An Arab revolutionary legacy?

On the tenth anniversary of the Arab revolutions, Yassin Al Haj Saleh discusses rigid revolutionary traditions, characterizes the Arab revolutionary tradition as soft and post-communist, and calls for scrutinizing the notion of the end of revolutions.

[Editor's note: This article is the fifth in a series published in collaboration with Mada Masr to mark the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. It is also available in Arabic.]

A tradition is unchanging rules that govern human action, a revolution is a transformative event that follows no predetermined path. As far as a “revolutionary tradition” is a contradictory term, it also tends to obliterate the revolutionary event and impose its rules upon it. This is remarkably evinced in the communist “hard tradition,” a reflection upon which may shed light on today’s revolutions.

The communist tradition assumes three revolutionary preconditions: theoretical (Marxism), practical (class struggle) and organizational (the working-class party). It thus strips the revolution of its subjectivity and treats it as a “science” or ready-made scheme, rather than a dynamic relationship between certain actors and situations. Eradicating the soviets, which demonstrated the subjectivity and creativity of the Russian revolution, was justified by the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the science of revolution continued to cast doubts on revolutions that did not resemble its own, considering communist rule to be “the end of history.” This was translated into crushing any revolutions that take place in Communist-ruled, USSR-allied countries by force of tanks, as happened in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), giving birth to the word “tankies” or militant anti-revolutionists. The communist tradition turned into an anti-revolutionary tradition when revolution mutated into a hard tradition: unchanging doctrine and rules of action, dispensing with the need to know anything relevant about the countries concerned.

The Arab revolutions are post-communist in that they came after the discrediting of communist tradition, though they fall within no other particular tradition. Truth be told, we hardly have any revolutionary accumulation, and our modern memory of rebellions revolves mainly around decolonization, with a brief history of anti-authoritarian struggle that did not achieve a breakthrough to form a tradition. This helps explain why our revolutions stumbled, and at the same time imbues them with a quality of newness and experimentation.

But does that mean that we entered into an explosive and utterly chaotic event without any organization or preliminary ideas? Not exactly, unless what is meant by “organization” is a party of the Leninist type, and by “ideas” a doctrine like Marxism-Leninism.

There had always been protest movements, even in a country like Syria, and democratic change was the guiding idea of ​​an active segment of the early revolutionaries, all of whom were crushed by death, disappearance or exile. In its beginnings, the Syrian revolution appeared as a cross-fertilization of the protest experiences that followed Damascus Spring, which had taken place in self-censoring, private spaces, and the protest method innovated by the Arab Spring, manifested in peaceful assembly in openly rebellious public spaces. However, both the pre-revolutionary and the borrowed protest method evaporated in the heat of an imposed war. It later felt as if everything had begun at the revolution, which increasingly seemed like an absolute beginning without a before.

In interaction with a recent book by Asef Bayat, I distinguish between revolutionaries for, who have a hard tradition, and who imitate successful revolutions to the point of potentially extinguishing the subjectivity of their own; and revolters against, who do not follow previous examples, and who define themselves by their enemy, risking to leave no trace if their revolution was conquered. In Syria, we have many revolters and few revolutionaries.

That is why Islamists, and Salafists in particular, were more prepared to win the survival struggle in conditions of an all-out war. Indeed, the Syrian revolution served as a proliferation environment for the Salafist-jihadist structure, which strived to reproduce itself wherever it could. The Salafist-jihadist tradition is the Islamic equivalent Marxism-Leninism, premising its revolution similarly on three preconditions: theoretical (Salafism, or literalism), practical (holy war), and organizational (jihadist groups involved in guerrilla warfare). Here, too, the battle is condensed into a hard tradition and living symbols, which completely strips the revolutionary event of its subjectivity in favor of “science,” i.e. the sharia of “the pious predecessors.” Of course, there is a normative difference between the communist and the jihadist content, and intelligence agencies and persecution of the Afghan religious sphere played a formative role in the latter. But what concerns us here is the parallel organizational structures, beliefs and brutalities, the “methods” and “traditions,” and the rigid identities guarded by strict rules of allegiance and disavowal.

There is an Arab revolutionary tradition that took shape in the past decade, and it is our belonging to it that draws us to the new wave of revolutions in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria, as well as the protests of Hong Kong, France and others. However, it is more fitting to speak of a “soft tradition” or a revolutionary “legacy” with which to consult and acquaint ourselves. It seems that successful revolutions leave behind hard traditions and strict models to be emulated, whereas failed revolutions leave experiences, stories, and debates; lessons to be learnt and cautions to be heeded.

Consequently, it is necessary to revise what we mean by success or failure as far as revolutions are concerned. We may even think that every revolution is multiple revolutions, some succeed and some fail. What has failed in particular was political change, which would have changed the country’s political and psychological climate and triggered different social and political dynamics. In fact, the multiplicity of the revolution calls for scrutinizing the very notion of the end of revolutions.

Revolutions are learning curves, episodes of the larger process constituting the revolutionary legacy or the soft revolutionary tradition. We already have a revolutionary memory, and we have learned valuable lessons and morals that will serve a vital role in the coming years. Indeed, what we have now and what has already been achieved is foundational and goes beyond stories and anecdotes:

Above all, we gained back our right to speech, breaking forever the previous monopoly by the regime and its allies.

In addition, a revolution of subjectivities has notably taken place, allowing a large number of liberated individuals to reclaim their destinies and manage their own affairs.

A violation of taboos, furthermore, has been expansive and widely expressed, whether in relation to religion, sex, or gender roles, let alone a constant and now normalized violation of political power, which had been the strongest of taboos and an incubator of all others.

Finally, the experience of exile can be a significant starting point for new ideas and distinct sensibilities.

There are things in the Syrian revolution that ended years ago, perhaps two years into the revolution or even earlier, but other things go on. The revolution is resumable today and tomorrow as far as other revolutions and shifts in our spheres of actions continue to happen.