Socialism and Revolution are two expressions which after decades of little use have re-emerged into popular and much publicised usage, particularly the latter. In the wake of the spectacular events in the middle east and North Africa, even commentators and newscasters in the mass media have managed to rid themselves of a Pavlovian ‘foaming at the mouth’ reaction during the utterance of the word ‘revolution‘.
Many on the left in particular have launched into a re-invigorated promotion of the two concepts so dear to their hearts and minds. In fact, it is hard to find a group on the left which does not contain the word ‘socialism’ somewhere in its name and is not frequently mentioned in the pages of its publications. However, I advise that a degree of caution in their undefined or ill-defined use has become necessary.
Furthermore, from early 2011 to the present, it is just as hard to find an article in the mainstream or left media, which does not have numerous references to ‘revolution’ when referring to events in the Maghrib and the Arabian peninsular. But is this usage sufficiently accurate and what can these words actually mean to the new generation of activists throughout the world?
In the last 10 months few in the media or on the left have bothered to really analyse or explain to their readers the complex of competing ideas which they reference by means of these two words. There seems to be an assumption that the readership or audience will automatically understand and agree upon these concepts when used by a speaker or author. This assumption, I suggest, is mistaken and perhaps also leads to a considerable danger. For example:
Joseph Stalin considered himself a socialist and the totalitarian economic and brutal political system he and his subsequent ‘socialist’ followers and inheritors administered was widely promoted as the pinnacle of socialist achievement.
Nicolae Ceausescu was president of ‘The Socialist Republic of Romania’ until ousted after credible accusations of genocide and corruption. Nearer to home Tony Blair initially allied himself with and was avidly appreciated by Christian Socialists and many others within the ‘New’ Labour Party, who described themselves as such. It seems such ‘socialists’ thought Blair was sufficiently one of them that he would assist them toward the bright future of a new Jerusalem, rather than the hell-hole he ably helped construct in Iraq and the cut-backs initiated here.
More topically, the people of Egypt have previously had a taste of Nasserist as well as Mubarak ‘socialism’; the dictator Ben Ali of Tunisia was until a couple of years ago a part of an international Socialist group; and family member of Libya’s ruling dynasty, Saif Gaddafi, bore the title of a Socialist Popular Leader.
Socialism and ‘The Arab Spring’
It is also, clearly the case, that the masses in Tunisia and Egypt, were not enthusiastic supporters of the Ben Ali and Mubarack forms of socialism. These facts, along with the others mentioned above, also emphatically demonstrates the reality that in the 21st century, ‘socialism‘, as a word and concept, has no agreed, clear and consistent framework of reference, nor is it a particularly esteemed pole of attraction for the masses in any part of the globe. I would guess that there is not even a general concurrence of what it means among the minds of many of those who resolutely continue to use it – nor in many of those who read or hear it.
The ‘left’ phenomena of too frequently operating with undefined fetishised abstractions, and unconvincing assertions, may go some way to explain why a few people calling themselves socialists argued for support for the Gaddafi form of pan-Arab nationalism misleadingly labelled as ‘socialism’ against the initial uprising of those opposed to his so-called Libyan ’state of the masses’. Clearly not all the citizens of Libya were fooled by the Gaddafi’s use of this term to cover a nepotistic family dictatorship. Although it must be said, some in Libya (at least in the short term) mistakenly thought the capitalist west was a more humane system, until they felt the full force of the neo-liberal aerial blitzkrieg on innocent and guilty alike.
A similar and equally problematic development can arise with the incautious or premature use of the term ‘revolution’.
Practically every commentator in mainstream media and the left press, has at least since January 2011, prolifically used the term ‘revolution’ to describe the events in the middle-east and North Africa. Some have used it with apparent dread and others with scarcely controlled euphoria. The result has been a considerable degree of confusion over the processes unfolding in the now emerging conflicts over how to pursue the aspirations of those involved in ridding themselves of the unpopular regimes.
Again the question needs to be asked: What quality of support are the newly emerging activists getting from the left, if they are informed they are already carrying out a revolution, when they simply rise up and peacefully assemble in a square?
The Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya
Any serious study of popular revolutions, both successful and failed, reveals that a sequence of stages are involved and that if certain conditions are not created or do not themselves mature, the first stage of popular uprising may also, unfortunately, become the last. This is particularly the case if a counter-revolutionary force finds a way to politically split the forces for change as is being attempted in Egypt and Tunisia. And then there are the counter-revolutionary political and military interventions of politicians in Europe and North America in Libya and now Syria. Counter-revolution proceeds under many guises, including in some cases, the political guise of left, reformist ‘socialism‘.
So to immediately hail an uprising, (even a hugely successful one) as a revolution is not just a serious misuse of the term, but could also be a source of considerable misunderstanding as to what is required (including the reverses to expect) in order to complete a revolution.
If the aim of commenting upon tumultuous political and social events, is to aid the understanding of observers and participants, (and for the anti-Capitalist left I suggest it should be) then certain things surely follow. Those of us involved in the struggle against capital should perhaps begin to shoulder the responsibility of clearly defining our words and analysing the concepts we use more carefully than recent practice has so far demonstrated. And of course readers should become more critical and demand accuracy and clarity from writers. Now that economic, financial and political events are moving at an uneven and often accelerated tempo, any lack of clarity or ambiguous usage, (particularly in the case of the two concepts discussed here) I suggest, becomes a considerable liability and in many ways will act to retard the anti-capitalist struggle.
Roy Ratcliffe. [Also at. www.critical-mass.net ]