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Five precedents for understanding Egypt’s July coup

September 15, 2013

By John Riddell. Two months after Egypt’s generals ousted its elected Muslim Brotherhood government, there is still a wide spectrum of views among socialists regarding the meaning of this event. (See my “Egypt: Socialists Need to Rethink”) This discussion can be deepened by considering a few precedents from socialist history – some well known, others obscure.

1. 1917: The Kornilov coup

My first and best-known example of workers’ response to an attempted rightist coup took place a year and a half before the Comintern was founded. In August 1917, workers and soldiers in Russia united to block an attempted coup by General Lavr Kornilov against the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky. At the time, Kerensky’s regime, a coalition of reformist and bourgeois forces, was blocking progress on key revolutionary goals like peace and land reform while repressing the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary forces.

The Bolsheviks recognized that the working class, not Kerensky, was the real target of the reactionary military forces. Together with most other Left currents and in alliance with Kerensky, the Bolsheviks rallied workers to oppose the coup. Workers won a quick victory, while the Bolsheviks and their allies gained respect and confidence from the masses. This outcome set the stage for the Russian soviets to assume power two months later.

Surprisingly, discussions in the Comintern during its early years contain almost no references to the Kornilov episode. In 1930–33, however, Leon Trotsky repeatedly cited this experience as a precedent for the united front of working-class forces needed in Germany to beat back the rising danger of Fascism. His fullest treatment was in section 6 of What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat (1932). A detailed analysis of resistance to Kornilov appeared in two chapters of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, published in English the same year.

2. 1920: The Kapp putsch

Two years later, workers in Germany faced a similar situation. A Social Democratic-led government had waged a brutal war against revolutionary workers and was building up the state’s forces of repression. On March 13, 1920, however, far-right forces made a bid for power. They led army detachments in seizing the capital, seeking to replace constitutional government with military dictatorship. The coup became known by the name of one of its leaders, Wolfgang Kapp.

Trade unions reacted to the coup with a call to general strike. Amazingly, the German Communist party (KPD) called on workers not to take part in the struggle. The strike was immensely powerful, and the KPD rapidly rectified its stance. Only four days into the strike, the coup regime was toppled. (The story of the Kapp Putsch is well told in chapter 18 of Pierre Broué’s masterly history, The German Revolution 1917–23, Merlin: 2006.)

Despite their initial error, the Communists played a leading role in several aspects in the anti-Kapp movement. In one important industrial city, Chemnitz, the KPD led workers’ councils, representing all workers’ parties, in forming a municipal government during the period of most intense struggle. Communists took part in armed workers’ detachments that, for a time, drove the army out of significant areas of the country. At one point, the KPD gave guarded support to a union call for a government of unions and workers’ parties.

During the Kapp struggle, workers in action provided clear answers to a series of strategic issues that were much debated in the Comintern at that time: united front, response to rightist coups, and governmental power. However, after an initial flurry of debate, the Kapp experience was rarely mentioned in Communist International discussions, and its lessons were not assimilated.

Drawing the parallel

There are striking similarities between the Kornilov and Kapp experiences and the military takeover in Egypt. Still, I have seen only one attempt to draw the parallel: by Vancouver-based socialist Roger Annis.

A few days after the Egyptian takeover, Annis wrote of the Kornilov and Kapp coup attempts: “These were both cases of military intervention by the old orders to try and forestall and ultimately destroy developing revolutionary situations. The Russian and German military officers played on political deadlocks in the respective political situations in which neither the capitalist nor the working classes could deliver a decisive blow that would decide who would rule. In both cases, the immediate targets of intervention were discredited or increasingly unpopular governments led by social democrats or political equivalents.”

The Egyptian situation is different in important ways, Annis says, but “perhaps there are useful analogies here.”

3. 1923: Abstention in Bulgaria

During the Comintern’s early years, its Bulgarian section, a formidable mass party, was widely regarded as the Communist movement closest to the Bolsheviks in history and outlook. Bulgaria was ruled from 1919 by a radical peasant party, the Agrarian Union, led by Alexander Stamboliski. Threats of a rightist coup against his regime did not, however, lead to an effective alliance between the peasant forces and the Communist Party. By late 1922 the Agrarians and Communists were locked in enmity.

Elections were held April 1923, and the Agrarians were re-elected with an absolute majority of the vote. Two months later, the rightist bourgeois opposition mounted a coup to oust the peasant government. Resistance was crippled by abstention of the Communist Party, which declared its neutrality. The Stamboliski government had “used its power to defend its class and clique interests,” the party declared. “The working masses in town and village will not participate in the armed struggle … between the urban and rural bourgeoisie,” it stated. (Joseph Rothschild, The Communist Party of Bulgaria, p. 120) The coup triumphed rapidly.

The Comintern Executive Committee sought to convince the Bulgarian party of its disastrous error. The response in Bulgaria to this critique, however, was a premature and poorly prepared attempt at an uprising by the Communist forces alone, which was quickly suppressed. The Comintern response to this fiasco was ambiguous. Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev endorsed the Bulgarian party’s conduct, while the Comintern’s representative in Bulgaria condemned the party for “having shown itself incapable of maneuver and of leading the mass movement.” (Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste 1919–1943, pp. 333–35)

4. 1926: A ‘socialist’ general’s coup in Poland

In our fourth example, Communists in Poland actually fought alongside rebel army detachments in a brief civil war against defenders of a constitutionally established but discredited bourgeois government. The coup’s leader, Joseph Pilsudski, reputedly represented the bourgeoisie’s more progressive wing. Indeed, Pilsudski had long been a leader of right-wing Socialist forces in Poland, before emerging as the leader of Polish armed forces on the Austro-Hungarian army during World War 1 and then as the president of newly independent Poland from 1918 to 1922.

In 1926, Poland was gripped in economic crisis. Its rightist government, just installed, was displaying authoritarian ambitions. Pilsudski, formally retired, in fact led and inspired the bourgeois opposition. The Communist Party declared conditional support for Pilsudski’s movement, “if they fight to defend democratic institutions.” On May 13, troops loyal to Pilsudski rose in revolt; the Communist and Socialist parties declared a general strike in their support. The strike, widely effective, was decisive in enabling the rebels to win out in a four-day civil war. Although Communists fought on the rebel side, they were being arrested by Pilsudski’s forces even before fighting ended. Pilsudski’s regime, which lasted until his death in 1935, preserved some democratic forms but was heavy-handed and repressive toward the working class.

Party members quickly regretted what they ruefully called their “May mistake” but differed in explaining what the mistake was. By now, the Comintern was deeply influenced by Stalinism, which obstructed a correction. In 1927, an ultraleft current took the party’s helm, wrongly explaining the Pilsudski movement to be “fascist.” (Broué, Histoire, pp. 472–75)

5. 1932. Germany’s ‘red referendum’

Six years later, the German Communist Party launched a campaign in support of a Nazi initiative to unseat the Social Democratic-led government of Prussia, the state containing two-thirds of the German population and its capital, Berlin. By this time, the Comintern had embraced Stalin’s assertion that Social Democracy represented another form of fascism, “social fascism,” which had to be opposed as strongly as the Nazis. The Communist Party claimed it would transform the Nazi initiative into a “red referendum” for workers’ rule.

The Nazi initiative was not in itself a coup, but it was an important step along the road to fascist power. If the referendum had won, it would have forced new elections, which the Nazis and their allies felt sure they would win. Even with Communist support, however, the Nazi campaign fell short, winning 38% of the vote.

The Communist Party declared the result to be a victory, “the greatest blow of all that the working class has yet dealt Social Democracy.”

Trotsky commented, “The most rabid foe could not have thought up a surer way of inciting the Social Democratic workers against the Communist Party and of holding up the development of the policy of the revolutionary united front.” (Tony Cliff, Trotsky: 1929-40)

It was three years before the Comintern abandoned this sectarian approach – only to flip over to a “people’s front” policy that aimed for alliances with parties of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Summary

What can be learned from these disparate examples? Some conclusions:

  • None of these examples is fully comparable to the events in Egypt. There is no textbook here.
  • Even in the Comintern’s best years, its parties sometimes, under the pressure of events, became entangled in complicity with right-wing military coups.
  • In every such case, Communists soon realized that involvement or tacit support had been a serious error.
  • The most damaging aspect of these episodes was not the error itself but the failure to correct it clearly and openly.
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14 Comments
  1. Seth Jucovy permalink

    The piece is well thought out and worth reading. It gives first rate summaries of the five cited examples and does not try to impose heavy handed comparisons, on the contrary it points out that though there are interesting similarities there are also very clear differences. If I had been asked to pick the five examples based on the title of the article I would have (and did) think of the Kapp Putsch, the Kornilov Coup and the Pilsudski Coup in Poland. I did not think of the 1923 Coup and Abstention in Bulgaria which in certain respect is the closest analogy to the situation in Egypt. I also would not have mentioned the Prussian Referendum in 1932 but I do not agree that this is an analogous situation.

  2. Tony Iltis permalink

    I think a deeper understanding can be gained by looking at events in Egypt since 2011 and earlier. Incidently, there has been some debate on the Left about the date of when the army launched their coup and took power. The answer is July 23, 1952.

    The mistake of the June 30 movement was not tht they overthrew Morsi but that they overthrew him without having a clue what to replace his regime with. And the military were what was already there.

    There were elements of the grassroots opposition to Morsi who didn’t participate in June 30 because the lack of any proposed political or constitutional process (eg. Nihal Saad Zaghloul) and there were others, including, but not only, the Revolutionary Socialists, who did participate but warned against relying on the military and posed the need for the movement to create a political alternative. However, these were small and diverse and failed to even get together to propose a common political program to follow Morsi’s overthrow. They failed to get an audience.

    What followed was even more unfortunate. But to understand what happened next forget Bulgaria or the Kapp Putsch and take a good look at Egypt between June 30, 2012 and June 30, 2013. Particularly the nasty bits: the continued rule by the security state and its use by the Morsi government, the increasing poverty, the death squads, the rape gangs, the religious communalism.

    Because what followed was the military increased their popularity with their wholesale and brutal repression of the Brotherhood, including their popularity among those who had seen off Mubarak and Tantawi. The military even seem to have been surprised themselves by the extent of this: immediately after July 3 they were giving every indication that they were going to use the compliant liberal politicians as fig-leaves to hide behind but as their anti-Brotherhood violence boosted their political stock, Sisi became increasingly blatant about being the country’s ruler (approaching levels of personality cult) and more than happy to be seen as the author of the bloodletting. The RS and other neither-Morsi-nor-military groups formed the “Third Square”. After the August massacres some revolutionary elements who had since July 3 followed the military came over to their side but they still failed to gain a significant audience and the grassroots movement as a whole remained under Sisi’s spell.

    Mubarak was released to virtually no reaction. However, more recently, as the military’s repression has begun to extend beyond the Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters, there have been more coming over to the neither-Morsi-nor-military position. I have no idea of what the prospects of this pole are but believe that this is a far more likely prospect for the revival of the Egyptian revolution than the Brotherhood and its supporters even if, despite the repression, the Brotherhood can still pull a much larger crowd than the Third Square.

    The Brotherhood has the strong support of about a fifth of the population but this base was becoming increasingly hostile to the rest of society even before the army started butchering them with the apparent support of the majority of Egyptians, expressed in enthusiastic mass rallies as well as opinion polls. Despite what its leaders say to the foreign press, I don’t think the Brotherhood wants to lead a broad democratic movement & I don’t think its supporters want to be part of one.

    I don’t think there’s any point in the Western left telling millions of Egyptians what they’re doing wrong. They don’t care what we think. (Although I would ask, given some of the reaction to my articles in Green Left Weekly, that if people feel they really must correct the mistakes of millions of Egyptians, please direct your comments to millions of Egyptians and not to me.)

    Our problem is not that no-one in Egypt cares what we think — our problem is that virtually no-one in Canada or Australia does. I suspect that understanding Egypt could have some valuable lessons for the international left. This is because what has happened shows the limitations of the “vanguardless” uprisings that have become a feature of politics worldwide. Egypt is very much part of a global wave of class-struggle with a decentralised, leaderless form of organisation, from European anti-austerity movements to Occupy in North America to more recent movements in Turkey and Brazil. Far left parties, particular those of the traditional 20th century self-styled Leninist type, have in most instances been left floundering or playing catch-up. It has become something of a new orthodoxy that the old Leninist party building orthodoxy has failed.

    Some have argued that Occupy and its analogues are where the answers to questions of revolutionary organisation will come from. They now condemn the Egyptian movement’s support of military repression but without noticing that this is what diffuse, decentralised, leaderless and programless revolution leads to: Morsi and the military take turns to reap the benefits. If Sisi falls out of favour with the movement while it is still decentralised, leaderless, etc, maybe El-Baradei and the liberals will get a turn.

    The Western left has no ability to effect events in Egypt but, however things unfold there, we might be able to learn lessons that help us effect events in the West. But to do this we have to get past this obsession with finding the correct way of labelling events by “Marxist” historical analogy. Frankly, its very 20th century.

    Of course Egypt had a few of its own potential vanguards, that is far left parties. But it should be noted that before 2011, the Egyptian far left probably had even less social reach than the Canadian or Australian far left, due to decades of brutal repression.

    Most of the left parties now seem to be tailing the masses and politically defending the military. I’m not aware of this changing as the military’s targets broaden but I hope it does change.

    Then there’s the Revolutionary Socialists. Their consistent neither-Morsi-nor-military line seems to be programmatically correct. They appear to be able to respond to events, and to rapid and extreme changes in the political situation. Their main problem seems to be that no-one in Egypt cares what they think. Or at least not very many people — certainly not enough. They are definitely not a vanguard. I actually have no idea whether the inability of the RS and other Third Square types to gain much of an audience so far is due to objective conditions or whether there’s something important they’re doing wrong or failing to do. But I don’t think they’ll have more success at winning the masses away from supporting the military by taking the advice on offer from much of the Western left and demanding the reinstatement of Morsi.

    • “Then there’s the Revolutionary Socialists. Their consistent neither-Morsi-nor-military line seems to be programmatically correct. They appear to be able to respond to events, and to rapid and extreme changes in the political situation. Their main problem seems to be that no-one in Egypt cares what they think. Or at least not very many people — certainly not enough. They are definitely not a vanguard. I actually have no idea whether the inability of the RS and other Third Square types to gain much of an audience so far is due to objective conditions or whether there’s something important they’re doing wrong or failing to do.”

      No one cares what RS thinks in Egypt because they are very much part of the Western-educated, Westernized elite whose ideas and methods are very remote, even alien, to the homegrown “native” radical trends and urges among the country’s toiling classes. One important example (I can provide others) of this remoteness is their failure to even address or deal with the class struggle in the countryside where the majority of the population lives!

      Now, I’m not saying they need to adopt a detailed, 50-point transitional program aimed at the peasants, but reading all of their English statements, they never once even touch on a single problem related to land, landlords, or agriculture. I wonder if they even have journal-length articles in Arabic interrogating social relations in the countryside that would even be remotely comparable in depth to the stuff Russian social democrats were working on in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. If you want to make a revolution in your country you have to do some homework first.

      If nobody’s listening to RS, it has a lot to do with the fact that RS doesn’t seem to speak to the concerns and problems facing the laboring classes. Formulaic denunciations of Mubarak, Morsi, Sisi, ElBaradei just won’t cut it I’m afraid.

      • Tony Iltis permalink

        Binh, how do you know what the RS write in Arabic? Ppl on the Western left should stop judging the RS on the basis of how they feel about their local Cliffite group in their own country. As I said before I don’t know if they (and the other neither-Morsi-nor-military groups, which includes anarchists, left liberals, even some Islamists) could be doing things better and I suspect you don’t know either.

        But Binh, as you were one of the main proponants of the theory that mass movements such as Occupy Wall Street would throw up the new forms of organisation that will replace the failed 20th century vanguard models, instead of gloating over the RS’s failure (so far, at least) to win the Egyptian masses away from support of military repression, maybe you would like to share your thoughts on how it came to this. How did the movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak — so much more mass, more militant, and more organised than Occupy Wall Street — end up becoming a cheer squad for military repression?

        Or maybe not. Maybe you’d rather pretend it isn’t happening and pretend that Muslim Brotherhood have the support of the masses and call for Western leftists to support Morsi’s reinstatement.

    • Binh permalink

      “Binh, how do you know what the RS write in Arabic?”

      It’s not hard to run their stuff through Google translate. If they had produced something weighty, it’s hard to imagine that the Cliffites in the West wouldn’t have translated it. Feel free to find an Arabic speaker to prove me wrong on this.

      “Ppl on the Western left should stop judging the RS on the basis of how they feel about their local Cliffite group in their own country. As I said before I don’t know if they (and the other neither-Morsi-nor-military groups, which includes anarchists, left liberals, even some Islamists) could be doing things better and I suspect you don’t know either.”

      My judgment of RS has nothing to do with my opinion of the ISO. If you had bothered to read the lengthy piece I wrote (or my stuff on the ISO and “Leninism,” you would know that the political content of one has very little to do with the other.

      The “neither Morsi no military” groups are hopelessly irrelevant. They are essentially adopting a position of neutrality in the face of SCAF’s murderous crackdown on the Brotherhood and the destruction of Egypt’s only mass-based party.

      “But Binh, as you were one of the main proponants of the theory that mass movements such as Occupy Wall Street would throw up the new forms of organisation that will replace the failed 20th century vanguard models, instead of gloating over the RS’s failure (so far, at least) to win the Egyptian masses away from support of military repression, maybe you would like to share your thoughts on how it came to this. How did the movement that overthrew Hosni Mubarak — so much more mass, more militant, and more organised than Occupy Wall Street — end up becoming a cheer squad for military repression?”

      How many strawmen can you pack into a single paragraph? 1) I never “theorized” that OWS would replace political parties. 2) I never gloated over RS’s mistakes.

      How the left-liberals ended up as liberal-fascists is an interesting but sad story and I’ve written about it. Essentially they got frustrated when they could not beat the Muslim Brotherhood fair and square at the ballot box and turned against the democratic process, using the same nasty obstructionist tactics as the American Tea Party in an effort to rob Morsi’s administration of legitimacy by doing things like withdrawing en masse from the committee writing the constitution and then bleating that they had no influence over its content. They would also do stuff like bring homemade weapons to demonstrations to attack Brotherhood supporters and when violence broke out, they would demand the army step in and declare martial law over Morsi’s. They worked very hard to create an atmosphere of chaos and instability to compel the military to intervene in politics once more, and they have succeeded fantastically.

      The deeper underlying problem is that the left-liberal bourgeois and petty-bourgeois milieu (and RS is very much a part of this) in Egypt is Western-educated and Western-centric and can’t compete in any meaningful sense with a “native” force like the Brotherhood. They don’t speak the same language or have the same concerns; they insisted Egypt immediately adopt modern American/French-style secularism, not realizing that these are products of 200+ years of struggle. They view the masses (the majority of whom support the Brotherhood) as hopelessly backward, uneducated, unenlightened, just as Western liberals view working-class gun owners in the red states as “trailer trash” and rednecks.

      “Or maybe not. Maybe you’d rather pretend it isn’t happening and pretend that Muslim Brotherhood have the support of the masses and call for Western leftists to support Morsi’s reinstatement.”

      The Brotherhood is the country’s only mass-based party with something like 800,000 members and an even larger number of voters (~5 million or so). Unlike you, I know better than to pretend that groups like the April 6 movement or Sabahi’s Popular Current have the support of the masses; Sisi will probably win more votes than either of them in any future (unfree) election.

  3. John,
    Very much agree with your article and its approach.
    Would you have any objection if we published it in full on our website, with a link to the original?
    Comradely greetings.

  4. prianikoff permalink

    A thoughtful series of articles on Egypt.

    I certainly don’t agree with the argument that “Western Left can’t give any advice” to the left in Egypt.

    The very fact that the Western Left has had the luxury of democratic freedoms; like free speech and assembly, has allowed it to preserve a Marxist historical and political culture with universal relevance. (Illegality hasn’t been an issue in Western Europe since the Second War and state repression eased up after McCarthyism)

    For similar reasons, the politics that derive from this are subject to opportunistic distortions. This makes international debate even more important.

    Events like the Kapp putsch are certainly relevant to Egypt.
    They show that when the working class is united, it has the power to crush military coups d’etat and incipient fascist movements.

    The MB is however, not equivalent to the KPD, the SPD, or the Nazis. It’s a movement that originally developed in an oppressed Third World Nation, combining elements of an anti-imperialism with an appeal to tradition.

    Originally, this tended to reject all Western influence, both the colonial and the progressive. But the MB of al-Banna and Qutb had to reinvent itself during the years it withstood state repression. It managed to carve out a niche in Egyptian society and created a politcal party which gained a measure of popular legitimacy.

    So MB isn’t directly equivalent to the unreconstructed Jihadist groups operating in Syria or Iraq. Nor, given its history, is it likely to be destroyed by the current repression against it.

    Whatever illusions its leaders had in electoralism and the Army leadership, they have been severely tested since the coup.
    The MB’s rank and file could go either way; it could follow the path of Jihad Islamiya, which killed Anwar Sadat -the dead-end of terror attacks and assasinations. Or it can develop a broad anti-coup coalition, relying on mass action to topple the Military government.

    But this means relying on the masses – petty traders, the small farmers and working class. In the main, it appears to be following the latter path.

    This means that the question of how the working class should respond to this movement is posed.To put it bluntly, those workers leaders who rallied behind el-Sisi were hoodwinked.
    Presumably the Mubarakists were trying to sow discord and profit from it. The coup leaders may have tried to bring trade union leaders, Coptic and Muslim religious figures and Liberal politicians into their tent. But they’ve also sent in the tanks when rank and file strikes occurred, as at Mahalla.

    It’s hard to believe the suggestions made in certain Western Marxist periodicals, that the coup provided a “space” for the working class to organise. What’s blindingly obvious is that street protests are being driven off the streets by gunfire!

    Reports and photos of the demonstrations of the “anti-Coup alliance” indicate that they are being supported by a mixture of people. The MB doesn’t appear to be enforcing strict Islamic dress codes on women, or excluding secular people from their protests.

    So what’s to stop the participation of Socialists and workers in these protests? This requires both sensitivity to popular traditions, as well as firm principles. Understanding and utilising the MB’s specific contradictions requires not only the armoury of Western Marxism, but the Left wingers who operated in Muslim societies, like Tan Malaka.

    It’s certainly not simply a question of aggressively denouncing religion from a secularist point of view.

  5. I don’t have enough knowledge of Egypt to comment on this interesting exchange between Tony Iltis, Pham Binh, and Prianikoff. But Binh makes a comment on the peasantry that is important and has general validity. However much knowledge the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists have of the role of peasants in 21st century class struggles, they certainly did not learn it from Marxists in the imperialist countries. I cannot think of any Marxist current hereabouts that has written significant analysis of this question.

    Our views on the peasantry come mainly from discussions 100 years ago. There is much here that is useful and valid (particularly the Comintern documents). But this heritage includes notions that peasants cannot sustain an independent political movement, will not support a transition to socialism, and can be rescued from the grip of reaction only by working-class leadership.

    To take only one current example, in Bolivia over the past decade a peasant-based movement built a political party that has taken and held governmental power, winning significant gains for working people, with very little help and a good deal of opposition from organized labor. That should be enough to convince us that old blueprints have to be revisited.

    Of course, peasants are class-divided, and property ownership can push them in a radical or conservative direction, depending on circumstances. But peasants internationally have succeeded in building a global movement, La Via Campesina, which has held to an anti-capitalist course under the intense pressures of neo-liberalism. No wing of the workers’ movement has been able to do this.

    Farmers in countries like Canada, where I live, no longer have the numerical weight to strongly influence class struggles on their own. But they have a great deal of moral authority and a capacity to form alliances. In ecosocialist struggle they exert influence.

    A colleague of mine is trying to build an anti-corporate ecological committee in an area of small cities and farmland. A generation ago, he would have started by contacting unionists. Now, most of the industries are gone. He is starting with the farmers.

    This summer I went to farmers’ markets in Toronto to talk to people about tar sands pipelines. I took along a leaflet reprinting farmers’ opinions on the tar sands issue. I found that their views carry authority.

    In my opinion, we socialists in the “western” countries should pull our weight in analyzing trends and pressures affecting farmers here and globally and solidarizing with their struggles.

    John

    • Binh permalink

      Thank you John. I have to say I was positively shocked when I discovered that Egypt is a majority rural country in the course of researching and writing my article on the democratic and socialist revolutions. I, like many other Western radicals, derived my understanding of Egypt’s revolution first and foremost from reprinted statements of RS (and other groups). Based on those, one would never know that most of the country’s laboring classes are rural much less what their special or specific problems and issues were.

      I was really hoping that responses to my piece would touch on the peasant/farmer question, but outside of John hardly anyone has really grappled with the content of that piece which covers a whole lot of issues.

      I both agree and disagree with John when he writes, “Our views on the peasantry come mainly from discussions 100 years ago. There is much here that is useful and valid (particularly the Comintern documents). But this heritage includes notions that peasants cannot sustain an independent political movement, will not support a transition to socialism, and can be rescued from the grip of reaction only by working-class leadership.” The notion that the peasantry cannot be a class for itself is one that comes from Trotsky, not Lenin, who spent many years analyzing the details and nuances of peasant-based parties in Russia in works like Two Tactics of Social Democracy and many others.

      There’s no doubt that the Bolivian experience should encourage all of us to go back to the drawing board and it’s something I hope to do over the next couple years (in addition to studying Venezuela a lot more closely).

  6. On reflection, Binh, I think you have a point. It is easy to enumerate issues on which our socialist understanding today goes beyond — or at least should go beyond — that of the pre-1917 Bolsheviks. But the fact that many socialist groups today are narrow and conservative in outlook cannot be blamed on the Bolsheviks. Quite the contrary. And that is also true, as you say, on the peasant question.

    When I wrote on the decline of the U.S. SWP on this website, I emphasized that it was responding to pressures that bear down on every small socialist group whose sense of purpose is self-referential (build and recruit to the organization). The SWP, historically, paid a lot of attention to farmers — but that ended as, over time, the SWP’s vision narrowed.

    I am glad to hear you will be doing some work on the peasant question. To my mind, it’s a subset of a broader topic: the role in the class struggle of exploited independent producers, a category that includes many workers who have to set themselves up in business in order to find work, or who are forced into this status by the boss. Not to mention all the young workers who have to accept employment with no pay, etc..

    I’m going to be mostly out of touch for the next month, but I certainly look forward to reading your future contributions and articles.

    • To do real, substantive work on the peasant question post-1917 would took a good chunk of a lifetime I think. Lenin wrote and re-wrote his stuff on the agrarian question in Russia half a dozen times before 1917 only to discard a lot of it as practical policy in 1917 and thereafter without really looking back or re-assessing basic assumptions. Lars Lih discusses how Bolshevik preconceptions clashed sharply with reality in 1918 onward in his book, Bread and Authority, which I highly recommend. What comes through in Lih’s work is that the class divide within the peasantry was vastly overblown or misunderstood, that the peasants in struggle tended to form a unitary bloc rather than differentiate into kulaks at one and end semi-proletarian at the other, that the main divide in the villages, especially in the early years of the Soviet government, was not between rich ‘haves’ and poor ‘have-nots’ but between entire regions that had grain and those that did not. What those that did have was not much beyond subsistence levels and so Lenin’s claim in 1918 that: “Having completed the bourgeois-democratic revolution in alliance with the peasants as a whole [in October 1917], the Russian proletariat finally passed on to the socialist revolution when it succeeded in splitting the rural population, in winning over the rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, and in uniting them against the kulaks and the bourgeoisie, including the peasant bourgeoisie” needs to be re-evaluated given that the committees of poor peasants that supposedly embodied this class war in the village strategy were unceremoniously disbanded in fall of 1918.

      I would want to go back and look at Kautsky’s work on this question, as well as Lenin’s, before proceeding to evaluate that material as well as contemporary stuff.

      Prianikoff points out something important, namely, that Nasser’s regime pursued a reformist rather than revolutionary land reform policy. The land ownership was reshuffled rather than revolutionized and the landlord class was not ended (as in Viet Nam or China after communist parties took over) but modified, so the Mubarak had an easier time reversing decades of progressive measures in the countryside by undoing those reforms. I’m not sure where else in the world a 20th-century task like land reform remains unfinished or what precisely precise implications that means for the worker-peasant alliance in the democratic revolution that is being undone by Sisi’s coup.

  7. prianikoff permalink

    The small farmers have provided an important base for Egyptian governments ever since Nasser took power in 1952 and instituted land reform. At the time, 95 percent of small owners held only 35 percent of the land and 44 percent of rural inhabitants were landless.

    Nasser’s land reform law limited the size of big farms. It redistributed the surplus land to tenants, estate workers, and the poor. It also fixed rents and gave tenants greater security of tenure.
    A minimum wage was also established for rural workers.

    There was also a push to establish Agricultural Cooperatives in the 60’s. These pooled farming equipment and provided cheap seeds and fertilizer to small farmers.

    By the end of Nasser’s period in office, about 17 percent of Egypt’s agricultural land had been redistributed to small farmers.

    This process was halted under Sadat and reversed under Mubarak.
    Small farmers were increasingly driven off the land, while capitalist agriculture advanced.
    Poorly understood loans from the Agricultural bank trapped numerous farmers in a web of debt.
    The Cooperatives were corrupted and a black market in seeds and fertilizer pushed up prices beyond the reach of the poorer farmer.

    In 1992, under Mubarak, Law 96 was passed. This removed the prohibition on the eviction of tenants and relaxed rent controls. Forced eviction often involved the intervention of the state security apparatus. In 1997 alone, around 100 farmers were killed and 1,000 injured. Arbitrary arrests, beatings and the repression of independent farming unions took place.

    Just before Mubarak’s overthrow 40 percent of Egyptians lived below the poverty line of US$2 a day, the majority being small farmers and rural families. Egypt, with a rapidly growing population and a limited arable land area, had become a net importer of wheat.

    Not surprisingly many Egyptian small farmers were hostile to Mubarak and welcomed his overthrow.
    Morsi and the F&JP tried to win over these farmers by promising them debt forgiveness and giving them seeds and medicine.

    What happened subsequently is a good illustration of the real powerlessness of the Morsi government. Officials of the Agricultural Bank told small farmers they’d “heard of the decree”, but did nothing about it. Effectively, they sabotaged the government’s decree.

    Morsi was too wedded to the free market to challenge them effectively and when he tried to take stronger measures, was portrayed as being dictatorial.

    The old regime sabotaged the MB Presidency, turned the impoverished small farmers and petty traders against it, then crushed it by military action.

    Which is a good illustration of why the working class needs to provide leadership to these impoverished, but easily manipulated layers of the population.

  8. Of course those interested in the peasant question and its history might have a look at backissues of the Journal Of Peasant Studies or the journal of agrarian change. For those with the needed permissions Terry Byers and Henry Bernstein’s inaugeral essay for the journal of agrarian change “From peasant studies to agrarian change” provides a useful framework for understanding the scholarship since the early 1970s (and before!) on the question. It is not really the case that this is a neglected field. Its just that we trots have not, on the whole, followed it too closely. To our obvious cost I think.

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