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On Revolutions and Defeated Revolutionary Movements: A Reply to Brecht De Smet

[6 May 2011, graffiti in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, Egypt. Image originally post to Flickr by Hossam el-Hamalawy.] [6 May 2011, graffiti in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, Egypt. Image originally post to Flickr by Hossam el-Hamalawy.]

I thank Becht De Smet for replying to my critique of his “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt.”  Theoretical debates seeking to evaluate the applicability of general social science concepts to Middle East studies are all too rare.  Engaging in them de-exceptionalizes the region and may help make it legible to a broad intellectual audience beyond the ranks of specialists. 

For that reason it is important to clarify that De Smet and I do not disagree at all about the potential relevance of Gramsci’s theoretical insights to understanding the historical processes unfolding in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa since the uprisings of 2010-11.  “Caesarism” and “passive revolution” are important concepts and provide insights into the 1952 Free Officers coup/revolution, for example.  The disagreement is about De Smet’s over-use of these terms in a way that effectively undermines their analytical utility.

De Smet correctly notes that Gramsci’s discussion of “Caesarism” builds on Marx’s use of the term in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon – a brilliant historical account of the denouement of the French revolutionary movement of 1848 in which followers of Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon's nephew) undermined parliamentary democracy and paved the way for a military coup in 1851 that culminated in Bonaparte’s proclaiming himself Emperor Napoleon III a year later.  In his Preface to the second (1869) edition Marx expresses his hope that his analysis,

[W]ill contribute toward eliminating the school-taught phrase now current, particularly in Germany, of so-called Caesarism.  In this superficial historical analogy the main point is forgotten, namely, that in ancient Rome the class struggle took place only within a privileged minority, between the free rich and the free poor, while the great productive mass of the population, the slaves, formed the purely passive pedestal for these combatants.

In other words, the anti-democratic military-based regimes in ancient Rome and mid-nineteenth century France, and, we might add, twentieth and twenty-first century Egypt are only superficially similar.  The key to understanding the difference is class analysis.

De Smet believes that Caesarism and passive revolution are “conceptual tools that elucidate the important differences and similarities between the interventions of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”  My response is that the two military interventions are so obviously different that this high level of theoretical abstraction is neither necessary nor helpful in understanding the difference.  The more important historical task is to understand why so many Egyptians believe that they are similar, or at least that in both cases the army acted in the national interest. 

Since 1882 Egypt’s popular classes have repeatedly attempted to undertake a “forcible entrance into the realm of rulership over their own destiny” – that is to carry out a revolution as Trotsky defined it in The History of the Russian Revolution.  They have been serially blocked by British imperialism, Egypt’s large-landowners, the military, (under Abdel Nasser and the SCAF/al-Sisi), the later actively supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia.  The problem is to explain this dynamic.  Applying the term “passive revolution” and its variants to the complex historical processes involved at best simplifies things and at worst obfuscates the distinction between a successful revolution and a defeated social movement with revolutionary aspirations.

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