The social revolution of the 21st century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.
Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [cat’s wail] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the 21st century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
[Here is the rose, here dance!]
–Karl Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Hosni Mubarak [with two or three words changed]
Egypt was the home of the first recorded labour strike in history, a wildcat stoppage of craftsmen in the tombs of the pharoahs. Like the current unrest, it was partly a struggle over hunger.
A contemporary document recounting the first ever recorded labour strike, which occured in Deir el Medina, Ancient Egypt during the reign of Ramses III when workers did not receive their rations.
The stoppage occurred in the 12th century BC, on the 21st day of the second month in the 29th year of the reign of the pharaoh Ramses III, while Ramses was fighting a series of wars and engaging in an extensive building campaign.
The strikers were hereditary craftsmen who worked on the tombs of the pharaohs, the vast complexes that to this day draw visitors from all over the world to the Valley of the Kings.
This papyrus was written by the scribe Amennakhte at Deir el Medina. It describes the workers’ struggle, and the corruption which had spread throughout the administration.
Year 29, second month of winter, day 10
On this day the crew passed the five guard-posts of the tomb saying: “We are hungry, for 18 days have already elapsed in this month;” and they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre.
In the twentieth century, there was considerable class struggle, both rural and urban, in Egypt. This, from 1935, is from the first published article by the young Tony Cliff (Yigael Gluckstein as he was then), a teenage Trotskyist in Hashomer Hatzair in Palestine, writing in (I think) a Kibbutz Artzi journal, Ha-Mesheq Ha-Shittufi [The Cooperative Economy]:
The appalling pauperization of the masses of workers and peasants in Egypt and the exacerbation of class tensions are manifested very clearly in the spontaneous eruptions of the masses. The bitterness pent up in them erupts fruitlessly, as all these eruptions and insurrections are unplanned and are not guided by a proletarian leadership able to convert the destructive force of rebellion into the creative power of socialist construction. The recurrent eruptions of the agricultural masses are evidence of the point that Egypt’s social tension have reached, as well as of how far the objective conditions for liberation of the masses have ripened, and of the absence so far of a force that would undertake the realization of this endeavour. The outbursts of rebellion that pent up within the masses are of various degrees and kinds: from setting fire to the feudal landlord’s granary, murdering the “umara” (the local village sheikhs who are agents of the banks, the trading companies, the estate owners and the government), murdering policemen and soldiers, to attempts at an agrarian reform. For the time being, the class struggle of the masses is in its lower stages. The number of granary arson cases in 1928–29 was 5,760, in 1929–30 – 6,700, and in 1931 – 7,820. The incidence of “umara” murders in 1931 was 744, in 1932 – 711, and in 1933 – 752.
Clearly, the struggle will be long and much blood will be spilt until the toiling masses recognize the way by which alone will come the full abolition of the conditions that oppress them.
The centrality of bread and hunger to Egypt’s history of militancy continued through the 20th century. 1977 saw the “bread intifada”, uprisings against Sadat’s government. The prequel to that moment was told in 1976 by Phil Marfleet in the SWP’s International Socialism and again in IS (by Phil again?) in March 1977. The article is written in the vein of the IS’s Third Campism, its utter rejection of Stalinism and authoritarian Third Worldism – rather sad, given their courting of those things in more recent years.
Egypt has also been a centre of the libertarian socialist movement for as long as many parts of Europe, with Errico Malatesta being based in Alexandria for some time, and a thriving Greek and Italian anarchist workers movement, as described in this article.
A very little known chapter in the history of struggle in North Africa is the number of veterans of the Spanish Civil War who found their way to the Maghreb, including to Tunis. This article by Nick Heath is a thumbnail sketch of one such, anarchist Giuseppe Pasotti who died in Tunis in 1951.
One of the great dangers of the current uprisings is that bourgeois nationalism, as we used to call it, and, even worse, political Islam, will emerge as the most significant forces in the revolution, and turn on the emancipatory forces. This is an old dialectic in the class struggle in the Middle East. An article from the ortho-Trotskyist Fourth International from 1946 by J Damien (possibly the pen-name of Spanish ex-POUM militant Sebastian Garcia?) captures this very well:
What is the Moslem Brotherhood? It is the most backward organization in Egypt. It is supposed to group together about 300,000 disillusioned, very fanatical petty-bourgeois. It has no program except to overthrow the Constitution and replace it with the Koran. It has no political experience so that, for the time being, it can be maneuvered by the Court’s agents. The American and the Russian propagandists in the Middle East have shown great interest in the Moslem Brotherhood and seem to consider it as a possible winning horse. The Russians have made a fuss of their Islamic policy in their Moslem Republics. But there are no indications for the moment that the youth and the proletariat are ready to follow the MB, which is definitely too backward even for the British. Apparently the MB will be used as a sort of pending menace and instrument of blackmail in the hands of the Court’s politicians. Whether it will free itself from such hands or not is a question that cannot be answered now.
The forces of the left are in the making. Since 1940 the Socialist idea has been successfully infused into the proletariat. One advantage of the situation is that there is no such thing as a social-democratic party in Egypt. Trotskyism and Stalinism face each other without intermediate parties. Numerically the Stalinists are stronger, but extraordinary as it may seem, they are not united. There are three Stalinist movements, one of them on the verge of an open split with Stalinism (the Trotskyists have repeatedly offered the Stalinists to form a “Left Front” against the Moslem Brotherhood and the imperialists). A regrouping of the forces of the Left – one of the Stalinist groups detaching itself and collaborating with the Trotskyists – is not excluded for the near future.
The task of the Left in Egypt is immense. Its cadres are still tiny. Even if the Left is too weak to guide the Egyptian workers to victory within the next few years, it is already strong enough to shake the actual instruments of the people’s servitude; religious prejudice and political ignorance.
It is tragic that this clarity of vision from the left has failed so profoundly in the intervening years, with the cult of “national self-determination” and “anti-imperialism”, and more recently “anti-Zionism” taking its place.
Of interest in relation to some of the above: the SWP’s Duncan Hallas on his experiences in Egypt after WWII.
Via BfB: Egypt: Centre for Trade Union & Workers Services: The labour movement is in the heart and soul of the Egyptian revolution. Mohammed Ezzeldin on the roots of the revolutionary movement. Atef Said on Egypt’s long labour history. Juan Cole: Egypt’s class conflict. Stroppy: women of Egypt 1 & 2. Tom Streithorst: Hobbes vs Kropotkin on the streets of Cairo. Tunisia: Andrew Coates: why was Ben Ali’s party in the Socialist International?