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Critical voices in critical times: revolution without revolutionaries, an interview with Asef Bayat

By Thursday 1 March 2018 No Comments

Asef Bayat talks about revolutions and revolutionary ideas, the place of ordinary people in social transformation, and what we can learn from the “Tahrir moment.”

Interview by Heba Khalil ; video by Linda Herrera

Asef Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the Department of Sociology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In his new book, “Revolution without revolutionaries: making sense of the Arab Spring” (Stanford University Press, 2017), he explores the meaning of revolutionary struggle in the post-Cold War era, a “time when the very idea of revolution had dissipated.”

In this interview, Heba Khalil presses Bayat on questions around the history of revolutions and revolutionary ideas, the place of ordinary people in social transformation, and what we can learn from the “Tahrir moment.”

H: Your new book is provocatively titled “Revolution without Revolutionaries.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

A: When I say “revolution without revolutionaries” here I mean revolutions without revolutionary ideas. Those were revolutions in terms of those spectacular mobilizations, those extraordinary protests. They were quite remarkable in terms of the tactics of mobilization – how to mobilize, resist, and manage to bring so many people to the streets. In the Egyptian case, Tahrir square became a global space, it became a model for other movements that emerged in other places later on in some 5,000 cities around the world. But revolution in terms of change, and in terms of having a vision about change, and about how to rest power from the incumbents, that to me was quite lacking. Of course, there are those who may argue that a vision might emerge in the process spontaneously; but it may or may not. I am not very convinced about that. I think some kind of ideas might emerge in the process, but really those have to be backed up and supported by deep thinking and rigorous analysis.

For instance, what happened in Tahrir square itself for some outside observers meant no less than a “future-in-the-present”. In other words, it was seen as a democratic space run by people, something like what Hannah Arendt called a “Greek Polis” where the people were running their own affairs democratically without a sovereign power presiding over them. This is a very interesting idea that mesmerized people like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and others. But I think that while Tahrir was so spectacular, so inspiring, it was also exceptional, transitory. It was an exceptional moment in the long process of revolution, which happens in most of the great revolutionary transformations, when there emerge practices that navigate between the real and the unreal, between reality and utopia. But the question for me was, what happens the day after the dictator abdicates, when people go home to attend to their daily needs of bread, jobs, security, and normalcy? These are the kinds of issues I have in mind when I talk about broader visions and deep thinking, things I feel the revolutionaries should possess. One has to have some fairly good ideas about what happens the day after. How do you want to build a spectacular democratic model that people lived in Tahrir, in the society, in the state, and at national level? That is the challenge.

And it is not just the Arab uprisings that could not provide answers to these questions. If you look at other social movements throughout the world at that juncture of 2011 such as the Occupy movements, they are pretty similar in terms of their position of not having a particular alternative vision, in the way that previous revolutions had. All one can say here is that when a revolutionary movement comes to fruition, having ideas about how power works, how to deal with it, how to alter it, and how to institute new power relations towards a more just, egalitarian and inclusive order, do matter. But going even further, not only can we think about how to tackle the question of power, but also how to tackle the question of property, in our movements.

I want to emphasize a key difference here: The activists of the Arab Spring separated in some way the realm of the polity from the realm of the economy, as if they were two separate spheres. In fact, they didn’t do or say much about the economic relations, except for calling for “social justice.” But, it is necessary for us to ask what they meant by ‘social justice’, and did they have any institutional anchor for it? How did they propose to implement social justice, or was it based on lip service, something that came out of a reaction to the terrible inequalities and deprivations that the economic neoliberalism has unleashed on the ordinary people? How do you address these deprivations?

Issues of equality were fundamental to a lot of earlier revolutionaries, but it wasn’t really picked up in the Arab revolutionaries, even though social and economic exclusion was one of the key concerns of the ordinary people. They key issues raised by the Arab political class seemed to be with government accountability, democracy, and human rights. I have to say these demands are very significant in our region, indeed. But they are often used and manipulated also by the authoritarian regimes and their western allies, who speak similar language. This language is often used to hide the ruling class linkages with social exclusion, economic deprivation, terrible inequality, and the regime of property.

H: What difference do you see between the revolutions of the 1970s and before, such as in Iran, Guatemala and Cuba, and the Arab Spring?

A: The key thing to be able to explain the differences is that they happened in different ideological times. The revolutions of the 1970s obviously were happening at the time when the Cold War was at its height, so the world was divided between the Soviet Union and its allies, the socialist world, on one hand, and then the capitalist world on the other. Then, you had a third world which Iran and Nicaragua were part of. But you still had movements, both liberation struggles and social movements that were inclined towards radical ideologies like socialism and communism, largely in the developing countries.

There were also very powerful anti-imperialist movements, like in Cuba, which a lot of these political groups in the developing countries upheld. In contrast to the ideological times of the 1970s, the Arab Spring came to fruition in some kind of post-ideological interval; this was the aftermath of 1989 when the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe were to mark the very end of oppositional ideology per se. So, with the end of socialism following the Eastern European revolutions, the very idea of revolution, which was so linked to and informed by socialism, came to an end. It was as though the world had gone beyond to sense the relevance of revolutions. So, the Arab revolutions happened at the time when the very idea of revolution had dissipated.

H: In what ways did the absence of revolutionary avant-garde thinkers such as Trotsky, Guevara, Fanon, or the Islamic socialist ideologue of the Iranian revolution, Ali Shariati, affect the process and the outcome of the Arab uprisings?

A: Revolutions almost always start spontaneously and surprise everyone, including the protagonists themselves, people like Lenin, who are in the business of making revolutions. But revolutions usually are associated with some intellectual articulation, some degree of conceptual baggage that informs the activists’ thinking, expectations, especially the strategy of revolution and the vision for transformation. These ideas act as a general guide as to how to push the revolution forward. Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, brought what she called ‘theory’ into the revolutionary praxis. People like Lenin had written a sophisticated study on the nature of capitalist development in Russia, about the nature of the state. Frantz Fanon articulated a notion of anti-colonial revolution. The Nicaraguan revolution had an intellectual component informed by democratic socialism and the vision of Sandino. Ali Shariati had developed a vision of revolution sensitive to the particularities of Iranian society and culture—a mix of Marxian socialism and revolutionary shi’ism.

In the case of the 2010s revolutions, it seems to me that there wasn’t any popular intellectual articulation. There weren’t alternative visions to the institutions or economic relations operating under the existing regimes. It seemed that what the protagonists wanted was to have these autocrats like Mubarak, Ben Ali or Saleh removed. But what would happen after that? Probably they were envisioning a more representative government, and rule of law. But then, how would you achieve it. How do you want to replace them? In other words, the question was how to wrest power from the incumbent regimes, with what means and resources? Of course, they had the street power, the popular will, and that is important. Here the hope is that the regimes would be forced to concede. Even if they were forced to concede, a new order would require prior exploration, analyses, imagination, and not to mention organization.

H: You have talked about revolution in terms of state power. Can you comment on Arab revolutions in terms of the transformation of society and “ordinary” people?

A: No revolution succeeds without ordinary people. Even in guerrilla warfare, where the protagonists were not more than a couple of hundred people, they still couldn’t have managed if they did not have the support of the peasants and the city people. Otherwise, they would get defeated. In general, the participation of ordinary people can very much secure the protagonists and the protest actions by making them as if they were the preoccupation of everyone, by bringing them to the social mainstream. To turn a non-routine and illegal protest ordinary “عادي” is a pretty extraordinary act.

If it is not in the mainstream, the extraordinary activists can easily be identified, shunned, separated as anti-social deviants and agitators and thus suppressed. But when you see the massive number of people on the streets – men, women, elderly, children, families and so on, this really matters a lot. Such presence of the masses in the public square would, in addition, demonstrate the strength of the movement and of the opposition both to themselves and to the opponents. So, yes, ordinary people do play a crucial role in revolutionary struggles. I have spoken of their role during the uprisings; ordinary people still gave a big role just after the regime change; because they often radicalize the revolutions by their very grassroots practices in factories, farms, neighborhoods, or in their unions.

H: How can we have revolutions, which are by default radical, but at the same time fail to even challenge the worldview of the very system they are revolting against?

A: This is a very interesting question. I suppose this apparent paradox and contradiction in some way reflects the contradiction of reality in these times. In fact, the first sentence in the book starts with this: ‘people may or may not have ideas about revolutions for them to happen… Because the outbreak of revolutions has little to do with any idea and even less with a theory of revolution. Revolutions “simply” happen… of course “simply” here is in the inverted comas, but they really happen in a very complex fashion. Having or not having an idea about the revolution has critical implications to the outcome when the revolution actually happens.

In other words, revolutionary movements can happen and did happen even if the political class, the activists for instance, may not have thought and imagined the revolution. And it was for this reason that when what happened in Sidi Bouzid and later on in Tahrir Square, the revolutionaries and activists had to improvise; they had to come to terms with what they had never expected– what to do with this crowd and what will happen the day after? They had to improvise, and it was very difficult. There was a time when even during the uprisings the protagonists would think “we are probably not ready for this”, “we hadn’t thought about this”, and “we needed to think about this (the revolution)”, but then it was too late.

As a consequence of this paradoxical reality, the outcome became what might be called “ref-olutions”, or if you like ‘reformist revolution’. This means that we had a revolutionary movement that came to compel the existing state to reform itself on behalf of the revolution. This was different from the previous revolutions where the revolutionaries would form a provisional government, an alternative organ of power, with some kind of hard power that they would use together with their street power to force the incumbent regime to abdicate. They would take over the governmental power and institute new governing structures, new social institutions and relations in society. These kinds of rapid and radical transformations that happened in the revolutions of the 1970s, we couldn’t see in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen.

H: You describe the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements as “post-ideological”. What are the benefits of post-ideological movements?

A: I am referring here to the oppositional movements in this juncture. Now, ideology can be very powerful in mobilizing, unifying and galvanizing, creating a unified whole, which matters as far as power is concerned. But then ideology also, for that very reason, has the danger of dogma, and the danger of making the ideology so unquestionable that it could be repressive as well. If you look at what happened in the Arab revolutions, this duality was apparent. On the one hand, the process of the Arab revolutions was by far more open, more participative, and less repressive than the earlier revolutions that had a unified organization and leadership. A unified organization can easily stifle diversity and plurality, which we saw in the case of the Iranian revolution.

Despite that the Iranian revolution had also a strong radical democratic component in terms of the emergence of popular councils at the base of the society in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and the educational institutions; but at the state level it became very quickly repressive and moved to stifle the opposition. This kind of repression did not happen in Egypt, for example, until 2013, and Tunisia remains fairly open and pluralistic. In fact, that is how I refer to the two sides of “ref-olutions”. On the one hand, they are by nature pluralistic because the power is not monopolized by the revolutionary take-over of the state—many institutions of civil society including those associated with the old regime remain active. On the other hand, however, precisely because of this the forces of counter-revolution would have better chance to engage in acts of sabotage and to regroup to restore old order.

H: Do you think that meaningful change is possible in our current world order, dominated by post-modern and post-ideological thought?

A: It is difficult to say. I understand the dynamics and the constraints, but all I can say is that these are times of “open-endedness”. Maybe there is more potential for meaningful change. Meaningful change means benefitting the majority of people in disadvantaged positions, whether politically, economically, racially or in terms of identities. But I think this cannot be achieved, unless those who do want change seriously address the overpowering ideology and practices and institutions of neoliberalism. Post-ideological might mean that opposition to power may not adhere to a particular ideology. But most power holders continue to rely on ideology. Neoliberalism has become an ideology and it is a very powerful one, and it has these two aspects that I have mentioned: it is very powerful in galvanizing, but at the same time it is very dangerous in the sense that it has been able to present itself as a common-sense, as a natural way of thinking and organizing public life.

It is very important to critique and subvert that, and highlight its principles and its very repressive and un-egalitarian consequences. As I argue in the book, neoliberalism has the effect of both creating dissent among the ordinary people, because it generates deprivation, exclusion and inequalities; but it also has had the effect of de-radicalizing the political class, meaning that it presents itself as a way of life for which there is no alternative. Therefore, any changes that should happen, happen within a context of this regime of power and its discourse. Once you do this, you tend to play the same games, deploy the same concepts in your opposition. Neoliberalism has the ability, and the tendency, to incorporate and absorb the radicalism that is coming to challenge it, by commoditizing and marketizing it. It can elevate radicals, can market personas like Che Guevara, as they sell their posters or other products. They even marketize revolutions. This tendency goes as far back as the anti-Milosevic uprisings in Serbia, when some ideas developed to make revolution chic, trendy or sexy.

H: What can we learn from the “Tahrir Moment”?

A: During those eighteen days, Tahrir politics defined the grassroots politics around the globe. But the question was – how is it possible to institutionalize Tahrir, in the sense of sustaining it in the relations and institutions of society, in the normal, non-exceptional, post-revolution times? I also wondered if there was an attempt to explore how to sustain the Tahrir moment, or whether it was just an ephemeral, passing moment, in the long process of revolutionary mobilization.

It is important now to reflect back on the Tahrir Moment, and it is very significant to document and think about it, and take it as an historical, political and even moral resource, to deploy in thinking about an alternative future. We now have a legacy of Tahrir and should think about how it is possible to extend that political moment beyond that space and time of Tahrir. How can the idea of Tahrir work in different settings?

This brings me to the idea of revolution. The idea, the ideal and the memory of Revolution need to be maintained. We should still be talking about it, and not to put it aside. We should treat it as an unfinished project that may have openings for the future. Of course, we should not be simply waiting for the future to come, but rather, we should make that alternative future possible. My sense is that some of the activists are doing this, they’re reading, they’re reflecting on what happened, and what could have been done. A history of a country like Egypt or Tunisia is not just a few years, we have future generations and more to come. So, I would not be depressed, despite the fact that the political condition right now is really depressing, and this is the case globally. Let us not forget that in the long span of time, even in our own lifetimes, regimes will come and go, but a country, a society, will remain. It is therefore imperative to work on our societies, something that is indeed possible to do. A strong and conscious society that values egalitarianism, inclusion and social justice will be able to socialize, even to acclimatize, and bring to line the states and their henchmen. So, there’s much work to do and think about.


video by Linda Herrera