Saturday, August 29, 2009

In the new revolution, Guardian readers

The Guardian's sub editors came up with a brilliantly counterintuitive title for a think piece they featured this week, looking at "colour revolutions":

"In the new revolution, progressives fight against, not with, the poor"

a sort of echo of that record by the Fall: "hate's not your enemy, love's your enemy".

The writer, David Edgar, doesn't try to justify any such thing, but the article's quite interesting insofar as it reflects the disappearance from common knowledge of the concept of the "bourgeois revolution"; a disappearance the article both testifies to and masks.

I don't know anything about David Edgar, other than that he sometimes appears in The Guardian. He explains that in the last years of the Cold War he was involved with a "marxist" journal, without supporting Soviet-style communism himself:

"In 1989, I was one of two non-communist members of the editorial board of the magazine Marxism Today"

...which might seem as paradoxical as being one of two illiterate members of the editorial board of the London Review of Books, but is entirely reasonable in the context of the decomposition of "the left" from the late 70s onward, which is one of the subjects the article addresses. David Edgar tries to conceptualise:

"the colour/flower-coded revolutions of the 21st: from Georgia's 2003 rose revolution via Ukraine's 2004-05 orange revolution to Kyrgyzstan's initially pink or lemon but finally tulip revolution against another crooked post-communist government, later the same year."

I don't think many people would blame Edgar for regarding marxism like a carthorse regards the whip, and wanting to develop a liberal or liberal-friendly position, but in this case the classic liberal position coincides with the marxist postion. Marx's ideas about the causes of social change were based on a widely accepted liberal or radical analysis of the social and economic causes of the French Revolution; causes which were found to be retrospectively applicable, with due modification, to the American Revolution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The French Revolution as a whole could be looked at as a "movement" in which the bourgeoisie, having acceded to economic power, exploited popular discontent and thereby acceded to political dominance. Variations on this thesis of the "bourgeois revolution" have been profitably employed by serious analysts from Von Ranke to Poulantzas.

The "20th- century, third-world revolution" represented a quite distinct phenomenon, in which social change in undeveloped countries, already integrated into the world system as undeveloped countries, exerted a different sort of pressure on the existing state and resulted in a different political settlement. As Edgar states:

"Iran in 1979 was a recognisable, 20th- century, third-world revolution, in which the progressive middle class allied with the rural masses to overthrow a hated, foreign-backed autocracy. "

The upheavals Edgar describes in Eastern Europe and in Russia, on the other hand, were classic "bourgeois revolutions" against the bureaucratic "socialist" state, that in no way "presaged a new kind of political movement". They represented the dismantling of the bureaucratic command economy by sections of its ruling class and resulted in its replacement with something approximating the current western version of bourgeois capitalism.

Because Edgar doesn't want to analyse, in retro-marxist fashion, the social structures underpinning the rival groups in the conflicts he describes, he equates the properly bourgeois revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the stalled bourgeois revolution in Iran, with a faction fight in Ukraine and a reactionary coup d'etat in Thailand. The political structure of the state, and the socio-political structure out of which its opponants came, differs in each case. The dynamics of the bourgeois revolution, the genuine "colour revolution", are hardly likely to be replicated in Western Europe, as it already is subject to neo-bourgeois capitalism.

As I said, Edgar's concept of the "21st-century revolution" is as much about replacing the concept of the "bourgeois revolution" as failing to remember it. Extrapolating from the recent events in Iran, Edgar describes a conflict which:

"pits the educated, western-oriented, socially liberal, economically neoliberal urban middle class against the economically egalitarian, socially traditionalist rural poor."

In talking about the "middle class" rather than the "bourgeoisie" Edgar abstracts out the dominant interests on both sides. Hashemi Rafsanjani is no more middle class than his political rivals. The conflict in Iran involves a struggle between two factions of the ruling class, which has been expanded into a struggle for political rights, fought mainly by a section of the "urban middle class" against state power. The entire conflict cannot be reduced to this second struggle.

David Edgar's political aims are good:

"liberty, secularism, free speech, gay rights, civil liberties, enlightenment values and feminism, but also in social diversity, religious tolerance and economic equality"

...and he's right in understanding that the ideas of classic marxism have very little appeal for British newspaper readers. But there is something strange in writing for, as well as about, a middle class "intelligentsia", "progressives"; in effect a putative "class of consciousness", and having to process precise concepts into a sort of ideological babyfood, and so have to talk about a conflict between the "middle class" and "the poor" in the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran.