Mass protest works—but only when, as in Tunisia, it strikes fear in the hearts of powerful, fear that they will lose their power. The Tunisian revolution has been able to do that because this movement united the whole working class behind demands that are in the interests of all. It arose initially over protests about unemployment, and some of the first slogans were “Work for all” and “Down with the high costs of living”. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her description of mass strikes over a century ago, political demands, such as the demand to get rid of Ben Ali, arise out of economic demands in a mass strike movement, and in turn political victories lay the basis for broader economic demands.
The Tunisian movement also frightens the rulers because it is independent of the existing parties and institutions. It is not led by parties or unions whose leaders can then channel or betray the movement. Instead the movement has seized control of existing organizations at the base, turning union locals into mobilization points, against the will of the top union officials and repeatedly forcing those officials to take more and more radical stands to catch up with a movement that they do not lead.
Third, this movement generates concessions because it poses offensive demands, demands to improve the situation, not just to resist previous cuts. The demand of “work for all” is particularly effective and stands in sharp contrast to the far more cautious defensive demands of “no cuts” that have been raised with far fewer results in Europe and the US. These demands make the rulers worry—what will they be demanding next?
The impact of the Tunisian revolution will unquestionably spread not only through the Arabic-speaking region, where protests have broken out in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, but also to France, where 600,000 Tunisians have gone to live, and which shares a language that most Tunisians speak. Many Tunisians also speak Italian, so links exist to Italy as well.
Of course ultimate victory in Tunisia is far from assured. For the Tunisian revolution to advance, it must be able to create independent, nationwide democratic organizations that can press for its central demands and make them more concrete. Already, popular committees have sprung up in neighborhoods, often taking charge of security. But with the return of exiled opposition parties, such committees will have to be able to elect delegates to city-wide and national workers’ assemblies that maintain their independence from the existing parties. The threat to the revolution is that the upcoming elections will channel the movement into support for those existing parties that do not question the system as a whole. The challenge is to create a democratic organization that can participate independently in elections as well, running candidates behind its own demands.
The issues that the Tunisian workers face are not in the least unique to them—they are faced by workers around the world. Nor is their response particular to that country. The demand of Work for all—jobs for all; the concrete demand for a public works program with direct government employment is one that addresses the needs of workers everywhere. The Tunisian revolution, still young and at its earliest stages, shows that this demand can become a relying cry globally for a united movement that can win great victories.