Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Egyptian Revolution - Part 8

In January 2008 Mahalla workers drew up a new list of demands. As well as higher wages, bonuses and allowances, it included a rise in the national minimum wage from 35 Egyptian pounds (£E) to £E1200 (£140) a month. It had not gone up since 1984! They announced a strike on April 6th if their demands were not met.

Several weeks later a group of campaigners against the Mubarak regime called for a General Strike on that day. The call was not made by organised groups of workers but was supported by some small opposition parties, intellectuals, some youth and radicals. The General Strike call spread rapidly through the Internet and text messages. Around 65,000 people signed up to a Facebook site promoting the strike. This represented a movement of largely middle class youth inspired by the growing displays of working class power.

The Interior Ministry warned that there could be violence and that people should stay off the streets. Thousands of workers did take strike action but a General Strike did not take place. In Mahalla, some of the workers’ leaders, who had played a leading role in the previous strikes, called the strike off after the monthly food allowance was doubled on April 5th. The strike had been due to start at 7.30am but at 3am hundreds of plain-clothes security moved in to the factory and arrested anyone who tried to speak out. Despite this many stayed away from work.

April 7, saw more battles with the police in Mahalla. A demonstration of 2,000 started at 4pm and grew to several demonstrations with up to 40-50,000 involved. Chants went up against the government and for the release of those arrested the previous day. It was reported that children were “throwing rocks, in a scene similar to the Palestinian intifada, against Central Security Forces officers and soldiers, while chanting ‘The revolution has come! The revolution has come!’”

On April 8th, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif went to the factory and announced a bonus of 30 days wages! "We know Mahalla is suffering and you have passed through many crises," he told workers. The regime has balanced between repression and concessions whenever powerful workers’ movements have occurred. After Mahalla, the regime was less confident to crack down on workers in the way it did on students, community or democracy campaigners.

The April 6th Youth Movement, one of the initiators of the “Day of Anger” on January 25th 2011, took its name from these events. It attempted to repeat the success on May 4th 2008, Mubarak’s 80th birthday. However, no significant strike action took place that day and street protests were largely prevented by the security forces.

In fact, what we see developing is something that is quite common in revolutionary upheavals. Firstly, we see different social groups having different objectives. The workers who began the movement, were concerned with immediate economic concerns. Looking back to when these disputes began around 2006, it was precisely at that point, around 7 years into the new Long Wave Boom, where the economic tide had had long enough to begin to significantly raise the demand for labour-power. Trotsky, who had begun to analyse the effects of trhe Long Wave as described by Kondratiev – though Trotsky disagreed with Kondratiev in terms of method and detail – spelled it out,

“But a boom is a boom. It means a growing demand for goods, expanded production, shrinking unemployment, rising prices and the possibility of higher wages. And, in the given historical circumstances, the boom will not dampen but sharpen the revolutionary struggle of the working class. This flows from all of the foregoing. In all capitalist countries the working-class movement after the war reached its peak and then ended, as we have seen, in a more or less pronounced failure and retreat, and in disunity within the working class itself. With such political and psychological premises, a prolonged crisis, although it would doubtless act to heighten the embitterment of the working masses (especially the unemployed and semi-employed), would nevertheless simultaneously tend to weaken their activity because this activity is intimately bound up with the workers’ consciousness of their irreplaceable role in production.

Prolonged unemployment following an epoch of revolutionary political assaults and retreats does not at all work in favour of the Communist Party. On the contrary the longer the crisis lasts the more it threatens to nourish anarchist moods on one wing and reformist moods on the other. This fact found its expression in the split of the anarcho-syndicalist groupings from the Third International, in a certain consolidation of the Amsterdam International and the Two-and-a-Half International, in the temporary conglomeration of the Serrati-ites, the split of Levi’s group, and so on. In contrast, the industrial revival is bound, first of all, to raise the self-confidence of the working class, undermined by failures and by the disunity in its own ranks; it is bound to fuse the working class together in the factories and plants and heighten the desire for unanimity in militant actions.

We are already observing the beginnings of this process. The working masses feel firmer ground under their feet. They are seeking to fuse their ranks. They keenly sense the split to be an obstacle to action. They are striving not only toward a more unanimous resistance to the offensive of capital resulting from the crisis but also toward preparing a counter-offensive, based on the conditions of industrial revival. The crisis was a period of frustrated hopes and of embitterment, not infrequently impotent embitterment. The boom as it unfolds will provide an outlet in action for these feelings.”

Flood Tide

This is a potent antidote to those who operate with a crude theory, which comes to the strange conclusion that it is only by the impoverishment, and demoralisation of the working-class via some apocalyptic crisis that it can raise itself up to be fit to rule, and to challenge for power!

But, the workers, being very practical people were mostly concerned with their immediate economic condition, rather than any wider issues. But, we then see another common feature of revolutionary upheavals. The banner passes to another social group. The revolution is characterised by combined and uneven development too! The petit-bourgeoisie, and middle classes are drawn in behind the workers, drawing their own confidence from them. But, although, many of the middle classes, particularly the unemployed professionals, the young graduates that find changed circumstances have left them with an uncertain future, that Paul Mason referred to above, have immediate concerns too, their means of voicing those concerns, their means of addressing them are markedly different from the workers. The workers are brought together in frequently large conglomerations, such as the textile workers at Ghazl al-Mahalla textile mill with its 28,000 workers. Their traditional means of redressing its concerns is via industrial action, which by its nature is focussed on the place of work. But, the petit-bouregoisie and the middle classes have a quite diferent relation to the means of production. In the case of the peasantry and small artisans, they own their means of production, and depend upon their own economic activity to make a living. Although, strikes by such petty property owners are not at all unknown, they occupy a completely different role than for workers, who in striking hit at the owners of Capital. The professionals too where they have immediate economic concerns look to different solutions to them. They lack the collective economic muscle of the industrial workers. The solution to their immediate economic concerns is seen coming from a different route, from economic reforms, and liberalisation that takes the weight, particularly of a corrupt and inefficient State, off their backs, nad gives them a greater say in decision making, in order to be able to effectively press for such reforms, and for the kind of meritocracy they believe their status should be rewarded by. Their immediate frustrtations, therefore, tend to be reflected not by industrial action, but via popular protest, and the focus is not the workplace, but the Public Square. As Lenin, points out in his “Two Tactics of Social Democracy”, then we see that these different forms of protest, not only reflect the different social position of the different social strata involved in the revolution, not only reflect their differing concerns, but also provide us with a forewarning of the contradictory interests of these temporary allies, because the concerns of the petit-bourgeoisie and middle classes for the introduction of bourgeois democracy within which they seek to increase their voice, has as its aim the kind of economic reforms, the introduction of meritocratic principles, which are alien to the interests of the workers.

Back To Part 7

Forward To Part 9


Jacob Richter said...

"In the case of the peasantry and small artisans, they own their means of production, and depend upon their own economic activity to make a living [...] The professionals too where they have immediate economic concerns look to different solutions to them. They lack the collective economic muscle of the industrial workers [...] Their immediate frustrations, therefore, tend to be reflected not by industrial action, but via popular protest, and the focus is not the workplace, but the Public Square."

I think here you give too much credit to the notion of growing political struggles out of mere labour disputes. The Chartist movement began at the "public square," so to speak, and not at workplaces. Ditto with the independent German worker-class movement spearheaded by Lassalle and his followers.

Where was so-called "Organized Labour" during the genuinely political struggles that were/are the Occupy movements? At the tail, as it naturally is.

Where is the plethora public policy discourse during mere labour disputes as opposed to more political struggles like Occupy?

All of this does not by any means belittle the role of working-class political action. Au contraire, worker rallies, civil disobedience, etc. all beginning at the "public square" and worker discussions of numerous public policies should be pressed forward as an imperative, as Lassalle recognized.

It's just that they don't need to be tied to tred-iunionizm and mere labour disputes.

Boffy said...

I think you have completely missed the point I was making! I was arguing that workers point of production struggles DO NOT become automatically political, and are frequently seen initially in terms of merely a sectional struggle to address those economic concerns. For the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie and middle classes, their concerns are more immediately seen as requiring a political solution. So yes, of course, in the case of bouregois democratic struggles, the working-class are frequently drawn in as a tail.

That indeed, is the role of the Workers Party to generalise the experience of the workers, and to point to the need for a solution outside the existing system. To point to the need for workers to create their own property, democracy, state etc. To show why the bourgeoisie will seek to undermine all of these, and why although the establishment of bourgeois freedoms will facilitate the workers struggles that is only a means to an end.

You are wrong about the Chartists. They DID begin within the factories and workplaces. But, precisely along the lines described above, they recognised the need to extend beyond the individual workplace into becoming class organisations, but the basic method of struggle of the Chartists was and continued to be workplace struggle, for example the General Strike of 1842.

If anything the weakness of the Chartists was the fact that they were led astray into Parliamentarism, though its probably true as Marx says that in 1842, the bourgeoisie would have fought a Civil War to prevent Universal Suffrage. The Chartists like the Owenites did set up some Co-ops, they did establish Emigration Societies. They would have been more powerful had they put less effort into the Vote, and more into building a national Co-op federation as Ernest Jones had argued, and had built forms of local workers democracy around it.

Jacob Richter said...

The more that personal concerns "are more immediately seen as requiring a political solution," the more advantageous. This has been proven positively time and again, as you said, by the bourgeoisie somewhat (they have the $$$, so politics doesn't matter too much to them) but especially by the petit-bourgeoisie, and negatively time and again by the long-term ineffectiveness of mere labour disputes.

How exactly did the Chartists start within the factories and workplaces? None of the demands posed at the "public square," so to speak, dealt with workers conditions.

"If anything the weakness of the Chartists was the fact that they were led astray into Parliamentarism."

For its time, I think that the weakness was that they didn't enough to Parliamentarism, let alone Republicanism or more. This was clearly shown by the fact that the demands were "petitions." That's why the defective-from-the-start British Labour started quite a bit later from German Social Democracy.

Boffy said...

The Chartists were a working-class movement that began in the workplaces, and in the Trades Unions. The political demands of the Charter came out of the realisation that the economic demands of the workers could only be achieved if workers obtained political power in order to pass legislation in support of the workers, and to do away with those laws, which were there to suppress and oppress the workers. It was the revolutionary alternative to the Owenites, who from the same premises instead came to the conclusion that only convincing the bosses of the need for class harmony could work. Actually I say Owenites, but Owen himself did not beleive that, which is why he set up the GCFTU, and why he personally supported many strikes.

Actually, the Chartists didn't just rely on petitions. There were frequent strikes organised by Chartists, and the physical force men, aimed at the arming of the workers to defend themselves. In Stoke where Chartisim had one of its strongholds, the Chartists also engaged in other activities such as organising raids on barges carrying food and other provisions on the Canal, which was then distributed amongst local workers. The 1842 Strike was launched first in Stoke by local Miners, followed by the Potters before it became a National General Strike, whose demand was precisely for the achievement of the Charter. The activities of the Chartists was intimately bound up between these forms of direct action, trade union struggle, and the pursuit of political demands.

They also established their own Co-ops, but the main weakness in my opinion was the failure to pursue the latter more aggressively, and to have established local forms of workers democracy in the absence of the workers having the vote. After all, at this time the bourgeois state in Britain was not itself that well established. At least not in the sense of having a Police force, School System, and so on.

Jacob Richter said...

Well, do forgive me for remaining skeptical about growing actual political struggles (and by extension genuine class struggle) from mere labour disputes.

I made a typo above: "For its time, I think that the weakness was that they didn't enough to Parliamentarism let alone Republicanism or more" should say "For its time, I think that the weakness was that they *weren't* enough *into* Parliamentarism, let alone Republicanism or more."

Now, of course, by "being enough into Parliamentarism," I don't mean going down the class-disastrous side route of having a distinct Parliamentary Chartist "Party" that's calling all the shots relative to the rest of the Chartist movement, which is what Labour has been with its convention vote allocations.

Perhaps they had strikes, but rhetoric should match action, unless many of the "working classes" really had this understandable Monarchy-Democracy dichotomy, by petitioning for the Monarch to absolutely decimate the Aristocracy, like the Julius Caesar of people's history.

Re. the last comment of yours, whatever Co-Op movement emerged unfortunately gave too many anti-political "self help" ideas to the bourgeois-liberal likes of Schulze-Delitzsch over in Germany.