Egypt, Bakunin, and “revolutionary transition”

It seems we have reached a sensitive moment in the Egyptian uprising, a moment which recalls one of the major differences between Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx on the matter of revolutionary transition. Marx and Engels wrote,

The first step in the revolution . . . is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle for democracy.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.[1]

Of this, Brian Morris writes,

Marxists have long debated just exactly what this entailed and whether or not the Bolshevik take-over of State power in Russia in 1917 exemplified what Marx himself had envisaged. But the important point is that Bakunin consistently and criticized this whole conception of revolution. For Bakunin, only libertarian means could be used to create a libertarian socialist society; recourse to State power, whether or not this allowed parliamentary democracy or Blanquist insurrectionary methods, inevitably led to despotism and an end to the revolution. Liberty, as he put it, “can only be created by liberty, that is by mass rebellion and the free organization of the working masses from the bottom upwards.”[2]

Whatever now happens in Egypt, it will almost certainly not be what Bakunin advocated. The most likely outcome seems to be that the military will take control.[3] At the very least, as Haim Malka wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the Egyptian military, the primary beneficiary of U.S. aid, will play a significant role in shaping the contours of the post-Mubarak system.”[4] And the fact that so many people in Egypt are Muslim—Islam means submission[5]—probably does not predispose them to anti-authoritarianism.

But Egypt’s people face Bakunin’s conundrum nonetheless. How except through force, can Hosni Mubarak, who apparently allowed influential people to believe he would step down and then reneged,[6] be removed? And given that power seems to be a disease, as addicting as the ring in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when the people with guns have power, who can compel them to relinquish it?

And those of us who have hoped that a change of government in Egypt might help to change the situation of the Palestinians must also note that Malka argues against a cut-off of military aid because he seeks to preserve U.S. influence in the future governance of Egypt,[7] and that this aid has been a reward for Egypt’s complicity in Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian territory.[8]

Egypt’s military has also been accused of detaining and torturing protesters.[9] So the crucial question for Egyptians is, how can violent revolution accomplish anything but to replace one set of thugs with another?

  1. [1]Marx and Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848), quoted in Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montreal: Black Rose, 1993), 121.
  2. [2]Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montreal: Black Rose, 1993), 121.
  3. [3]Reva Bhalla, “Egypt’s Tipping Point,” Stratfor, February 11, 2011
  4. [4]Haim Malka, “Military Aid to Egypt: A Critical Link,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 4, 2011.
  5. [5]Hans Küng, Islam: Past Present & Future, John Bowden, trans. (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).
  6. [6]Bhalla
  7. [7]Malka
  8. [8]Juan Cole, interview on Democracy Now!, “Egypt is a Praetorian Regime,” January 28, 2011; Juan Cole, “Egypt’s Class Conflict,” Informed Comment, January 30, 2011; Haaretz, “Egypt opposition figure: Peace treaty with Israel is ‘rock solid’,” February 6, 2011.; Joshua Mitnick, “An anxious Israel watches neighboring Egypt unravel,” Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2011.
  9. [9]Chris McGreal, “Egypt’s army ‘involved in detentions and torture’,” Guardian, February 9, 2011.

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