During a strike or a revolution people feel like human beings with dignity and rights. After a lifetime of enforced silence, they discover that they have a voice. The interviews of people on the streets were a wonderful expression of this. Poor, illiterate people are saying: we are going to fight, we will not leave the streets; we demand our rights and we demand that we be treated with respect. This is a profoundly progressive thing. It is the very essence of a real revolution.
It goes without saying that Marxists always subordinate the democratic demands to the socialist revolution. But in practice the most consistent and advanced revolutionary demands will necessarily lead to the posing of workers’ power and socialist revolution. The Russian Revolution is the best example of this. In 1917 the Bolsheviks took power on the basis of the slogan “Peace, bread and land”, none of which has a socialist content. In theory, all three demands could be achieved under capitalism. In practice, however, they could only be achieved by breaking with the bourgeoisie and by power passing into the hands of the working class.
Some people say that this is nothing more than a bourgeois nationalist movement, not a real revolution. They merely reveal ignorance on the important role of democratic demands in a revolution under these conditions. The experience of the Russian Revolution itself shows the importance of the correct (revolutionary) utilization of democratic demands. The demand for a Constituent Assembly played a very important role in mobilizing the broadest layers of the population behind the revolutionary cause.
While fighting for the most advanced democratic demands, Marxists do not regard these demands as an end in themselves, but as part of the fight for a fundamental change in society. That is what distinguishes the Marxist outlook from that of vulgar petty bourgeois democrats.
The immediate task in Egypt was to carry out the overthrow of Mubarak and his rotten regime. But this is only the first step. It has opened the floodgates and allowed the revolutionary people to push their way through. They are daily discovering their strength on the streets, the importance of organization and mass mobilization. That is already a tremendous conquest. Having gone through the experience of a thirty year dictatorship, they will not allow the imposition of a new one, or any intrigue to recreate the old regime with a new name. Tunisia is sufficient proof of this.
Now they have had a taste of their own power, the masses will not be satisfied with half-measures. They know that what they have achieved they have conquered with their own hands. The struggle for complete democracy will permit the construction of genuine trade unions and workers’ parties. But it will also pose the question of economic democracy and the fight against inequality.
Slogans and tactics must be concrete. They must reflect the real situation and the real concerns of the masses. The objective tasks of the Russian Revolution were democratic and national: overthrow of the tsar, formal democracy, freedom from imperialism, freedom of press, etc. We demand complete democracy, immediate abolition of all reactionary laws, and a constituent assembly.
Yes, we must overthrow the old regime, not just Ben Ali and Mubarak, but all the “little Mubaraks” and the “little Ben Alis”. There must be a thorough purge of the state. And there must not be a single figure in the government who played any part in the old regime. Why should the revolutionary people, who sacrificed all in the struggle, allow those who played no part in the revolution to be in power, even in the form of an interim government? Take a big broom and sweep them all out! That is our first demand. We will accept nothing less than this.
But this is also insufficient. For decades these men robbed and looted the wealth of society. They lived in luxury while the people were reduced to poverty. Now we must get back every cent that they stole from the people. We demand the immediate confiscation of the wealth and property of these parasites, and the expropriation of the property of the imperialists who supported them.
This shows how the revolutionary democratic demands must lead directly to socialist demands. Whoever is incapable of correctly utilizing democratic demands in a revolutionary way will forever be doomed to the role of an impotent sectarian. Such a person will never be capable of connecting with the real movement of the masses.
Democracy, however, means different things to different people. The poor people of Egypt do not fight for democracy in order to provide ministerial positions for careerists but as a means of solving their most pressing problems: the lack of jobs and houses, the high cost of living. These economic and social problems are too deep to be solved by any bourgeois government.
Democracy would be an empty phrase if it refused to lay hands on the obscene wealth of the ruling elite. Confiscate the property of the ruling clique! Expropriate the property of the imperialists who backed the old regime and exploited the people of Egypt! The fight for democracy, if it is pursued to the end, must inevitably lead to the expropriation of the bankers and capitalists and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’’ government. Under Mubarak’s regime the Egyptian capitalists have favoured foreign business and assisted imperialism in looting the wealth of the country and exploiting the Egyptian workers. We demand the expropriation of the property of the imperialists for the benefit of the people.
The IMT says:
- For the immediate abolition of all reactionary laws!
- For complete freedom of assembly and the right to organize and strike!
- For a revolutionary constituent assembly!
- For the confiscation of all the money stolen by the old regime!
- For the expropriation of the property of the imperialists!
The Constituent Assembly slogan
If there was a party in Egypt like the Bolshevik Party, the question of power would be posed. But in the absence of a leadership with a clear plan, the Revolution can pass through all manner of vicissitudes. At present the revolutionary wave has still not subsided. But the masses cannot remain permanently in a state of ebullition. They must work and earn money to eat. The revolutionary lava will cool for a time. Eventually the revolution will be pushed toward some form of bourgeois democracy.
In such a situation democratic demands have an immense importance. In a situation like Mubarak’s Egypt, democratic demands are a powerful lever for mobilizing the broadest layers of the masses for the revolution. We must fight for the maximum democratic rights – the right to vote, strike, etc. – because it is in the interests of the workers to have the freest possible scope to develop the class struggle. It is not a matter of indifference for a worker to live under a totalitarian regime than to have these basic rights. Democratic demands must therefore occupy a key place in our programme.
Some people are puzzled by the fact that whereas we now advocate a Constituent Assembly for these countries, we opposed it in the cases of Bolivia and Argentina. The explanation is really very simple. Slogans do not exist outside of time and place. They must reflect concrete conditions of the class struggle at a given stage of the development of a particular country.
In Bolivia, during the revolutionary uprisings of October 2003 and May-June 2005 the slogan of a constituent assembly was counterrevolutionary. Why? At the time, the Bolivian workers had staged two general strikes and two insurrections. They had set up soviet-like bodies in the form of the Neighbourhood Juntas, the Popular Assemblies and the cabildos abiertos (mass meetings).
The Bolivian workers could have easily taken power. It would have been sufficient for the leaders of the COB (trade unions) to proclaim themselves as the government. Under these concrete conditions, to advance the slogan of a constituent assembly was a betrayal. It diverted the attention of the workers from the central task – the seizure of power – and into parliamentary channels.
The counterrevolutionary nature of this slogan was confirmed by the fact that the World Bank and the US funded Office for Transition Initiatives promoted the idea of a constituent assembly. One might add the small detail that at this time Bolivia was already a bourgeois democracy. In the case of Argentina, the slogan was raised by certain left groups after the Argentinazo uprising in December 2001. In the context of an already existing bourgeois democracy, the slogan of a constituent assembly was completely wrong and it amounted to saying: “We don’t like the bourgeois parliament that we have. We want another bourgeois parliament instead.”
One has to be completely blind not to see that these cases have nothing at all in common with the situation in Tunisia and Egypt. After decades of dictatorship, there will inevitably be big illusions in democracy, not just in the petty bourgeoisie but among the masses. This conditions our attitude. We are for democracy, but it must be complete democracy. One of the democratic demands is, ‘we need a new constitution, and therefore a constituent assembly, but we don’t trust the Egyptian army to convene it and therefore the struggle must go on in the streets.’
Of course, Marxists cannot have a mechanical attitude to democratic slogans, which are always subordinate to the general interests of the socialist revolution. We do not share the superstitious attitude of the petty bourgeois towards formal democracy. The deepening of the Revolution will expose the limitations of bourgeois democracy. Through experience the workers will come to understand the need to take power into their own hands. But in order to understand the limits of bourgeois democracy, the workers must first pass through the school of democracy. This presupposes a serious fight for the most advanced democratic slogans.
After decades of authoritarian rule in Egypt, we cannot be indifferent to the question of the Constitution. The current proposal by the Army Council is that some constitutional amendments, drafted by experts appointed by the Army, will be put to a referendum. This is completely undemocratic. Mubarak’s constitution cannot be amended, it should be thrown out and a democratic and revolutionary Constituent Assembly convened in order to discuss a completely new constitution. The reactionary role of the generals was shown by the army’s violent disbanding of the Tahrir Square camp.
Having overthrown a dictatorship through struggle, the revolutionary people cannot hand power to the same generals who supported Mubarak till the very last minute. The workers cannot trust the army chiefs or any council of “experts” appointed by them to write a genuinely democratic constitution. We are for a constituent assembly: a democratically elected body to work out the constitution. This is an elementary democratic demand.
But the question remains: who will convene the Constituent Assembly? We cannot entrust this task to the Egyptian Army, either. Therefore, the struggle must continue on the streets, in the factories, in the youth, among the unemployed, until the battle for democracy is complete.
The situation in Egypt is analogous, not to Bolivia in 2003 and 2006 or to Argentina in 2001, but to Russia in 1905 or 1917. We must make use of the most advanced democratic slogans to pose the central question of workers’ power. We say to the workers and youth: “You want democracy? We do too! But don’t trust the Army or El Baradei – let’s fight for real democracy!” In Egypt, Tunisia and Iran today, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly is very relevant indeed.
The workers of Egypt have already drawn the correct conclusion. This is strikingly revealed in the statement of the Iron and steel workers in Helwan, who, during the struggle, advanced the following demands:
- the immediate stepping down of Mubarak and all the figures of the regime and its symbols;
- the confiscation of wealth and property of all the regime’s symbols and all those to be proven to be corrupt, on behalf of the interest of the masses;
- the immediate resignation of all workers from the trade unions controlled by or affiliated to the regime and declaring their independent unions now preparing their general conference to elect and form their syndicate;
- the acquisition of public sector companies that have been sold or closed and the declaration of nationalizing them on behalf of the people and the formation of a new administration to run it, involving workers and technicians;
- the formation of committees to supervise workers in all work sites and monitor the production and distribution of prices and wages;
- call for a constituent assembly of all classes of people and trends for the drafting of a new constitution and the election of people’s councils without waiting for the negotiations with the former regime.”
These demands are absolutely correct. They show a very high level of revolutionary consciousness and coincide completely with the programme advanced by the Marxists. This programme provides the Egyptian Revolution with all it needs to succeed.
The Revolution poses the need for organization. The trade unions are the most basic form of organization for the workers of all countries at all times. Without organization the working class will always be only raw material for exploitation. The task of building and strengthening the unions is therefore an urgent priority.
In Egypt and Tunisia the unions were closely linked with the old oppressive regime. To all intents and purposes they were part of the state. Their upper levels were corrupted and in many cases members of the ruling party. Their main role was to police the workers. However, at rank and file level they consisted of workers and honest militants.
Even in bourgeois democracies there is an organic tendency of the union tops to fuse with the state. But history shows that when the working class moves even the most corrupt and bureaucratized trade unions can come under the pressure of the working class and become transformed in the course of struggle. Either the old leaders will change and begin to reflect the pressure of the workers or they will be removed and replaced by others who are prepared to put themselves at the head of the movement.
In Tunisia the UGTT leaders were compromised with the Ben Ali regime. The old leaders were prepared to participate in a provisional government formed by Gannouchi but were forced to resign under the pressure of the workers. But at local and regional levels the UGTT played a leading role in the Revolution. In some areas, like in Redeyef, the UGTT actually took over the running of society. In others, the local unions played a key role in the organisation of the revolutionary movement through revolutionary committees. This shows the vital role of the unions as a vehicle for revolution.
What is needed is a through cleansing of the UGTT at all levels, removing all those bureaucrats which are linked to the old regime, starting with its general secretary Abdessalem Jerad, who is playing an openly strike-breaking role. The regional structures and national federations which are under the leadership of the left and democratic activists and which represent a majority of the membership of the UGTT should convene immediately an emergency national congress. A move to democratise the union and bring it in line with the revolutionary movement would have massive support amongst ordinary workers. If the workers and youth were able to remove Ben Ali and then Ghannouchi, it should be even easier for them to remove the corrupt trade union leaders who supported them.
In Egypt the corrupt union leaders were unable to prevent the wave of strikes that was a preparatory school for the Revolution. The Egyptian workers have moved against the old corrupt leaders and are fighting to create unions which are genuine democratic and militant organizations of the class. In so doing they have shown an unerring revolutionary class instinct. The fight for democracy is not confined to the political arena. It must enter the trade unions and the workplaces also.
The struggle seems to be moving in the direction of setting up a new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. In revolutionary conditions like the ones which exist now, this can become the main organisation of Egyptian workers. However, it would be a mistake to abandon altogether the struggle within the old official unions, which still claim to represent millions of workers. In some instances, whole workplaces and sectors will be unionised anew. In some other cases, democratic and militant unions will emerge through the workers taking control of the official structures.
The bourgeoisie and the imperialists understand the central importance of the unions. They will send their paid agents to corrupt and deceive workers in order to prevent them from drawing revolutionary and socialist ideas. The CIA has close links with the leaders of the AFL-CIO and the European Social Democracy and so-called International Trade Union bodies. They will try to bring the militant trade union movement under their control.
The workers must beware of such “friends” who come to corrupt them and undermine the Revolution from within. They must also beware of the so-called NGOs that are a disguised agency of imperialism. The role of the NGOs is to divert the workers from the revolutionary path, entangling them in a thousand trivial tasks, charities etc., turning former revolutionaries and militant workers into paid lackeys, office boys and bureaucrats. This is a poison that can corrode the workers’ movement.
The task of the unions is not to prop up capitalism but to overthrow it. Our first aim is to fight for improved living standards, better wages and conditions. We must fight for every improvement, no matter how small. But we must also understand that it will be impossible to obtain our basic demands as long as a parasitic oligarchy is the owner of the land, the banks and the major industries.
In the struggle against the old regime, the unions have linked up with other layers of society: the unemployed, the women, the youth, the peasants, the intellectuals. That is absolutely necessary. The working class must aspire to place itself at the head of the Nation and to lead the fight against all forms of injustice and oppression.
The revolutionary people are setting up popular committees of all sorts. That is a necessary step to provide the revolutionary movement with an organized and coherent form. Such broad committees do not, however, replace the trade unions, which must remain the basic organizational form of the workers’ movement.
The trade unions are a school of revolution that will play a key role in overthrowing the old regime and establishing a new, socialist society, in which the role of the unions will be expanded a thousand fold, playing a major part in the running of the nationalized industries, planning production and running society.
The IMT says:
- Build the trade unions and turn them into genuine fighting organizations!
- Purge the unions of all corrupt elements and bureaucrats!
- For democratic unions: elections at every level and right of recall of all officials!
- Against corruption! No union official must receive a wage higher than a skilled worker!
- No to state control of the unions! The unions must be in the hands of the workers!
- For workers’ control of industry! For the expropriation of the bankers, landlords and capitalists! For a democratic socialist plan of production!
Role of the youth
Karl Liebknecht, the great German revolutionary and martyr once said: “The youth is the flame of the Socialist Revolution”. These words could be emblazoned on the banner of the Arab Revolution. At every stage the youth has played the key role. The protestors who poured onto the streets of Tunisia and Egypt were mainly young people, unemployed and without any future. Some were university graduates, others poor people from the slums.
In all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the majority of the population are young people. They are suffering the worst effects of the crisis of capitalism. 70% of youth under the age of 25 in Tunisia are unemployed. The figure is 75% in Algeria and 76% in Egypt. A similar situation exists in other countries.
University graduates have no jobs and therefore have no prospect of marriage, no home and no future. These facts show the impasse of capitalism. These countries need doctors, teachers, engineers, but there are no jobs. Millions of young people are unable to find work, and are therefore unable to marry and raise a family. They are motivated by a deep sense of injustice and a burning anger and resentment towards a system that denies them a future and a corrupt regime that has enriched itself at the people’s expense.
The only hope these young people have is to fight for a fundamental change in society. They have cast aside all fear and are prepared to risk their lives in the fight for freedom and justice. In Tunisia the revolutionary youth organised themselves and called a mass rally in Tunis, marching on the Prime Minister’s office and camping in front of it, in the Kasbah esplanade. Mass movements of the school students raised the demand for a constituent assembly, and demonstrated shouting “down with government”. They provided the catalyst for a movement which finally brought down the government of Ghannouchi at the end of February. In Egypt we again see the same thing. The protestors who led the way were mainly young Egyptians, unemployed and without any future.
History is repeating itself. In 1917 the Mensheviks accused the Bolsheviks of being just a “bunch of kids”, and they were not entirely wrong. The average age of the Bolshevik activists was very low. The first section to move is always the youth, who are free from the prejudices, fear and scepticism of the older generation.
The youth of every country are open to revolutionary ideas. We must go to the youth! If we go to the youth with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism and proletarian internationalism, we will get an enthusiastic response.
The IMT says:
- Jobs for all!
- Every young person must be guaranteed either a full-time job or free full-time education.
- Equal pay for work of equal value!
- An end to police harassment!
- Full democratic rights and votes at 16!
The role of women
The decisive factor is that the masses have acquired a sense of their collective strength and are losing their fear. Beginning with the youngest, most energetic and determined elements, the mood of defiance has transmitted itself to the older, more cautious and inert layers of the population.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, however, was the active participation of the women. The old submissiveness is disappearing. In Alexandria elderly housewives threw pots and pans onto the police from the balconies of their flats. On the demonstrations young female students in jeans fought side by side with other women wearing the hijab. It was the women workers played a key role in the massive strikes of textile workers in Mahalla al Kubra in recent years, strikes which prepared the present revolutionary upheaval.
Women have been to the forefront of every revolution in history. The images of the women of Bahrain, demonstrating fearlessly, some with veils, some without, are an inspiring picture of the Revolution in action. They are repeating the experience of the heroic women of Paris in October 1789 and in Petrograd in February 1917.
The awakening of the women is a sure sign of Revolution. Society cannot advance and prosper as long as women are enslaved. It is not by chance that reactionaries in Egypt, as well as fomenting religious pogroms, attacked the March 8th demonstration in Tahrir Square. The Arab Revolution will recruit its most determined and courageous fighters from the ranks of the women, and the complete emancipation of women is the first duty of the Revolution. The place of women is not in the kitchen but on the streets fighting alongside the men. They are the most fearless elements. And they have most to fight for.
The IMT says:
- Down with discrimination and inequality!
- Full recognition of women as equal citizens and human beings!
- Full social, political and economic equality for women!
- An end to all discriminatory laws!
- Organize the women workers in free and democratic trade unions, independent of the state!
- Equal pay for work of equal value!