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Now is the Springtime of Our Discontent

January 22, 2013

A Defense of the Term “Arab Spring”

by PJK

(Flickr, Jonathan Rashad)

The web site editor slammed the article down on my desk.

“What do you think of this guy’s opinion of the Prague Spring?” he demanded.

I picked up the print-out and started to read.

As I read, the editor glared impatiently at me. The unlit stub of a cigar which he kept for such occasions shifted several times in his scowling mouth. He said nothing as I studied the printed pages.

I finally looked up, finished. He had not shifted a muscle all the while; only the shifting cigar had marked the passage of time. His expression changed to one of angry impatience. He raised an eyebrow in a quizzical “well?”

I offered my thoughts, and considered opinion. He listened quietly, the shifting cigar again marking time.

When I finished speaking, he studied me carefully for a moment.

“It will have to do.”, he said, “Write up what you just said, and have it on my desk by the end of the day.”

“Or you are FIRED!” he added over his shoulder as he stormed off, “WHERE IS OLSON?!”


OK, it did not happen exactly like that, but the editor did ask for my views on Joseph Massad’s piece on the Arab Spring (‘Arab Spring’ as he styles it) and the Prague Spring. The results appear below:

In his Aljazeera article, Joseph Massad takes exception to the use of the term “Arab Spring” to describe the wave of popular revolts that have occurred in many countries in the Arab world, beginning with Tunisia in December 2010. As the wave unfolded over the course of 2011 and 2012, 4 regimes would be overthrown outright and popular unrest marked by demonstrations, protests, and even war would breakout on some fourteen other countries. In all instances, the “Spring” was met with violent suppression by the regime in power. In some cases (Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya for example) the results were successful and the popular movement prevailed. In many others the results were less successful; in Syria, for example, the fight is still playing itself out in a bloody civil war.

The coinage of “Arab Spring” seems to have been by the journal Foreign Policy , in an article by Marc Lynch. Lynch is borrowing a term that has been floating around for some time- the term “Arab Spring” was used to describe the Palestinian uprising of 2005. The “Spring of …..” motif has been used before that, of course. It was used to describe the fights for reform in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Before that there was the original “Spring” the Spring of Nations, a term that was used to describe the revolutions that swept a number of European countries in 1848. There is an aspirational quality to “Arab Spring” that Massad finds objectionable. To him it is “rather a strategy of controlling their aims and goals”.

Massad is not the only one to object to the term, but his is one of the most recent. His diatribe also focuses most explicitly on the connection to the Prague Spring of 1968. Most others reject “Arab Spring” as being too tied to European history, too Eurocentric, too much of “orientalism”, too Western hegemonic, too colonialist, and all the other tiresome tropes that stand-in for a more reasoned objection. Massad stands out in specifically targeting Prague Spring itself.

Why? He takes a paragraph or two to make pro forma swipes at “western governments and media”, and then launches into the heart of his objection: “The “Prague Spring”… unfolded for the benefit of the professional, managerial and technocratic classes… to the detriment of the Czech [not Czechoslovakian? –PJK] working class.” Massad asserts that the working class “opposed [the push for reforms] completely ever since the [the reform measures] started to be advanced.”

His latter claim is hard to square with history. It is true that the spark which ignited the Prague Spring came from an internal squabble between factions of the ruling bureaucratic caste (I would argue against ‘classes’, as Massad calls them). But it quickly become more than that, just as Gorbachev’s Perestroika years later would expose the wall-papered cracks of the Soviet Union, and help the whole edifice to collapse.

In a nutshell, the events transpired as follows: the Czechoslovak economy had been begun to stagnate under the weight of bureaucratic mismanagement (is there any other kind?). Up to this point it had been doing relatively well, due in part to the general post World War II economic expansion, and comparatively more advanced state of the Czechoslovakian economy compared to the other economies of the Eastern Bloc. There were protests among workers and farmers about the way the economy was going as early as 1966. The first signs that the Czechoslovakian President, Antonin Novotny, was losing support came in June 1967, when he was denounced at the Writers Union Congress. In the West, what a bunch of writers thought about anything would be thoroughly ignored, but in the context of the Soviet systems of control, this was a big deal. It meant a significant split was developing within the bureaucratic caste. Students seized upon the opening and months of protests lead to Alexander Dubcek being appointed President.

Dubcek was seen as something of a reformer, though the reforms were of a limited nature, somewhat along the lines of what Nikita Khrushchev had tried in the Soviet Union, with poor results. It is thus not surprising that working class support was muted at best.

It is also important to remember just how tumultuous 1968 was. Protests, demonstrations, and incipient revolution seemed to be everywhere. These were protests dominated by students and youth, and there was distinct disconnect between the older generation. Think of the scene in the Beatles’ 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night– Man on train: Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort.  Ringo: I bet you’re sorry you won. (The war in question, World War II, had ended not quite 20 years prior.) In the United States this was the time of the so-called “generation gap” and the “counter-culture”.

So, not surprisingly, there were divisions in the Prague Spring. What caught the imagination of the world was the seizing of a small opening by the mostly young protesters, who began pressing for greater reforms and liberalization. THAT is what marked the Prague Spring- that youth, workers, and farmers were beginning to fight to regain political space. THIS is what prompted the Soviet invasion- not the worry that Czechoslovakia would leave the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets could not tolerate the example of a successful movement against the bureaucracy.

Massad evidently sees all this “reformy” stuff as a bad thing. Taking a leaf from the old Stalinist songbook, he extols what he refers to as the “human rights” of the Eastern Bloc, while denigrating the “political” and “civil” rights that the “West” promulgates.

In Massad’s telling, “civil” and “political” rights are only “for the upper echelons of society and those who owned the media…” This is the sort of lefty-liberal stuff that passes of political analysis in some circles in the United States.

Massad favors what he characterizes as the Soviet approach: that it “essential for humans to have human rights in order to be able to access civil and political rights”. In Ancient Rome, this would have been “bread and circuses”; in more current times, “bonapartism”.

The notion of “human rights” is a sloppy one at best- humans have been humans for quite some time; “rights” of any sort- human, civil, political, property- are a much more recent invention.

To Massad, the ‘bread’ of human and economic rights is more important than civil rights. But in the words attributed to the Lawrence (Massachusetts) textiles strikers in 1912: “We want bread, but we want roses too”. What the Lawrence strikers understood that Massad does not is that there is an interrelationship (dare I say it, a dialectical interrelationship) between the human and civil, between the prosaic and the political, between the bread and the roses.

Massad rather foolishly cites the struggle by blacks in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. To him, this is a struggle for mere “civil rights”. Again, Massad misses the point. The struggle, ever since Reconstruction, has been for blacks to retain the political and economic rights won by abolitionist struggles, and on the battlefields of the Civil War. The great tragedy of US history is that the collapse of Radical Reconstruction allowed those gains to be largely lost. The whole point of the Jim Crow system was to ensure that that economic (human), political and civil rights were denied.

So what has all this to do with the Arab Spring?

The current wave that is the Arab Spring began in Tunisia when Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010. He was 26 when he died as the result of his self-immolation. Why would he do such a thing? It was in protest of the confiscation to his wares by government officials for some alleged infraction. A fruit seller, Bouazizi was harassed by local officials for presumably not having a vendor permit, but more likely for not giving bribes. He was slapped and mistreated by the police. His scales and wares were confiscated, making it impossible to make a living. It was this that drove him to desperation.

His act of defiance inspired protests, then riots, then revolution. When the Tunisians quickly overthrew the regime of President Ben Ali, the working people of the rest of the Arab world took note, and successive waves of protest, riot, and revolution began which are still playing out. As is the nature of such things, some of these revolutions succeeded, others failed. For most, we do not yet know what the Arab Spring will yield.

If we are to apply Massad’s logic to these events, they have to be viewed as bad things. He makes a great deal of fuss about the effort on the part of the United States and other governments to steer these revolutions in directions favorable to their economic and class interests. Does Massad expect it to be otherwise?

Massad ends on a bold note:

The battle of the seasons is on; while the Americans are pressing on for an American Spring in the Arab world that will only be experienced as another American-sponsored Summer drought for the majority of the people of the region, the Arab peoples are working to transform the recent uprisings into nothing short of a cold American Winter.”

So the workers and farmers revolution is coming, according the Professor Massad. Given his failure to grasp the lessons of the Prague Spring, of the struggle for civil rights in the United States, and of the failure of the Stalinist Soviet Union, it is unlikely he will recognize it when it arrives.

Addendum: A personal connection to the events of Prague 1968

I have at home an ordinary plastic music box. Nondescript, plastic, gold-colored. With the picture of a woman in 18th century garb printed on manmade fabric in a frame that is the face. It is made to hang on the wall; when a string is pulled to wind up the mechanism, a music box inside plays a tune by Mozart. On the wall-ward side, the music box is stamped “Made in West Germany”.

The music box had been gift to my mother in 1969, when Tom S arrived on our doorstep. Tom arrived with pretty much just the clothes on his back, having escaped from Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Soviet invasion and subsequent repression.

His parents were very old friends of my mother. Realizing that the situation in Czechoslovakia was going to be bad for young people such as Tom, his parents helped him to escape the country, via West Germany. They contacted the one family they knew in the West who might be able to help him. My parents readily agreed to sponsor Tom and take him into their house. My father was himself a refugee from Poland.

I was very young at the time, so understood little of what was going on, only that this young man needed our family’s help. We rearranged the house to give him a room to himself. He was about 18 or 20. Beyond that I know little of his history- it was probably discussed between my parents and their friends, but little of it registered with me. Had he been active in the student protests? What did he do at the time of the Soviet invasion? How had he escaped? I do not know.

I recall only bits of that period, but one thing I do recall fairly clearly is the sudden introduction of the “generation gap” into our household. My parents were suddenly face to face with “youth counter-culture” many years ahead of schedule.

Tom had some very definite ideas about he thought American society was, largely formed from the music, films, and books that were  in vogue in the late 1960’s. He wanted to be a part of the “youth culture” that he imagined to exist in America. It was one that my parents (well over 30, though they could be trusted) had some difficulty dealing with.

Tom was with us for several months, before he decided that the place he wanted to be was in California. My parents equipped him as best they could, provided him with what dollars they could spare, and he made his way westward. He corresponded with my parents on and off over the years, but gradually that fell off. He became an electrical engineer (had he been as student of electrical engineering in Czechoslovakia?), and eventually started his own company.

The events of the tumult of 1968 are well represented by music of the day. But for me, the events of that time are encased in a cheap plastic music box, made in a place called West Germany, that plays a pretty tune by Mozart.

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