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What Would Marx Say about Cairo?

What Would Marx Say about Cairo?

It’s been hard for a historian to watch recent events in Egypt without a sense of déjà vu. Haven’t we seen eruptions in streets and squares like this somewhere before, whether in Tunisia last month, in Iran 30 years ago, or in France more than two centuries past? Is Hosni Mubarak going to be next week’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, or Louis XVI?

Matching past and present like this is more than just a parlor game. Revolutionaries, more than most political activists, tend to consciously imitate their predecessors. In this sense, the most transformative political events are often paradoxically the most traditional, as actors take their cues from dramas staged at other times in other places and often follow scripts originally written for quite different theaters.

It’s hardly news that revolutions inspire other revolutions, successful and unsuccessful. Think of the fast-moving "Springtime of the Peoples" from Paris to Prague in 1848 or, closer to our own time, the "Autumn of Nations" in 1989 and the "color" revolutions (Rose, Orange, Tulip) of 2003 to 2005 in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. As so often in studies of revolution, Karl Marx said it best. Everyone knows the most famous line from his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte — "all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce" — but the rest of the analysis in his pamphlet is just as acute. He carries on with the theatrical metaphor that seems unavoidable in such situations, arguing that almost all revolutions replay earlier ones: "Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95."

And, we might add, American revolutionaries took the mantle of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the early French revolutionaries looked back to the American Revolution, and the Latin American revolutionaries of the early 19th century issued declarations of independence and flew French-style tricolors. So the sequence went on through 1848 and 1917 to 1979, 1989, and beyond — and 2011 might well go down in history, too.

Revolutionaries of all stripes have deliberately set out to be imitated as widely as possible. Modern revolutionaries proclaimed themselves to be universalists, bringing liberation to "all mankind" or "tout l’univers," exporting revolution beyond their own borders. This was just as true in the ages of sail and steam as it is now, in the era of live video and Facebook. The speed of communication may have accelerated, but the content of the message hasn’t changed all that much.

At least since the American Revolution, revolutionary actors at home anticipated a broad following: The Declaration of Independence spoke of the "Powers of the Earth" and "a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind." The American revolutionaries tailored their performances accordingly and spawned successful imitators: Patriots who patterned themselves on George Washington sprang up around the world from Spanish America in the 1810s to Vietnam in 1945. (Ho Chi Minh was a big fan of the man from Mount Vernon, and declared Vietnam’s independence with lines taken from the U.S. Declaration and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.)

The universal values espoused by original revolutions are often adopted in highly specific ways by the copycats that follow. The revolutions of 1848 were an international movement in favor of nationalism. When Woodrow Wilson called for self-determination in Europe in 1918, his words sparked a global wave of anti-colonial protests in Korea, India, China, and, yes, Egypt during what has been called "the Wilsonian Moment" of 1918 to 1919. These revolutions may have been abortive, but they set off seismic changes later. And at the other end of the century, the revolutions of 1989 took up universal ideals to liberate their individual nations across Eastern Europe. The slogans were similar, but they were inevitably crosscut by local conditions: The Risorgimento assumed a pan-European idea of nationhood to make Italians; the Velvet Revolution appealed to universal human rights to free the Czechs. There has been no talk so far in the Middle East of anything that looks like an older pan-Islamism or calls for a transnational caliphate, for instance.

Nor do the Egyptian protesters hearken back to earlier American calls for universal human rights or democracy. Tahrir Square is not Tiananmen Square, and not only because the tanks this time are protecting the protesters: There’s also no "Goddess of Democracy" resembling the Statue of Liberty to be seen. Pro-Americanism in Egypt now would be as inappropriate as a nod to the French Revolution would have been in Tunisia a few weeks ago. To quote Marx again, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please"; not all resources from the past are equally useful in present circumstances.

Moreover, as Marc Lynch reminded us recently, it’s not just rebels who can take lessons, but their rulers as well: "Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past." Counterrevolutionaries understand the contagious force of revolt, and throughout history, threatened autocrats and anxious conservatives have talked about revolutions as if they were epidemics or cataclysms. In January 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville warned in the French Chamber of Deputies that "we are sleeping on a volcano … the earth is trembling again in Europe … the wind of revolution [is] in the air," and later that year King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia warned Queen Victoria that the "flood" about to engulf him would soon sweep her away too. Mubarak must be calculating the fallout from Ben Ali’s ouster even as Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen raced his Egyptian counterpart to announce he wouldn’t stand for president and Jordan’s King Abdullah fired his cabinet. There’s much mutual surveillance going on and probably some back-channel chat among Middle Eastern leaders who now find themselves to be leading players in scripts very much not of their own making.

What can they and their people learn from past waves of revolutions? First, that there’s always the possibility of counterrevolution: 1848 gave way to repression across Europe in 1849. Second, it can sometimes take decades for the full potential of a movement to be realized: The payoff from the Wilsonian Moment came not after World War I, but in the decades after World War II, as decolonization swept the globe. Third, 1989 offers hope that relatively peaceful revolutions can cascade across a region with lastingly liberating effects — though whether Sudan, say, might turn out to be the Arab world’s Yugoslavia remains to be seen. And fourth, context makes all the difference. Egypt isn’t Tunisia — as many commentators have pointed out, Egypt’s population is generally poorer and less well-educated than Tunisia’s — nor will its size and geopolitical centrality necessarily make it the best model for other countries in the region. Each country will have to find its own path.

If Marx were writing now, he would surely be hunting for parallels from the past in the present upheavals. But he’d also be looking forward. It’s easy to imagine him updating his lines from the Eighteenth Brumaire for current purposes: "The revolution of the twenty-first century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content." But that won’t stop the Egyptian uprising from inspiring other revolutionaries, and other revolutions across the Middle East — if it succeeds in unseating Mubarak, revising the constitution, and restoring a measure of power to the people. The lesson from Egypt will then be another one taken, with a little adaptation, from Marx: "The social revolution of the twenty-first century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future."