Neoliberal Era Was Rich in Revolutionary Lessons. Movements Must Learn Them.

Colin Barker was a prominent Marxist intellectual who was based out of Britain. He died in 2019, shortly before the publication his last work. Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal AgeIn 2021. This extraordinary volume, published in 2021 by Haymarket Books, examines events and outcomes of mass rebellions that took place between 1989-1999 in Central Eastern Europe and Eastern Europe as well as South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia.

In this excerpt from the chapter titled “Social Movements and the Possibility of Socialist Revolution,” Barker discusses the strategic barriers which movements must overcome in order to “break out beyond the anticipated script” of isolation, compromise, demoralization and defeat.

The key organising focus of any new left movement in the future may not be the workplace, though it will — somehow — necessarily have to confront and defeat boss power at work; otherwise a whole part of life experience (which actually absorbs more of the time and energy of working people now than it did in the previous generation) will be untouched by movement impulses. It will need to overcome a number of barriers that have largely constrained and contained the movements of recent decades.

The first is the isolating of movement activity to specific social sectors or geographical areas. This can be institutionalised […] and in the practice of classic social democracy, which reserved “political struggle” for the parliamentary party and “economic struggle” for the unions. In Argentina the movement of workers in the “recovered factories” was barely connected to workers in “regular employment” where Peronist unionism acted as a restraint on solidarity. The “Oaxaca commune” of 2006 was — rather like the earlier Paris Commune — restricted to a particular city and region, and thus open to eventual defeat by organised state power. The challenge is to find cross-movement solidarity in action. Here strategic questions arise. In Argentina, the Peronist unions held back workers’ struggle in 2001, yet they could not just be “written off.” Ordinarily, as they have demonstrated on several important occasions over the past decade and more, Argentinian unions have a capacity to mobilise many more forces than does the (very fragmented) left in all its forms. The problem is to transform unions into fighting organizations with a wider and more transformative outlook than their existing bureaucracies. That, after all, was the underlying secret of the Chicago Teachers’ victories: an organised left caucus won their union membership to a more vibrant and democratic vision of the very meaning of their union, one that meant reaching out to their students and their parents in a common struggle for the future, not just of teachers’ pay and jobs, but of education itself. In short, just as “isolation” is not a natural or inevitable conditions, but depends on a definite politics, so combating it calls for a different politics. Further, the nature of that “different politics” itself requires critical exploration. A radical politics that relies, for example, on pre-existing “identities” (for example, a narrowly conceived “class membership” or “racial / gender solidarity”) is liable to miss both the actual differentiations in experience among those assumed to share the same identity and the real potentials for “cross identity” solidarity among those who share similar problems: Mistaken theory and practice on the left can itself contribute to maintaining the isolation of movement sectors.

Secondly, there remains a problem with a century-long history: in countries where parliamentary democracy allows the possibility of the election of “left governments,” what is — and what can be — the relationship between such governments and popular movements? Is the pursuit of parliamentary office ever in the interest of radical emancipation or always against it? The question has assumed some prominence in recent years, notably with respect to the “Pink Tide” governments of Latin America, the Syriza government in Greece and the prospects for new left parties like Podemos in Spain. Is the mere existence of parliamentary governments an impassable barrier for social revolution?

People who want to combine left-parliamentary government with social movements to achieve social transformation have not had much success. In Latin America, as Jeff Webber, Jorge Sanmartino and others have stressed, popular movements in 2000-2005 placed an emphasis on mass direct action, grassroots popular democracy often in assembly form, and the “de-professionalisation” of politics. The popular organisations they built combined confrontation with the state with the development of new forms of governance-from-below that seemed to “prefigure” a post-neoliberal and even anti-capitalist society that many in their ranks aspired to build. However, the initiative in these movements passed to a series of more or less progressive governments, who drew on the movements’ energy to get into office but simultaneously limited those movements to “subaltern participation,” defined as the pacifying incorporation of popular sectors into the gears of the capitalist state. Movements’ capacity for further development of their autonomous and antagonistic confrontations, and therefore also for the further development of alternative visions, has been contained and reduced as they have been “domesticated.” None of the left governments managed to alter the underlying pattern of capital accumulation they inherited. The right has seen some success, especially after the impact of the global economic crisis on the region. Leftist governments cut public spending and services and the region felt the effects. In Greece, where there was no ballast of raw materials exports to stabilise the crisis, the Syriza government simply gave in dramatically to the demands of the “Troika,” leaving the movements that had put it in office betrayed and disoriented.

There is still a chance that a path to a revolutionary reconstitution might start with the election of a left-leaning government to parliament. But any such left government would be placed under immense pressure to contain its supporters’ hopes and demands, and to evade efforts to control it from outside and below. Were it — against previous form for such governments — to promote further radicalisation of movements, it would provoke a full-scale crisis with capitalist power. In such conditions, any beginning with elections would transform quite rapidly into a very different situation of direct confrontation between movements and capitalist power, involving major ruptures and the splitting of political forces, more akin to a revolutionary situation than to “normal politics.” At the heart of any such situation would be a critical question: Do those in government (as is likely) seek to temporise with capital and to demobilise the popular forces, or do they contribute to developing the means and the popular will to carry movements’ own power forward, laying new and broader bases for a wider emancipation? In such a situation, any value a left-leaning government might possess would be outweighed in the face of a growing popular insurgency. Elections of presidents and governments happen. For movements, the question that really matters at such moments is whether they focus on their own self-developing projects and their own self-organisation, or allow their own self-diminution and disabling by others’ priorities.

Numerous of our authors noted that there is a third obstacle. Although we have seen widespread resistance to the neoliberal priorities, this resistance has also been marked by the inability to implement alternative projects that focus on democratic control and enlarging democracy and emancipation. It’s not that they have been completely absent, but they have seemed underdeveloped and only partially articulated, in part because of the sectoral isolation previously noted, and in part because old languages of liberation are no longer trusted and new ones still await their crafting. They may be practiced by small groups, but their success depends on the emergence of new popular upsurges that confirm their relevance. If, across Latin America, where many of the impulses of the early 20th century were felt most strongly, the “cycle of revolt” is now in decline, local questioning and reformulation are as likely as an immediate explosion. As Raúl Zibechi commented: “When major historical processes come to an end, and in turn major political defeats transpire, confusion and despondency set in, desire intermingles with reality, and the most coherent analytical frameworks blur.” The struggles of the past two decades posed questions and suggested partial answers that will remain part of activist milieux as topics for debate and development. One key idea, taking partial shape in popular movements across several continents, and now awaiting its next development was that movements’ own self-generated organisations and practices can and should provide the basis for the constitution of society, economy and politics. It’s not likely we have heard the last of that idea.

Fourthly, that idea requires political embodiments in the shape of organisations, networks and coalitions which take “emancipation from below” as their underlying principle. It’s difficult to foresee the forms that such bodies might take, and how they might emerge to claim some kind of hegemony within movements. If they want to succeed, those who recognize the need for them will need to be modest and open to all forms of expression.

Finally, even if the Bolsheviks knew in 1917 that their revolution could only succeed when it spreads, the development of global capitalism in recent centuries has only reinforced this notion. “Socialism in one country” was always a reactionary as well as a utopian idea. How can we promote practical internationalism today? A decade in which the global threat of climate change is becoming more apparent and millions of refugees and migrants are forced to flee new apocalypses, it becomes more urgent to promote a new revolutionary internationalism.