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The never-ending relevance of Gramsci

by Kayhan Valadbaygi on July 3, 2017

The revolutionary events of late 2010 in Tunisia not only reinvigorated mass emancipatory politics in the Arab world but also inspired social movements all around the globe. For many, particularly on the left, the Arab Uprising – the term often used for these revolutionary waves – was not wishful thinking about the possibility of a permanent revolution. Rather, it signified a real possibility of a transition from political to social emancipation by popular mass movements. In reality, however, these mass uprisings have led to either devastating civil wars or the restoration of the old ruling classes. In the case of Egypt, the counter-revolution of 2015, which vanished altogether the hope of radical socio-economic transformation arising from the revolutionary turmoil of 2011, reinstated the neoliberal strategy of capital accumulation and put the pre-revolutionary military and bureaucratic elites in power again. Startlingly, this restoration was accomplished on the basis of mass mobilisation in support of the military. Brecht De Smet’s Gramsci on Tahrir: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt is an endeavour to understand these bewildering dynamics of the revolution and restoration, by deploying Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony, passive revolution and Caesarism.

The book is organised into two parts: ‘On the Subject of Revolution’ and ‘Gramsci in Egypt’. The first part is a theoretical discussion where Gramsci’s concepts are explored. Rather than presenting these concepts schematically and logically, the author allows an organic emergence of the concepts through an investigation of the constitution of capitalism in Europe. The first thing that may come to mind is how it is possible to comprehend the Egyptian revolution through probing capitalist developmental trajectories in Europe without not falling into the trap of Eurocentrism.  To avoid the denunciation, De Smet argues that a dialectical deployment rather than ‘quotation-mongering’ of Gramsci’s concepts provides ‘conceptual threads that weave together a new narrative, which engages with problems relevant to our time and place’ as in the case of the Egyptian revolution. After thoroughly examining the history of the concepts of passive and permanent revolution in chapters 2 and 3, it is argued that they ‘emerge as twin concepts that struggle for predominance’ at the time of an organic crisis of capitalism. As the ‘blocked dialectic’ of permanent revolution, which brings about the subaltern self-emancipation through the hegemony of the working class beyond only achieving democratic reforms, passive revolution is a counter-revolution from above by the ruling classes to deviate or at best partially fulfil the demands of subaltern classes for a far-reaching transformation of the society. The following chapter on the concept of Caesarism sheds light on the various relations between state and class to differentiate between bourgeois hegemony and Caesarism. Directly linked to the dynamics of permanent/passive revolution, Caesarism is interpreted as the intervention of ‘a third party’ in the presence of a stalemate between opposing social class forces, subaltern and ruling classes, in favour of either, producing therefore a progressive or reactionary Caesarism depending on historical circumstances.

The second part, comprising five chapters, scrutinises the history of Egypt from the nineteenth century to 2015, linking its historical trajectory to the expansion of capitalism as the world-historical process in order to analyse the January 25 Revolution. After dealing with Egypt’s subordination to British Imperialism during the nineteenth century and the revolution of the early twentieth century that brought independence to the country in 1922, the Free Officers’ movement of the 1950s is depicted as a form of Caesarism. For the societal stalemate that created as a consequence of the disorganisation of the state power by the anticolonial forces who were not yet able to forge a successful counter-hegemony to seize the state power eventually resolved by the Free Officer’s Coup. Although it was claimed that the agency of the working class was an essential constituent of the class alliance of ‘Arab socialism’, the Nasserist regime marginalised their agency due to its top-down state-led industrialisation programme, the author notes. Accordingly, as part of the postcolonial developmental states of post-World War II, Egypt under Nasser abolished feudal social relations of production to accommodate the consensual Fordist accumulation strategy that manifested itself in Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI). Despite implementing pro-subaltern class policies such as land reform, welfare and education, the author characterises Nasser as ‘a popular Bonaparte’ rather than ‘a Modern Prince’ as his intervention blocked the possibility of a permanent revolution arose from the anti-imperialist era through subordinating the will of the subaltern classes to the military dictatorship. The organic crisis of Nasserism and the transformation of the global economy under neoliberal lines compelled the leading strata of the bloc to introduce a new accumulation strategy and recomposed the class basis of the state under Sadat’s Open Door Policy in the 1970s. De Smet’s central point here is that despite being qualitatively different forms of revolution from above (the 1919 revolution, Nasserism, and Sadat’s neoliberal reforms) all represent ‘a historical process for which the concept of passive revolution highlights the various forms in which the dynamic of permanent revolution is replaced by initiative from above’, indicating the expediency of the concept for analysing the trajectories of change in the country.

The enlargement of the neoliberal reforms after Mubarak came into power under the guidance of the IMF and the World Bank in the 1990s indicated the authoritarian character of the regime and the intensification of the class struggle due to its unstable historical bloc. Understanding through this lens, the author construes the recent revolution as a mass mobilisation against the global neoliberal offensive. In chapter 7, after fascinatingly narrating the revolutionary events between 2011 and 2013, he concludes that the mass mobilisation missed the opportunity to establish ‘a means of exercising power’ and the working class was unable to construct hegemony over the revolution. Hence, the inability of the Egyptian working class to move the political revolution to a social revolution because of the lack of a directive centre precipitated the consolidation of the counter-revolution in a Caesarist form under the leadership of the Commander-in-Chief, el-Sisi. Ironically, the civil-democratic demands of the mass movement were embodied and personified in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Comparing the recent coup with the previous one in 1952, the writer argues that while Nasser abolished feudalism and pushed back imperialism – and could be characterised as progressive albeit from a world-historical perspective and not from an emancipatory perspective – the Caesarism of Sisi is inherently reactionary as it has not to a great extent changed the neoliberal accumulation strategy and the power of the old ruling classes.

This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and provocative analyses of not only the recent Egyptian revolution but also the history of the country’s capitalist development, documenting its complexity and dynamics in a convincing way. The most intriguing aspect of the book is the demonstration of the usefulness of Gramsci’s concepts in documenting an interrelationship between international and internal determinants to understand the particularity of capitalist development in different epochs in Egypt since the concepts allow a move beyond just describing the structural conditionings of global capitalism, through incorporating the local class struggle in the analysis. Therefore, producing a study that makes Gramsci’s concepts relevant to the understanding of the history of the expansion of capitalism into the periphery, and in particular its recent development in our era, in a coherent way makes the book certainly a worthwhile read.

Kayhan Valadbaygi
Kayhan Valadbaygi is a doctoral candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).
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  • July 3, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Correction: The counrer-revolution (the coup) in Egypt you are referring to was in July 2013, not 2015.
    Personally, I believe there have been two coups.
    The case of Tunisia should be nuanced and not described in as a restoration of the old regime. A faction of the old regime with an alliance of the main Islamist part and some liberals and leftists, constitute the new regime. Socially and economically there has been no change, but worsening of people’s conditions.

  • Ali Guvenc
    July 6, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Similar history in Turkey…It will be a great comparative analysis and contribution with reference to S. Amin and Gramsci.

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