‘Arab Spring is part of the General Strike of the South’: An Interview with Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad‘s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012) captures the complexity of the Arab revolts – by bringing out the history and historical forces behind them. The book exposes the West’s imperial anxieties and their fear of the organic – the mass character of these uprisings. It demonstrates the resoluteness of the “rebels from below”, that they will not allow the Arab lands to “be the same again”, that they are dissatisfied with the Present and they want something more than the “21st century delusions” that neoliberalism delivers. Most importantly, Prashad’s book reconfirms that “the rebellion from below has its own radical imagination.” The following discussion with the author is an attempt to read the book with him to understand the implications of his analysis of the Arab revolts.

Pratyush Chandra (PC): Even the title of the book suggests you are not comfortable with the euphoric homogenisation of the recent upsurges in the Arab Arab Springworld. In fact, it seems you consider this discursive seasoning/colouring of Arab struggles to be highly ideological, not allowing us to comprehend the struggles in terms of their “deeper roots and grievances”. Do you think this impression about your book is valid? However, as the spatio-temporal interconnections are quite evident and cannot be denied, how do you assess the contextual commonality of these upsurges, and what are the limits of using this commonality as the only key to understand them?

Vijay Prashad (VP): The Arab Spring, or Arab Revolt, or whatever History shall call it, is party to a long-wave of struggle which we can call the General Strike of the Global South. It begins around the late 1980s, perhaps with the Caracazo, the uprising in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1989. Immense pressure on the lifeworld of the ordinary people in the South intensified with the debt crisis of the 1980s. The mandarins of the Global North used the debt crisis as a lever to extract massive concessions from the states of the South, mostly under the name of Structural Adjustment Programs. These included a roll-back in State intervention for social welfare, a selling off at bargain prices of the essential sectors of the economy and the welcoming of private, mostly foreign, capital into all aspects of social life that had not before been governed by the laws of capitalism (such as water delivery, electricity delivery and food delivery, notably bread delivery). This assault on the life of the ordinary people sharply increased deprivation in the South. But the totality of the society was not damaged by deprivation. Small but considerable sections were able to make quite a lot of money as sub-contractors in this phase of neo-liberalism –- they were able to collect a greater share of the rent or were able to operate as the local face of transnational firms. In many of the countries of the South, these sub-contractors were the relatives of the political class (such as Gamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak) or else they were special elites who had very close ties to the political class (for kin reasons or through extensive bribery or patron-client relations, the latter a familiar story in India). This links the risings in Tunisia and Egypt not just to an Arab context, or an African context, but to one of Global South.

About the discomfort with the homogeneity, this is of course true. The “Spring” does not come evenly. In some places, there was a deep freeze, such as in the Arabian Peninsula. No such opening was to be considered. Neither Yemen nor Bahrain, nor indeed Saudi Arabia, could be permitted to have a democratic opening. In Yemen, it was a “managed transition”, so that Salehism could continue under the tutelage of Hadi, who was the sole candidate in an election (Saleh’s family and regime remain in power, with open door to the US to operate its drones to kill at will in Yemen). In Bahrain, all eyes remained averted as the Saudis and then the Bahrainis smashed the demonstrations. There was no Spring here.

There was no Spring as well in Libya, which had a genuine uprising against a deeply unpopular leader (an unpopularity that Qaddafi earned; his coup in 1969 was very popular, with his policies from the mid-1980s sharply alienating him from his people). How did NATO become a force in the Arab world? This is one of themes in the second half of my book. How did NATO become Arab?

PC: Many left commentators have asserted the democratic revolutionary character of the Arab spring. However, classically a democratic revolution has come to mean (at least in the 20th century) radical social transformations at various levels. It was never merely related to the formation of representational democratic institutions or the recognition of a few formal rights, unless they become vehicles for larger changes in the political economy. What is your assessment of the development in the Arab world in this regard? Do you find the analogies of 1848, 1905, 1968 and 1989 of any use in describing the events today?

VP: The task of a revolutionary regime is not clear-cut. The Arab states of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and others, had and have been governed by a form of state-craft that combines neo-liberal policies and national security regimes. The jail and the private sector are hand-in-glove to dispossess and encage the ordinary people. To cut back on such a complex apparatus that reproduces deprivation and indignity is not easy. We cannot underestimate the power of dignity in these revolts. It was dignity as much as bread that pushed people to take such enormous risks (even in Egypt between a thousand and two thousand people gave their lives for the revolution). The first phase of this uprising was to set aside the culture of fear created by the national security regimes. That has been done. The task that has now come before the people is to reject the authoritarian structures and create new constitutional processes that allow their voices to be central to the formation of national policy. In this phase, the question of economic and social policy will assert itself. The workers of Mahallah, the Independent Union of General Tax Authority Workers: they played central roles in the Tahrir dynamic. Indeed, in May 2012 the Tax workers (the largest union of state government employees) were on strike for better wages, better working conditions and so on. Their demands have not evaporated before the important question of elections and more representative parliamentary institutions. Much the same in Libya, where the workers and unemployed youth have occupied the front gate of the Arabian Gulf Oil Company. They have refused to budge.

The revolts you mention – 1848 to 1989 – are explosive in their impact, but their great impact also took time to germinate. I end my book with a brief assessment of these…how 1968 might not look like it amounted to much, but on the other hand it delegitimised sexism and racism, and a kind of aristocratic idea of culture. No straight lines for revolts; everything is tangled.

PC: As is clear from your analyses the heterogeneity of class and political interests mark the Arab resistances. Taking into account this heterogeneity, the political forces that will emerge victorious will finally depend on the class(es) that hegemonise the movement. Apparently, the political alternatives that are emerging from various resistances right now do not seem to be revolutionary. In fact, most of them are residues of the old regimes. So in what sense, can we take these resistances to be a ‘stage’ in the revolutionary process? Where do we place the working class in the overall resistance?

VP: In each of the North African cases (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya), the working class will play an important role in the near future. If the military does not suffocate the short-term (a genuine concern for Egypt), it is clear that thanks to funds from the Saudis and the Qataris, and a nod and a wink from the US, the various formations of political Islam will probably have an upper hand for now. In Egypt and Tunisia, they have worked hard to build up their organisational capacity (in some ways they were also tolerated. In the 2005 elections in Egypt, the regime most likely allowed them to win to terrify the West into backing off from calls for democracy and so on.). But the forces of political Islam have no agenda for the social and economic demands of the people. They will govern, and if pushed by a vitalised working-class movement, they will fail. When they fail, if the working-class is not organised and vital, it is likely that there is a threat of restoration. That is why the historical task of the Arab revolt now is for the working class organisations and its allies to be prepared for when the moment comes. That is why the concerted strikes and struggles that have been going on are so important: they build the will of the working class not only for the present, which are often struggles over reforms and survival, but for the next great battle, which is for the working-class to become hegemonic over society in tandem with the failure of political Islam to make its mark. Political Islam is fated to fail. It has so little to offer the people. It played an important role in these struggles, with many of its disciplined cadre willing to die, to stand against the neoliberal security state. But that role is going to diminish as it begins to govern, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a populist force committed to neo-liberal policies.

PC: The ideological and cultural formation of the earlier ‘social-democratic’ upsurges – whether Baathist or Nasserite – was very clearly secular Pan-Arabism. Are the current movements in West Asia different on that score? Do they even have a cohesive ideological and cultural formation, if not as a totality, then at least in individual terms? Could you please elaborate upon the cultural and ideological formation of the current upsurges in terms of their social content and the materiality of their history/histories?

VP: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces of political Islam certainly have a cohesive ideological orientation. There are also the liberal platforms, such as the Egyptian Hizb El-Ghad or Tomorrow Party, which are committed to parliamentary or representative democracy and have a modest program on the economy. They are social democratic and secular in their orientation. In Libya, there is less of a basis for such a platform, which is why it is governed by the neo-liberal Diasporics who are beholden to the West rather than to a mass political constituency on the ground; they win their elections in Washington and Paris, not in Tripoli and Misrata. In Egypt, the constituency for this kind of secular social democracy is the middle class, which is substantial and was smothered by neo-liberalism’s characteristic nepotism. The working-class in Tunisia, Egypt and even in Libya, has a focused class dynamic. It is most highly developed in Egypt and Tunisia, where working-class organisations operated despite the authoritarian state, and these organisations have moved from defensive agendas to making much more substantial demands on the transforming states. It is in this process of demand escalation and general organisation of the working-class (and perhaps the peasantry in Egypt) that a clearer alignment will emerge. By the way, in Egypt, the nostalgia for secular Nasserism is not passe. There is an undercurrent that holds that standard aloft. In Tahrir Square, posters with Nasser’s picture could be seen here and there. But nostalgic Nasserism is not what North Africa needs. New ideological coordinates are needed that build a new set of policies to counter both neo-liberalism and the habits of the security state apparatus. Nasserism was a sufficient bulwark against neo-colonialism; it is not going to be enough to tackle neo-liberalism and authoritarianism.

PC: Who knows better than you that some of the states/regimes that have been under attack recently emerged as part of the larger progressive and democratic “third world project”. In fact, the term democratic revolution was often used to characterise their emergence, because they triggered significant political-economic changes (even if with a statist tenor) centred on the post-colonial national interests –- at least in the form of land reforms, the “democracies of bread”, and the constitution and empowerment of the national bourgeoisie. What is it that has happened in due course that we are once again witnessing another series of democratic revolutions, if we may legitimately call them so?

VP: It is my view that the left-leaning movements of the past century -– the socialists, the communists, the Third World nationalists -– all failed to recognise the fundamental aspiration of the people to have a say in their societies and in their state structures. They wanted bread, sure, but they also wanted dignity. You cannot get dignity by having no voice in your society, and being directed by your state. If you do not build a State apparatus that is able to harness the dignity of the population, whatever good policies you have in mind will come to nothing. Socialism cannot be administered from above nor can it come in a hurry. We learn this from the examples of Tanzania and Afghanistan. Both Nyerere and the Afghan Communists saw that the principal matter is to draw people to their agenda, not to set in place the best policies. The confidence of the people must be earned, and people must be drawn into the decision-making and state-building processes. If they are alienated from the State, the entire project is liable to failure. Nasserism was the Arab franchise of the Third World Project. It suffered from all the problems I lay out in The Darker Nations.

The arrival of Bolivarianism is in many ways a critique of the Third World Project’s demise and the rise of neo-liberal states in its place (in Venezuela, in Chile, in Argentina, in Bolivia). The Arab Spring is in line with that upsurge.

PC: You have shown the importance of Qaddafi’s Revolution of 1969, and how it transformed the Libyan society. However, you also detail the insufficiency and degeneration of the transformation. What were the socio-political forces that the 1969 revolution and subsequent changes unleashed that contributed to the overthrow of Qaddafi, or is it simply that those who were ousted by the 1969 revolution, or those who were left out from power, led the current upsurge that displaced Qaddafi?

VP: Qaddafi’s 1969 revolution was remarkable for the ease with which the Colonel’s coup took place. Not a shot was fired against it. The totality of the population, with the exception of the clique around King Idris, was with Qaddafi. I detail how for the first 15 years, Qaddafi followed a massive social policy of transferring assets to the people, and building up a modern state structure, including a national university system. This was a huge advance. But Qaddafi walked into an obvious contradiction: his regime did not diversify the Libyan economy out of dependence on sale of oil to the West, at the same time he made erratic political gestures against the West. Libya was punished by an oil embargo, which crippled the social welfare part of his regime. That led Qaddafi to a reassessment of his policies. Rather than move toward diversification (for which he now had little investible capital), he shifted to make an accommodation with the West. The Qaddafi of the 1980s onwards was in many ways the opposite of the earlier Qaddafi. I detail this story. It takes up the major portion of the book, showing how the class character of the Libyan regime shifts by the 1990s, for instance.

PC: The Libyan winter changed the season for the Atlantic powers. According to you, for them, “Libya provided a unique opportunity”. How is that? You have stressed on the uniqueness of the Libyan situation, as the Atlantic powers always seemed ready to intervene there. But how do you see the recent developments regarding Syria?

VP: Libya allowed for many things. First, it allowed the West to brush off their tainted relationship with Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, not to speak of Qaddafi (it was Blair, Sarkozy and US Congressmen McCain and Lieberman who courted him in the 2000s). Second, it allowed the Saudis to enter Bahrain and crush that uprising. I show how the linkage between Libya and Bahrain works in my book. Third, it allowed NATO to become a force in North Africa, becoming the “mass base” of the Libyan Diasporic leaders, the neoliberals such as Jibril and el-Keib, to assert their position against those who had a genuine mass base, such as Belhaj (the political Islamists). This was the unique opportunity.

On Syria the story is not complex. On February 18, 2012, I asked the Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, why there was no appetite for a strong UN resolution on Syria. After all, the violence in Syria seemed to have already exceeded that in Libya. If the UN could pass Resolution 1973 (on Libya), why was it reticent to pass a similar resolution on Syria? Puri pointed his finger directly at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization states. They had exceeded the mandate of Resolution 1973, moving for regime change using immense violence. All attempts to find a peaceful solution were blocked. The African Union’s high-level panel was prevented from entering Libya as the NATO barrage began. Any UN resolution that was sharply worded and that was not explicitly against a humanitarian intervention would open the door to a NATO-style attack. That seems to be the fear. If there is a sense that NATO exceeded the mandate of 1973, I asked, would the UN now consider an evaluation of how it was used in the Libya war? Puri told me that Russia asked the UN Security Council to evaluate Resolution 1973, which means NATO action in Libya. NATO has blocked this. They are reticent to allow any open evaluation as a result of what they see as an exceeded mandate in Libya, and of course the question of civilian casualties (Human Rights Watch released a report on May 14 on civilian casualties by NATO that underlines this question).

PC: While dealing with the attitudes of various international institutions and alliances towards the Arab revolts, you have analysed the BRICS’s position too. As you have shown in your brilliant book, The Darker Nations, there was a unity of purpose, at least initially, among the regimes that came with significant popular legitimacy that constituted the Third World. However, such unity of purpose seems absent behind the emergence of the BRICS and other international alliances among specific “third world” countries. Rather they are multi-level institutionalisation of opportunistic cooperation among competitive forces. How much do you think consistency, multipolarity and polycentricity that we demand from the BRICS are justified? Do you find in this demand an element of nostalgia for the Third World project, for statist anti-imperialism and non-alignment?

VP: The full answer to your question will be found in a book that I am now finishing up, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso and LeftWord). It tells the story of the emergence of the G7, the fight to establish a renewed South after the debt crisis, the emergence of the BRICS, and of a potential South from below. That book has an argument that is hinted at here and there in the Libya book, although the latter is not theoretical and so the argument is only as I say hinted at. The BRICS have afforded an opening, they have moved us out of the suffocation of the Washington Consensus and on unipolarity. They have not created ideological or institutional alternatives to the previous dispensation. That is why they seem to simply ask for entry for themselves rather than an exit from this system. Their ambitions are not great, largely because their ruling elites are wrapped up in neo-liberal ideology and they seek space for themselves alone. In this challenge, they have, as I say, dented the privileges of the North Atlantic. I see their move as simply this, nothing more.

PC: You have succinctly shown throughout the book how neo-liberal forces are attempting internal coups in the ‘democracy movements’. When US diplomat David Mack complains about the Libyans not understanding the meaning of democracy –- that it is not about “housing, food, work and health”, but about elections and the rule of law, it seems the imperialist forces are trying hard to clinch the separation of the economic and the political which neo-liberal globalisation arguably seeks to achieve, thus reducing the political’s capacity to obstruct international capitalist interests. A section of the international left too stresses that the revolts are a step forward from the undemocratic past even if they are able to institutionalise only a few ‘democratic political’ rights. Don’t you think any such gradualism or limitation will be an eventual complete regression to neo-liberal counter-revolution, a betrayal of what you term the radical imaginations of the rebellion from below?

VP: You raise the core point. Will the emergent regimes build a Chinese wall between the Economic and the Political? Will they allow the great sacrifices to provide modest electoral reforms, and not touch the base? It is of course the case that there will be elements within the new political actors that will want only this small advance. Others are not going to be satisfied with it. They tasted the feeling of revolution, and already want more. That is how we must account for the ongoing strikes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. These strikes are a portent of the greater social dreams than simply the right to vote. When Tripoli airport was seized in May 2012, those who took it wanted their social and economic wants at the centre of the regime’s concern, not simply the June elections. The latter are important, but not singular. Elections yes, but these do not define the desire for a voice.

It is also true that the old guard will want to minimise both the democratic political and democratic economic openings. They will be backed by the US on the latter, because the US and the NATO states would like to reduce the victory to the political domain, and even there to manage the political so that the more radical Islamists are kept out of office. Moderate Islam will be allowed (we are back to Mahmood Mamdani’s “good Muslim, bad Muslim” formulation). If the rate of strikes intensifies, it is unlikely that the old guard and NATO states will get their way. As with South America, revolution moves from questions of inflation and livelihood to questions of democracy and back again to questions of food and fuel, jobs and cultural expression. Democracy cannot be sequestered to elections alone. It is a much wider concept.

PC: It is clear that the left in the West is quite impressed by the Arab Spring. What do you think is its overall political impact in a movemental sense?

VP: The Arab Spring provided a fillip out of hopelessness in the United States. There is no doubt that the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movement. The idea of a manifestation, of taking up space in public, came to the streets of New York explicitly from Cairo. But these are all mutually reinforcing events. On a conjunctural level, these are all reactions to the contractions as a result of the Global Recession from 2007, and the Strike of the Bankers. No doubt that the movements in both the Arab lands and in southern Europe excited those in the North Atlantic to act against their own governments and their cousins in the banks. The first impact, therefore, is the end of the Left’s torpor. Where will this head, who knows? It has to be built upon, just as the North Africans are building on their revolts. They have not rested, making t-shirts of Tahrir Square and happy for the experience of the manifestations. Their demonstrations continue. That lesson, that revolts are permanent and endless, has not yet been fully grasped in the North Atlantic. It is the most important lesson.

PC: What are the implications of changes in the Arab World for the Indian subcontinent?  What lessons should the left in India draw in this regard?

VP: The General Strike of the South is yet to come to India. There have been many protests from below, and of course the anti-Corruption development. But India is a complex story. The state allows some space for democratic action, which is to say that it has not fully closed off the electoral space from the people. It is not a one-party domain, where it is easy to say, “Mubarak must go”. In that way, India is similar to the US. Even though one regime might govern for decades (say, Reaganism in the US from 1981 to the present; or Rajiv Gandhiism in India from 1991 to the present), the changes in the actual ruler seems to imply democratic possibilities…. Manmohan Singh is honest, he is not Vajpayee, or Rao; Obama is well-spoken, he is not Bush. One of the tasks of the Left has to be to demonstrate that even though the governments change and prime ministers or presidents change, the regime remains intact, and it is in the character of the regime that the problems reside, not in the personalities of this or that leader. This is a very hard task. So much easier to personify the problem with Assad, for instance, than with Manmohan Singh.

Like Egypt in the 2000s or even Chile in the 1990s and 2000s, there is a diverse Left in India. But unlike Egypt and Chile, the Left in India has not been forced to work together on campaigns. Unity of the Left, even in action, is very limited. Hostility among the Left forces is debilitating in the long run. In Egypt and Chile because of the state repression, the various factions of the Left had to work together. This meant that they forged close bonds despite the differences in their strategic and tactical outlook. These bonds, forged in action, meant that after the repression ended, there was a moment of time when the Left could build a unified approach to governance. The story is the same in Brazil, where despite the great limitation of the PT, the Workers’ Party, the Movement of the Landless and the Communist Party and so on, remain in fractious alliance. Their solidarity in action during the years of the dictatorship created a bedrock of unity, even as they disagree greatly over policy and style.

Finally, the Arab Spring might create space for India to reassess its newfound alliances with Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Would India, the so-called largest democracy in the world, like to pledge its allegiance to a power (Israel) that flagrantly violates international laws in its occupation of the Palestinians and to a set of powers (Gulf Arabs) that believe that democracy is a poison that must be handled with a prophylaxis of repression? This alignment needs to be reconsidered at the very highest levels, and at the ground level. The way the US has tried to break India’s ties to Iran and reinforce its links with Saudi Arabia is illustrative. That is why it is essential, not marginal, to fight the idea of India becoming the “subordinate ally” of the United States. This is a central fight. To say that imperialism is not as important a battle as, say, food prices, is to miss the integral relationship between the political and economic domains, something that has been revived by the Arab Spring and the General Strike in the South. That is its nature, to renew the idea that there can be no economic reforms without a simultaneous general transformation of the political will.

‘It prefigures for the Arab people a new horizon’: Vijay Prashad on the Arab revolt (Part II)

This is the concluding part of our interview with Vijay Prashad, a prominent Marxist scholar who teaches at Trinity College, Connecticut. To read the first part, please click here. His recent book, The Darker Nations, was chosen as the Best Nonfiction book by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 2008 and it won the Muzaffar Ahmed Book Award in 2009. 

Vijay Prashad



Pothik Ghosh (PG): Why is it that most attempts in the Perso-Arabic world to conceptualise what Gramsci called the “national-popular” have come from radical left-nationalist intellectuals such as Edward Said rather than Marxists? How should or could the peculiarity of the Saidian theoretical enterprise of the national-popular inform and enrich working-class practice in West Asia? 

Vijay Prashad (VP): Strictly speaking, Gramsci’s “national-popular” is the emergence of the mass throughurban collective action, with the rural bursting through, and then being guided by the Jacobin (his word for an organised political force). The mass might drift into a-political action or passivity, Gramsci wrote, without the guidance of that Jacobin force. In today’s times, there is a tendency to hear about something like the Jacobin and shiver in fear that the energy of the “multitude” will be usurped by the Jacobin, that the authentic politics of the street will be taken over by the Organisation. It is in essence a misreading of anarchistic politics that this sort of fear has taken hold. I do not believe that anarchism is pure disorder; for those who believe this I propose a reading of Errico Malatesta’s “Anarchy and Organisation.” Of course, for those on the Marxist side of the ledger, Gramsci’s comments are our bread and butter. There is a need for the national-popular to be articulated through mass protest and the Jacobin canals. There is not so much that divides the Black and the Red.

It is not the case that only Edward Said has dealt with the national-popular in the Arab world. Take the case of Lebanon, where it is the Marxist historian (and eminent journalist) Fawaz Trabulsi who has written a remarkably informative account of the thwarted national-popular, with the emergence of Hezbollah. To my mind, Trabulsi’s is the best account of the Lebanese problem. It must be read widely to better understand the national dilemmas and the national-popular potentialities. My own interest in the Arab predicament was partly drawn by the work of people from an earlier generation like the writer and PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972. In the context of this new Arab Revolt, I recommend Kanafani’s pamphlet The 1936-37 Revolt in Palestine, a model for how to theorise the national-popular through the material of a revolt. These are role models for those who want to do detailed work on the Arab potential. The contingent is important, no doubt, but so too are the broad structures that need to be unearthed and developed.

PG: Lebanese-French Marxist Gilbert Achcar writes in his ‘Eleven Theses on the Current Resurgence of Islamic Fundamentalism’: “What is an elementary democratic task elsewhere – separation of religion and state – is so radical in Muslim countries, especially the Middle East, that even the “dictatorship of the proletariat” will find it a difficult task to complete. It is beyond the scope of other classes.” Does the ‘Jasmine’ Revolution portend a change for the better on that score? If not, how, in your view, should the working class forces in the region go about their business of shaping an effective ideological idiom that is rooted in local culture and yet articulates a question that is fundamentally global?

VP: We tend to exaggerate the authority of the clerics, or at least to treat it as natural, as eternal. Certainly, since the 1970s, clericalism has had the upper hand in the domain of the national-popular. In the Arab world, this has everything to do with the calcification of the secular regimes of the 1950s (the new states formed out of the export of Nasserism: from Egypt to Iraq), the deterioration of the Third World Project (especially the fractures in OPEC that opened up in the summer of 1990 and led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), and the promotion and funding of the advance guard of the Islamism through the World Muslim League (by the Saudis. The WML’s impact can be seen from Chechnya to Pakistan, and in parts of Indonesia).

If one goes back and looks at the period when the Third World Project and Nasserism were dominant, what you’d find is clerical intellectuals in the midst of an ideological battle against Marxism (mainly), at the same time as they borrowed from Bolshevik techniques of party building to amass their own organisational strength. I wrote about this in New Left Review (“Sadrist Stratagems,” in 2008) where I catalogued the intellectual work of Baqir al-Sadr, with his Iqtisaduna, a critique of Capital Vol. 1. Baqir’s al Da’wah al-Islamiyah was modeled on the Iraqi Communist Party, then dominant in the Shia slums of Baghdad. If you go farther East along this tendency, you will run into Haji Misbach, an Indonesian cleric, also known as Red Haji, who confronted the dynamic Indonesian Communist Party with his own brand of Islamic Communism. Like Baqir, Misbach was perplexed by the popularity of the CP in his society. He wanted to find a way to bring the spiritual to socialism. These are all precursors of Ali Shariati, the great Iranian thinker who was influenced by the Third World Project, and by Marxism, but once more wanted to bring the spiritual into it. For all these thinkers, the problem was quite the opposite to what it is today: the workers seemed ascendant, driven by the science of secular socialism. It terrified them, as much as we are assaulted by the rise of the clerics over the last few decades.

It is also not the case that the religious is more difficult to expunge in the Arab lands, or that Islam is more intractable than other faiths. If one turns toward India, or turns toward the United States, it is clear that the religious domain is often very reluctant to wither away. It was equally hard to push it away in the USSR. This is not just a question of religion, or Islam, but of cultural change in general. Cultural change from below is slow-moving, excruciating. Cultural change from above is much faster, the tempo clearer. It has to do with who controls the cultural institutions, but also with the depth of cultural resources. Religion emerges over the millenia as a shelter from the turmoil of life, and it enters so deeply into the social life of people that it cannot be so easy to remove its tentacles. Of course Islam might be harder to walk away from, given that it, unlike say Brahmanism or Catholicism, has a much finer edge to its egalitarianism. This is what propelled it from a minor Arabian religion to Andalucia and China within fifty years of its emergence.

I would say one more thing on this: since the Utopian horizon of socialism is in eclipse, why should someone risk their lives in struggle for it? The idea of the inevitability of socialism inspired generations to give themselves over to the creation of the Jacobin force. Religion has an unshakable eschatology, which secular politics absent Utopia lacks. No wonder that religion has inspired action, even if destructive rather than revolutionary, whereas secular politics is less inspirational these days.

The Arab Revolt of 2011 prefigures for the Arab people a new horizon. That is why it has moved from Tunisia to Jordan. Ben Ali’s departure set the new horizon. It is what the youth hold onto. If he can be made to flee, why not Mubarak, why not Abdullah II, and if the remanants of the Saudi Voice of the Vanguard decide to blow off the cobwebs and get to the streets, then the repellent Abdullah of Saudi (whose idea of political reform was to bring in his son-in-law into the Education ministry!).

PG: Does not the ongoing ‘Jasmine’ Revolution explode the myth of a postcolonial, anti-imperialist Third World, which is precisely what you deal with and kind of theoretically anticipate in your book The Darker Nations? If that is so, what is the new programmatic direction that the anti-imperialist struggle must now take?

VP: My book, The Darker Nations, provided the history of the collapse of the Third World Project. This collapse begins to be visible by the early 1980s. The roots are there in the defeat of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) process (that opens in the UN in 1973), in the break-down of solidarity in OPEC, in the exhaustion of the import-substitution industrialisation model, and in the narrowing of political freedoms in the Global South. The “assassination” of the Project comes through the debt crisis (1982 in Mexico opens the door) and through the reconfiguration of the international order by the late 1980s with the disapperance of the USSR, and the push for primacy by the US (the salvo was fired in Iraq in 1991, when the US pushed out the Iraqi army from Kuwait, and ignored an attempt by the USSR to mediate on behalf of Saddam Hussein). US primacy by the early 1990s throws salt on the wound of the Third World Project.

My interest in the book was to seek out the dialectics of freedom that would emerge out of the corpse of the Third World Project. What is left in it to be revived, and what are the social forces capable of building a new revolutionary horizon? The other side of history opens up with La Caracazo, the rebellion in Caracas in 1989 that prefigures the emergence of Chavez. By the way, in 2009, a Brookings survey found that Chavez was the most popular world leader in the Middle East! Where is Chavez of Arabia, we asked, but were not confident. In 2007, in his “Jottings on the Conjuncture,” Perry Anderson bemoaned the paralysis on the Arab Street. The mutterings existed, and indeed the insurgency in Iraq showed that the will was there. Protests in Western Sahara and in Lebanon had become commonplace. But these did not say what the Tunisians said, which was that they, like the Bolivarians, were prepared to stake themselves for an alternative pathway into the future. From Caracas to Cairo, the expressway of Freedom is being paved.

The Bolivarians are at a much more advanced stage. They have been able to stave off counter-revolution, and even though still in peril, they are able to leverage their oil wealth into some very interesting experiments toward socialism. It is going to be imperative to prove for our Egyptian and Arab friends that the path out of Ben Ali and Mubarak does not lead to Paris and New York, but to Caracas and La Paz. The programme of socialist construction is being tentatively written (with lots of errors, of course). We have to nudge in that direction, and against the idea of liberty as the value above egalitarianism and socialism. There are few explicitly anti-imperialist slogans in the air at this time.

By the way, this other side of history will form the final chapter of The Poorer Nations, which I am now putting together, and which should be done by the Summer of 2011.

PG: The ‘Muslim Question’ has rightly been one of the key preoccupations of the Indian Left in all its variegated multiplicity. Yet it has consistently failed to frame and articulate it as a question having a transformative potential. What lessons must the Indian Left – which has in large measure centred its articulation of the ‘Muslim Question’ on solidarity with the Islamicised anti-Americanism of the Perso-Arabic peoples – draw from the current upsurges that would enable it to overcome its failing on that score?

VP: To get to the heart of the issue of the ‘Muslim Question,’ one has to understand the theory of alliance formation. In today’s world, the principal contradiction, the Large Contradiction, is between Imperialism and Humanity. The social force of imperialism seeks to thwart the humanity of the planet by creating political rules for economic theft (the preservation of intellectual property for the Multi-national corporations, the allowance of subsidies in the North and not in the South, the enforcement of debt contracts for the South, but not for the international banks), and if these rules are broken, by military power. Imperialism is the principal problem in our planet, for our humanity.

The Lesser Contradiction is between the Left and the Reactionaries, who are not identical to imperialism. Indian Hindutva, American Evangelicalism and Zionism are all reactionary, but not part of the Lesser Contradiction. Those forms of Reaction are ensconced in the Larger Contradiction, since they are handmaidens of imperialism. What I refer to as the Reactionaries of the Lesser Contradiction are organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and so on. I indicate the Muslim groups not from an anti-Islamic point of view, but because, as I just mentioned, most of the other Reactionary religious formations are inside the essence of imperialism (they are joined there by the official clerics of Saudi Arabia, and of Egypt). These other groups are antagonistic to imperialism, and are from this standpoint able to capture the sentiments and politics of the people who are anti-imperialist nationalists. We are divided from them, but not against them in the same way as we are against Imperialism. To make these two contradictions the same is to fall into the liberal error of equivalence. We need to retain their separation.

That said, it is important to always offer a scrupulous and forthright critique of their shortcomings and their social degeneration. In 2007, the Communist Parties in India held an anti-imperialist meeting in Delhi. A Hezbollah representative (I think it was Ali Fayyad) came for it. At the plenary, Aijaz Ahmad lit into Fayyad regarding Hezbollah’s position on women’s rights. It is just what should be done. By all means form tactical alliances, if need be, but don’t let them get away with silence on the issues that matter to us, on social equality, on economic policy, on political rights. Even the Lesser Contradiction needs to be pushed and prodded. It has virulence at its finger tips. That has to be scorched. Clara Zetkin warned that the emergence of fascism can be laid partly on the failure of the workers and their Jacobin to move toward revolution effectively enough. Part of that effectiveness is to challenge those in the Lesser Contradiction, who are equally willing in certain circumstances to turn against the Left and become the footsoldiers of fascism.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah mercilessly killed cadre of the Lebanese Communist Party. Over the past three decades, relationships have mellowed and the much weaker LCP now works with Hezbollah in various ways. The LCP sees Hezbollah as “a party of resistance,” as it were. Part of the Lesser Contradiction. That has to be the attitude in the short-term. The LCP seeks out elements who are not fully given over to Dawa, the hardened Islamic militants in Hezbollah. There is another side that is more nationalist than Islamist. They are to be cultivated. There is also a part of Hezbollah that is perfectly comfortable with neo-liberalism, privatisation of the commons and so on. They too lean toward the Larger Contradiction. One has to be supple, forge a way ahead, be assertive in unity, find a way out of the weakness and reconstruct a left pole. A weak left with the national-popular in the hands of the “Islamist” parties: that is the context.

‘If power is not seized, counter-revolution will rise’: Vijay Prashad on the Arab revolt (Part I)

Vijay Prashad is a prominent Marxist scholar from South Asia. He is George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, Connecticut. He has written extensively on international affairs for both academic and popular journals. His most recent book The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007) has been widely acclaimed as the most authentic rewriting of the world history of the postcolonial Global South and the idea of the “Third World”.

Vijay Prashad


Pothik Ghosh (PG): In what sense can the recent events in the Arab World be called revolutions? How are they different from the colour revolutions of the past two decades?

Vijay Prashad (VP): All revolutions are not identical. The colour revolutions in Eastern Europe had a different tempo. They were also of a different class character. They were also along the grain of US imperialism, even though the people were acting not for US but for their own specific class and national interests. I have in mind the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Otpor in the Ukraine, among others, was well lubricated by George Soros’s Open Society and the US government’s National Democratic Institute. Russian money also swept in on both sides of the ledger. These Eastern European revolutions were mainly political battles in regions of the world still unsettled by the traumatic transition from state socialism to predatory capitalism.

The Arab revolt that we now witness is something akin to a “1968” for the Arab World. Sixty per cent of the Arab population is under 30 (70 per cent in Egypt). Their slogans are about dignity and employment. The resource curse brought wealth to a small population of their societies, but little economic development. Social development came to some parts of the Arab world: Tunisia’s literacy rate is 75 per cent, Egypt’s is just over 70 per cent, Libya almost 90 per cent. The educated lower-middle-class and middle-class youth have not been able to find jobs. The concatenation of humiliations revolts these young people: no job, no respect from an authoritarian state, and then to top it off the general malaise of being a second-class citizen on the world stage – second to the US-Israel and so on – was overwhelming. The chants on the streets are about this combination of dignity, justice and jobs.

PG: Does the so-called Jasmine Revolution have in it to transform the preponderant character of the politico-ideological topography of oppositional politics – from Islamist identitarianism to an organic variant of working-class politics – in West Asia and the Maghreb? Under what circumstances can this series of general strikes, which seem to be spreading like a brushfire through the region, morph into a constellation of counter-power? Or, would that in your eyes merely be a vicarious desire of Leftists from outside the region?

VP: I fear that we are being vicarious. The youth, the working class, the middle class have opened up the tempo of struggle. The direction it will take is not clear. I am given over to analogies when I see revolutions, largely because the events of change are so contingent.

It is in the melee that spontaneity and structure jostle. The organised working class is weaker than the organised theocratic bloc, at least in Egypt. Social change of a progressive type has come to the Arab lands largely through the Colonels. Workers’ struggles have not reached fruition in any country. In Iraq, where the workers movement was advanced in the 1950s, it was preempted by the military – and then they made a tacit alliance.

One cannot say what is going to happen with certainty. The Mexican Revolution opened up in 1911, but didn’t settle into the PRI regime till the writing of the 1917 constitution and the elevation of Carranza to the presidency in 1920 or perhaps Cardenas in 1934. I find many parallels between Mexico and Egypt. In both, the Left was not sufficiently developed. Perils of the Right always lingered. If the Pharonic state withers, as Porfirio Diaz’s state did, the peasants and the working class might move beyond spontaneity and come forward with some more structure. Spontaneity is fine, but if power is not seized effectively, counter-revolution will rise forth effectively and securely.

PG: What are, in your opinion, the perils if such a transformation fails to occur? Will not such a failure lead to an inevitable consolidation of the global neoliberal conjuncture, which manifests itself in West Asia as fascistic Islamism on one hand and authoritarianism on the other?

VP: If such a transformation fails, which god willing it won’t, then we are in for at least three options: (1) the military, under Egyptian ruling class and US pressure, will take control. This is off the cards in Tunisia for now, mainly because the second option presented itself; (2) elements of the ruling coalition are able to dissipate the crowds through a series of hasty concessions, notably the removal of the face of the autocracy (Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia). If Mubarak leaves and the reins of the Mubarakian state are handed over to the safe-keeping of one of his many bloodsoaked henchman such as Omar Suleiman…. Mubarak tried this with Ahmed Shafik, but he could as well have gone to Tantawi….all generals who are close to Mubarak and seen as safe by the ruling bloc. We shall wait to see who all among the elite will start to distance themselves from Mubarak, and try to reach out to the streets for credibility. As a last-ditch effort, the Shah of Iran put Shapour Bakhtiar as PM. That didn’t work. Then the revolt spread further. If that does not work, then, (3) the US embassy will send a message to Mohamed El-Baradei, giving him their green light. El-Baradei is seen by the Muslim Brotherhood as a credible candidate. Speaking to the crowds on January 30 he said that in a few days the matter will be settled. Does this mean that he will be the new state leader, with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and certainly with sections of Mubarak’s clique? Will this be sufficient for the crowds? They might have to live with it. El-Baradei is a maverick, having irritated Washington at the IAEA over Iran. He will not be a pushover. On the other hand, he will probably carry on the economic policy of Mubarak. His entire agenda was for political reforms. This is along the grain of the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment part 2, viz., the same old privatisation agenda alongside “good governance”. El-Baradei wanted good governance in Egypt. The streets want more. It will be a truce for the moment, or as Chavez said, “por ahora“.

PG: The Radical Islamists, their near-complete domination of the oppositional/dissident politico-ideological space in the region notwithstanding, have failed to rise up to the occasion as an effective organisational force – one especially has the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in mind. What do you think is the reason?

VP: The Muslim Brotherhood is on the streets. It has set its own ideology to mute. That is very clear. Its spokesperson Gamel Nasser has said that they are only a small part of the protests, and that the protest is about Egypt not Islam. This is very clever. It is similar to what the mullahs said in Iran during the protests of 1978 and 1979. They waited in the wings for the “multitude” to overthrow the Shah, and then they descended. Would the MB do that? If one says this is simply the people’s revolt and not that of any organised force, it’s, of course, true. But it is inadequate. The ‘people’ can be mobilised, can act; but can the ‘people’ govern without mediation, without some structure. This is where the structured elements come into play. If there is no alternative that forms, then the Muslim Brotherhood will take power. That the Muslim Brotherhood wants to stand behind El-Baradei means they don’t want to immediately antagonise the US. That will come later.

PG: What does the emergence of characters like El-Baradei signify? Are they really the “political face” of the resistance as the global media seems to be projecting?

VP: El-Baradei comes with credibility. He served in the Nasserite ministry of external affairs in the 1960s. He then served in the foreign ministry under Ismail Fahmi. One forgets how impressive Fahmi was. He resigned from Sadat’s cabinet when the Egyptian leader went to Jerusalem. Fahmi was a Nasserite. For one year, El-Baradei served with Boutros Boutros Ghali at the foreign ministry. That was the start of this relationship. Both fled for the UN bureaucracy. Boutros Ghali was more pliant than Fahmi. I think El-Baradei is more along Fahmi’s lines. At the IAEA he did not bend to the US pressure. Given that he spent the worst years of Mubarak’s rule outside Cairo gives him credibility. A man of his class would have been coopted into the Mubarak rule. Only an outsider like him can be both of the ruling bloc (in terms of class position and instinct) and outside the ruling apparatus (i. e. of Mubarak’s cabinet circle). It is a point of great privilege.

With the MB careful not to act in its own face, and the ‘people’ without easy ways to spot leaders, and with Ayman Nour not in the best of health, it is credible that El-Baradei takes on the mantle.

PG: Is the disappearance of working-class and other avowedly Left-democratic political organisations, which had a very strong presence in that part of the world till a few decades ago, merely the result of their brutal suppression by various authoritarian regimes (such as Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, Hafez Assad’s in Syria and Nasser’s and Mubarak’s in Egypt) and/or their systematic physical decimation by Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood? Or, does it also have to do with certain inherent politico-theoretical weaknesses of those groups? Has not the fatal flaw of left/ communist/ socialist forces in the Islamic, particularly the Arab, world been their unwillingness, or inability, to grasp and pose the universal question of the “self-emancipation of the working class” in the determinateness of their specific culture and historicity?

VP: Don’t underestimate the repression. In Egypt, the 2006 budget for internal security was $1.5 billion. There are 1.5 million police officers, four times more than army personnel. I am told that there is now about 1 police officer per 37 people. This is extreme. The subvention that comes from the US  of $1.3 billion helps fund this monstrosity.

The high point of the Egyptian working class was in 1977. This was the bread uprising. It was trounced. Sadat then went to the IMF with a cat’s smile. He inaugurated the infitah. He covered the books by three means: the infitah allowed for some export-oriented production, the religious cover (al-rais al-mou’min) allowed him to try and undercut the Brotherhood, and seek some funds from the Saudis, and the bursary from the US for the deal he cut with Israel. This provided the means to enhance the security apparatus and further crush the workers’ movements.

Was there even space or time to think about creative ways to pose the self-emancipation question? Were there intellectuals who were doing this? Are we in Ajami’s Dream Palace of the Arabs, worrying about the decline of the questions? Recall that in March 1954 the major Wafd and Communist unions made a pact with the Nasserite regime; for concessions it would support the new dispensation. That struck down its independence. The unions put themselves in the service of the Nation over their Class. In the long run, this was a fatal error. But the organised working class was small (as Workers on the Nile shows, most workers were in the “informal” sector). The best that the CP and the Wafd could do in the new circumstances was to argue that the working class plays a central role in the national movement. Nasser and his Revolutionary Command Council, on the other hand, heard this but did not buy it. They saw the military as the agent of history. It was their prejudice.