key roles up to now. The spark for the uprising in Egypt came from the Tunisian workers’ leading the masses in that country to get rid of their dictator. The path to the mass struggle today was opened by the wave of class struggle and strikes in recent years. The Egyptian working class is heavily involved in today’s struggle. But it is not enough for the working class to be the infantry of the revolution, a battering ram in the hands of other class forces. The workers must take the leadership of the masses, and for that the working class must create its own revolutionary party to show the way.
The necessity of revolutionary leadership was demonstrated by the Bolshevik Party in 1917. The deadly consequences of workers not finding a revolutionary leadership can be seen in the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the workers were held back from seizing power and ultimately led into the death trap of counterrevolution. The fate of the Egyptian revolution depends on whether the working class finds a leadership among its ranks that understands those lessons.