T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

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Part VI
The Working Class Movement in the Arab East

Chapter XX
Introduction to the Working Class Movement
in the Arab East

The proletariat of the Arab East is relatively very small. There are only half a million industrial and transport workers (excluding handicraft workers), making up only a small percentage of the total population of about 30 millions. But the political role of the proletariat in Arab society is determined not by its numbers but by its place in the general economic system – where it holds the key positions in its hands – by its place in the system of relations existing among all the classes of Arab society (primarily its place in the agrarian revolution) and by its place in the anti-imperialist struggle. Just as the Russian proletariat came to power not because Russia was ripe for socialism but because the capitalist world as a whole was, so the young Arab proletariat is, and will be, driven to struggle for power because the world as a whole is ripe, nay, overripe for socialism, and has begun to decay. This decay, by rolling heavy burdens on the backs of the colonial countries which never had a chance to leave Eastern barbarism and enter a real capitalist development, drives the colonial toilers, under the threat of suffocation, to leap from their barbaric state, which is fortified and strengthened by imperialism, to a workers’ state.

The proletariat of the Arab East must travel rapidly through a combined development. Young, raw, inexperienced and unlearned, it must march with seven league boots, skipping many stages which the proletariat of the developed countries passed through and pass through others very rapidly.

A comparison of the development of the workers’ movement in the Arab East with that of the workers’ movement in England will very clearly reveal the special features of the former.

In the conditions of severe hunger that followed the industrial revolution in England, on the background of widespread unemployment, rapid changing by the workers of their trades in the new industry, the denial to the workers of the most elementary democratic rights – by the Combination Acts and Poor Laws – the youth and inexperience of the proletariat – on this background Luddism could flourish. This was a revolt of men who had lost every other means of protection, the first movement of the proletariat, which sought salvation in an economic order that had already passed away. The movement did not base itself on the necessary socio-economic results of the new mode of production. The worker had not yet risen to the aspiration of the expropriation of the machine from the hands of the capitalist and its transference to those of society; he did not yet distinguish between the machine and the capitalist use of it. The workers’ movement in the colonies, the Arab East included, almost entirely skipped this stage. There are scarcely any traces here of Luddism. This is obvious as, firstly, the introduction of the machine to the East came at a time when the whole world was already mechanized, and it would not enter anyone’s head to abolish the machine, and secondly, the birth of the Arab workers’ movement took place at a time when it was the bourgeoisie who had turned Luddite, when the bourgeoisie was the machine-wrecker (adopting a policy of the ‘organization of want’ besetting the world with crises, leaving machines to lie idle, smashing machines in its wars etc. etc.) while the international proletariat fights for a system which will assure the most productive and rational use of the machine, and thirdly, the colonial masses, including the Arabs, suffer not only from the overdevelopment of capitalism and mechanization on a world scale, but also from the limited development of capitalism in the colonial countries.

The second stage in the development of the English workers’ movement was the struggle for reform of the state which denied them the right of organization for the amelioration of their position. In the light of the youth of the workers’ movement as a whole, the lack of experience, the lack of a revolutionary theory of its own and a revolutionary party, and in the light of the disruption in the ruling class – between old and new rich – which drove broad sections of the middle class to radicalism, it was inevitable that no clear dividing line should exist between the workers’ movement for reform of the State and that of the radicals of the middle class. And Chartism, the expression of an independent class movement in embryo, also suffered severely from the same disabilities. In the end, with the spreading and flourishing of English capitalism, which brought with it the improvement of the workers’ conditions, the <p. 176> creation of a workers’ aristocracy, and the bourgeoisification of the trade unions, all remnants of Chartism, entirely disappeared. The Arab proletariat was forced to skip this stage, as today, in the period of the decline of capitalism there are no prospects of the appearance of a Hunt, a Cobbet or a Carlyle. There is no prospect of the splitting of the ruling classes from within into a more conservative section and a reformatory one. Neither is there a prospect of the appearance of a parliamentary reform movement as a movement on its own – after the pattern of Chartism – expressing the desire for class liberation. Whereas Lovett, O’Connor and their fellows believed that the granting of universal suffrage would put the moulding of the destiny of the country into the hands of the masses of people, today, in the period of the decline of parliamentary democracy in the world, and in the light of the complete autocratic rule of imperialism in the East, the struggle for democratic rights is bound to begin at a much higher stage than Chartism, the grandest revolutionary expression of the English proletariat. This movement is also bound to be on sounder foundations and more lasting, as the capitalists in the Arab East are not able and will not be able to bribe their workers.

After Luddism, Chartism and the reform movement, there came a new stage in the history of the English Workers’ movement in which the very wide development of the trade unions took place.

The English trade unions rose as organizations indifferent to politics, restricting their struggle to the improvement of labour conditions within the framework of the capitalist order. But seeing that nature abhors a vacuum, the trade unions were subordinated to the ideology and policy of Liberalism. The German trade unions arrived at the same point, although they followed a different path. At the beginning, indeed, the German trade unions were built up by the workers’ parties (1868) but after a short while the links between the parties and trade unions became so weak that the latter declared complete neutrality in the political struggle (Trade Union Congress at Erfurt in June 1872). But this tendency of the trade unions’ drifting away from the workers’ parties came to an end with the Socialist Laws (lasting from 1878 to 1890) when not only the Socialist Party was persecuted but also the trade unions. With the repeal of the Socialist Laws in 1890, however, and the economic prosperity which raised the wages of the masses of workers as a whole and brought to the fore a labour aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy, the party came under the influence of the trade unions and the reformist wing in it became dominant. The German trade unions, therefore, even though formally independent of the liberals or conservatives, in reality became dependent on them. The examples of England and Germany show us trade union movements which have no connection with a revolutionary class policy. Even thought the German movement was socialist in theory, in practice it limited itself to a struggle for reforms which was by no means conducted in a revolutionary manner. The third example, also illustrating a workers’ movement which did not pass out of the struggle for reforms in French syndicalism. Notwithstanding its extreme socialist terminology, it was really reformist, as by its opposition to any political struggle it allowed free political action to the ruling classes; by restricting itself to a direct struggle against individual employers it robbed the class struggle of all-embracing political aims.

The conditions for the existence of the political indifference of the English trade unions, for the reformist degeneration of the German trade unions and their predominance in the German Socialist Party, or for the appearance of French syndicalism, were the existence of democracy – the right of trade union organization, the right to strike etc., the existence of economic prosperity, relatively high wages, and more importantly a process of rapid rise in the wages, and the existence of a labour aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy.

The conditions for the existence of trade unions and a trade union struggle in the East are as far removed from the above conditions as the East is from the West. Every working class achievement in the East, down to the smallest, is connected with really sanguinary sacrifices. Every strike encounters brutal suppression; every trade union is fiercely attacked. Wages are at starvation level and every increment, every little reform in the conditions of labour is bound up with a really revolutionary struggle.

<p. 177> The ideas of the neutrality of the trade unions to the political class struggle is therefore necessarily alien to the workers movement in the East. Either the trade unions will connect their struggle for economic reforms with the struggle for basic democratic demands and even overgrown them or they will constitute no considerable factor at all. Another alternative there is not. Is this not contradicted by the fact that there are reformists trade unions in the East? No. These do not constitute an independent factor but grow into the bourgeois state. The late rise of the bourgeoisie in the East and the fact that its economic-social-political weight is small in relation to the extent of development of capitalism (which is mainly based on the import of imperialist capital) and the level of development of the colonial proletariat, drive the colonial bourgeoisie into one of two paths: either a united front with imperialism against the proletariat and the brutal suppression of the independent organisations of the latter – while keeping organisations for the regimentation of the masses, after the pattern of the Nazi Labour Front – or an attempt to mobilise the masses as a means of pressure on imperialism, in which case the bourgeois state becomes a patron of the trade unions and in an indirect, even if screened, way, the trade unions lose every shred of independence (see the excellent analysis of this question in Trotsky’s article Trade unions in the epoch of imperialist decay).

The objective circumstances themselves compel the Arab workers’ movement to skip the stage of pure or reformist trade unionism, as ‘in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the classes’ living standards’ and ‘every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of the capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state’. (Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International) If this is true for the toilers of the ‘mother’ countries, it is much more so for the toilers of the colonial countries. The struggle of the Arab masses for even the most elementary democratic rights always came up against the most bitter opposition of imperialism and its lackeys – the Arab ruling classes and Arab states – and with the continued growth of the contradictions in world and local capitalism this antagonism becomes more fierce and brutal; and so ‘the struggle for the most elementary achievements of national independence and democracy is combined with the socialist struggle against world imperialism. Democratic slogans, transitional demands and the problems of he socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in this struggle, and stem directly from one another.’ (ibid.)

Having but just experienced a difficult birth, the Arab trade unions will be faced with the necessity of organising soviets. Every economic struggle can easily grow into a political clash and the electrified atmosphere of the political struggle will generate a great series of partial economic struggles. Mass organisations will not be mainly a precondition for the struggle but its result. In a short time the working class will be compelled, in the fire of struggle, to build its mass revolutionary party, its fortified trade unions, its soviets.

Last updated on 28.5.2011