In a piece on Jadaliyya, labor historian and scholar of the Egyptian revolution Joel Beinin engages critically with my article entitled “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt.” Beinin takes issue with two lines of argument developed in the text. The first is my rejection of a “consequentialist” perspective towards revolution, which means that I do not think a process should be deemed a revolution or not solely based on its objective outcomes. The second is the relevance of Gramscian concepts such as “Caesarism” and “passive revolution” to understand the unfolding process in Egypt—in particular as something more complicated than either a successful revolution or counter-revolution. I welcome this opportunity to discuss these theoretical problems, as they have direct political ramifications.
The bulk of Beinin’s piece engages with my use of Gramscian concepts in the context of the Egyptian revolution, which he deems “obscurantist” and a case of “promiscuous” “over-theorizing” and “theoretical verbiage.” I agree with Beinin that theory has to play a productive role in understanding concrete reality, instead of being a merely academic thought exercise. Recent scholarship (e.g., Thomas 2009) has affirmed the internal consistency of the ideas and concepts of Antonio Gramsci contrary to the claims of older interpretations (e.g., Anderson 1976). However, one might doubt if the author of the prison notebooks has anything of use to say about the contemporary situation in Egypt. Indeed, the task of theory is not to subsume empirical realities under simple abstracts such as “passive revolution” or “Caesarism,” but to investigate how these concepts advance a concrete understanding of present problems. Recent publications and debates show, however, the enduring relevance and pertinence of Gramsci’s thought to understanding processes of political and economic transformation in the Global South.
Gramsci’s concept of “Caesarism” is rooted in Karl Marx’s concept of “Bonapartism,” formulated in the “18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.” Marx investigated the substitution of the bourgeoisie’s class agency by the individual figure of Napoleon III and the state in general. Gramsci argued that this form of political substitution could take on many forms, both progressive and reactionary, military and civil, quantitative (implementing cosmetic changes) and qualitative (transforming the very structures of state and society). His other concept of “passive revolution” or “revolution-restoration” serves to interpret the process of (1) “elite-engineered social and political reform that draws on foreign capital and associated ideas while lacking a national-popular base”; and (2) “how a revolutionary form of political transformation is pressed into a conservative project of restoration but is linked to insurrectionary mass mobilisation from below.”
In Egypt, many activists, media outlets, and scholars were caught off guard by the events of June and July 2013, attempting to force the events in the absolute categories of “coup” or “revolution,” even though the processes underlying these events clearly displayed contradictory tendencies. What Gramsci offers through his concepts of passive revolution and Caesarism is not another “regime typology,” but, in his own words, a “criterion of interpretation”: a methodological device to investigate the contemporary and historical process. The complex interplay of actors, action, and intentions in a revolutionary process should not be simply reduced to one pole of the equation: revolution or counter-revolution (“restoration”). On the other hand, close investigation should reveal the dominant tendency of the process. In my article, I deployed Caesarism and passive revolution as conceptual tools that elucidate the important differences and similarities between the interventions of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). I argue that these concepts shed light on the contradiction between the counter-revolutionary goals of the generals and their hegemonic debt to a mass movement that understands itself as a revolutionary force. The theoretical challenge does not lie in understanding the aims and nature of the military leadership, but in the success of the SCAF’s restorative policies in a context of revolution.
Of course, the pressing question of how restoration can be an integral part of revolutionary politics, and vice versa, becomes moot when one claims, as Beinin does, that “The January 25 Revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred”. Beinin simply reiterates that we can only determine the character of the process after it has run its course and its outcomes are clear. This ignores the core of my argument: a consequentialist view turns a particular outcome of the revolutionary process into a primary determinant of its categorization. The notion of a failed revolution becomes problematic if its success becomes a precondition of its definition. If a revolution is characterized by a transformation of political and/or economic structures, how can we distinguish between a successful counter-revolution (and thus a failed revolution) and the absence of revolution? Furthermore, why is Beinin hesitant to call the current process a revolution, while on the other hand, he agrees that “it is clear that counterrevolution is on the offensive?” Can there be counter-revolution without revolution?
Against Theda Skocpol’s (1979) structuralist definition, Jack Goldstone, a leading scholar of the “fourth generation” of research on revolutions, suggested revolution as: “An effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilization and non-institutionalized actions that undermine authorities.” (Goldstone 2001: 142, my emphasis) This is not just a semantic debate on the word meaning of revolution, but it suggests a difference in the very subject matter of revolution studies. When Beinin asserts–wrongly–that “De Smet wants to term virtually any significant historical change a revolution of some sort” he maintains a focus on objective historical change as the benchmark for revolution. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of “teleological understanding of the nature of the historical process” that he ascribes to me, for the complete nature and course of the fickle revolutionary process is judged with hindsight on the basis of its outcomes. Conversely, I advocate a different research object: the non-linear and fragile development of a revolutionary subject and its emancipatory politics, which anticipate and project a future society. What determines the character of a struggle as a revolution is the specific ensemble of actions and intentions of its participants who, at that point, do not yet know the outcome of their fight, but evidently hope that they will succeed. These elements can be discerned before, during and after the 25 January uprising in the chain of social and political protests and movements that make up the process of revolution. The insurrection against Mubarak was a crucial moment, because the revolutionary movement that had been already there, in an undeveloped, implicit, and hidden form, was suddenly rendered explicit and salient in its mass shape.
Beinin is loath to make any “prediction” at all with regard to the unfolding revolution, and although I agree that–luckily–the future is not fixed, there is a need to assess the path dependencies and potential lines of development that flow from the current situation in order to articulate a revolutionary politics. The success of the current counter-revolution is not evidence of the lack of revolution, but of the hegemonic capacity of ruling elites to continue to mediate political and economic problems and deflect far-reaching societal transformations. It is the primary strength as well as the weakness of the current power bloc that it is rooted in the revolutionary mobilization and historical expectations of the masses. Even though it is too soon to form a definite opinion of the revolution, an indefinite analysis already shows how this enormous contradiction has to end in either a reinvigoration of the revolutionary process, or the consolidation of the counter-revolution.
Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” New Left Review, Vol. 1, No. 100 (1976).
Jack Goldstone, “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” in Annual Review of Political Science 4, edited by Nelson W. Polsby, (Palo Alto, California: Annual Reviews, 2001), 139-187.
Theda Skocpol, “State and Revolution: Old Regimes and Revolutionary Crises in France, Russia, and China,” Theory and Society, Vol. 7, No. 1-2 (1979): 7-95.
Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden: Brill: 2009).