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Egypt and the Dialectic of Passive and Permanent Revolution

by Brecht De Smet on March 21, 2016

Although it is always difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern the emergence of a new epoch when you find yourself right in the middle of the process, there are strong indications that we are experiencing a watershed moment in the development of capitalism. Conjunctural crises such as the 2008 financial meltdown reveal the structural instabilities of the neoliberal system of deregulated capital flows, while the tendency toward increased authoritarianism and securitisation in both core and peripheral capitalist countries show the limits of bourgeois democracy to absorb mass discontent. At the same time, episodes such as the ‘Arab Spring’ sharply posit the relevance of ‘old’ categories such as revolution and counter-revolution for the 21st century. As moments of political hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, succeed one another rapidly, activists’ consciousness and understanding of unfolding events often tail-end the almost bipolar ebb and flow of popular initiative. In order to intervene successfully, activists have to make sense of the direction of the process as a whole and of the various instances of agency at work – their own included. Therefore, radical theory has to extend beyond the sphere of mere philosophical, political or economic critique – the unveiling of relations of power – and into the ‘interventionist’ domain of concrete emancipatory strategies and imaginaries.

TahrirArguably Antonio Gramsci is one of the key figures within this revolutionary tradition. His notion of a ‘philosophy of praxis’ challenged the rigid and mechanical framework of the dominant stream of Marxism in the late 1920s, advocating the development of an intellectually sophisticated, but also practice-oriented theory of social change. The last decade has witnessed a renewal of Gramscian theory in the Anglophone world. Key works such as Adam Morton’s Unravelling Gramsci (2007) and Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (2009) are moving away from leading postwar interpretations that cast the Sardinian Marxist in the restricted role of a ‘reformist’ and of a ‘cultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ thinker, re-appropriating his thought within the context of a new era of global capitalist crisis and struggle. My book Gramsci on Tahrir is a humble contribution to this ongoing debate. I investigate the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt and its relation to the broad historical development of capitalism through the combined lens of permanent and passive revolution. Conversely, the Egyptian experience is deployed as a means to think about general changes in state and class power.

Passive revolution is a concept that basically “captures various concrete historical instances in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations”. In spite of the adjective ‘passive’ this process of ‘revolution-restoration’ does not exclude sudden outbursts of street politics ‘from below’ and even mass uprisings. The concept draws our attention to the political initiative of dominant groups and their capacity to maintain power, through a ‘revolution from above’, in the sense of a gradual, elite-driven transformation of society, and/or by the deflection, fragmentation, and appropriation of popular movements. Faced with the stubborn survival of capitalism in the face of mass revolution and its rebirth in Fordism and Fascism, Gramsci formulated his theory of passive revolution as a “critical corollary” to Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Put simply: what if, indeed, the relations of production began to “fetter” the productive forces and “an era of social revolution” ensued, but the revolutionary proletariat was unable to conquer and transform the bourgeois state? Could this period of non-transition lead to anything else than the apocalyptic choice between “socialism or barbarism”?

Gramsci turned to the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, as a historical case study to ‘work out’ the concept of passive revolution, which, in turn, allowed him to understand the emergence of Fascism. Hence the concept of passive revolution does not function as a discrete political ‘form’, situated somewhere between ‘active’ revolution and counter-revolution, but, as a heuristic that “reveals specific class strategies and spatial practices that characterise capitalist society and how these have changed with the further development of capitalism.” It is, in Gramsci’s own words, a “criterion of interpretation”: a methodological searchlight that reveals the agency, agility, and adaptability of dominant groups that are able to survive their own hegemonic crises. Thus a nation’s history can be comprehended as a series of discrete revolutionary and passive-revolutionary episodes that are incorporated within long-term transformations of global capitalism.

In this regard “Gramsci on Tahrir” functions as a reading of Egypt’s modern history through the lens of its revolutionary upheavals and their displacements: the 1882 Urabi uprising; the 1919 revolution; the 1952 Free Officer coup; the 1977 ‘bread riots’; and the recent mass movements. Here the concept of passive revolution is complemented with Trotsky’s notion of ‘uneven and combined development’, for in the colonial and postcolonial world moments of capitalist constitution and reconstitution become a contemporaneous and protracted process – with important implications for emancipatory struggles. Even after formal independence was declared in 1922 Egypt remained a society in crisis, unable to free itself from its political and economic bondage to imperialism. The interventions of British capital and its alliance with the Egyptian crown and landlords blocked the formation of a capitalist ‘historical bloc’ and a transformation ‘from above’. Conversely, enduring conflicts and cleavages between subaltern groups prevented an alliance that could effectively overthrow state power. The process of permanent-passive revolution became itself deflected through the 1952 Free Officer coup. The military appeared as a neutral, third party that forcefully solved the Egyptian stalemate. However, despite its autonomy, the military did not act in a class vacuum. State power remained rooted in class power, which slowly shifted from the industrial bourgeoisie in the 1950s to the ‘popular classes’ in the 1960s – only to root itself back into parasitic rentier classes from the 1970s onward.

The Egyptian case indicates that the concept of passive revolution offers much more than a heuristic device, for it also probes into the very nature of capitalist class and state power. In his prison notebooks, Gramsci often returns to the case of the French Revolution, which poses the riddle of bourgeois hegemony (and its subsequent demise) – a riddle that Gramsci, in my opinion, never completely solves. In his “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844) Marx mentions how the political revolution of the French bourgeoisie in 1789 created:

…a moment in which this class fraternises and fuses with society in general, becomes identified with it and is experienced and acknowledged as its universal representative; a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the rights and claims of society itself and in which it is in reality the heart and head of society.

Gramsci elaborated upon this idea, adding that:

The previous ruling classes were essentially conservative in the sense that they did not tend to construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own, i.e. to enlarge their class sphere ‘technically’ and ideologically: their conception was that of a closed class. The bourgeois class poses itself as an organism in continuous movement, capable of absorbing the entire society, assimilating it to its own cultural and economic level. The entire function of the State has been transformed; the State has become an ‘educator’.

The French Revolution destroyed the ‘mechanical’ ensemble of feudal society, which consisted of self-contained corporate estates. Whereas feudal dominant classes ruled society almost ‘from the outside’, the bourgeoisie ruled by becoming society and, conversely, by offering the other classes a pathway to become bourgeois.

Although much has been written about ‘the state as educator’ in the above excerpt, the interesting concept of ‘organic passage’ (passaggio organico) itself has not been discussed at length. The importance of the concept cannot be underestimated, because the promise of an ‘organic passage’ of the broad population to the bourgeois class has been capitalism’s mobilising myth, functioning as the origin of the bourgeoisie’s hegemony – and of its systemic crisis. As Marx explains, the universality of the bourgeois project remains abstract, realised by separating a ‘political society’ from ‘civil society’ in which all citizens are equal before the law. Marx distinguishes between this restricted, abstract form of political emancipation and human or social emancipation, which liberates humanity from class society and alienation. At its core, the permanency of revolution in the modern, bourgeois age is the always-present, immanent possibility of social revolution to spring from the conditions of political revolution. Marx quipped in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that: ‘The parliamentary regime leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide?’ and, later in the Economic Manuscripts that, ‘[t]he political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery’.


The 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871 confirmed the thesis of permanent revolution in Marx’s eyes. Even if they ended up merely reconfiguring political relations, revolutions – in the sense of mass mobilisations from below contesting existing state power – always contained a ‘social soul’: concrete emancipatory practices that prefigured new social forms in the womb of capitalism. Functioning as passive revolution’s mirror heuristic, the concept of permanent revolution teases out the immanent social soul in a nation’s historical trajectory. In the case of Egypt, Tahrir is revealed as much more than a ‘democratic’ struggle against dictatorship. A desire for social justice and human dignity coincided with practices of popular self-organisation, which embodied the seeds of an alternative society based on equality, diversity, cooperation, and joyful labour. My book shows that these practices have lineages in earlier struggles, reaching back to the early twentieth century.

In its most radical, Jacobin, moment, the French Revolution already showed the fundamental contradiction at the heart of bourgeois hegemony: the promise of an organic passage of the whole of society into the state can never be fulfilled. As Peter Thomas argues, the key term ‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s writings is not a concept of a neutral political science that describes bourgeois and proletarian leadership in the same terms. The content of bourgeois and proletarian hegemony and its concrete methods of coercion and consent differ fundamentally. Nevertheless, despite this crucial distinction, Gramsci himself is ambiguous about the organic quality of bourgeois leadership at its earliest historical phase, positing a political homology between ‘bourgeois’ Jacobin and ‘proletarian’ Leninist class leadership. Echoing Marx, Gramsci is keen to point out that the progressive role of the bourgeoisie is already exhausted in the revolutions of 1848, as it began to forge alliances with Ancien Régime elites against the emerging proletariat and the spectre of social revolution. However, one could argue that the French Revolution’s  radical Jacobin moment, which created the myth of a bourgeois organic passage was already transgressing the bourgeoisie’s traditional strategy of class rule. Compromise, co-optation, fragmentation of the opposition, and molecular, gradual change engineered ‘from above’  – i.e., passive revolution – appear as the true hallmarks of capitalist state formation. In fact, the English Revolution or German unification are better archetypes of bourgeois state formation than the French Revolution as they show how dominant Ancien Régime groups were gradually transformed into fractions of capital.

WoodHence the premise of Gramsci’s investigation into the concepts of passive revolution and the ‘integral state’ is that, even though the bourgeois state is not a mechanical state, it is not genuinely organic either. Making a slight detour to Hegel I underline that the bourgeois state in fact supervises a “chemical” ensemble of classes, meaning that there is an apparently neutral relation between the bourgeois class and other social groups on the basis of their shared property as citizens or belonging to ‘the people’. As the late Ellen Meiksins Wood underlined, the history of class society is the history of the differentiation of class and state power, which reaches its pinnacle in bourgeois society. Here state power functions as a ‘middle term’ that mediates class relations, but this representative function is merely a means to the end of achieving bourgeois class power. In other words, it is due to the separation and autonomy of the state that the bourgeoisie is able to rule. Similarly, the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the bourgeoisie emerge mostly in separation of the class itself, within the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie or ‘middle classes’.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from the ‘chemical’ make-up of bourgeois state power. First, the rather common sense and self-evident deduction that bourgeois hegemony is inherently unstable and limited. Second, that political forms that appear historically as aberrations of bourgeois class rule – Bonapartist or Caesarist régimes –are in fact the purest expressions of bourgeois state power. Marx did not conceive of the Bonapartism and empire-crafting of Napoleon III as a regression to a pre-bourgeois phase, but as a development of modern capitalist class power. For the bourgeoisie it was much easier to be a ruling class that appeared to suffer the shared fate of all classes in society – to be subjugated in equal measure by imperial power – than to face the reality of being a class that cowardly refrained from completing its own democratic project. Thus the political dispossession of the bourgeoisie from state power guaranteed its class power. Likewise, Gramsci considered Fascism and parliamentary forms of ‘civil Caesarism’ as modern expressions of bourgeois domination. With this in mind, capitalism’s historical anomaly is not the authoritarianism of the interwar years, but the postwar democratisation of Western Europe’s institutions and the rise of the welfare state. This ‘counter-revolution in democratic form’, a defensive passive revolution sui generis, was rendered possible and necessary in unique circumstances of a powerful labour movement, discredited capitalist parties, a bipolar world order, and an economic boom sustained by a Fordist accumulation strategy.

Similarly, the rise of Nasserism in Egypt and of the ‘developmental state’ in much of the Global South was the unique and contingent result of national and global geopolitical and economic conditions. Decolonisation struggles in the 1950s and 1960s often deflected processes of both permanent and passive revolution, dethroning traditional elites and pushing back the forces of imperialism, but also preventing farmers, workers, and other subaltern groups from taking power. The use of a ‘blocked dialectic’ to describe this process – drawing from Christine Buci-Glucksmann – would be incorrect, as the crisis of imperialist capitalism in core and peripheral countries produced new (capitalist) social forms that did not represent either “socialism or barbarism” and which actually developed the means of production.

Abdel_Fattah_el-SisiThe emergence of neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s is a reiteration of prewar imperialism, complete with novel forms of Caesarist state power, which undermine the democratic institutions of bourgeois democracy, for example by relocating political and economic decision-making to supranational entities such as the IMF and the elusive ‘financial markets’. In Europe the recent Greek debt crisis illustrates how capital is able to subdue recalcitrant bourgeois parliaments and a national, sovereign, popular will by international and transnational coercive forces such as the ECB. In Egypt, popular initiative was displaced twice, in 2011 and 2013, by the military apparatus that, in a classical Caesarist way, had to affirm the independence of the state in order to assure the rule of rentier capital. The ‘deep state’ has been coated with a thin layer of democratic legitimacy, which cannot contain the lingering contradictions of the Mubarak era: how can economic development, social justice, and political democracy ever be achieved by a dependent, rentier capitalist class that still operates as a client state for US-imperialism in the region? President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s charismatic leadership of the counter-revolution is already waning in the face of subsidy cuts and increasing police violence. From the perspective of the ruling elites, in order to deflect the dialectic of permanent revolution in a structural manner, Egypt’s political and economic system has to be reformed and important concessions have to be made to the farmers, workers, unemployed youth, street vendors, et cetera, who risked their lives during the uprising. However, the enduring crisis of global capitalism and the arrogance and unwillingness of the dominant groups to engage in a ‘revolution from above’ that offers different goals and recipes than an iteration of the Washington consensus means that in the middle-long term the country is heading to a new bifurcation: either a reassertion of open dictatorship that violently represses the existing political and social movements; or the revival and triumph of the struggle from below.

This analysis has immediate repercussions for an emancipatory politics today. Firstly, it concedes that authoritarian state power is not an expression of an ‘incomplete’ or ‘developing’ capitalism, but the very essence of a mature bourgeois society. Secondly, it understands the specific and local process of counter-revolution in Egypt as part of a general and global process of capitalist crisis and resistance. From these two conclusions we can deduce that any ‘stage theory’ and transitology that demands the construction of a (bourgeois) democratic framework before the implementation of radical social reforms is inherently reactionary. The brief ‘democratic’ episode of the presidency of Muhammad Morsi illustrates the impossibility of ‘democratisation’ without the revolutionary overthrow of the ‘deep state’ and a fundamental change of power relations – not only within Egypt, but also between national and regional and international forces (e.g., USA, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia). At this point Gramscian theory reveals its interventionist character. Permanent revolution and subaltern hegemony offer not only a methodological tool for political science, but also a conscious strategy for social change.

Brecht De Smet
Brecht De Smet (MA, PhD) is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, where he teaches 'politics of globalisation' and 'politics of the contemporary Middle East'. Since 2008 De Smet has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, investigating the relation between political activism and independent trade unionism from a broad Gramscian perspective. De Smet has written on the workers' movement, the concepts of hegemony and passive revolution, political pedagogy, and social and political protest in Egypt. His recent books are "A Dialectical Pedagogy of Revolt. Gramsci, Vygotsky, and the Egyptian Revolution" (Brill, 2015) and "Gramsci on Tahrir. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt" (Pluto Press, 2016).

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