Morris dancers, black face paint, and why traditions evolve

This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe’s declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

The origins of Morris dancing

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only ‘ring sides’ and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.

When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group ‘Folk Against Fascism’ which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?

Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, ‘She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.’

Further Reading

Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>

Folk Against Fascism >>


Ken MacLeod on Iain Banks

Use of Calculators

When Iain Banks and I were students back in the early 1970s, I was one of the first readers of Use of Weapons. I seem to recall reading the first draft in weekly instalments as the pages flew from the typewriter, and discussing the unfolding content almost as often. Iain explained that the Culture was his idea of utopia, in which advanced technology, inexhaustible resources and friendly artificial intelligence made possible a society in which nobody had to work and there was no need for money or a separate state apparatus. At the time I was reading with some excitement a slim paperback edited by David McLellan and titled Marx’s Grundrisse, a collection of extracts from Marx’s notebooks, in which he allowed himself some bolder speculations than he ever saw into print. I explained to Iain that the Culture was very similar to Marx’s conception of communism: a stateless and classless society based on automation and abundance.

Iain was interested and I think persuaded. But, I went on, the Culture on his telling didn’t seem to have come about through class struggle, revolution, and the rest. How, then, could it have come about, given that Iain was as sceptical as I was about the likelihood of such a society being handed down by benevolent rulers from above? By way of answer, Iain pointed to his pocket calculator. He said that on his last vacation job, on a construction site, one of the full-time workers had borrowed it and worked his way through a stack of wage slips, to discover that he and his mates weren’t getting all the pay they were due. The site workers had taken the result to the management, who duly if perhaps reluctantly shelled out the back pay that was owed. That, Iain said, was how he’d envisaged the Culture coming about. Conflicts of interest between classes and other groups there would be, but the sheer availability of information and computing power would arm the majority with facts and arguments that would enable them to prove, as well as enforce, their claims. The consequent advance in consciousness would allow the opportunities offered by automation and abundance to be grasped, first in imagination then in reality, and make opposition to their realisation irrational, futile, and weak.

This projection of a democratic, deliberative, and peaceful transition to a co-operative commonwealth wasn’t as far removed from Marx’s own later views as I thought at the time. I saw Marx through Lenin, Lenin through Trotsky, and — for that matter –Trotsky through the Trotskyists, and each successive prism lost something of the one before, let alone the original image. Iain respected them all as thinkers, but remained sceptical of any attempt to emulate their practice. He was quite willing to stick his neck out when necessary: he came down to London in 1977 to join the mobilization against the fascist National Front’s attempt to march through Lewisham, took his place in a small squad of comrades none of whom he knew but me, and thoroughly enjoyed the fight that ensued. On a later visit he joined me when it was my turn to guard our group’s bookshop and offices, which had recently been targeted in an amateurish arson attempt by the fascists. As Iain and I checked the locks on the building’s back door, two policemen loomed behind us and tapped our shoulders. It took us some minutes to convince the coppers that we really were there to protect rather than attack the shop. Iain ribbed me about it afterwards:

‘I bet that’s the first time you’ve ever had to say, “Honestly, officer, I really am a left-wing extremist…”‘

However friendly he was to the radical left, Iain had little interest in relating the long-range possibility of utopia to radical politics in the here and now. As he saw it, what mattered was to keep the utopian possibility open by continuing technological progress, especially space development, and in the meantime to support whatever policies and politics in the real world were rational and humane. For Iain that meant voting Labour. After the party mutated into New Labour he switched his practical vote to the Scottish National Party and his protest vote to the Scottish Socialists and (I think) the Greens. Even before then, in the early to mid 1990s, he’d come around to the view that Scotland would never be safe from the ravages of Tory governments it hadn’t voted for unless it separated from England. This support for independence didn’t come from nationalism but from reformism, and from a life-long, heart-felt hatred for the Conservative and Unionist Party.

In Iain’s view, popular access to information was decisive to any hope of progress, and control of information was central to the power of the ruling class. One of his few intellectual heroes was Noam Chomsky, who has for decades argued and documented this over and over. Iain made a point of being well-informed himself, and seemed to have read the Guardian from cover to cover every day. The most radical writings  Chomsky’s apart  that he ever enthused about to me were those of John Kenneth Galbraith, George Monbiot and Will Hutton. Iain valued the far left mainly as a source of information that even the Guardian was likely to gloss over. He followed my own adventures and misadventures in Marxism with a sort of sympathetic scepticism, always keen to read whatever rag I was flogging at any given time, and to listen to my explanations of why which paper I was selling sometimes changed over the years. It was my later explorations of libertarian thought that most sorely tried his patience. I could never persuade him that libertarianism was anything but a shill for corporate interests: a common misconception, and one that many libertarians have worked hard to confirm.

In his view, the left’s most stupid and repeated mistake was to accept that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, which he saw as at the bottom of most of the left’s disasters. He had no illusions in existing socialism, and no hopes for the better in its collapse. He opposed every war the British state waged in his lifetime, with the one exception of NATO’s war over Kosovo, which he argued for before it happened and never repudiated. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first step on a slippery slope. He was even more vehemently opposed than I was to the attack on Iraq  I tried to at least see a certain logic to it from the imperialist point of view, whereas he saw it as utter folly and madness from the moment it was mooted, an adventure that would sow destruction, multiply terrorism, and do incalculable harm to the interests and security of the UK and US.

He blamed Blair absolutely for the Iraq war, and never forgave or forgot the crime. Anger over what was going on in the Middle East impelled him to his two best-known political gestures: cutting up his passport and sending it to 10 Downing Street, and refusing to have his own books published in Israel. The former action was mocked, the latter attacked. Iain took not a blind bit of notice.

In summary, Iain’s political views were, by and large, what you’d expect from an Old Labour supporter and Guardian reader with an informed interest in the analyses of the radical left. What was perhaps more unusual than his views was the consistency and tenacity with which he held them, and his confidence that they must in the long run prevail if civilization was to survive. He saw quite clearly that events weren’t going the way he would have liked them to, but never saw any reason to revise his reckoning that neoliberalism just didn’t add up.


Marxism, Feminism and Privilege

The latest wave of feminism has set about generating new ideas and reinterpreting old ones. The response of much of the Marxist left to these developments has been ambivalent if not outright hostile, that is if feminism’s innovative capacities are registered at all. The concept of ‘Privilege’, increasingly common currency within activist circles, has suffered this same fate. This article will attempt to rescue it as a necessary supplement to Marxist understandings of oppression and answer some of the main lines of criticism directed against it.

Contemporary usage of the terms ‘Privilege’ and ‘Privilege Theory’ often leaves them undefined and vague. In the absence of any real fixity critics have been able to claim that weaker manifestations of the concept are representative of its essential and definitive components. Consequently, I believe that it is necessary to jettison the term ‘Privilege Theory’ at the outset. Elevating the idea of Privilege to a fully-fledged theoretical approach to understanding oppression has tended to lead to some rather grandiose assumptions about what is being undertaken. For the most part there is no pretension to providing a general explanation of the origins, operations and solutions to oppression in the same breath. Criticisms of Privilege as failing to explain this or that aspect of oppression, or not providing a solution to oppression, are beside the point. The tasks required of a general theory of oppression are just not within its scope.

Instead, Privilege is better made use of as an addition to a pre-existing conceptual toolbox. That adherents of liberal and poststructuralist approaches to oppression are doing as much should come as no surprise. There is no reason to believe that Marxists cannot do the same without slipping in to the failures attributed to these rival theories. Of course, if Marxists choose to cede the ground then it will be a given that Privilege is only deployed in such contexts. My contention is that it is mistaken to reject the entire idea based solely on some of its more problematic iterations. Marxism is not left unaffected by the idea of Privilege, but it is not true that it poses a fundamental problem for Marxists. The question has been falsely posed as Marxism or Privilege.

Instead of a type of ‘general theory’ the purview of Privilege is considerably narrower. Privileges should be understood as unearned advantages which are unevenly distributed along certain axes, which then work to reproduce hierarchical relations of domination and marginalisation. I see its importance as lying in two areas. First, in supplementing how we understand oppressions with an investigation of the corresponding advantages that occur at the other end of the equation. It is an attempt to expose the mechanisms of unjustified power and the bonds of subjugation through which oppression occurs. Second, in reinvigorating an understanding of oppression as saturating our everyday practices and interactions rather than being confined to intentional, institutional and explicit displays alone.

My focus is primarily on gender (male) Privilege as that is the current locus of the debate. However, the argument here should be largely applicable to any structure of oppression. The origins of Privilege lie in discussions of race. It is with some irony then, given the current hesitancy of Marxists, that the origin of the concept, but not the term, is usually attributed to socialist W.E.B Du Bois and the “psychological wage.”1 Du Bois thought that white workers were granted enhanced social recognition as a supplement their low wages, something not extended to black workers. The purpose was to divide-and-rule the working class. The idea resurfaces more prominently in the 1980s with Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Backpack,” a package of, often mundane, social, cultural and economic advantages that were said to be possessed by white people and men.2 More recently Privilege has become an important feature of fourth-wave feminism, spawning a vast online activist literature. As a result it has been the recipient of a considerable number of critical assessments from the left.3 Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad, in their recent critique ‘What’s Wrong With Privilege Theory?,’ unfairly assume a direct and unmediated link between the historical and academic uses of Privilege and this contemporary activist use, a relationship which remains ambiguous.4 In doing so they fail to consider how we may make use of Privilege in our present.


Solidarity and counterrevolution in Egypt: an introduction


The overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt was a massive setback for imperialism and made the language of revolution central in the midst of global capitalist crisis. It was a revolution that travelled- spreading right across a region which had been at the centre of great power politics since the middle of the last century. As the project for an American century was ground down in the bloody horror it had created in Iraq, the spreading revolutions appeared to signal a new era of political radicalism growing out of opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism.

In the region itself the coming together of diverse social and political forces against dictatorship broke the mould of older corrupt systems of dominance and promised something new. There had been signs of this in the movements against the war but this was not a protest movement-it was a revolution. All the older stereotypes about a region that history happened to rather than a region that made history were shaken: producing consternation in Washington and Tel Aviv, but also, as the contagion spread, in Tehran and Moscow. Imperialists and dictators alike looked like they were losing the plot.

It’s unsurprising that socialists and activists around the world were inspired by these developments and eagerly debated both the tactics of the new movements of the squares and the wider significance they portended. Many were aware of their history. Egypt had always been at the centre of radical political developments in the region, it had also always been seen as one of the centres of the regions labour movement. Meetings were held, solidarity declared and resolutions passed.

Excitement and speculation about the new was therefore combined with long held theories and hopes from the past. The scene darkened as it became clear that many of the existing dictatorships were prepared to pull the sky down rather than give up their power: in Libya allowing imperialist intervention and in Syria creating civil war and unprecedented horror. These produced loud and sometimes acrimonious arguments on the left but there was no shortage of debate and reassessment.

In Egypt elections took place producing landslide victories for the Freedom and Justice Party, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Sections of the left backed Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party candidate, against the old regime candidates, but in general believed that there was no fundamental contradiction between the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood. In retrospect many of us on the left held two apparently contradictory beliefs at the same time. On the one hand we believed that the introduction of formal democracy was cosmetic, on the other we believed that the changes heralded by the revolution were irreversible.

So big debates raged about whether the new government was simply a puppet of the military or whether it would be like the AKP in Turkey, whilst some feared it would be like the Iranian regime. In the meantime polarisation grew about the political meaning of the clashes of the new government with the military, some seeing these as attempts to consolidate democracy, others as attempts to consolidate theocracy. These debates became merged with debates about whether continuing social struggles and associated political campaigns were a continuation of revolution or on the other hand part of a destabilisation campaign by the military and feloul against democracy. It’s doubtful if even today there is any consensus on these questions: the answers are not straightforward.

What absolutely no-one expected however was that just one year after the election the government would be behind bars and supporters of that government would be butchered by tanks and helicopter gunships in the streets, that hundreds would be being sentenced to death in absurd show trials, and that the old constellation of social and political forces associated with the revolution would be utterly and irrevocably divided- with no agreement even on the meaning of the terms revolution and counterrevolution. In the meantime the US, the EU and the Cameron government has offered their congratulations to the mass murderer Sisi whose rigged elections had to be extended by a few days to get enough people to stand in line for the cameras outside polling stations, whilst so cowed is the media that their anchors make jokes about sexual assaults in Tahrir Square in order not to allow them to spoil the General’s day. It is a time of rage and shame.

There is obviously no way that the controversies associated with these tragic developments can be settled from afar on a British blog. But some of us do believe that we owe a duty of solidarity to those forces which continue to provide the main opposition to the military and face repression day in and day out, and are the main target of the counterrevolution’s repression. Especially as that repression is being supported by our own government, who are now responding to the long arm of counterrevolution by demanding enquiries into the ‘activities’ of the Muslim Brotherhood in this country, at the behest of forces opposed to the democratic revolutions in the region, including that well know supporters of secularism and democracy Saudi Arabia. We feel that the left internationally has been too silent about this aspect of the counter-revolution because of its political ambivalence about R4BIA and the belief that it is merely a Muslim Brotherhood front. This has had the effect of diminishing coverage and awareness of the scale of the repression, but also, very importantly, the scale of resistance to it. We think that it is absolutely not necessary to politically support the Muslim Brotherhood or its program to support the main opposition to the western backed military regime. We are absolutely in favour of continued solidarity with activists of the left facing the repression of the regime but feel that such solidarity should not be seen as a substitute for also supporting a larger secular campaign of support for all victims of the coup regime.

In order to open up a debate about this difficult question Sam Charles Hamad has written the following piece on the experience of R4BIA following the military coup, in anger, and in solidarity.

John Game

The anti-coup movement R4BIA

In the wake of the counter-revolutionary military coup that overthrew the elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013, the level of repression against anti-coup activists has been unprecedented in Egyptian history. From mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, to the mass murder of anti-coup activists, including the infamous massacres that occurred during the liquidation of the anti-coup sit-ins at Rabaa Square and Nahda Square on August 14, 2013, the repression has been ceaseless and brutal, with anti-coup activists being murdered and brutalised on a weekly basis. However, despite all of this, this movement continues to contain millions of participants and supporters, who have been able to hold protests every single day since July 3, from Aswan to Alexandria, on campuses across the entire country. If not for the way in which much of the world has been willing to accept some of the counter-revolutionary mythology and propaganda about this movement (i.e. that it’s just the Brotherhood, as opposed to the authentic revolutionaries, whoever they may be), it would surely not merely just be written about more often, but rather actively celebrated. We’re talking here about a movement that has managed to remain non-violent in the face of a campaign of eliminationist state terror, including massacres and frequent attacks by the security forces with live ammunition, not to mention risking arrest torture and imprisonment (around 40000 people have been prosecuted for political reasons since July 3, the vast majority of whom are part of this movement) by merely taking part in one of its demonstrations, or for being caught in possession of its symbol.

So who are the people facing all this repression? To which organisation or political party do they belong? For what reasons do these men and women risk life and limb on a daily basis by holding demonstrations that are often met with live fire from the black-clad Central Security Forces, or face sexual assault and beatings from the security forces and Baltagiya thugs? If we were to believe the mainstream Egyptian media, all of which exists to disseminate regime propaganda, we would imagine that this movement is armed and dangerous with terroristic intent, or comprised of foreign agents, working with Israel or Iran, or, perhaps less dramatically but no less insidious, that it is merely comprised of faceless/nameless/mindless members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whatever the devilish way in which the anti-coup movement is described by the regime and its propaganda outlets, one thing is essential to its portrayal – that it isn’t Egyptian, or at least by their supposed fealty to the terroristic and omnipresent evil of the Muslim Brotherhood, they have ceased to be part of ‘the nation’ and are now mere traitors and saboteurs. They are the ‘enemy’ in the state’s self-described ‘war on terror’. In reality, this movement was formed out of those who were opposed to the military coup that removed Mohamed Morsi and who believed in the legitimacy of the democratic system that was the main product of January 25. There is absolutely no doubt that this movement contains a significant amount of members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention other Islamist groups, but to merely reduce it to these things doesn’t give a fair appraisal of the ideological nature of the movement or of the motivations and demands of those who comprise it.

One of the essential components of the mythology that served as a justification for the military coup, and which now serves as justification for the ongoing repression against the anti-coup movement is this notion that the removal of Morsi was basically unanimously supported by ‘the Egyptian people’ or, depending on who’s propagating a variant of the myth, ‘the masses’ and ‘the multitudes’. All of those opposed to July 3 are merely the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, and their opposition is based on irrational obedience to their tribe, as opposed to ‘the will of the Egyptian people’ and ‘the continuation of the revolution’. This mythology has successfully managed to delegitimise the fair and free elections that brought Mohamed Morsi to power in 2012, not to mention the parliamentary elections of 2011, which were dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), while it has legitimised the military coup and the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, outside of this mythology, the fact is that support for the coup was never unanimous, and the opposition to it extended beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, on the eve of the massacre at Rabaa Square, Amy Austin Holmes, an academic based at the American University in Cairo, visited the Rabaa sit-ins and described what she found. As well as documenting the size of the sit-ins (which is important in the context of the counter-revolutionaries claiming rather absurdly and without any credible evidence that 33 million people took part in the June 30 protest in Egypt), and reporting that, contrary to the media’s relentless propaganda, the protests weren’t violent or full of armed Islamist terrorists, Holmes also writes about how many of the people she met weren’t members of the Muslim Brotherhood or even supporters of Morsi:

[N]ot a single one of my interlocutors at Rabaa were members of the Brotherhood. Maissa, a housewife who has been living in France for 13 years, said that before she starting coming to the sit-in she didn’t even know anyone from the Freedom and Justice Party, an organizing force behind the demonstration. Aisha, a young college student studying international relations in New Hampshire, told me that she was not there for Morsi, but for her principles. “If you get elected by the ballot box, you have to leave by the ballot box.” If Mohamed ElBaradei had been president, and had been removed by a military intervention, she claimed, she would be defending him instead of Morsi. Mohamed, a 27 year-old marketing instructor at the American University in Cairo, was also not a member of the Brotherhood. He even referred to Morsi as a “loser.” He said that he wasn’t insisting that Morsi be re-instated. What was it then that they wanted? Why had they been camping out there for 45 days, enduring bullets, tear gas, and the August sun. As if he were pleading for his life, he said, “We just want people to know we are peaceful. We are not terrorists.”

The truth is that the anti-coup movement was never about mindless support for the Muslim Brotherhood or tribal loyalty to its political wing. The official name of the anti-coup movement in Egypt is the ‘National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy’ (NASL), and it was formed initially by an alliance of mostly Islamist political parties, including the FJP, but its entire premise is not merely restoring Morsi to the presidency, but the ‘legitimacy’ in question is the legitimacy of the post-January 25 democratic system, the one that was overthrown and dismantled by the military coup on July 3 and the subsequent counterrevolutionary coup regime, headed up by Field Marshal and now president-elect Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The most recent extensive polling data of Egyptians by Pew also reiterates the fact that support for the coup was never unanimous and that, contrary to the propaganda and misconceptions still being propagated not just by pro-military and pro-Sisi figures, but also pro-June 30 liberal and leftist groups, opposition to the coup is still high among the general population. The poll found that around 43% of Egyptians opposed the coup on July 3, with 42% viewing Morsi favourably, while 38% still view the Muslim Brotherhood favourably, despite the massive repression and constant eliminationist propaganda against the group.

Engineering students place photos of classmates detained or killed by the coup regime on empty seats during exams

In fact, many of the political parties that formed NASL did so under the precondition that support for Morsi was not a essential component of the anti-coup movement, which is evident of the fact that NASL from its very offset was not based on this pretty narrow aim. This is not to say that the movement doesn’t contain many supporters of Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood-FJP, including many who would like to see him returned to the office of president, and even though many can still be seen holding up his image on anti-coup protests, it’s worth remembering that Morsi remains Egypt’s only democratically elected president and given the fact that he’s on trial for his life on absurd charges, he has become a rather unlikely figure of defiance and resistance.

It was only after the brutal massacre of anywhere between 600 and 1200 peaceful protesters at Rabaa Square that the movement that gathered under the banner of NASL began to take on its most recognisable form, which is that of the R4BIA movement, with its symbol of the black hand holding up four fingers against a background of yellow, and which was designed as a way for Egyptians and people around the world to express solidarity to those murdered and maimed in the Rabaa massacre and to those resisting the coup more generally. Ever since the massacres, the movement has become more diverse and has begun to incorporate more and more especially young people who were either part of the January 25 uprising or who have the same motivations as many of those who took part in it. Indeed, in a study of the anti-coup movement conducted by Neil Ketchley and Michael Biggs for the Washington Post, it is clearly demonstrated that these demonstrators were not motivated by religion. The authors note that the ‘anti-coup protesters are no more religion than either the anti-Mubarak protesters [of January 25] or the general population’ (see the graph in the article).In fact, according to the study, the top motivations of the anti-coup protesters were not, as the propaganda would have it, ‘religion’ and ‘loyalty’, but rather democracy and solidarity, or as Ketchley and Biggs put it:

While Morsi retains the sympathy of the anti-coup protesters, this is not a primary motivating factor for those who continue to take to the streets. Instead, protest is fueled by anger at the military-backed government’s repression against the movement. Over 90 percent of respondents said that a close friend or relative had been arrested since the coup and nearly 75 percent said that a close friend or relative had been killed while protesting. This explains why expressing solidarity with those who have been killed or arrested features so prominently in motivations for protest, along with a desire to continue the Jan. 25 revolution against Mubarak-era regime figures, many of whom have returned to power since the coup. Even for Muslim Brothers, these motivations trump showing support for Morsi and rank on par with religious obligation. Taken together, this suggests that protests will not stop because of the election of a new president, most likely to be former Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Moreover, this study highlights something that seems to have been forgotten in the events since Morsi won the presidency in June 2012, if it was ever very well established in the first place, which is the fact that many of those who took part in the January 25 revolution to begin with did not belong to any of the liberal and leftist groups that are associated with and, I would argue, over-represented when it comes to portrayals of January 25 in the mainstream media, but were rather part of the of demographic of the current anti-coup movement. As Ketchley and Biggs conclude:

Identification by the anti-coup protesters with the January 25 revolution is also a timely corrective to portrayals of the revolution as a predominantly secular and liberal affair, from which Islamists were noticeable by their absence. In fact, anti-coup protesters today appear no more religious than those who took to Egypt’s squares in early 2011. This is not to paint the Muslim Brothers or their supporters as the singular heirs to those events. Rather, it suggests that for many outside the familiar cast of liberal activists and revolutionary personalities, the spirit of 2011 lives on and is still worth mobilizing (and dying) for.

While Ketchley and Biggs touch upon some of the tensions within the anti-coup movement in terms of the contradiction of the Muslim Brotherhood holding out for the reinstatement of Morsi as president, while such a demand is not a key demand of the majority of anti-coup protesters, I would argue that this demand by the Muslim Brotherhood has never really been a serious disincentive to any kind of wider anti-coup/anti-military unity. As noted earlier, the fact that supporting Morsi’s reinstatement isn’t a precondition of joining NASL, which obviously contains political groups and individuals who aren’t interested in Morsi’s reinstatement, is suggestive of the fact that the anti-coup movement could already serve as a basis for unity. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood as part of NASL have attempted to reach out to the formerly pro-coup anti-military liberal and leftist groups, such as those who comprise the ‘Way of the Revolution Front’, which includes groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement, and which supported the coup and much of the justifications for the massacres, but these attempts have been largely ignored or rebuffed.

An even more serious initiative for unity involving NASL has been laid out recently – the so-called Brussels Declaration, which has already managed to attract the support of Ayman Nour, leader of the liberal Ghad el-Thawra Party, and the only person to run against Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 elections, for which he was imprisoned for four years. Nour was forced into exile after the July 3 coup, and his presence as a signatory to and participant in this initiative, alongside NASL and others, is of some significance and represents the first time that a liberal figure has joined forces with the anti-coup movement. One of the most important aspects of the Brussels Declaration is that nowhere does it mention the reinstatement of Morsi as president, which is a key indication that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of NASL, are ready to participate in broad unity built around opposition to military rule in favour of democracy. (see full text of Brussels declaration below)

It is the R4BIA protesters who are on the front lines of the Egyptian revolution and it is thus them who are being murdered, brutalised and imprisoned on a regular basis. It is possession of the R4BIA symbol that can get school children arrested, and it is these protesters that are being slandered or written off as ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ by the domestic pro-regime media and ignored by liberals and leftists who are allegedly against military rule despite being initially supportive of the coup. The anti-coup movement is a pro-democracy and thus revolutionary movement and it is the every day men and women who comprise its rank and file that any supporters of democracy and social justice in Egypt should be supporting in any way they can.

Those interested in understanding more about the R4BIA movement and its international call to solidarity can visit this website or can follow its activities on the R4BIA London Facebook page.

The following is the text of the Brussels Declaration:


In the name of the January 25 principles and for the purpose of enforcing them and achieving what the martyrs died for, and for the perseverance of the revolution and peaceful protesting along the lines of the last ten months.

For completing the revolutionary struggle of January 25 and declaring a comprehensive political project to the end of terminating the terrorist coup and ending military dictatorship in a way that enables all members of society to participate in a successful transitional period, which will be based on cooperation between Egyptians and which will take into account all lived experiences and proposes to find solutions to any disputes as they arise.

In light of these foundational objectives, the signatories declare the following ten principles:

1) Maintaining pluralism among political parties and all political streams within a framework of democracy and partnership in order to overcome the negative traces of the coup and restore the spirit of January 25 and the democratic path.

2) Demanding the withdrawal of the military to its normal barracks and resuming its sacred mission to protect Egypt’s borders, with full abidance to military neutrality when in respect to political life.

3) Building a comprehensive strategy for a fair transitional period based on transparency, truthfulness and reconciliation between all parties, and putting laws into force that to ensure a fair penalty for the crimes against the martyrs and the injured, and taking all necessary action to fulfil instant justice.

4) Achieving social justice and guaranteeing the rights of the poor, the labourers and the marginalised, and ending social injustice through an economic programme that attains the total development of the Egyptian people.

5) Enabling women and youth to take leading roles in society that conforms to the roles they played in the revolution.

6) Guaranteeing public freedoms and rights and establishing a state based on justice, law and the preservation of human dignity.

7) Cooperating towards forcing a deep, radical reform in existing institutions along the lines of the principles of January 25 and using the skills of the Egyptian people, and re-establishing these institutions as proper pillars that work for society and provide positions for proper skilful candidates by ending all forms of discrimination and exclusion.

8) Restoring civil life in society and liberating it from subordination to executive power and enabling it to be a leading force in the development process.

9) Giving priority to regaining self-security, ending corruption and restoring the nation’s embezzled wealth both internally and externally.

10) Defending Egypt’s independence away from subordination to any entity, and regaining the Egyptian regional and international role based on mutual respect and discontinuity of meddling in internal affairs, and preserving mutual interests.

For the sake of Egypt and its revolutionary free people, and for the sake of its present and future, we call on free Egyptians to line up together to shoulder this historic responsibility in order to be able to get through this critical phase, and to support these principles and resume the talks to put these principles into force.

In the name of God we begin.


Freud and the October Revolution

There are men of action, unshakable in their convictions, inaccessible to doubt, without feeling for the sufferings of others if they stand in the way of their intentions. We have to thank men of this kind for the fact that the tremendous experiment of producing a new order of this kind is now actually being carried out in Russia. At a time when the great nations announce that they expect salvation only from the maintenance of Christian piety, the revolution in Russia – in spite of all its disagreeable details – seems none the less like a message of a better future. Unluckily neither our scepticism nor the fanatical faith of the other side gives a hint as to how the experiment will turn out. The future will tell us… Freud Theory of a Weltanschauung (1932)

Though Marx and Freud first encountered each other in the 1920s the parties of the Third International were largely indifferent to Freudianism. If there was a position, psychoanalysis was generally regarded as bourgeois, incompatible with both Marxism and scientific materialism. This jaundiced portrait of Freud pre-dated Stalinism’s rise and Hitler’s triumph which prompted the flight of psychoanalysis to North America in the 1930s though Freud, a lifelong Anglophile, fled to London where he died only months after his arrival in September 1939.

As early as the 1920s some ‘left’ Freudians argued psychoanalysis was relevant to the class struggle. The most important practical effort to unite Marx and Freud was the ‘Sex-Pol’ movement led by Wilhelm Reich that delivered therapy and advice on various sexual questions to the Viennese working class using ‘free clinics’ throughout the city, in streets and parks. Initially Freud encouraged Reich in a city, Rote Wien (Red Vienna), where Social Democracy governed after the empire’s collapse in 1918 until 1934.

The Social Democrats introduced an ambitious public health policy and Freud grasped an opportunity to make psychoanalysis more widely available. Significantly, 1918 was the highpoint of Freud’s enthusiasm for training lay therapists to deliver therapy to far greater numbers than hitherto, a position promoted in his keynote speech to the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) congress in Budapest that year. In 1919, Freud’s close colleague Sandor Ferenczi occupied the first university chair created anywhere for psychoanalysis at Budapest University during the short-lived Hungarian ‘Commune’ government led by Bela Kun. When the ‘Commune’ fell 133 days later, Ferenczi was fortunate to escape the ferocious White reaction with his life.

Despite a popular prejudice psychoanalysis had never been solipsistic about the social factors (morals and inhibitions) that shaped sexuality creating neuroses and anxiety. Before 1914 Freud had acknowledged the impact of excessive repressive inhibitions and the limited prophylactic import of individual therapy. But Freud had also believed the repression of sexuality was a necessary presupposition of ‘civilisation’ – a quietist position that the more radical generation of psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel quarrelled with.

Aside from the union of Marx and Freud pursued by the Institute of Social Research (or ‘Frankfurt School’) founded by the wealthy “salon Bolshevik” Felix Weil in 1923 and consummated by Max Horkheimer (the school’s third director) and his brilliant friend and ally Theodor Adorno, the most significant impact of Freud on German socialism happened when Reich moved from Austria to Berlin in 1930. The following year Reich launched ‘Sex-Pol’ at congress in Dusseldorf when eight sexual reform organisations representing 20,000 members joined an umbrella front led by the KPD called the German Association of Proletarian Sex-Politics (GAPSP). The seven-point programme of ‘Sex-Pol’ drafted by Reich included demands for the free distribution of contraception, advice on birth control, free abortion on demand, abolition of legal distinctions between married and unmarried, establishment of therapeutic clinics, the elimination of prostitution by assaulting its material economic basis, provision of sex education, training medical staff to deliver sexual hygiene, treatment for sexual offences and the protection of children against “adult seduction” (Sharaf 1983: 162-63).


‘Sex-Pol’ represented a final flourish of Weimar’s hothouse climate and the sexual radicalism unleashed by the 1917 October Revolution. In the Soviet Union the tide was already turning as Stalin’s breakneck industrialisation inaugurated a second, rebarbative cultural revolution when millions of conservative, superstitious peasants were sucked into the cities. Inevitably, a rapprochement of Freud and Marx could not survive Stalin and Hitler. Indeed, Reich’s devastating criticism of the KPD’s bankrupt political strategy for combating fascism and the party functionaries’ growing hostility to any overt form of sexual politics eventually led to Reich’s expulsion from the KPD after the party was outlawed. A year later in 1934, a ‘stateless’ Reich was also expelled from the IPA and probably with Freud’s blessing.

Evidently Freud had concluded psychoanalysis and Marxism were incompatible, though he observed the social experiment in the Soviet Union with great interest. In fact, Freud’s scepticism towards Marxism was really directed at Bolshevism rather than Austrian Social Democracy (though Freud was not a supporter of the party’s left wing). Neither did Freud’s hostility to Bolshevism lack justification given the repression of his Soviet followers. Even so Freud’s scepticism toward Marxism and the possibility of remoulding ‘human nature’ was longstanding, if more ambivalent than is usually appreciated. Freud viewed the scientific enterprise in the spirit of the radical Enlightenment. Before the war Freud had sparred with the socialist psychoanalyst Alfred Adler who among his many sins suggested Freud’s Oedipus Complex was not ‘universal’ but historically contingent, a view that would subsequently be a staple of leftist critiques of Freud’s ‘conservatism’. Adler, who broke with Freud, was the original revisionist in the House of Freud. Interestingly, Freud’s connections with Social Democracy were extensive including treating Irma Bauer (the famous ‘Dora’ – an early therapeutic failure of Freud’s), the sister of the left wing’s leader, Otto Bauer. Freud was a close friend of a number of prominent socialist politicians including Victor Adler who died the day the war ended (Freud’s home and clinic had been Adler’s boyhood home) and Heinrich Braun, a schoolboy friend. After Braun’s death in 1926 Freud wrote to his old school friend’s widow:

At the Gymnasium we were inseparable friends… He awakened a multitude of revolutionary trends in me… Neither the goals or the means for our ambitions were very clear to us… But one thing was cetain: that I would work with him and that I could never desert his party.

(Freud quoted in Danto 2005: 26-27)

Some of Freud’s closest colleagues were socialists like Ferenczi while the fierce antisemitism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire reinforced Freud’s cynicism about politics but also insulated him against conservatism (antisemitic in all its currents). Elizabeth Ann Danto views Freud as a radical reformer and points to the 1918 Fifth Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Budapest as the highpoint of Freud’s social conscience. In the keynote speech referred to above, Freud favourably invoked secular progress, the social responsibility of psychoanalysis, the importance of attacking inequality and ensuring therapy was universally available while adding:

It is possible to foresee the conscience of society will awake, and remind it that the poor man should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery; and that the neuroses threaten public health no less than tuberculosis, and can be left as little as the latter to the impotent care of individual members of the community. The institutions and out-patient clinics will be started, to which analytically trained physicians will be appointed so that men who would otherwise give way to drink, women who have nearly succumbed under the burden of their privations, children for whom there is no choice but running wild or neurosis, may be capable, by analysis, of resistance and efficient work. Such treatments will be free.

(Freud’s speech quoted in Danto 2005: 17).

Freud evidently saw an opportunity to extend the reach of psychoanalysis to the working class and poor through an alliance with Vienna’s Social Democrats. In this Freud first proposed free clinics, free treatment for the working class and poor of the city and the introduction of psychoanalytically trained lay therapists.

On the other hand, by 1932 Freud’s curiosity about the Soviet experiment had given way to the pronouncement that “theoretical Marxism, as realised in Russian Bolshevism, has acquired the energy and self-contained exclusive character of a Weltanschauung, but at the same time an uncanny likeness to what it is fighting against” – after psychoanalysis had been persecuted out of existence in the Soviet Union after a promising beginning in the early 1920s. The persecution of psychoanalysis would prove to be a major source of friction between Freud and Reich from the late 1920s onwards (Freud 1983: 216-17).