Spontaneity and consciousness in the Arab Spring

By Leo Graham-Dullaert

We have been handed a cartoon of the Arab Spring. Despite the enormous advances
in the technical quality of reporting from areas of conflict, humans have not kept pace
with the machines. Even some of our best broadcasters have fallen prey to some of
our most basic human flaws; at best – laziness, at worst – prejudice. The cartoon we
have received is one of innocent well-meaning rebels fighting evil, faceless regimes.
Rubbish? Let me try and persuade you.

In trying to be a good student of the social sciences I want to be balanced, I want to
understand the dynamics of the conflicts for which we have received such consistent,
24/7, high-definition, battle-embedded footage. On the one hand I feel that I might
have achieved a quasi-cosy relationship with the Syrian rebel forces (witness the
undeniably enthralling coverage by French photojournalist Mani on Channel 4 News)
and an enduring rapport with the Libyan freedom-fighters. Meanwhile, I remain on
decidedly frosty, inhospitable terms with their establishment-propping counterparts. I
don’t really want to dash into polemic soap-box barracking over the bias in Western
media, but I would like some balance and some insight into this faceless “other side”.
I am fairly sure Bashar Al-Assad is not patrolling the streets alone, nor was Gaddafi
likely to be found harrying the frontlines in Misrata without support.

However, rather than simply complaining about the one-sided nature of the press
coverage, I wanted instead to make one specific complaint. The rise of Leninism
sparked a fierce debate between its followers and the Economists (along with
the Mensheviks and others) regarding the spontaneity and consciousness of the
revolutionary organisation. In essence, the latter believed that a revolution must arise
spontaneously (with certain economic conditions aligning), while the former believed
political consciousness must be led by the Party (i.e. the intellectuals, and funnily
enough perhaps Lenin himself) and that the workers themselves could not achieve
such political consciousness alone. And so it is along these lines that I feel I have
been presented with a certain caricature of the Arab Spring:

In the UN-peacekeepers’-blue corner we have the freedom fighting rebels, imbibed
with organically-grown, grassroots consciousness of their worthy cause. While in the
Stalinist-red corner we have the regime-backing sheep meekly led by a vicious elite;
this group of faceless foot soldiers being incapable of attaining any form of “self”

Perhaps there is some truth to this dichotomy, but I cannot believe it to be so vividly
black and white, or indeed blue and red. In any case, why are we so desperate to
create such a dichotomy? Are we saying that the public cannot handle a conflict that
does not feature a nice clean delineation between good guys and baddies? Heroes and
villains? Cowboys and Indians (I won’t speculate too much further on that one)? At
best we, or the press, are saying exactly that. At worst, perhaps these dichotomies
serve a more political purpose. Moreover the hypocrisy within these divisions of good
and evil is difficult to ignore. We have celebrated the rebellion within these far-flung
societies and demonised the regimes who seek to quell them. Yet on our own doorstep
we instantly branded our own Summer of Discontent in London last year as the
mindless actions of criminal youth. It seems to me a desperate state of affairs when
some of the most balanced analysis comes from a musician (even if he is an artistic

And so I ask a question familiar to this very debate – what is to be done? A
fairer representation of the seismic events we have witnessed would consider the
hitherto neglected deeper workings of each group of belligerents with which we
are concerned. Have these uprisings been truly spontaneous in their nature, or
has someone, somewhere, learned-of-Lenin, covertly imbued a certain political
consciousness? Equally, is there no element of self-conscious support for the various

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