The sight of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing in the face of workers’ general strikes and mass demonstrations is inspiring an upsurge of struggle throughout the Middle East. The idea is spreading among the Arab world’s workers and youth that they could rise up and send the rest of the region’s imperialism-backed dictators packing as well.
But in Tunisia itself the struggle is far from over. The dictator is gone, but the political party that he led and which ran the dictatorship, the RCD, still dominates the government. The hated police have been driven away or underground in many places, but the state apparatus of courts, police and the army that was the dictatorship’s foundation remain in place in the country’s most important centers of power. Weeks of big demonstrations and mass strikes demanding that the RCD be ousted from the government have yielded little change, and Ben Ali’s crony Mohamed Ghannouchi continues to hold the position of Prime Minister.
Today, the forces of the old dictatorship are too weak to try to violently crush the masses’ struggles. But the workers and poor people do not see a leadership willing and able to lead them in finally driving the RCD from power. The current standoff between these forces cannot last forever.
The masses’ desire to rid themselves of the RCD is accompanied by a growing sense of the need for a strong government to get the economy moving again. Ghannouchi’s regime hopes that it can hold on to power while the masses grow tired from weeks of struggle without a breakthrough. But there are already signs that more violent means could be used to subjugate the masses: recent provocative demonstrations in Tunis expressing support for the government and condemning the unions and the left for spreading anarchy, combined with scattered violent attacks on union offices in different cities, warn of attempts to rally middle-class support for a more dictatorial crackdown.
The current balance of power between the Ghannouchi government and the masses is held by the army. Its ranks of soldiers, conscripted from the working class and poor, have been swept up in the masses’ revolutionary ferment. They broadly share the hope of seeing the RCD ousted from power and today guard government buildings and central streets with flowers in their gun barrels, symbols of their intention not to harm the masses.
The army’s top leader, General Rachid Ammar, was at least at first regarded as a hero for refusing Ben Ali’s orders to crush the masses’ protests. Indeed in the days after Ben Ali’s downfall, the army played an important role in apprehending bands of police engaged in wanton acts of murder.
But Ammar was hand-picked for his position by Ben Ali and has long been closely tied to U.S. imperialism and its military. Ammar may have prompted Ben Ali’s flight from power, but he did so with the aim of sacrificing the dictator in order to rescue the rest of the capitalist ruling class and save its state power to rule over the masses. When “Caravans of Liberation” arrived in Tunis from the country’s impoverished central region and threatened to lead demonstrators in toppling the government, Ammar stood before them with a megaphone and begged them to allow more time for reforms. “The army will protect the revolution,” he promised. What Ammar was literally doing, however, was saving the RCD from the revolution.
Tunisia’s revolution did not begin with intellectuals in cosmopolitan Tunis protesting for free speech. Rather, it began with massive union-organized demonstrations in the impoverished center of the country. Rallying behind slogans like “Bread and Freedom – Not Ben Ali!” the masses of workers and poor people made clear from the outset that they were fighting to liberate themselves not just from political oppression but also from poverty and exploitation.
By overpowering the dictatorship’s local governments and police in some cities and towns and replacing them with democratically elected councils of the struggle, the working class and poor have already taken steps toward overthrowing the ruling class and building a government of their own. Workers have also started taking over operation of some enterprises after they kicked out their bosses for having collaborated with the dictatorship. Trade unions are calling for the nationalization of the enterprises Ben Ali and his family owned.
Whether or not the workers understood it, these were all steps toward overturning capitalist class relations and putting the working class and poor in power. They point to the potential for the revolution to overthrow the ruling class and its armed state power and replace it with a government of democratically elected organizations of the working class and poor, backed by a state power based on the armed working class.
Tragically, the socialist groups that we are aware of in Tunisia believe that the revolution should aim, at least as a first stage, for no more than the establishment of a democratic government within the limits of capitalism. But a purely democratic revolution that leaves capitalism intact is exactly what is proving impossible.
After Ben Ali’s flight from power, the most prominent figures of the official opposition to the dictatorship like Nejib Chebbi of the bourgeois liberal Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), as well as representatives of the country’s main union federation, the UGTT, moved quickly to call an end to the struggle after accepting minor cabinet positions in the RCD-dominated government. This act of treachery was not just the result of their personal ambition and corruption. These pro-capitalist leaders know that the system requires keeping the vast majority of the population dominated and exploited. They understand that the working class’s new sense of power to mobilize and strike for a better life is incompatible with a return to profitable capitalist exploitation. As a result, in spite of the demands of mass demonstrations and strikes, none of the “opposition” figures have offered to lead a government purged of the RCD.
Nevertheless, such a government remains the program of the left party that seems to have the largest following among workers today, the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT). Led by Hamma Hammami, the PCOT has shown extraordinary courage in standing up to the often terrible repression it suffered at the hands of the Ben Ali dictatorship. But true to its Stalinist heritage, the PCOT insists that the working class must not go beyond the limits of a stage of bourgeois democracy. Thus their widely circulated “Nine Points” program of January 15 goes not further than calls for “democratic change.”
The PCOT has in the past been aligned with a number of bourgeois democratic parties in opposition to the Ben Ali dictatorship, most prominently the Progressive Democratic Party. Since the PDP’s embrace of the Ghannouchi government, the PCOT has had a hard time finding a bourgeois partner in pursuit of its imagined bourgeois democratic stage. In the new “January 14 Front” it cobbled together, it could only boast the participation of some small liberal, nationalist and labor groupings, including a Baathist party.
The PCOT’s belief in the possibility of working-class and bourgeois forces suspending their class struggle against one another in a common fight for democracy leads it to promoting a potentially disastrous approach toward the army. Thus it published a series of articles on the role of the army in the revolution by Samir Hamouda on January 16 and 22. In those articles Hamouda perceptively compared the revolutionary sympathies of the poor and working-class rank-and-file soldiers to the contradictory role played by the privileged and professionally trained officers. The army acted to apprehend police who launched murderous attacks against protests and residential neighborhoods, for example, but under the direction of its officers the army has also protected the institutions of the government from the masses and on more than one occasion before Ben Ali’s downfall it acted to surround protesters while the police attacked them. But having pointed out the divergent attitudes of the officers and the ranks of soldiers, instead of proposing a struggle to organize the working-class soldiers to rebel against their officers and side with the revolution, Hamouda argues that if the masses call loudly enough on the army to side with the revolution it will do so, officers and soldiers together!
Other leftists have displayed a similarly disastrous confusion about what should be done with the police in Tunisia. Since Ben Ali’s downfall the Tunisian masses have been subjected to the insulting spectacle of various figures from Ben Ali’s dictatorship pleading innocence of any wrongdoing under the old regime. Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who had loyally served by the side of Ben Ali for years asked for the people’s support by claiming that he too had suffered Ali’s dictatorship. Then police held a demonstration in Tunis on January 22, similarly claiming to be victims of the dictatorship and demanding pay raises and the right to form a union.
Britain’s Socialist Workers Party published in its January 29 edition of Socialist Worker newspaper an interview with UGTT militant Jilani Hamani in which he noted that while there isn’t a great deal of sympathy for the police, “people support their right to form a union but this is mitigated by a fear that they could be a part of a coup by the government.” Criminally, the SWP did not suggest how workers need to resolve this dilemma: by recognizing that the police are the hired thugs of the ruling class whom workers need to forcibly disarm and disband.
Marxists understand that soldiers who join armies expecting that their role will be to protect their nation from foreign threats often instinctively rebel against the idea of repressing their working-class brothers and sisters and as a result they can readily be won to the side of working-class revolutions. Cops, on the other hand, sign up to repress the working-class and can be expected to be a far more determined counterrevolutionary threat and the working class must be prepared to smash their resistance by force.
The experience of the Tunisian revolution so far, as well as the history of revolutions throughout the last century, shows that the only way to guarantee the freedoms that the Tunisian masses have already won is for the working-class and poor people to continue their revolution all the way to seizing state power themselves.
The workers and poor have no need for reformed governments that will defend capitalist rule and keep the masses subjected to unemployment and hunger. They need a state power that will take over industries, farms and banks and operate them in the interests of the masses, not a rich handful. They need a state that does not subordinate the economy to American and French imperialists but will work to spread working-class revolutions around the world and build an international economy for the benefit of all.
As we have noted, the masses have in fact already taken steps toward their own power, having swept away local government authorities and police forces and replaced them with new democratic assemblies and armed defense guards. This shows the potential for the masses to push the RCD and police aside and set up an alternative government based on mass organizations of the workers and poor. Councils of the workers and poor should be elected wherever possible, and they should choose representatives to a central council that can truly say: we represent the revolution, we are not afraid to take the power.
Never again should the masses be defenseless in the face of the armed might of a government’s police and army! Never again should the soldiers receive orders from officers appointed from above by an unelected government! The working class needs to arm itself for self-defense and to disband the state’s repressive forces.
The revolution has the sympathy of working-class soldiers, and they can be won to the support of these measures. Working-class revolutionaries can propose ways to carry this out. While warning that the army’s top officers will oppose them, revolutionaries should call on the soldiers to: 1) support the arming of the masses, beginning with the workers’ organizations and the neighborhood committees and other organizations of self-defense; 2) fight for the right to elect their officers. When soldiers encounter resistance to these policies from their officers, they will see that they will have to overthrow the officers’ command and organize councils of soldiers’ representatives to join with the councils of workers and the poor and their revolutionary struggle.
While revolutionary socialists should encourage the ranks of soldiers to break from their officers’ command and organize to support the workers’ revolution, they must at the same time warn the working class and the soldiers themselves that for as long as the officers remain in command, the army cannot be trusted to not be used to act against the masses. The working class must therefore not waste a moment before moving to arm and organize for its own self-defense.
A government of councils of workers’ and poor people actively engaged in transforming society in the interests of the masses, composed of democratically elected representatives subject to immediate recall by those that elected them, would be vastly more democratic and accountable than a government elected through the conservative, bureaucratic process of parliamentary elections. But to prove this, revolutionaries would fight for national elections based on universal voting rights to a Constituent Assembly to decide on the form of state and government for the country, with the aim of ratifying the power in the hands of the councils of workers and soldiers.
Tunisia’s workers have risen up in revolution but not found a leadership that has drawn the lessons of the revolutions of the past.
Every great mass revolution, from Russia in 1917 to Iran in 1979, opened up a period of debate and struggle in which the full range of political forces contended for power. After Russia’s workers shocked the world by overthrowing the Tsar in 1917, power fell into the hands of a bourgeois provisional government that proceeded to betray the masses’ demands and attempt to subjugate them to capitalism. But the most class-conscious workers rallied to the Bolshevik party which guided them through the provisional governments’ betrayals. Led by Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks encouraged the workers to not surrender the power they achieved, and ultimately convinced the masses of the need for a second, socialist revolution to put the working class in power. The workers’ state created by the October revolution was ultimately strangled by the failure to spread the revolution around the world and eventually overthrown by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s that murdered millions.
The Bolshevik strategy of workers’ socialist revolution was upheld by Trotsky and his followers in the Fourth International. His genuine followers today seek to continue that work in building vanguard parties with the same revolutionary socialist strategy. Though Tunisia’s workers have not found a Bolshevik party already built that can lead the masses to power, there is still time for the most class conscious workers to build one. The deadly consequences of workers not finding such a leadership can be seen in the example of the Iranian revolution, whose workers were held back from seizing power and ultimately led into the death-trap of counter-revolution.
1. Known in French as the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique – the Democratic Constitutional Assembly.
2. See www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/23/AR2011012304126.html; and www.marxist.com/tunisia-revolutionary-initiative-of-masses-continues.htm.
3. See the PDP’s website at www.pdpinfo.org.
4. L’Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, The Tunisian General Union of Labor.
5. حزب العمال الشيوعي التونسي (Hizb al-'Ummal al-Shuyu'I ) or Parti communiste des ouvriers tunisiens; see their website at www.albadil.org.
7. See “البيان التأسيسي لجبهة 14 جانفي” “Founding Statement of the January 14 Front,” www.albadil.org/spip.php?article3675.
8. See “الأجهزة التي تهدّد الانتفاضة” www.albadil.org/spip.php?article3670 and “هل تفك قيادة الجيش ارتباطاتها بالنظام القديم” www.albadil.org/spip.php?article3676.
10. The Liaison Committee of Tunisian Militants of the Fourth International seems to have been the first to report that in the southwestern city of Kasserine and elsewhere “the local administration, the police, and all the regime's institutions were smashed, leaving the city in the hands of the population and its committees,” as noted in the statement from the Executive Committee of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International, “A Few Notes on the Open Revolutionary Process in Tunisia,” January 17, 2011. Since then popular committees and assemblies in provinces from Gafsa, Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Sfax in the south and center of the country, to provinces further north and closer to Tunis like Kairouan and Siliana, have released statements explaining their commitment to continue the revolution’s defense of the masses struggle against the RCD, exploitation and police violence (summaries and quotations from such statements can, for example, be found at www.parti-ouvrier-independant.com/spip/spip.php?article1099 and www.marxist.com/tunisia-revolutionary-initiative-of-masses-continues.htm.)
11. See The Life and Death of Stalinism: a Resurrection of Marxist Theory