The following was written as a contribution to the collective reading group organized by Spring Magazine in Canada on 12 December, 2020 to discuss Anne Alexander’s two articles: “Class, Power and Revolution in Sudan” and “Living on Revolution Time: understanding the dynamics of the uprisings in Sudan and Algeria”.
The importance of the two articles written by Anne Alexander about the Sudanese Revolution comes from the strategic analysis to get the most out of the revolutionary movement (hirak) and to make revolutionary change. The articles mirror many questions considered by Sudanese revolutionaries at this moment.
In her article, “Living on Revolution Time,” Alexander talks about moments where changes happen quickly: “if revolution time is short, what can revolutionaries do to make the most of it?” As she questions, “when is it necessary to fight for partial changes to the system? And when does the achievement of reforms become the means by which the revolutionary process is contained and aborted?” She discusses through this the reform and revolutionary positions in the Sudanese and Algerian realities.
We find the same questions in our Sudanese reality from two years ago and today. We asked the question about negotiation to make partial change in the regime through a coalition with the army, if it is considered a victory or a means to abort the revolutionary process, and the recent question regarding the participation in the parliament.
The question recurs as well in the revolutionaries’ discussions regarding the demonstrations by the revolution committees on the 19th of this December. Is it more effective to work toward a complete overthrow of the government? Which government do we want to topple? What alternative forms of leadership do we want? Or is it more helpful to pressure for participation in parliament as an achievement of partial reforms? A reform or a revolution? This question raised in the analysis of the hirak in Algeria and Sudan is a pivotal and an everyday question the Sudanese revolutionaries probe.
Revolutionary goals and the role of mass strikes
The article “Class, Power and Revolution”, examines the revolutionary situation in Sudan more deeply. It asks a direct question about how the Sudanese revolution breaks free from the fate of Arab Spring uprisings that were “rich in the experience of ‘revolution as movement’, but produced a meagre harvest of ‘revolution as change’, whether measured in terms of reforms to the existing state, or in terms of the creation of alternative institutions of state power.”
This description sums up the Sudanese revolutionaries’ biggest nightmare, which is that the harvest of the revolution wouldn’t be a real change of the oppressive regime, but a mere change of the people at the top—while injustice and oppression continues.
Both articles ask the movement crucial questions, and the author works at answering them through exploring the Sudanese reality and conflict from two facets—economic and political—and the revolutionaries’ stance toward it. She uses the revolutionary socialist tradition to present a more profound understanding of the mass movements that broke out in Sudan and Algeria.
While Anne Alexander’s analysis laid down various points about the mass movement in Sudan, I want to focus on her analysis of the political strike in Sudan as a weapon in the revolutionary movement. She presents important conclusions that haven’t been cited much in the literature around the Sudanese revolution. As she states, “strikes are not just another kind of protest, but can transform the whole trajectory of the mobilization from below. When workers begin to test their power as workers, and not just as angry citizens, this has two effects. Firstly, it reveals workers’ own power to themselves.” Secondly, “it brings the ruling class into sharp focus and tears the veil of neutrality off the state and its bureaucratic and military institutions”.
May 2019 general strike: the official opposition and the masses
In Sudan, we lived these effects tangibly with the general political strike on May 28 and 29, 2019. This exposed the state and its institutions, including the leadership institutions of the opposition. Anyone who participated in the revolution during these months and anyone who was present at the May sit-in would remember that the mobilization and call for the strike started from the sit-in and from inside the workers’ gatherings. But the political leadership represented by the “Forces of Declaration of Freedom and Change” refused to call for the strike. The situation reached a degree where some of the workers’ gatherings issued statements declaring its preparedness for the strike, to pressure the “Sudanese Professionals Association” to call it. While the masses were demanding it, the political leadership was procrastinating and the strike was delayed.
To explain the extent of the contradiction between the political leadership and the masses regarding the strike, I am going to quote from a piece in my blog titled “Lessons from the Glorious May’s Strike, or Why the Army Hates Strikes”:
“Before the strike, voices of the reactionaries got louder to object to it [the strike] under the pretext that the protesting people don’t have the capability to carry out a successful strike, and that they are worried about the consequences of a strike’s failed ending on the revolution. When the strike’s effect engulfed their feeble arguments, we expected them to retract and join the real revolutionary course, but they stayed loyal to their own interests. How can a person who built his glory on sectarian and retroactive privileges to surpass the rest of citizens accept a revolutionary action to correct the power balance and give it back to the people, not to the elite? We saw the Umma party’s spokespersons objecting to the strike in their statements, even when it was at its prime victory, without giving a new justification, with the crumb of an excuse that the working forces in revolt are weak.
The mass strike is capable of sorting out the real revolutionaries from the opportunists because it goes beyond simply overthrowing a ruling regime. The opportunists and the exploiters might agree with us temporarily to bring down the regime. They use our revolutionary platforms to climb up the ladder, take over the regime personnel and replace them with themselves and those whom they like. That is what we are seeing these days.
But when we hoist the strike’s flag, as the glorified May strike taught us in the first lesson, we aim directly at the myth that the power is centered in the murderer generals of the army leaders, or in the hands of the rich, or the sectarian chiefs. The strike is then a revolutionary declaration that the real power is mass power. This declaration poses a direct existential threat to the reactionary leaders and the unjust and subjugating governments that protect its existence through concentrated power at the top of the leadership’s pyramid. This pyramid won’t exist when the people know there is no power except the one seated at the bottom of this pyramid where the large masses are. That is why the reactionary forces hate the strike, the sectarians hate it, the army hates it; they hate this weapon capable of not only overthrowing some of them, but also overthrowing the exact reasons of their existence and their privileges.”
The reactionary parties’ position might seem strange if we looked at it only from the angle that the strike and its success would have offered them a stronger power even if they continued their negotiations with the army. But this position in fact is a very logical one if we looked at it using economic and political analytical tools: we would then just conclude that the leaders, elites, and the trading and agrarian capitalists—who built their privileges and fortunes at the expense of the poor and workers—cannot support tools that offer workers power that can one day be used against them and snatch their privileges. This political leadership doesn’t have an interest in changing the regime; furthermore, we shouldn’t be surprised that it allies with the closest to it on the stage, that is the military leadership, to position itself on top of the same regime.
The mass strike and the ruling class response
As Alexander explains, strikes put the ruling class into sharp focus and reveal its true biases. Through the strike, workers’ support for the general political strike for a civic government became clear. But the employers sided against the revolution and took the side of the military council, prohibiting their employees from going on strike and punishing them through sackings and warnings.
There were also discoveries that were surprising or contradicting the public belief. For example, in the oil sector where the prevailing belief is that all its workers are pro-regime (kizan) —meaning they belong to the rescue regime or the National Congress Party—the reality debunked this conviction. We witnessed a high participation from the workers in the oil sector, including those in companies known to be owned by the security apparatus, in which the management openly sided with the military council on the ground of shared interests.
The strike in May 28 and 29 succeeded at clarifying the biases of the state and its allies. It also succeeded in showing the power of workers, even to themselves. In some situations, the workers’ gatherings applied these lessons upfront and employed them to achieve their demands. Among the relevant examples are the victories of the Electricity Company’s workers who took part in May’s strike. The security forces arrested some of them in the first day of the strike, but in response workers announced their determination to cut the electrical power in the security buildings if their colleagues didn’t get released, and the detainees were released immediately. After their victory in this battle, and soon after the end of the general political strike in May 29, the Electricity Company’s workers declared their open strike starting from May 30 for their own demands to shut down the security units inside the Company. Here the Electricity Company’s workers relied on their understanding of their power and capability, acquired first-hand during the general strike, to organize and draw on themselves to accomplish new victories; the Ministry of Energy issued orders to remove the security units in the same evening.
The achieved victories were obvious to the enemy as well. It became apparent to the military council that this tool – the strike tool – that the revolutionaries use is strong and visible and makes it difficult for the military council to manipulate their speeches picturing themselves as the revolution’s allies. The strike led to a head-on confrontation between us and the soldiers, where they resorted to military force to disperse the sit-ins. This direct link or relation between the strike and escalating the contradiction among the revolutionaries and the military council, is rarely mentioned by any of the parties currently in power, as they have no interest in confirming the power of the strikes.
The biases of the ruling power and its internal and external allies became obvious. Internally, the Rapid Support Forces (the regime’s paramilitary force) menaced workers. Externally, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudi governments withdrew from their general statements of support to “the Sudanese people” and declared their direct support to the military council. Those allies spotted in that moment the immediate danger the strike presented for the military council and its stability, and they perceived the need of a direct military support for their allies. This is caused by the nature of the strike that unveils the power of the working class, which can upend the balance of power and endangers the outdated forces.
Legacy of the strike
A question arises here: Why haven’t we, as a revolutionary movement, benefitted in the long run from the power and organization obtained through the political strike? In the short term, the power and the organization of the strike were motivation to maintain civil disobedience. Following the massacre of the the sit-in, coordination continued against the military regime. But in the long run, we find ourselves going back to the reality of sharing the power with the military; they even gained larger and broader authorities, more than what they were negotiating for during the last days of the sit-in.
Why did we lose the power of the strike and what can we learn from this? What should we change to ensure the loss doesn’t recur? Anne Alexander mentions that:
“Drawing on the experience of the past, we can say that there are two shifts in the balance of forces on the revolutionary side that must take place. First, the strategy and tactics for the general strike have to be under the democratic control of the people who are taking action…and not [be] used as bargaining chips in order to force open the doors of negotiations (or to strengthen the negotiators’ hands). Secondly, the revolutionary movement needs to embrace ‘the mass of the people, their majority, the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation’ (as Lenin put it), to allow them to rise independently.”
This quote carries facts we have seen in our reality. The political leadership represented by negotiators from The Forces of Freedom and Change and its central council was using the strike simply as a bargaining chip to negotiate sharing the power with the army—unlike the female and male workers who joined the previous strikes with placards saying “Civic 100%.” The goal of these people wasn’t sharing the power with the army, but grabbing it from them to build a new system. The mass of workers knew that a regime headed by leaders from Al-Bashir’s security committee could never take into consideration the interests of those strikers and achieve the goals of the revolution. Our learned lesson here is that if the political leadership cannot commit to the interests of workers, it will continue using them to replace the head of the regime with faces from its side, or to even share with the head of the regime until it gets crushed by it.
The necessity of a political leadership representing subjugated classes is a main lesson we bring with us from 2019, while we rebuild our revolutionary organizations. We have to decline the non-principled coalitions that lead us to abandon our strong alliance with the workers.
Finally, I stress Alexander’s sentence regarding the importance of a revolutionary party, since “it provides a means to take all the concentrated learning and experience which ordinary people cram into ‘revolution time’ about their capacity to remake society”. The mission of this revolutionary party is then a crucial one in developing the revolutionary movement in Sudan in order to enact these lessons as action, tactics and strategies in the Sudanese political process. Without it, we will keep revolving around the amazing movement with no results or long-term gains.
A new revolutionary organization could stem from developing resistance committees refining its political principles and orientations, or from the unionized work or other platforms of political struggle and debate. But to be an actual revolutionary party, it has to be founded on serious thinking about the roots of the conflict and injustice from the economic and political side, and build coalitions accordingly. We cannot repeat the failure of unprincipled coalitions. It is a folly to leave behind all this practical revolutionary knowledge we gained in the last two years and concede the idea of separating economy from politics. We would be bound then to never understand the nature of the fight and never participate in it effectively, not to mention win it.
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