Lebanon: Lessons from the uprising

March 2020 Lebanon (Reuters)
Protest in Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon, on Oct. 20. (Reuters)

By ANDY BARNS

The political uprising in Lebanon is now in its sixth month. Revolutionary processes are never one-and-done deals, and cannot be characterized as singular events that happen and pass. They are organic in the same way their participants are, and like any organism they develop unevenly and gradually, require great struggle to overcome their obstacles, and yes, they can be killed.

Given these facts, it is impossible to say with certainty how the revolt in Lebanon will proceed. That is especially true right now, with increasing cases of COVID-19 in the country and calls by the government forces to halt protests in favor of social isolation. A state of emergency was ordered on March 15.

How the protesters will deal with these questions and how the revolt will survive and reproduce itself under conditions of pandemic, only time will tell. Nonetheless, several lessons can be gleaned from the situation, and parallels between the tactics of the Lebanese and U.S ruling classes can be drawn. We must pay close attention if we want to win the battle for democracy and workers’ rights internationally.

Millions protest in the streets

Here is a brief re-cap of the Lebanese upsurge so far (links to more detailed accounts by direct eyewitnesses will be provided below): The protests were set off by several grievances, in tandem and combined with decades of government corruption and mismanagement. Wildfires were not properly fought by the government, even though the equipment was available [1], and several people died fighting the flames. Power outages, and potential bread shortages were also a problem, met by the Lebanese government with several new taxes—including on, of all things, Facebook and Whatsapp calls. For the Lebanese working class, this highlighted the callousness of their government leaders, and on Oct. 17, mass protests flooded the streets—with a general strike on Oct. 21.

Over the course of the upsurge, at least one in five Lebanese joined the protests, and up to a million people could be in the streets on a given day, in a country of seven million people. Protesters blocked roads, stopped businesses, and targeted banks (who were withholding money from people, unless they wealthy and with key connections) [2].

In previous major uprisings in Lebanon, sectarian chants and divisions implanted by agents of the ruling class were successful in filtering the movements. This movement is different in that most protesters have developed a class perspective and understand that it is about all oppressed layers fighting against the ruling class. No government leader is safe from criticism, and simple government shuffles of personnel do not appease the populace. New attempts to form a working-class leadership, including revolutionary communes and rank-and-file unionism, are small but exist.

But, of course, the forces of counterrevolution are also present. Police brutality is the normal response to proletarian uprising in any country no matter how “free” its rulers advertise it. Lebanese police forces deliberately blinded several protesters. Hundreds were injured in other ways, and many more arrested. Politicians and sectarian groups have attempted to co-op the movement (“we understand you”) or stoke sectarian chants (“Shia! Shia!) [3]. The militias and thugs of sectarian origin have assaulted many activists in an attempt to intimidate the revolutionary process. All in all, these are things that might be expected in a moment of mass upsurge.

Even with the outbreak of the COVID-19 sickness (333 Lebanese infected, six deaths, and 23 recoveries as of March 25), the momentum of the protest movement has been difficult to slow down. March saw the continuance of protests on a host of issues, including the International Woman’s Day march, which continued despite coronavirus fears [4]. What the coming weeks and months hold for the Lebanese revolution is uncertain, but it is clear that the working class in Lebanon is in motion.

Parallels with the situation of U.S. workers

With this background settled, what lessons can be drawn from the mass revolt in Lebanon that can be applied to working-class struggles in the United States? To begin, Lebanese capitalism has often relied on religious sectarianism to divide and conquer the populace. This has been made especially easy with the clientele system, in which “clients” and “patrons,” usually workers and bosses, or tenants and landlords, have a supposedly mutually beneficial relationship based on sectarian grounds, i.e. Shia or Sunni, or even with ethnicity.

Certainly, no such system exists in the United States, but the logic of division still exists. The legacy of the U.S. slave system and Jim Crow has left marks on the culture that are repeatedly used by the capitalist class to divide the people. While the forms of racial oppression have morphed over time (and the struggles against oppression), the basic logic of pitting white and Black workers against each other is ever present. In turn, Trumpism, a political movement reflecting the effects of racism and hard-right politics on the mainstream, has helped to repackage white supremacy under a new cover as a method of deflecting the blame for the economic and social problems of the working class from the capitalist system.

Lebanese workers generally understand, even at this stage of the political process, that all sectarian divides of this nature must be overcome in order for the oppressed to defeat their real enemy in the halls of power. Sectarian leaders and sectarian political parties are having a difficult time. Once the U.S. working class recognizes its common struggle against class oppression (including the vile racisms of the mass incarceration system, unjust policing, and housing discrimination), it will be unstoppable.

It should be kept in mind that the current Lebanese rebellion is not a deus ex machina. The last great uprising in Lebanon occurred in 2015, and that event was far more reformist and liberal. But in order to get to even that point, to say nothing of the current uprising, took many years of patient organizing by committed activists. Moreover, if a successful revolution is to take place, it needs leaders and activists who can educate and explain goals and strategies to their fellow workers, and who can engage at every step of the way in the struggle. For that, a mass-based revolutionary socialist party must be built—a key item that has been lacking so far in the uprising in Lebanon.

Thus, there is no guarantee that a Lebanese revolution will succeed, but if it does, it would be the product of a long struggle and careful preparation [2]. We should expect the same internationally.

Repression and co-optation

Another important lesson to be learned is how the ruling class responds to a potentially revolutionary moment. As in the case of the Lebanese ruling class, they may simply try to co-opt the movement. As already stated, several Lebanese politicians have attempted and failed to take on the demands of the Lebanese movement as their own. They are opportunists who believe that once again the workers of Lebanon will simply be happy with a “better” politician in office. They think that a simple shuffling of persons in a rotten system will trick the workers.

Any person even vaguely familiar with U.S. electoral politics will see a certain parallel in this country, with the political co-optation of social movements by the “Democratic” Party. With a new wave of workers revolt in the form of repeated teachers’ strikes, the GM strike, the Black Lives Matter movement, massive student walkouts over climate change, etc., the ruling class will try its very best to restrict any movement against capital. It is no real surprise that the Democratic Party tries to co-opt the workers’ movement for its own purposes, much in the same way that the Republican Party cynically exploits fears by the middle class and a layer of relatively privileged white workers of social replacement by immigrants or racial minorities. The U.S. working class would do well to follow the Lebanese example and treat these hucksters with the same disdain.

Finally, no revolutionary movement will be left alone to peacefully develop. Lebanon currently shows that activists, campers, and protesters are routinely attacked by the police and sectarian thugs. There is every reason to expect that this same terrorism will be applied against a sustained revolt in the United States. As mentioned, the ruling class likes to stoke racism, and a incipient fascist militia exists in the U.S., brainwashed by racist internet forums and Trumpist allegations that the country is “being overrun by foreigners.” Activists in the U.S., even at this early stage, have been intimidated and attacked by fascists seeking the creation of a “white ethnostate.” Of course, the U.S. ruling class doesn’t care for this “vision”, but the fascists are nonetheless useful tools to impede revolutionary activists.

U.S. police departments also routinely intimidate, murder, and imprison racial minorities and others considered to be on the margins of U.S. society. The 1985 MOVE bombing is one example, wherein the Philadelphia police used a helicopter to drop a bomb on a Black residential neighborhood [5]. Should the U.S. working class stand up, at long last, to its oppressors, we should expect the most heinous violence from the ruling class and its thugs, and be well prepared.

Yet perhaps the most valuable lesson the uprising of the Lebanese masses can teach us is that revolutionary situations are part of a process. For six months now, the Lebanese workers have been in motion. The window of revolutionary change doesn’t even end with the uprisings. Not just decades of prior activism are to be considered, but the aftermath.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 shows us that even when the working class achieves victory and a real workers’ democracy is formed, the road of struggle still carries on. Nor is there any guarantee that democratic rights or personal freedoms will survive after the revolution, as the degeneration of the revolution under Stalin demonstrated. Russia is today ruled by an authoritarian capitalist regime, showing that all progress can be overturned.

Yet, it is also true that despite decades of ruling class impunity and sectarian division, Lebanon still feasts on a huge mass radicalization and political upsurge today! The world is complex, and history is not set in stone but is fluid and contradictory. So don’t make any bets about the triumph of U.S. capitalism or U.S. militarism either. Indeed, all economic exploitation the world over is open to complete destruction by the proletariat if they awake, organize, and build parties with revolutionary programs to take their struggles forward.

Notes:

[0] https://www.lebaneserevolution2019.com/

Timeline and propaganda written from the revolution itself.

[1] https://www.lebaneserevolution2019.com/timeline/day-1

Start of the revolution.

[2] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/lebanons-october-revolution-must-go-on/

Early account of the revolution.

[3] http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article6417

Translated interview with same activist as above, reprinted by the Forth International.

[4] https://www.lebaneserevolution2019.com/timeline/day-143

IWD march in Lebanon, and other protests.

[5] https://mashable.com/2016/01/10/1985-move-bombing/

Regarding the 1985 MOVE Bombing.

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