African revolution: Then and now

Phillip Dexter asks whether successes of recent democratic movements will be sustained

Like the analysis of most left or progressive parties, Gil Scott-Heron's famous rap, "The Revolution will not be Televised" has been proven outdated by events, though his is still a timeless, classic anthem. Millions of citizens the world over have been witnessing the upheavals in the Middle East and in Africa.

It seems that the effects of what Antonio Negri and Ray Hardt have described as the "Multitude", is in full swing. Actions by large numbers of people, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, unless met with sustained and ruthless violence, are removing once popular leaders who have become corrupt dictators.

The questions these actions raise are profound: What causes these popular leaders to become tyrants? What follows after dictators go? What is the role and the interests of the imperialist powers in these processes? Last, but not least, where are the left and progressive parties in all of this?

The first African Communist, published after the SACP was re-launched in 1953, characterised the African Revolution as the process of African countries liberating themselves from colonialism. A similar process was unfolding in South and Central America, in Asia and in the Middle East.

The patterns of dominance, influence and exploitation cast before WWII were shattered by that conflict of imperialist powers for dominance over the earth's resources. The post WWII patterns were dominated by the Cold War and the struggle between the capitalist "West" and the quasi-socialist "East".

Today, with "really existing socialism" all but a distant memory, with variants of right-wing social democracy dominant in most of Europe, and populist but neo-liberal policied regimes in those previously contested areas of Africa, Asia and South America, the questions that arises as these masses shake off the paternalistic yoke of bondage they have borne since the 1950's, are of profound significance for the world and especially future generations. While this revolutionary process is uneven, full of fits and starts and contradictions, it is clear that these moments are as significant as the French, American and Russian revolutions were.

The regimes that replaced the colonial powers in Africa and the Middle East came about through a series of complex trade-offs between the struggling masses of these countries, their emerging elites and the two strategic poles of influence in the post WWII environment. While colonialism and Imperialism were rolled back, it would be naïve and even dishonest to argue that what replaced the paternalism of Western European powers in Africa and the Middle East were democracies.

For the most part, elites, often led by the military, whether of the national armies or of liberation movements, quickly consolidated themselves in all the countries where colonial powers were ousted and Imperialism was challenged. Prominent examples of these types of nationalist-authoritarian regimes are Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. In some cases, aristocrats were included in these regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia.

Religion, especially Islam, also played an important role in the development of some of these nation states. What is most striking if one surveys the history of these countries is that while they removed the dominance of colonial administration, it was most often traded for undemocratic regimes who survived by playing the liminal space between the two Cold War spheres of interest.

As a result, democracy was curtailed in the interests of either "stability", "socialism" or for strategic interests such as oil. This created the space for nationalist regimes that carried out reforms in these countries, brought some development, but never fully transformed themselves and who never implemented radical processes of reform, thereby short-changing their citizens in the process. This authoritarianism created an environment for corruption, accumulation through the state and for the development of the types of regimes that are now collapsing.

There can be no doubt that this environment was exploited by leaders who consolidated their personal power as the former socialist block and the capitalist West aided and abetted them or at best, turned a blind eye to their excesses. The end of the Cold War saw new contradictions arise as capitalist globalization pressured these regimes to make the necessary reforms to remain globally competitive.

As these contradictions between the ruling elites and their subjects have sharpened, pressure for change has mounted. Mass movements, arising spontaneously for the most part and often led by young people, have skillfully exploited new technology and the changes in the global order, to mobilize the populations of these countries to remove these dictators.

There can be no doubt that the images of these courageous masses sweeping away their oppressors and expoiters, carried on CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera, have emboldened others to take action themselves.

Of course, these movements have often been spontaneous and without clear revolutionary programs. The success and sustainability of these democratic movements remains to be seen. There are dangers that nascent religious interests, for instance, will exploit the power vacuums being created and attempt to install regimes as undemocratic and as reactionary as those that have been removed.

What the role and the interests of the imperialist powers in these processes is also a key factor. On the one hand these interests seem to push for democracy and human rights, but their own track record in this regard is, at best dubious.

More often than not, these claims are really just an ideological cover for the interests of capital which seeks to exploit the natural resources of these countries, uninhibited by nationalist regimes that rent-seek from them. In other words, removing a Gaddafi type figure is in their interests as they can proceed to exploit the country without paying any tribute to such a figure.

Of course, strategic leadership in these moments can mean that progressive forces can use the prevailing balance of forces to renegotiate the terms by which they relate to the new global ‘order'. But for this to be successful, there needs to be such leadership of these movements in place that has a clear vision and program to achieve this, as well as the capacity to organise the people in these countries towards such a goal.

Sadly, the left and progressive parties in all of these revolutions seem to be dazed and confused. Even our own self-proclaimed ‘vanguards' seem unable to give any coherent comment on these events, vacillating depending on who last donated money to them. Those not out on the streets in these countries seem to be mere spectators, watching events unfold on television.

There is little to no support for these movements and often ambivalence, especially where the former dictators, such as Ghadaffi, were funders of parties in neighbouring countries. This crisis of the Left, oft denied by those who nowadays pretend to be communists, bodes ill for our own future.

When the contradictions in our own National Democratic Revolution sharpen, we can expect these arm-chair revolutionaries to either sit at home and watch events on their flat-screen TVs, or even worse, as they have been co-opted, actively side with those who seek, as Ghadaffi and others do, to perpetuate their elite power to continue to rent seek from those who benefit from the rapacious capitalism that dominates our African existence.

Phillip Dexter MP is COPE's Head of Communications

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter