Moshé Machover: The long road to the Arab revolution

By Moshé Machover, Weekly Worker – 31 March 2011

Moshé Machover addressed last weekend’s CPGB aggregate on the defeat of the Libyan revolution, Al-Jazeera, and the goal of Arab unity

Moshé Machover

Moshé Machover

It is very difficult to talk in a coherent way about a process which is unfolding and where things are changing all the time. What I would like to do is to initiate a discussion and explore some ideas about where the revolution is going, and what we should expect in both the short term and longer term.

But, given the contention on the left, I think we should start with Libya. There is a lot of confusion, and I think that this is partly for understandable reasons. I am not referring here to the ‘confusion’ of those who effectively cheer the imperialist intervention. Groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are in my opinion simply social-imperialists.

I am actually talking about socialists – people I regard as comrades, such as Gilbert Achcar, who is not a social-imperialist and is very critical of western intervention and of this ‘coalition of the willing’ (and partly unwilling!) that is being sent to ‘protect’ the Libyan revolution.

There is a genuine problem, and it would be unfortunate to appear callous and uncaring about the fate of those in Benghazi who were penned in and faced the terrible prospect of being massacred. Given the despair they are in, I would not actually be too critical of them for calling on the so-called ‘international community’ for help.

We have to be clear that the ‘international community’ is itself an ideological construct, a term used in order to conflate the US-led global hierarchy of states on the one hand and global public opinion on the other. There is world public opinion – civil society – which has real humanitarian concerns, and then there is the so-called ‘international community’, which is the nom de guerre of the US and its followers.

Why Libya?

Why did they go for Libya and not other places? For me there are three main reasons. Firstly, there is the question of oil. Do not underestimate this factor. Of course, the quantity of oil Libya offers is next to nothing in comparison to Saudi Arabia, but it is its quality which makes them interested in it. It is just about the best oil you can find, particularly for aircraft fuel.

Secondly, they have been asked to intervene this time around, which is crucial in providing them with an ideological and political cover: nobody asked them in Egypt or in Yemen; nobody even asked them in Bahrain.

Thirdly, although Gaddafi’s Libya ceased to be a ‘rogue state’ from around 2003, there is some truth in the claim that, from the standpoint of the imperialists, Gaddafi is still a rogue. Why? Well he is obviously a little bit crazy and very unreliable for them. So, although he is ‘our friend’ now (or was until very recently!), he was never somebody who could be fully trusted, as he is unstable in every possible manner – including mentally. How anybody can take him seriously after hearing him speak is simply beyond me.

The Saudis are also cautiously in favour of intervention in Libya because they do not like Gaddafi either. They remember all his leanings towards Islamic Maoism, the Little green book and his own conception of jamahiriya (people’s power). The Saudi regime is very traditionalist and as such they find all of this stuff very unsettling. Gaddafi has created his own ideology – even his own version of Islam! This has also been a factor in ensuring that he has very few allies in the Arab world more generally.

Anyway, I would like to comment on Achcar’s remarks about Libya. Whilst he is wrong to lend support to the intervention, he has a few sensible things to say on the situation and I would recommend reading him.[1]

But he omits some important things. It is my view that the Libyan revolution is already defeated. From the moment the Interim Transitional National Council felt it had to invite this intervention it became clear that it was unable to overthrow the regime. As Marx observed a long time ago, revolution is needed not only to overthrow the powers that be, but also to transform the people who are making it – the process of revolution is a transformative one which gives the masses confidence in their ability to change things and to be masters of their own fate. Once you call on other forces to intervene, all this is lost, and in this sense it is a defeat.

The second remark which I think I would add to Achcar’s analysis is this. It may well be that inviting these forces into Libya is the lesser evil, compared to being slaughtered. But it is still an evil. Sometimes one must accept and put up with the lesser evil, but one must never demand it. The people who are not only demanding, but cheering the intervention are renegades to the revolutionary idea. If it is a lesser evil but it comes to pass anyway, then you have to protest against it, you have to denounce it.

I have made the analogy before, but imagine that there is a group of people surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan and are about to be slaughtered. They then invite protection from the mafia. The mafia will, of course, give you protection – but will then install a protection racket if it can. The mafia that is the so-called ‘international community’ is not even sure if it can institute this protection racket anyway; but it will do its damnedest.

Moreover, the no-fly (now no-drive?) zone is dangerous not only in its immediate effect on the outcome in Libya. It also sets a worrying precedent. Once you give these forces the legitimation to act as the global policeman, then next time they will use it as they please – not for the lesser evil, but the greater one. Giving such forces legitimacy is in the worst interests of revolution both in the Arab world and beyond – it is in the best interests of counterrevolution, because that is how they are going to use it. It is not simply this situation on its own, in isolation, but what it implies for the future as well.

Also, when our rulers make war it is very bad for us – this is a point made by Marx. Think back to Thatcher and the Falklands war – her government was set to lose the general election.

I think the reason why there was less opposition to Libya than Iraq was because the latter was obviously going to be a land invasion. A ‘no-fly zone’ appears to be a much safer, less risky version of war, which is more like a computer game than anything else, so it is more popular – especially if you can justify it on ‘humanitarian’ grounds – without the risk of getting bogged down in a long and drawn-out war.

Not only is the left divided in its reaction, but so too are the imperialists. In each of the countries where people are free to express divergent opinions you see some maintaining that this move is not a good idea and that one can never know how it will end. It is certainly going to be a messy situation.

Whilst I have claimed that this moment marks the defeat of the Libyan revolution, I have not said that it is the defeat of the Arab revolution. I certainly hope it is not! This is just one sector of it, but it is not accidental that this defeat happened in a country like Libya. The reasons are quite clear.

Libya is one of the largest countries in Africa, most of which is desert. But it has a very small population of around six or seven million people, most of whom are divided along tribal lines. This is important. Compare it, for example, to Iran. Both are oil-producing countries that receive a large revenue from oil. This has led some to characterise Iran as a kind of ‘rentier state’ that does not depend too much on tax revenues from its own people. This allows it to provide handouts and sweeteners. Yet its population is around 11 times that of Libya, so even with the inflow of royalties from oil it cannot bribe that many people. As we know, the economic situation in Iran is dire.

This is different in Libya, where the revenue (or some of it) is spread out amongst far fewer people and thus leads to phenomena like low unemployment, etc. Indeed, the fact that Gaddafi made peace with the imperialist order back in 2003-04 (who will forget that handshake with our very own Tony Blair?) actually increased his ability to use this enormous wealth, even after siphoning off much of it for himself and his family. After all, he is a kleptocrat – just like his colleagues, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, etc. We should also mention the Saudi royal family, who do not even have to steal to get their wealth because there formally the oil is actually theirs – there is no distinction between the public purse and the private purse of the king. (In Britain this identity was abolished in medieval times.)

But even after deducting all of this kleptocratic rent, there is enough left over for Gaddafi to bribe enough of the population, to hire mercenaries and so on and thus try to prevent what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya’s social structure is also less developed, less advanced than in those neighbouring countries. I think you can also notice this in the composition of the opposition – it is much more dominated by people who were tribally opposed to Gaddafi’s regime, and there is a much higher proportion of Islamists than in both Tunisia and Egypt.

It would be foolish to predict how exactly things will pan in out in Libya. There might be a situation where it is divided between east and west and there is a civil war of attrition lasting for some time. Or it could end one way or the other. But, to the extent that there was a popular uprising, I think the people have lost ownership of this process and thus the revolution is defeated.

Other hot spots

This is not so in other parts of the Arab world. There are still very positive dynamics in Syria, for example. Syria is the second most important Arab country after Egypt. If Egypt had, by virtue of its large population, been the leader of the Arab people up to the time when it made peace with the US and Israel, then Syria is now the claimant to this role.

In fact, I recently looked back at theses I had co-written in the mid-1970s, and what we said back then was that the Syrian Ba’ath was making a bid for the leadership of the Arab world. Iraq, the other large Arab country, has never managed to stake a claim on this role. Saddam Hussein had a project to do so, but for various reasons he did not achieve this.

Events in Japan and Britain have squeezed the reporting of Yemen, but things are going forward there too. And very few people mention Bahrain, which is in a catastrophic situation. What some feared would happen in Libya is happening right now. There the regime – aided by forces it invited from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states – has actually invaded the hospitals. So if you are wounded on a demonstration and taken to hospital you are likely to be killed. We are seeing a massacre of unimaginable cruelty.

Bahrain is the source of the pearls of Arabia. Now these forces have demolished the symbolic pearl in Pearl Square, where enormous demonstrations took place. This is a huge insult to the people who occupied the square – some still risk their lives demonstrating there. Here there are signs of the revolutionary process receding, whilst Yemen and Syria are still going forward. This is no coincidence: it can be traced back to social structure.

Yemen is the product of a forced union of the north and south – two areas with a vastly different social composition. North Yemen is tribal and very backward in its economic and social development. South Yemen is mostly made up of the former British colony of Aden. Politically it was also very developed. For a time there was a self-styled socialist republic here, which was then overthrown by an internal coup and external forces from other countries and from North Yemen. This localised would-be socialism had some very democratic ideas. In the heyday of socialist revolution in South Yemen it said and did a lot of things which went beyond Stalinism. There was a real struggle which took place there between Stalin-style communists and real communists. Of course, they were very limited as to what they could achieve and in the end they were defeated. But in terms of its political development, South Yemen was probably the most advanced country in the Arab world.[2]

Whilst it is now merged with the very different North Yemen, we can still see this influence of working class struggle and organisation today: we see a radical intelligentsia and the heritage of a well-organised workers’ movement making its mark on the events unfolding there.

There were only a few countries in which there was a sizeable working class movement in the Arab world beyond South Yemen. The largest Communist Party, which was highly Stalinised, was in Iraq. But when the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 it was the only party to emerge intact from the underground. The coup to remove the monarchy was a military one, but on the civilian political scene the Communist Party almost had a monopoly. Of course, this was wasted because of its policies and so on. I am old enough to remember when Anastas Mikoyan came to ‘advise’ the Iraqi Communist Party following the fall of the monarchy in 1958-59. He actually told them not to rock the boat and to maintain the Soviet policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the west – a revolutionary policy in Iraq would have undermined this and was thus to be avoided. This marked the beginning of the decline of the CP, and what remains now is really shameful. It is not even an anti-imperialist force, let alone a force for socialism.

The third country where there was a strong movement, albeit a Stalinist one, was Syria. Syria had a fairly sizeable Communist Party led by the Kurd, Khalid Bakdash. It is a very mixed country with quite a lot of Christians, Jews, Armenians and all sorts. Again because of its Stalinist policies the CP declined. But, once again, traditions have been retained which survive to this day.

Those like me who had been in a Stalinist Communist Party will perhaps understand what I am trying to describe. These parties were tools of Stalinist foreign policy. Nevertheless, they organised the working class and a lot of their members were true, genuine working class militants who learned a little bit of Marxism (of course, in a rather doctored version). But they were called on to read some of the classical writings and this did leave something behind, in spite of all the betrayals and so on. Wherever there were powerful CPs there is a tradition which lives on today. This is not true of Iraq, but that is partly because of other factors, such as the complete destruction of the country following the invasion. So there is a sense in which these organisations have left behind them a heritage which is still worthwhile.

Qatar is a genuine exception in all of this. It is a very rich place and its ruling family is playing a very clever game. There have been calls for demonstrations there too, but very few people have turned up. There is opposition, of course, as there is everywhere. But for the time being business is business – and part of the business of the Qatari ruling family is Al-Jazeera! They are actually profiting from the Arab revolution and – for the moment at least – they do not feel threatened by it. Whether they will succumb to it or not remains to be seen.

As for Al-Jazeera itself, it is interesting to look at how in many ways it presages Arab unity. It is not a coincidence that what symbolises Arab unity is one of the most modern forms of communication. It is Arab unity in the form suited to the 21st century. It has Arab workers from all over the region.

It originally started as an offshoot of the BBC World Service, but the BBC turned out to be too conservative and restrictive, too bound up with American and British interests in the region. Al-Jazeera actually broadcasts much of what the Arab masses want. Let us not overstate this: the station is hardly the voice of Arab communism! Nonetheless, it is run by secular democrats whose coverage is not based on sound bites like the BBC World Service. On Al-Jazeera they actually have discussions, where people are allowed to develop their positions – not just those who support the Arab revolution, but also Israeli politicians and American conservatives, for example. This is very educational, making it in my opinion the most informative news service in the world (especially now that the BBC World Service is being cut).


It would be foolish to prophesy. Things are still unfolding and numerous options are presenting themselves. But it would also be foolish to expect too much. I think it is unlikely that we will see even a progressive kind of bourgeois democratic regime emerge, or some kind of social democratic arrangement. These things do not come about with just one push. This revolutionary movement is only the first of a whole historical process, which is only in its infancy.

History is important. In 1848 there were revolutions throughout most of Europe, which on the face of things did not succeed: they did not actually overthrow all the reactionary regimes. Nevertheless, it did not come to nothing. It left a certain tradition and a certain heritage which was then taken forward in the next step.

Look at what happened in Portugal in 1974-75. The revolution took on a very leftwing and radical direction, but a lot of it was reversed. What we have in Portugal now is not that much different to what exists in many other European states. However, if you speak to people who took part in this revolution then you will notice that it lives on in their consciousness – it matters when you have experienced the overthrow of a dictatorial regime and lived through a period of people’s power, etc. It forms the basis of the next step.

So even the most realistically optimistic scenario is not for all the old regimes to be overthrown and replaced by liberal, social democratic administrations. It will probably be far short of this. But the longer-term effects will be more profound. The world has changed already in many ways. First of all, from the point of view of the US-led imperialist order the Middle East is no longer something you can regard as a safe zone. The whole policy of the US in the region – the most strategically important in the world due to oil and the Suez Canal – was based on the fact that, whilst US policy-makers were very clearly aware of the discontent of the masses, they believed in the ability of the rulers to keep it under control and repress it.

There was actually a neoconservative project to introduce the imperialist version of democracy to the Middle East. The neocons (not George Bush, by the way, who simply provided patronage for the whole project) realised that the Saudi Arabian situation was no longer sustainable and were thinking very far ahead. They knew that there would eventually be some sort of revolt or uprising there, and thus came to the conclusion that it would be better for them to instigate and control the impending transformation. This is certainly true. The whole project foundered because the first stage failed so miserably – Iraq proved not to be the beginning of a smooth transition to western democracy but a very bloody mess. The whole thing became discredited.

Conspiracy theory fans like the remnants of the Workers Revolutionary Party, who tend to uphold Gaddafi as some sort of ‘anti-imperialist’, actually infer from this that what is going on must be the product of neocon plans. But this is completely wrong. They were hatched precisely in order to pre-empt what is actually taking place – ie, instead of something driven by the initiative of the people, something they could instigate and manipulate themselves.

Indeed, this revolutionary wave was not without previous tremors – even in Libya. In 1995, for example, there was a local uprising in Benghazi – no coincidence, of course. It was drowned in blood. But there have been uprisings in every one of these countries – protests that the regimes were able to suppress. But that period is now over. Nothing is the same. This is also reflected in US lack of confidence in relation to the unfolding events. They are no longer sure if they can keep this region under control. With the exception of Syria, all of the countries gripped by revolution are allies of the United States and, at least implicitly, of Israel.

Although in the Egyptian and Tunisian protests you did not see many slogans such as ‘Down with the United States’ or ‘Down with Israel’, this was because the protests were dealing with the immediate task at hand – ie, overthrowing the regime. If you actually watch journalists talking to ordinary people, as Al-Jazeera did, then it becomes clear that they were not simply protesting about unemployment or the corruption of the various regimes, but about the fact that those like Mubarak are lackeys of imperialism, and the shameful conditions of the peace treaty with Israel imposed on them.

When you hear interviews with Syrians though, they assert that one thing they do not mind about the regime is the fact that it is opposed to the US and does not toe the Israeli line. It is hated because of repression and the state of the economy, but not for foreign policy. It is important to observe what people are saying, rather than just what is on their placards.


I would like also to point out that we are witnessing an all-Arab revolution. The Weekly Worker has been quite correct on this. Whilst I would rather call it an all-Arab revolution than a pan-Arab revolution, as the Weekly Worker does, this is simply a matter of terminology.

I am slightly puzzled by the fact that many from the Trotskyist tradition refuse to accept the idea of an Arab revolution. One good example of this is Stuart King of Permanent Revolution. Whenever I have spoken on Arab unity and he has been present he has raised a number of rather odd objections. On the one hand, he says, the Arab world is far too disparate and there are many national minorities (the Kurds, the Israelis and so on) and further nationalities which he invents, such as the Maronites (a religious denomination).

On the other hand, he then questions why we should be opting for Arab unity: why not opt for regional unity, which would include Turkey and Iran? Of course, in the long run we will have a united socialist world. But the affinity between England and Scotland, for example, is not the same as the affinity between England and Japan. You would not expect unification to proceed at the same rate everywhere. In the long run – and this will take many generations – the world will, of course, be one and there will be no national frontiers. But this cannot happen all at once. To bring in Iran, with a different history, language and some record of estrangement from and conflict with the Arab world, strikes me as rather strange. Further, it is ridiculous to bring in Turkey, which was the imperial master of the Arab world, as a partner on the same level as – let us say – Hadhramaut and Oman.

Given that the Arab revolution is an idea associated with Michel Raptis (Pablo), perhaps this hostility to Arab unity can be traced back to an old Trotskyist sectarian quarrel which has outlived its meaningfulness. To me it makes no difference whether the idea came from Pablo. He may have got one hundred and one other things wrong, but he was right on this question. He knew the Arab world very well and this idea was enthusiastically picked up. I got it from a comrade of mine, who was my main mentor on Middle Eastern matters. I am referring to the Palestinian Arab Marxist, Jabra Nicola, who died in London in 1974. He was a Trotskyist. I was and am not. But I learnt a lot from him.

Anyway, quite clearly the revolutionary contagion in the Arab world is far more direct and immediate than, for example, the spreading of revolutionary sentiment across eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Arab world is more like a single nation divided into sub-nationalities. If you want a rough analogy, then I would say it is like Italy, where there is the Italian nation, but within it there are the Sicilians, Tuscans, etc, who are akin to sub-nationalities. In fact, in the period of World War I, when there was the promise of uniting the Arab world, explicit comparisons were made with Italy. Many were arguing that the Arab world should be treated like Italy under Garibaldi and so on. The British actually mobilised support against Turkey using this very promise of Arab unity. Of course, this was later betrayed.

Even if you compare the Arab region with the Spanish-speaking part of Latin America, the historical and linguistic ties are much closer in the former. Indeed, many of the Latin American countries are historically not mainly Spanish – they have their own indigenous histories and cultures. Not so in the Arab world.

Today, one of the modern attributes of a nation is that it is a people who get their news from the same television station! In this respect, all the Arab world is one nation. Do not underestimate this! The rulers know this very well. Indeed, some of them have even blamed Al-Jazeera for the revolution, which is, of course, exaggerated. But it reveals a truth.

It matters a lot when people watch the same programmes and can communicate with each other in the same language – something which is increasingly done online, of course. And again, whilst we may not have seen placards addressing the question of Arab unity (beyond, for example, ‘Solidarity with Tunisia’ in Egypt and so on), when you actually talk to activists and hear them being interviewed then you notice a big change. The desire for and drive towards Arab unity was very much alive from the 1950s onwards, especially around the time of the Suez war. It lasted right through to the 1970s, but then it declined. And if you spoke to Arab comrades in the 1980s and 1990s then they would say that Arab unity was a lost cause, it was not going to happen, there was too much divergence, etc. But now if you speak to them it is clear that the idea is back on the agenda.

It is not simply the same language, culture and history which is important. It is also an economic need. This should be a very important consideration, especially for Marxists. Currently divided up into one big state, a few medium-sized states and then a lot of mini-states, the Arab world as it actually is does not make sense economically. The distribution of the population and natural resources is very skewed and uneven. The riches of Libya and Saudi Arabia, for example, could finance the extensive development which is needed in a country like Egypt. A country like Syria has a lot of fertile land which is underused. The dispersal of all these human and natural resources means that it makes no sense to keep them apart. The first step could be something along the lines of the European Union – first and foremost an economic union – but without the reactionary agenda.

Unfortunately it would seem that the Arab bourgeoisie is incapable of actually leading this transformation. Achieving such a union requires the mobilisation of the working class, and indeed the leadership of the working class. The bourgeoisie has tried to do this – and not just the Egyptian and Syrian bourgeoisie. Even Gaddafi had a Mickey Mouse project for Arab unification.

I think that a ‘Bismarck scenario’ is unlikely in the Arab revolution. Uniting Germany in ‘blood and iron’ was made possible by the particular role which Prussia played in relation to the other German states. It was a highly militarised state – one of the biggest military powers in Europe. On the other hand, the other German states were smaller and much weaker militarily. In terms of the Arab world today, it is not simply that a Bismarck does not exist, but that there is no Arab Prussia. Egypt is by far the largest country in the Arab world. But I think that the scenario of Egypt invading Syria and so on is a remote one. Saladin, for example, did invade and unify a large part of the Arab world, but that was in the 12th century, not the 21st. I do not think it is realistic now.

The bourgeoisie, of course, could achieve Arab unity by its own means, but I think this is unlikely. Recent historical experience suggests why. The United Arab Republic, for example, was initiated by the Syrian bourgeoisie, not Nasser and the Egyptian bourgeoisie. They thought it would protect their interests and that it would be better to work together with others of their class interest in the Arab world. But, when it actually came about, the Syrian bourgeoisie was not so keen because it found it was being competitively undermined by the much larger and more powerful Egyptian bourgeoisie. They found it was too bad for business.

This is a dilemma for the various national capitals, which base themselves on snatching a bigger part of the market and so on. It looks very unlikely that the bourgeoisie will transcend its immediate interests in order to unite the Arab nation. To do this you need a class which is not held back by competitive, immediate material interests, but can think in a more international sense: ie, the working class.

Of course, that would require the working class to organise, and for this a whole historical period will be required. That is why I am saying that in the short term we should not expect too much. We need a period in which the working class can actually organise and create its own political leadership, which can then start a new revolution aimed at uniting the Arab world.

Moshé Machover is an Israeli socialist anti-Zionist activist and co-founder of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen). He is currently living in London, England. He is emeritus professor of philosophy, King’s College, London University. His most recent book is Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution.

All IOA commentaries by Moshé Machover


  1. For the interview, see Gilbert Achcar: Libyan developments
  2. See F Halliday Arabia without Sultans London 1974.
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