The Marxist method and the Arab revolution

In his Preface to our new book, “Revolution until victory! – The Arab revolution: A Marxist Analysis”, [available from Wellred Books at the discounted price of £7.99] Alan Woods highlights the Marxist method of analysis which allowed us to predict several years in advance the coming Egyptian revolution, and the growing instability of all the despotic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. Compare this to the complete lack of understanding of what was about to happen on the part of so many bourgeois “experts”.

arab_rev_coverThe present volume is a selection of the main articles on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt published on In Defence of Marxism ( from January to March 2011. A reading of these articles will provide a blow-by-blow account of these dramatic and historic events.

In preparing this book we at first considered the possibility of reworking the material contained in the articles as a history. But it soon became evident that this was impracticable. Whatever advantages may have been gained in stylistic terms would have been cancelled out by the loss of immediacy.

For much of the time, we were publishing daily articles, particularly on the developments in Egypt. They hang together as if they were the chapters of a book. Moreover, these articles are not merely a descriptive account of the events. They provide a scientific Marxist analysis and a political commentary of each stage of the Revolution.

In the Preface to The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky writes:

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.

I believe that the present volume follows this advice to the letter. It is not a list of isolated facts, in the style of English empiricism, but a coherent whole that seeks to determine the deeper processes and class forces that lie beneath the surface. Each article not only describes the events as they unfold, but tries to lay bare the role of the different classes, parties and individuals who make up the dramatis personae of the Revolution.

From such an analysis, it should be possible not only to explain where we have come from and where we are, but also to arrive at a scientific hypothesis as to which direction the situation is tending towards. I think that in general, our analysis was correct and accurately predicted the course that the Revolution actually took. By following the articles as they were written, the reader can judge to what extent we were right or wrong.

Of course, the Revolution is not finished and must still run through a whole series of stages, the precise course of which it is impossible to predict. There are too many variable factors both nationally and internationally to perform such a task. All that is possible is to predict the general line of development and indicate the different possibilities inherent in the situation. Whoever asks for more must seek the services, not of the Marxists, but of a professional astrologer.

Marxism is a science, but it is not an exact science. It has more in common with medicine, meteorology or geology than with physics. It is impossible to predict an earthquake, although we know precisely where the fault lines are. The recent tragedy in Japan bears eloquent witness to this fact. It is impossible to conduct a controlled experiment with earthquakes. But nobody thinks that geology is not a science because it failed to predict the earthquake in Japan.

Many people would regard meteorology as a science. In recent decades they have accumulated new and powerful tools for predicting the weather: computers with awesome memory capacity and satellites that can plot the tiniest movements of weather systems from space. Yet despite this vast array of data, modern meteorology is incapable of predicting the weather for more than three days with any accuracy.

This fact does not condemn the method of meteorology or forbid us from attempting to predict the weather. It is merely an expression of the fact that the weather is a chaotic system. It is difficult to predict with accuracy because small variations can cause sudden and unexpected changes in the weather. Society is also a chaotic system in which a series of infinitely small changes can produce dramatic transformations when they reach the critical point where quantity is transformed into quality.

The method of dialectics is a closed book to bourgeois economists and sociologists who like to think that they follow a scientific method because they allegedly confine themselves to “the facts”. But in the first place, as Hegel points out, the facts do not select themselves. A political analyst approaches the facts with definite presuppositions. Certain facts are selected because they are considered to be important, while others are ignored. Whether this selection is conscious or unconscious is of no relevance. But the way the question is posed will usually determine the answer.

In the second place, it is the business of science, not merely to enumerate a list of isolated facts, but to show the processes and general tendencies that lie behind the facts and manifest themselves through them. Before Charles Darwin could arrive at his theory of natural selection, he carefully examined and listed a great many observations from the natural world, cataloguing the most minute differences in the shape of birds’ beaks, their size, colour and other physical characteristics. But the theory of evolution through natural selection is not merely a catalogue of observed facts but a brilliant theoretical generalization. What interests us is not the catalogue but the theory, not the isolated facts but the law that alone can explain them.

Foresight and astonishment

It is no accident that not a single one of the bourgeois “experts” were able to predict the Revolution in Tunisia or Egypt. On the contrary, they denied it even when it had already begun. A slavish worship of the established fact is the hallmark of empiricism. The bourgeois analysts look at the surface and do not see the processes that are taking place in the depths of society.

But dialectics teaches us that things turn into their opposite. Now all the bourgeois strategists, economists, academics and “experts” make a public exhibition of their perplexity. It is a graphic illustration of Trotsky’s definition of theory as the superiority of foresight over astonishment.

On September 28, 2009 I wrote about the Gaza war as follows:

The Middle East shows the idiocy of Bush’s policy. All they succeeded in doing was destabilizing the whole of the Middle East. All the pro-western regimes there are hanging by a thread. Saudi Arabia is hanging by a thread. Egypt is hanging by a thread. Lebanon is hanging by a thread. So is Jordan, so is Morocco. These ruling elites were terrified by the demonstrations that took place during the Gaza war.

This was by no means the first time I had made the same point. I specifically mentioned Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco as unstable regimes that could be overthrown at any time. This could have been brought about by the Israeli attack on Gaza, which is why the imperialists put pressure on the Israelis to withdraw. In fact, the Gaza war produced mass demonstrations in all these countries, which indicated the existence of a profound ferment in society.

I did not include Tunisia in the list because I had not been following events there. But exactly the same arguments would apply. Of special interest are the articles published in our Arab language website,, which have traced the movement in Tunisia from its first beginnings. They alerted us to the revolutionary implications of the situation following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December. These articles are all the more important because they are written by active participants in the revolutionary movement in North Africa.

By paying careful attention to the strike movement in Egypt, which was mainly ignored by the bourgeois commentators, we were able to predict the imminence of a revolutionary explosion. While other so-called Marxists ran after the Muslim Brotherhood, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) has consistently emphasized the role of the Egyptian proletariat. Everything that is happening is a striking confirmation of the perspectives of the IMT. It is sufficient to point to the articles in In Defence of Marxism covering the strike movement in Egypt over the last few years to prove this assertion.

On Thursday, October 28, 2010, we published an article written by Hamid Alizadeh and Frederik Ohsten, with the title “Egypt, the Gathering Storm”. It opens with the following words:

The tensions in Egypt are reaching boiling point. The crisis of the regime is reflected in a number of splits and growing opposition. The emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei on the political scene signifies an important change in the struggle against the regime. Until now, the masses have lacked a national point of reference to connect up the different struggles, but this is now changing. Revolution is developing just beneath the surface.

In the Middle East, Egypt is a key country. Not only is it the most populated Arab country and a strategic pillar of support for imperialism, it also has a strong working class with militant traditions. Over the last few years, the Mubarak dictatorship has been shaken by strikes and protests, but it has become increasingly clear that all factors are pointing in the direction of revolution.

This was written two months before the upsurge in Tunisia and three months before the commencement of the Egyptian Revolution. Although the authors perhaps attach too much significance to ElBaradei as a factor in the equation, their general analysis of the situation in Egypt was one hundred per cent correct. In any case, it is infinitely superior to anything the bourgeois “experts” have written before or since.

What the bourgeois wrote

The aforementioned article concludes with the following prediction:

The events looming in Egypt will shake the entire region. They will have a big impact throughout the entire Middle East where a revolutionary dynamic has already started. The period up to the presidential elections will be one of preparation for the revolutionary events which are to come. The Egyptian revolution will dramatically change the course of events in the Middle East, North Africa and on a world scale.

That is what we wrote in October 2010. Let us now compare this to the statements of the leading analysts of the bourgeoisie written several months later, that is, after the Revolution had begun. As late as January 6, 2011, The Economist wrote: “Tunisia’s troubles are unlikely to unseat the 74 year-old president or even to jolt his model of autarchy.” A few weeks later Ben Ali had been overthrown and his regime was in ruins.

On January 25, 2011 Hilary Clinton stated: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” This was when the masses had already come out onto the streets of Cairo.

The same lack of awareness was shown by other bourgeois commentators, such as the BBC correspondent in Cairo who wrote on January 17 that no revolt would happen in Egypt because people there are apathetic: “Unlike Tunisia, the population has a much lower level of education. Illiteracy is high, internet penetration is low.”

The article, signed by Jon Leyne in Cairo was entitled: “No sign Egypt will take the Tunisian road.” To make matters worse, these lines were also included in his report of the events on January 25, the mass demonstration which marked the beginning of the revolution.

Old Heraclitus once said: “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men who do not understand the language.” The same facts were available to these ladies and gentlemen as were at the disposal of the Marxists. Yet the very same facts can give very different results according to what method is used to interpret them. A crash course in dialectics would be of great benefit to the bourgeois. But they show no interest in wanting to understand for the same reason a man perched precariously on the edge of a cliff finds it difficult to think straight.

Crisis of capitalism

The main failure of all these people is that they do not see the role of the working class as an agent of change. They only see history as a series of combinations at the top, of the strengths and weaknesses of individual rulers. They think that crises are the results of mistakes or of conspiracies. They cannot accept that the crises are an inevitable product of a socio-economic system that has outlived its usefulness and has become a monstrous fetter on human progress.

The events that are shaking the Arab world to its foundations are just one manifestation of the general crisis of world capitalism. Not one of the problems faced by the peoples can be solved in the narrow confines of the capitalist system. That is the root cause of the revolutionary explosions in North Africa and the Middle East. That is why the Arab Revolution cannot stop until it has tackled the root problem which is private ownership of the means of production and the nation state, which are too narrow to contain the colossal potential of the productive forces.

This book is not written for bourgeois academics but as a contribution to the class struggle. It is dedicated to those courageous class fighters who braved the bullets and batons of the repressive forces to change their lives. We are not merely observers but active participants in the worldwide struggle against oppression and exploitation. We firmly believe that this struggle can only end in the expropriation of the bankers, landlords and capitalists and the creation of a new world order – socialism.

For this reason, in place of the usual Introduction, we are publishing the Manifesto of the International Marxist Tendency on the Arab Revolution. This is the summing up of the experience of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, and draws all the necessary conclusions from this experience, which is presented in the form of programmatic demands.

We warmly commend this for the attention of every class conscious militant, not just in the Arab world but to the workers and youth who are fighting for a better future in every country and continent.

Alan Woods, London, March 12, 2011

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