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Studies 15 July, 2012


This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.

On Revolution and Revolutionary Potential

Author: Dr. Azmi Bishara

Publisher: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies

Date and place of publication: Doha/Beirut, 2012

Number of pages: 104

 

Introduction

In the booklet On Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution, Azmi Bishara presents the main things you need to know about revolutions - in terms of their theoretical philosophy, practice, and history - in a concise and useful manner. In so doing, he shows the strength of the approach adopted by many prominent professors and writers: namely, that the deepest thoughts can be presented and expressed without the need for long amplification. This booklet serves as a reminder of the kind of political literature , known as pamphlet, which spread throughout Europe during the early 20th century and gained a considerable amount of popularity. This was spearheaded by Marxist literature in particular, beginning with that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and followed by those of other revolutionary theorists.

In this book, Bishara seems keen on two interrelated issues: casting light on what has been happening in the Arab homeland since the self-immolation of that poor young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, which ignited revolution in his own country and several others, on the one hand; and defining the revolution and the revolutionary situation without resorting to supercilious, superficial or arbitrary applications of foreign theories to a different social and cultural reality, on the other hand.

Although it is possible to include this book within the broader heritage of revolutionary literature, it is distinguished by characteristics that make it unique in the modern Arab literature of social sciences. This is not surprising since although revolution is not a new phenomenon in Arab history, theorizing about it has remained somewhat undeveloped, as most of the books written about revolution, as an idea and a practice in the Arab world, have tended either to be historic, documentary, or narrative writings (such as those about the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, the Orabi Revolt, the revolutions of Prince Abdel Kader and Ali Ben Ghedhahem, and the national revolutions against colonialism), or to be inspired by Marxist models - Leninist or Maoist - without offering a qualitative addition that makes the Arabs active contributors to this human heritage, not just consumers. When writings have deviated from these two types, they have  fallen under the magnetic spell of ideology, and presented a "revolutionary ideology" under the aspect of pan-Arab or Islamic theories of revolution, and certainly not a contribution to scientific knowledge.

Even the Palestinian revolution, in spite of its importance, seriousness, and distinctiveness, has remained a captive of stereotypes, dogmatic thought, shallow pragmatism, and/or pseudo-political reactions that qualify neither as scientific thought nor as social theory. This undoubtedly represents part of the Palestinian dilemma. Palestinians often mention the Algerian or Vietnamese revolutions as models, but the first did not produce a theory and was not based on one, despite attempts to attach it to the theories of Frantz Fanon, who was not Algerian but just a sympathetic writer. On the other hand, the Vietnamese revolution was based from the beginning on Marx's view of history. It is a perception that failed the Arab test and did not have success and continuity in the world.

Bishara's book seeks to offer something different. The way the author has set out his book reflects his research approach. He begins by identifying revolution as a concept, then talks about "novelty and renewal, freedom and revolution," and "the revolutionary situation or the revolutionary potential," moving on to discuss "revolution as a phenomenon with the ability to spread," and concludes his analysis with "democratic revolution and ideology".

Defining Revolution: a matter of Methodology

In defining the concept of revolution, Bishara does not start from either the theories of the Age of Enlightenment and the philosophers of the French Revolution or the many discourses on revolution in which the sociological thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries indulged. Instead, he walked in the footsteps of the early Arab philosophers who considered Aristotle as the first mentor, so they translated, explained, and analyzed his texts. The first sentence in Bishara's book begins as follows:

"In his Politics, Aristotle claims that all forms of government are prone to revolution, including his definitions of oligarchy and democracy - which he regarded as the basic forms of government - as well as what he described as "balanced", "constitutional" or "aristocratic" governments ..." (p. 7).

In my opinion, Bishara's aim is not to examine historical information, for his issue is primarily methodological. The importance of this step (referring to Aristotle) becomes clear when it is linked with the general approach that the writer takes in seeking a qualitative Arab illumination of the concept of revolution. Although he does not declare this goal, it can be inferred. Without the existence of this undeclared goal in the writer's mind, the book might have turned into a compilation work. If that did not happen it is because of the rational evidence he tried to provide in order to make his point. 

Many European writers who deal with the same subject usually begin with Enlightenment philosophy, as they consider it to be the main source of revolutionary thought in modern times. Social theorists have two tendencies: leftists tend toward the tradition established by Marx's discussion of Hegel, who, like Immanuel Kant and others, was an admirer of the French Revolution, while the rest take a different approach based on classifications that are still being taught in sociology, including collective behavior and social movements, crowd dynamics, contagion theory, convergence theory, leadership and mobilization, theories of social change, and conflict theory.

Bishara moves away from both groups and sees that Aristotle's contribution to political thought cannot be overlooked, as it is the basis for the first Arab Muslim thought, as well as the pioneers of the Renaissance in Europe, and those who came after, especially since we still recognize Aristotle's view of revolutions up until today. This view, Bishara reminds us, divides revolutions into two types: "a type that leads to changing the existing constitution, so it shifts from a system of government to another system, and another type that changes rulers within the structural framework of the existing system." (p. 7) Despite the different times and political systems, social realities connected to  the issues of identity and equality and justice have not changed. The motive for a revolution, as Bishara indicates (p. 8), is that of the masses demanding equality, which stems from a pre-existing presumption that all people should be treated equally, while the nobility and aristocracy revolt against equality because they like to feel that they are distinctive.

In fact, the idea of distinctiveness is also present in democratic revolutions, although it is not equivalent to the idea of distinctiveness held by the nobility and aristocrats. The former is crystallized in a national identity that is a product of "the nation's awareness of its sovereignty [...] through the rights of citizens" (p. 9).

The French Revolution, as well as the revolutions of 1820-1848 in Europe, contributed to the "development of a sense of nationality and the formulation of nationalism" (p. 9). Bishara sees that this will also apply to the impact of the current Arab revolutions because they "contribute to the formulation of the national identity that has not received sufficient legitimacy so far" (p. 10), and because of the pan-Arab-nationalistic feeling that is competing with it. This will not happen unless the revolutions succeed in "building democratic institutions" (p. 10). Does this mean the establishment of regional entities and the consolidation of the region's petty states on a new basis? The author does not try to answer this question because he does not raise it. And he does not raise it directly because it goes beyond the brief and concise framework of his book, and perhaps Bishara will return to it elsewhere, particularly since he suggests that he is considering this issue when he writes: "if democracies are established, this will not occur at the expense of Arab nationalism, but the concept will change into a cultural identity, empathy, and political and economic interests that complete the national identity" (p. 10).

Discussion of Bishara's Opinion

The previous paragraph related to the expected spread of democracy and the bolstering of national identity needs to be discussed. Bishara does not provide an answer to the issue of regional entities and subsequent joining of the states above. The writer cannot ignore the possibility that the failure of democracy could also happen. The success of democracy in one country does not necessarily lead to its success in other countries. It is also not necessarily the case that the success of democracy leads to the promotion of a patriotic understanding of political and economic interests that are complementary to national identity. Democracy is well established in Britain and Norway, for example, but Britain did not agree to replace its currency, nor has it submitted to all European Union decisions, while Norway has refused to join the EU. Some EU member countries have not approved the draft European Constitution, and in some there are political parties that call for abandoning the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency, returning to the previous status quo, and they call themselves "sovereignists". In sum, democracy, because of the diversity of opinions and interests within and among countries, can hinder the building of unity but can also consolidate it and make it stronger. The United States, for example, is born from the war between the North and South. There were conflicting interests between those who wanted to maintain the system of slavery, and those who sought to abolish slavery to build a union on the basis of freedom and equality for all, as affirmed by the constitution. The Soviet Union was also built by force and collapsed when perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) accompanied Western-style ideas of democracy. China was united by force and is still united. Thus, the issue of  how democracy may have an effect on building the pan-Arab national project still needs study and scientific treatment. However, it is fair to say that this is not the subject of the book, so it does not have to be dealt with here.

The Return to Classical Islamic Thought

When Bishara asks: "Is there a scientific definition of the concept of revolution?" (p. 12), his answer is no, because the word (i.e. revolution) has spread to a point where it is used to describe various phenomena. He links this spread and the difficulty of scientifically defining revolution to ancient and modern Arab and Islamic heritage, and to the European revolutionaries of the 19th century and German leftist methodology. Bishara reminds us that the word "revolution" was a term given to different movements, from the zinj (black slaves) and Qarmatian, to Omar al-Mukhtar, the Palestinians, the Algerians, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Abdul Karim Kassem, Spartacus, and Thomas Muntzer. In his opinion, "the closest word to the concept of contemporary revolution is al-khurooj, meaning to go out and ask for rights" (p.14), according to ancient Arab writers. The undeclared part of the author's agenda appears here in terms of his quest to link the current reality of the Arab Spring to the cultural and political heritage of the Arab nation, and to establish an Arab revolutionary theory from outside the ideological framework that guided the contemporary Arab thinkers, including nationalists, whether Nasserists or Baathists. It is clear that Bishara's main concern is scientific, not ideological, and intellectual, not political or factional, as he reviews a variety of influential classical Islamic personalities from Abu Dharr al-Ghafari, Al-Mawardi and Ibn Khaldun, to Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Hanbal, Shafi'i, Ibn Mujahid al-Basri, and Ibn Hazm al-Dhaheri.

He connects all of these to the duality of going out (al-khurooj) and defeat (al-taghallub, or forceful domination), while acknowledging that this duality is not a theory of revolution (p. 14) even if the two concepts coincided for classical Muslim writers. Bishara hints as to how these two concepts developed in the works of these classical writers, where al-khurooj always meant revolt, while al-taghallub practically justified al-mubaya'a (allegiance), which gave legitimacy to the khurooj state. He also points out differences among these writers concerning khurooj and taghallub, noting that some justify submission because "a tyrant sultan is better than lasting sedition" (p. 18), while others are surprised at "how he who does not find sustenance in his house does not go to the people wielding his sword" (p. 15). This in fact summarizes the whole of the history of Islam.

In this context, Bishara invites us to distinguish "between the apparent and the hermeneutic Salafist positions" (p. 19), remarking that contemporary Salafists only adopt "part of the discourse of the founders of Islam such as Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah, which includes the forbidding of khurooj (revolt) against the sultan" (p. 19). However, it is worth noting that these Salafists benefitted from "khurooj against the sultan" in Tunisia and Egypt, and they were then eager to grab power. If they were really preserving this particular part of the founders' rhetoric that is related to al-khurooj, then there is no doubt that this position is linked to the fact that they are in power since it cannot come from a group not in power. Of course, some Salafists, for example in Saudi Arabia, justify submission to the regime by stressing "the necessity of obeying the rulers". This is not necessarily the position of Salafists in other countries, as their presence in opposition would have no meaning if they avoided revolutionary discourse.

Bishara attributes the position of Ibn Taymiyyah, who in general rejected revolt against dictators to his "realism" and belief that "Sunnis do not feel it is right to revolt against imams and fight them with the sword, even if they are unjust" (p. 21), because Ibn Taymiyyah does not see that "an imam is the source of legitimacy, but applying Sharia is" (p. 22); therefore, it is more correct to say "fight those who do not follow Sharia, not the Imam". This is how the revolt of Muawiya against Ali ibn Abi Talib was justified by each one of them as it included a difference in interpretation of the Quran. Bishara clarifies how this position developed with the Wahhabis to become hostile to revolution. He concludes "Islamic jurisprudential thought justifies accepting an unjust Sultan and rejects khurooj, which is similar to armed revolution against the regime in our time" (p. 25).

Revolution in the Modern Age

After Bishara tries to determine the Arab understanding of revolution, and expresses surprise at some intellectuals' suspicion about current Arab revolutions, he sets out to make a distinction between words that are sometimes used as synonyms, such as revolution, intifada (uprising), coup, and reform. In the context of comparing reform with revolution, Bishara recounts the history of thought leading to the debate that kept socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, and others occupied, and fueled the split in labor movements into communist and social democratic parties. In Bishara's opinion, comparing the two concepts is unjustified "except for the rivalry within Marxism" (p. 33) because, for him, revolution and reform go hand in hand, and a lack of revolution would lead to nihilism, anarchy, and a new tyranny.

It becomes clear that Bishara is offering a genuine analysis of the concept of revolution, not only through his quest to illuminate relevant classical Islamic texts, but also through his linking it to reform, while others have treated revolution and reform as two contradictory concepts. The author affirms by rational argument that "in any serious reform there are elements of revolution, and in any revolution that is not satisfied with destruction and chaos, and is engaged in construction, there are elements of reform" (p. 35). He compares the modern concept of revolutions based on "novelty and renewal" with the concept that ancient Greek philosophers had for it as a "repeated cycle of regime change" (p. 36). What also distinguishes modern revolution, in his opinion, is that it is a "secular issue even if it originally was religious" as it rejects "acknowledging that there are fixed grounds justifying the current regime" (p. 37) even if these grounds were based - as sometimes happens - on the interpretations of religious teachings.

Problems Facing the Arab Revolutions

Bishara employs his broad philosophical knowledge and his knowledge of the history of thought to shed light on fundamental problems facing the Arab revolutions today. He makes clear how revolution and democracy do not necessarily coincide, something that can be forgotten when the struggle for power develops after a revolution. "A revolution for freedom does not always guarantee the building of a democracy" (p. 49), he writes, indicating that, in contrast, countries such as Canada and Australia did not need revolutions to achieve democracy. Indeed, how can one forget that the revolutions in Russia and China led to the establishment of bureaucratic systems of government ("dictatorships of the proletariat") that can be given any description except "democratic"? In Iran, after the overthrow of the shah in a popular revolution, in which all major parties and active forces from the right, left, and center participated, the country became a prisoner of a class of turbaned clerics who excluded anyone who disagreed with their views, gagged the opposition, and appointed themselves rulers in the name of safeguarding religion.

In spite of this, revolution in the modern age was linked to new ideas and innovation, and with what Bishara sees as the "emergence of the public or crowd" (p. 53). Its objective became "people's happiness" (p. 54), and the social dimension became the elimination of poverty, the emergence of the concept of citizenship, its rights and duties, and what is necessary from public and private freedoms. All of this was expressed within the boundaries of what is called the nation-state or the national state.

Toward a Model Theory for the Arab Revolution

Bishara dedicates a chapter to clarifying what he means by a "revolutionary situation" and links it to a series of elements, some of which were mentioned by Lenin. At the same time, he offers a critique of the Russian revolutionary approach. These elements include: people's rejection of old lifestyles, their refusal to suffer intolerably, and the Arab's awareness of injustice's results. In the Arab situation in particular, though not yet a complete model, it seems to Bishara that a secession within the ruling class and the army is necessary for revolutionaries to be able to seize power (p. 66). He also concludes from this analysis of the incomplete Arab model that there is no need for the existence of a leadership from a particular party or group (p. 67).

In my opinion, Bishara seeks to explore the "Arab revolutionary model," which is evident in that he makes many comparisons, and continues on saying that "the period between 1830 and 1848 [in Europe] is the period that is most similar to the current Arab period" (p. 69), where the spread of revolution coincides with the government's effort to thwart it. At times, here and throughout the text, he turns to historical analysis, while at others to social and philosophical analysis, using these as evidence to show the solid connections between the social sciences and humanities. He concludes with some thought-provoking results, such as the comment that the Arab world "was a body connecting the revolutions" (p. 75) in time and space, moving from the Free Officers' coup in Egypt in 1952,  fairly called "revolution" (p. 76), to the revolution of July 14, 1958, against the monarchy in Iraq, to the revolutions of 2011 in the Arab world. All of this with reference to national revolutions in the 18th century in the US, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, and those in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia in the 20th century. His aim is to explore the truth about the revolutionary situation that has taken hold of the Arab world and made "a revolution in a small Arab country like Tunisia [flow] like an electric current crossing an Arab body that is weak, yet connects concerns, hopes, agendas, and ideas" (p. 79).

Additionally, he concludes that since political parties did not lead the Arab revolutions, it is essential to "have a plan and a progr
am agreed upon by as broad a group of political powers as possible to control and direct the process of democratic transition" (p. 90). Bishara touches on the main problem of the post-revolutionary phase, and, like many other intellectuals and observers, he is aware of the possibility of a counter-revolution and the dominance of ideological issues over political action that would return matters to the starting line.

On the whole, this brief and concise study should be read in one sitting, if possible, with a pencil and highlighter for researchers interested in the subject of the revolution in the Arab world. Bishara's book seeks, through logical argument, historic and philosophical deduction, and comparative analysis to lay the basic foundations for what, in the future, could be an integrated project for a scientific theory (not ideology) on Arab revolution, removed from stereotypes, particularly ideological ones, that prevailed before the Arab Spring.