In his reply to my previous contribution on Jadaliyya, Joel Beinin addresses some of the points he raised earlier in his criticism of my article “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt”. Having dropped the debate on the character and the meaning of ‘revolution’, Beinin now focuses on my “over-use” of Gramscian concepts, which “undermines their analytical utility”. It is good to hear that he agrees with “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.” His disagreement with my deployment of these insights to the Egyptian case can therefore only mean two things. Either I have not been successful in presenting and articulating a productive Gramscian analysis, or Beinin and I do not share an understanding of what these analytical concepts exactly are, and how they should be put to use.
In the first case, readers of the original article have to judge for themselves whether the analysis adds something valuable to the debate on the character of the ongoing counterrevolution or not. I welcome further comments and criticisms as I have the opportunity to reengage with the question at length when writing my upcoming book on Egypt and passive revolution for the Pluto Press Reading Gramsci Series this fall.
In the second case, it would be interesting to continue the current debate, as it highlights the role of concepts in understanding history. Beinin argues that the concepts of Caesarism and passive revolution are of such a “high level of theoretical abstraction” that they cannot help us understand what is really going on. He cites Marx’s disdain for the use of “so-called Caesarism” as a “superficial historical analogy” that misses the essence of different historical processes. The implicit message is that I use the concept of Caesarism merely as a “superficial historical analogy”. The explicit conclusion is that “anti-democratic military-based regimes” in Ancient Rome, mid-nineteenth century France, twentieth and twenty-first century Egypt “are only superficially similar” and that “class analysis” should be used to understand their difference.
Here Beinin confuses a critique of difference and identity with one of form and content. Of course, in history, everything is different but the same. If Caesarism is rejected because the historical regimes in 1882, 1919, 1952 and 2011 were so fundamentally “different”, why then are the categories of “defeated social movement with revolutionary aspirations”, “class”, or “revolution”, still relevant as trans-historical universals? Were not the people that protested in these revolutionary episodes as “different” a subject as the regimes they contested? To paraphrase Heraclitus: “one may step in the same river, but other waters continually flow through it”.
In order to use concepts at all, distinctions should be made, not only between the essential and the superficial, but also between form and content. This was also Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse, when he criticized bourgeois economists for equating the content of medieval and capitalist rent. Although their form coincided, their content was fundamentally different as they were embedded in other modes of production. With regard to the pure, abstract form of Caesarism, Gramsci later observed:
“Caesarism can be said to express a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner; that is to say, they balance each other in such a way that a continuation of the conflict can only terminate in their reciprocal destruction. When the progressive force A struggles with the reactionary force B, not only may A defeat B or B defeat A, but it may happen that neither A nor B defeats the other—that they bleed each other mutually and then a third force C intervenes from outside, subjugating what is left of both A and B.”
In its form, Caesarism denotes a process of substitutionism: the appropriation of the agency of one or more group by another force. Following Marx’s caveat in the 18th Brumaire, Gramsci was conscious of the danger of using “Caesarism” as a superficial analogy:
“Caesarism… does not in all cases have the same historical significance… each form can, in the last analysis, be reconstructed only through concrete history, and not by means of any sociological rule of thumb. […] The problem is to see whether in the dialectic "revolution/restoration" it is revolution or restoration which predominates. […] It is possible to render the hypothesis ever more concrete, to carry it to an ever greater degree of approximation to concrete historical reality, and this can be achieved by defining certain fundamental elements.”
Roman Caesarism, German Bonapartism, and Egyptian Nasserism may share the same form, but their content is “obviously different”. Roman Caesarism does not offer a model for understanding the complex, contemporary problem of military intervention in Egypt. Indeed, as Beinin notes, “the key to understanding the difference is class analysis”, which is, in the Egyptian context, an investigation of the neoliberal reconfiguration of the post-populist ‘historical bloc’—another Gramscian term denoting the historically developed unity of base and superstructures, the ensemble of dominating and subordinated classes, and the methods of hegemony and domination. Beinin and I are thus in full agreement that “The more important historical task is to understand why so many Egyptians believe that [the Nasserist and current military intervention] are similar, or at least that in both cases the army acted in the national interest.”
However, what Beinin calls a “high level of theoretical abstraction” is a necessary detour before engaging in any such serious empirical study. Drawing insights from resonant historical events requires first the recognition of their similar form before a comparative analysis of their different content may follow. Moreover, interpreting such events require the formation and application of precise concepts that enable a critical unfolding of their complexity. As I asserted before, I fully share Beinin’s concern about abstract theory that “at best simplifies things and at worst obfuscates the distinction between a successful revolution and a defeated social movement with revolutionary aspirations.” In fact, the reason that concepts such as passive revolution or revolution-restoration and Caesarism or Bonapartism are useful for understanding the current predicament is precisely because they defy simple binaries, as I explained at length in my previous contribution.
There is obviously a difference in understanding, or a misunderstanding, between us regarding the part that concepts play in comprehending the historical process. I emphasized, both in the original piece and in my subsequent reply, that the role of concepts is not to create a typology of regimes, simply categorizing diverse historical processes as ‘a form of’ passive revolution. I actually criticized Robert Cox and Omnia al-Shakry’s uses of the concept of passive revolution, for being too much a model or ideal-type and not a ‘criterion of interpretation’ as Gramsci argued. Yet Beinin continues to represent my argument as fitting complex historical processes into preconceived, abstract categories.
Historical analysis is not (or should not be) a formal exercise of checking boxes to see if processes A and B ‘possess’ enough attributes to label them as either a passive or genuine revolution, coup or revolution, and so on. The utility of concepts is not to reduce the rich content of the historical process to one, simple word. On the contrary, concepts should generate knowledge, as they bring out relations within and between different phenomena. Understanding history is not merely following the story, but also disentangling the plot behind the ensemble of “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live”. When used as mere ‘labels’ of regimes or events, the notions of Caesarism and passive revolution lose their power of explanation. However, when they are deployed as methodological searchlights, they may reveal the crucial, but often implicit or hidden contradictions and coherence within and between historical processes such as the ‘coup-revolutions’ of 1952, 2011, and 2013.
For example, the concept of Caesarism invites us to investigate the current outcome of the uprising in terms of a contradiction between: (1) the power of revolutionary mobilization and the weakness of popular self-organization; (2) the people’s mandate for the military’s rule and the generals’ own political and economic interests; (3) the army’s appropriation of historical expectations regarding its role as a defender of the national good, and its inability and unwillingness to pay back this hegemonic debt to the population; (4) the desire of the generals to exercise power through a stable state structure instead of fickle popular mobilization, and the lack of an efficient hegemonic apparatus (e.g., a party) that can organize such bureaucratic rule.
Moreover, Gramsci’s formal distinction (and emphasis on the shifts) between ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ types of Caesarism guides an analysis of post-insurrectionary politics, differentiating between policies that are merely cosmetic and preserve the status-quo, and others that fundamentally change class and international relations, state forms, ideological superstructures, and the overall accumulation strategy—either in progressive or reactionary directions. For example, whereas the political violence and economic carrot-and-stick policies of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011 could be understood as the blunt survival strategy of a regime faced with a mass uprising, Sisi’s attack on the Muslim Brotherhood and leftist opposition forces clearly functions within the framework of a renewed neoliberal economic offensive and a reassertion of regional (Saudi Arabia) and international (US) alliances. Finally, Gramsci’s conception of forms of ‘civil’ Caesarism draws our attention to the continuities of Caesarist dynamics even in the context of a formally democratic regime, which is useful for understanding the opportunities and limits of the rule of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
This brief outline indicates the value of a Gramscian analysis, as it underlines the vertical, hegemonic relations between ruling and subaltern factions. It helps reveal the contradictions between their content and form, appearance and reality, expectation and fulfillment, and historicity and immediacy—thus opening up spaces for revolutionary politics.