Revolutionary democracy from Russia 1917 to Egypt today

Published: 10/02/2011

Written by: Vashti Kenway
Originally listed under: Middle East & Africa

The two-week-old Egyptian revolt has, like all genuine mass revolutions before it, unleashed a great, beautiful human tide of creativity, generosity, solidarity and bravery. Story after story, blog after blog and tweet after tweet have described the rapid transformation of spirit and the unfurling of confidence amongst millions of Egyptians. People who only weeks before had been living under the heel of brutal dictatorship now participate openly and enthusiastically in political life.

The revolutionary upheaval has transformed the way ordinary people see their society, and even more importantly, their role in it. Institutions of popular democracy and self-organisation have blossomed. One protester described the experience: "It is like we have lifted our heads for the first time in our lives. We have seen the sun and we will never look down again."

This phenomenon is not new. Mass participatory revolutions throughout the 20th, and now the 21st century have, in every instance, wrought massive changes on the lives of participants. From the Russian revolution of 1917, to Germany in 1923, to Spain in 1936-7, to the Chilean revolution of 1972-3, to Portugal in 1974-5 to Poland in 1980-1 and now Egypt in 2011 - these revolutions have produced a flourishing of participatory democracy.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said "The history of a revolution is for us first of all the history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny". In other words, for most of the time under capitalism, the mass of the population has no real say in the day to day functioning of the system. We don't decide what gets made and when, whether our nations go to war or not, which laws are made and unmade or whether millions of people starve or are fed. The rich and powerful decide these things. Revolutions are about redressing this situation.

In Egypt the masses have "forcibly entered" the arena and are beginning to shape their own future. They are "taking control of their own destiny" and remoulding it. Their activity puts paid to the capitalist lie that ordinary people are not fit to run society ourselves, that we need enlightened leaders (the likes of Mubarak, Suleiman, Gillard or Obama) to make all the big decisions for us.

A participant in the Spanish Revolution in 1937 described the flourishing of self confidence that emerges in revolutions when she said:

"It wasn't a question of waiting for a superior to give an order, for instructions to come from an officer or political leader. No, everything came from the people. All the qualities and capabilities which capitalism prevents from developing were suddenly revealed by the revolution. Peasants who had never listened to music listened to concerts in an impressive silence, or to the great poets. The immense strength of the people, their courage, fraternity, comradeship, appeared with overwhelming force."

In the epicentre of the revolt in Cairo, Tahrir Square, the creativity of the masses has been unleashed. There is an elation born from defiance of decades of stifling authoritarianism.

"The atmosphere in the square is jubilant and carnivalesque. People are helping each other, cleaning after themselves, talking, laughing, dancing, sharing food and water, and just enjoying the enormity of what they have achieved."

If you watch any of the footage you can get a sense of the creativity and humour of the protesters. To the pounding of a large drum some protesters experiment with a variety of chants and rhymes, riffing as they go, laughing when some don't work.

Literature and culture suppressed under the old regime has resurfaced. Words and music suffuse the square. As the protesters sit out the nights they sing banned nationalist songs or read poetry from the 1960s and 1970s. "Oh Egypt, our numbers are still great, don't be scared of others' might" goes one song. A protester strumms the oud and sings another. "If I die, mother, don't cry. I'll have died so that my country can live."

Political debates rage inside the square. A New York Times journalist reported

"A gaggle of hundreds deliberated, by microphone, whether Egyptian television should be banned from Tahrir and effigies should be taken down from traffic lights. (Both proposals were rejected, by a show of hands.)"

Other questions have arisen and are debated with more heat and intensity. How should the revolution progress? What attitude should the rebellion take to particular political leaders? Is the army really out to support the people? As the protest camp has become more permanent over the weeks, stages with microphones have been erected and speakers get up to put their case - some are booed, some are cheered. Arguments matter - the life of the revolution can depend on it. Different organisations produce leaflets to hand around to bolster their positions.

Although much less developed, the situation in the square brings to mind the heady, frenetic atmosphere of mass workers' democracy in the Russian Revolution in 1917. American journalist John Reed described it:

"In all the barracks meetings every night, and all day long interminable, hot arguments raged. On the streets the crowds thickened towards gloomy evenings, pouring in slow voluble tides up and down the Nevsky, fighting for newspapers.... At Smolny the committee rooms buzzed and hummed all day and all night, hundreds of soldiers and workers slept on the floor, wherever they could find room. Upstairs in the great hall a thousand people crowded to the uproarious sessions of the Petrograd Soviet."

Revolutions give the voiceless a voice. One of the most wonderful Youtube clips doing the rounds on Facebook is of a young woman dressed in a flourescent pink hijab, striding up and down a line of protesters facing off against security police. She leads defiant and occasionally cheeky chants while tens of middle-aged men follow her lead. Her dynamism (and vocal chords) are astounding, but more than this, the clip shows how stereotypes about women and men, the young and old, can be broken down in the height of social challenge. What mattered in the hurly-burly of the stand-off with the riot police was not who was a woman, who was in a hijab, who was old, who was young - but rather who was prepared to step up and lead the confrontation. In Egypt 2011 - on this particular picket - it was a young woman. In Russia 1917, where anti-semitism was rife, one of the great leaders of the Russian revolution was a young Jewish man , Leon Trotsky. In Poland in 1980 one of the initial leaders of the rebellion against Stalinism was a woman, Anna Walentynowicz.

The participatory nature of revolutions also means that many of the divisions constructed by capitalism begin to crumble.

The New York Times journalist again comments:

"In conversations in several residential neighbourhoods over the last week, Egyptians sometimes comment on the communal atmosphere in the square. 'There is no strife in the square between Christians and Muslims', said an elderly man named Omar, sitting in a coffee shop in the capital's Agouza neighbourhood. 'This is how it used to be in all of Egypt'. Egyptians have also commented on the absence of sexual harassment, a common problem elsewhere in the country. Thousands of women visited the square each day, and there was none of the catcalling and grabbing that they are often forced to endure in public."

Despite a history of tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims, in Tahrir Square an inter-communal solidarity has sprung up. Muslims and Christians stand together - arm in arm - defending the square. One Friday during Muslim prayers  the Christians formed a cordon to surround and protect those praying. Priests and imams stand holding hands on Egyptian army tanks painted with anti-government slogans.

To maintain the revolution unity across racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexuality is required.

Self-organisation and democracy

Other features of revolutionary situations have emerged across Egypt: popular democracy and self-organisation. When workers, the poor and students begin to organise against the old order very practical questions are thrown up. How will we maintain the protest? How will we get food? How will people's physical needs be met? Contrary to the lies peddled by the capitalist myth-makers, in such a situation people do not just stare stupidly at the ground and wait for an "exper"' to come along. Self-organisation begins.

The protesters gathering in the square have set up their own self-contained community. Despite the scarcity of food, essentials like bread, cheese and water are organised by committees and dispensed. Lollies and sweets are offered around. Journalists have reported that if they look tired, or anxious, they will be immediately surrounded and offered support. Generosity is the order of the day. Another committee produces a paper providing the latest updates on the conditions in the square and what is happening outside. Doctors and nurses volunteer their time and energy - staying from dawn till dusk - providing medical care for injured protesters.

In Alexandria, this situation has gone further. Popular Committees for the Protection of Properties and Organisation of Traffic have emerged. One of the organizers, Mr Mardini, describes the birth of these committees. He described how he and several other men who stepped in to help discussed the fact that citizens would have to work together if the protests against the Egyptian government were going to proceed without tearing their city apart. "What we tried to do first was protect the electricity, water, gas - even the state-owned ones." They set up elected committees to deal with these issues. Committee members are recognisable by their simple white armbands, often just strips of fabric. They created logos and distributed fliers asking for more help from the public. Some wear photocopied pieces of paper on their chests like netball bibs. Mr. Mardini wore a badge that read simply People's Committee in red Arabic script. The civic enterprise is now divided into four branches: traffic, cleanup, protection and emergency response.

In other revolutions this dynamic has been taken much further: the production of goods and services was controlled by workers. In the Chilean revolution of 1972 -3 workers in the city began to take over and collectivise their factories. At the Cristalerias glass factory, the management froze the company bank account. The workers responded by evolving a system of direct distribution. At the Perlak textile plant, to compensate for the lack of milk from the countryside, the workers organised a high nutrition soup for their children. The Polycron workforce took their textiles to the working class areas and sold them direct. Raw materials and finished goods began to be exchanged between factories, but also between workers and peasants. A joint committee of hospital workers was formed to keep hospitals running. School teachers formed committees and began a program of consultation with students as to what they would like to learn.

In Poland's revolution against the Stalinist state in 1980, the Gdansk strike committee took control of essential services. The striking tram drivers and railway workers returned to work, covering their transport with posters: 'We are on strike too, but we are working to make your life easier'. A fleet of 300 taxis was placed under the committee's direction. They also instructed bakeries and canneries to continue producing food supplies for the working class.

Such magnificent developments have not occurred in Egypt - as yet - but there are reports of a number of steel factories in Suez where workers have expelled their bosses and are running the factories themselves.

Defence of the revolution

Another question thrown up by revolutions is defence. When the old order is out to crush our rebellion how can we defend ourselves? When those benefiting from the status-quo set out to create chaos in order to disrupt the revolution, how can and should protesters respond?

Protesters in Tahrir Square have developed a novel way to deal with this situation. They have set up security cordons at the entrances to the square and are checking people's identification and searching them, as they come in and out of the square. This means police provocatuers or paid thugs of the old regime are stopped at the gate.

British socialist Judith Orr describes the situation like this.

"This whole great city of 20 million people has turned every street corner into a base of resistance. The regime tries to paint it as chaos. It is the opposite. It is self-organised, good natured, respectful of difference and exuberant. One demonstrator said, 'The police don't make order. We make our own order'."

Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif says this

"I am so amazed and touched by the field hospital at the back of Tahrir Square. The young doctors, male and female, are professional, dedicated and sympathetic. The injured are polite and so brave. Volunteer private cars ferry critical cases and bring in supplies. The government has removed police and all security from the streets and neighbourhoods are policing themselves. Young people have formed neighbourhood watches and are guarding their areas. They're having fun, inventing barricades and passwords, checking IDs and ushering you through with a theatrical flourish. Everyone - particularly women - are talking about how much safer they feel with the police off the streets."

Outside of Cario the situation has gone further with protesters burning down the police stations  - some of the most hated symbols of their repression.

A 40-year-old Cairo dentist put these developments well when he said:

"We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police."


Egypt in 2011, just like revolutions before it, demonstrates that the kind of world we, the workers, students and the poor, could create would be a vastly superior system to the one we live in today: a world of wars, torture, lies and economic dictatorship. The revolutionary situation in Egypt today paints in vivid colours the possibilities inherent in humanity to live in a different way. The fact that the Egyptian people who have been ground down by decades of economic hardship and political repression are now looking up, seeing the world anew, and flexing their own democratic muscle should give everyone who want to see a better world, a beating heart. No matter what happens from here on, the transformations wrought on millions of Egyptians by this revolution will never be forgotten. For as Abdel-Moneim, one of the participants in the protests in Tahrir Square said:

"Everyone here is awake. I might be weary, but when the morning comes, I can breathe freedom. What I've seen here is what I've never seen in my life."