Louis Proyect writes: At first blush, the term “Arab Winter” makes sense given the restoration of military rule in Egypt, Syria’s descent into sectarian chaos, and Libya’s coming apart at the seams. Can a case be made for guarded optimism, however? If so, then there is probably nobody more qualified to make it than Gilbert Achcar, the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region whose 2013 study The People Want attempts to get beneath surface impressions, especially those based on changing seasons. If Marxism seems deeply troubled as a political movement and lacks a sizable contingent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it still has a use as an analytical tool. Owing much to its Hegelian roots, the dialectical method at the heart of Marxism is ideally suited to resolving contradictions. And no other region in the world is more riven with contradictions than MENA, arguably the source of its failure as of yet to deliver on the promises of 2011.
In a September 4, 2013 article for Guernica titled “What is a Revolution”, Tariq Ali adopted a rather frosty tone in sizing up the undelivered promises of the region, described mostly as a failure to qualify as a genuine revolution. He wrote that only “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change” could qualify as a revolution. Now, of course, there was a time in which Tariq Ali would have been more generous with movements that were so lacking, including many of the national liberation movements he embraced as a young radical. Using his yardstick, Vietnam had no revolution when it drove out the American imperialists. Just look at the millionaires in Vietnam today, profiting off of sweatshops. But that is no argument for not protesting against B-52 bombing raids and Operation Phoenix. If Ali was referring to the classical socialist revolution that have been far and few between since 1917, rarer in some ways than the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was supposedly last spotted in Arkansas back in 2005, he certainly had a point even if it did not do justice to the social realities of Egypt, Syria, or Libya.
Perhaps another term might be more useful when trying to understand the process that began in 2011—one that Achcar argues was already in progress for some years due to unresolved social, political and economic contradictions. In his introduction he makes the case for recognizing the struggle as a thawra, the Arab term for revolt, a word that might be more useful since it is both less restrictive than Ali’s parameters as well as leaving open the possibility that what we are seeing is a protracted and long-term revolutionary process. Considering Ho Chi Minh’s long struggle to break colonial control over his nation, this gives you some sense of the historic mission facing revolutionaries in the region.
Departing from the “game of nations” framework that is used by most commentators on MENA as a way of reducing everything to a battle between the US and an “anti-imperialist” bloc led by Vladimir Putin, Achcar’s analysis is grounded in the class relations that exist within nations like Egypt, Libya, Syria et al. Based on the statistics he amasses in chapter one (“Fettered Development”), one can only wonder why it took so long for revolts to break out. [Continue reading…]