The past weeks have seen the re-emergence of the working class as a powerful political social force in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
In Tunisia, the 23-year-old dictatorial regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – long considered among the more stable bulwarks of U.S. imperialism in Northern Africa – was brought down after weeks of demonstrations against high unemployment, rising food prices, and government corruption.
Moreover, efforts to set up a “unity government” consisting of former officials of Ben Ali’s administration and elements from various oppositional parties have been thwarted. Mass protest continues in defiance of curfews and repression.
Similar demonstrations have broken out in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen but could spread to almost any corner of the globe given the universality of the social grievances involved. Many demonstrators have openly expressed solidarity with struggles being waged in other parts of the region.
The eruption of the Egyptian working class last week has been accompanied with demands that dictator Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country with U.S.-backing for nearly three decades, follow Ben Ali’s example and leave the country.
Notwithstanding its hypocritical urges for the Egyptian military to show restraint, the Obama administration appears ready to defend Mubarak, or at least a regime as amicable to its interests in the region, to the last, regardless of the blood spilled.
It should be noted the religious right has played virtually no role in these events. Neither have the trade unions, outside of their belated attempts to gain some control over them.
In the case of the former, the traditional ideological trappings of religion have been crushed under the weight of objective social conditions. In the latter, the old limited forms of class struggle have been superseded by the scope of the economic crisis. Both developments are welcome.
But while these developments have opened unprecedented opportunities, they have also produced enormous dangers. Without the formation of a leadership capable and determined to realize the aspirations of the masses, the movement will be diverted or crushed, inevitably leading to more repression and dictatorship.
The mass upsurges are the product of an international crisis of capitalism. Therefore, it follows that the mass movement will succeed only under a leadership with an internationalist and socialist perspective.
It has long been commonplace to write off the African and Middle Eastern working class as too conservative, divided, repressed and under the spell of religious fundamentalism to conduct any organized revolutionary action, let alone one which threatens to transcend national boundaries. Such impressions have been demonstrated to be bankrupt in relation to social phenomena.
More significant, however, are the consequences which logically follow for another impressionistic outlook closer to home, that of “American exceptionalism.”
Proponents of this concept hold the unique position of the U.S. internationally allows it to provide a higher standard of living to its native workforce. This immunizes workers against radical ideology, cultivates complacency, and exempts the country from the open class conflict that plagues the rest of the world.
While there was some factual basis to this theory historically, its peddlers today overlook the fact that the decline of the United States on the world stage over the last 30 years has undermined the very unique position that rendered such a strategy temporarily valid. The impression of a servile American working class will be dispelled sooner rather than later.
If the international crisis of capitalism has provided the social conditions by which an upsurge in Tunisia threatens to engulf the region, it has also provided the conditions under which a movement by the American working class will reverberate around the world. This makes the American working class the most revolutionary social force on the planet, albeit still unconscious of this fact.
As the British Trotskyist, Gerry Healy, once noted, the international working class will knock capitalism down, but the American working class will kick it to death.