When Revolutionary Moments Arise Again — and They Will — What Will We Do?

The world is experiencing a period global unrest. Since the financial crisis of 2008, every region of the globe has experienced levels of mass protest unprecedented in recent history, from the Arab Spring in the Middle East and Black Lives Matter in the U.S., to the farmers’ protests in India and the recent upheaval in Kazakhstan.

Yet decades of social movement struggle haven’t produced a break from capitalist domination, and in most places they have failed to even accomplish the more modest aims of reform. The global climate crisis has added urgency to the task.

What can our past struggles tell us about the possibility for a free world? This interview is with TruthoutGareth Dale, coeditor of Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, explains how his new volume attempts to answer this question by examining “revolts in the neoliberal era that … give glimpses of radically transformative potential.”

Anton Woronczuk – Why should the left study failures in attempts to transform society

Gareth Dale Parts of the left have asked the question: How will global capitalism end? By destroying the conditions that allow complex social life, or by radical social transformation? Although it is unlikely, the latter is clearly preferable. If we’re ever to see socialist revolutions, they will arise from situations of dual power, in which institutions centered among workers and oppressed communities challenge the established structures of domination at every level, from workplaces and neighborhoods up to the nation state and globally.

Although such scenarios are rare, they are possible with a mass uprising. Even the revolts of the neoliberal era, which we discuss here, show glimpses at radically transformative potential. And when they’re crushed or co-opted and contained, when the rehearsals become reversals, even then, some participants will have gained a concrete vision of revolutionary potential that points beyond the bourgeois framework. These visions are analyzed in the chapters of this volume. They study the detailed movement dynamics and strategies in each case, asking such questions as why the “whip of repression” could spark a rapid radicalization of protest, how reformist elements were able to clip the wings of mass insurgency, or how movements based around labor or around resistance to oppression, or the despoliation of nature, managed — or failed — to link up.

What are some lessons for social movement organizers? Revolutionary Rehearsals for the Neoliberal Age? What was the common theme of the struggles that won enduring reforms?

The most important lesson is that mass upheavals don’t happen according to a schedule. They surprise even the most observant activists. Another is that they’ve been more frequent in the neoliberal era than in any previous period of comparable duration. As recently as 1989, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, it was fashionable to commit revolution to the Museum of Historical Curiosities — but in that same year the East German masses arose, and many more revolutionary episodes were to follow. Mass revolts have taken place in many countries since the volume was published, including in Algeria, Belarus and Hong Kong, Myanmar, Sudan, and one is currently underway in Kazakhstan.

Yet, no capitalist uprisings have occurred in the neoliberal era. We will discuss the reasons in the volume. One factor is the ability of representative democracy absorb and integrate radical movements. Recall that the neoliberal age saw many countries move to liberal democracy.

Many of the insurgencies described in the book were started in undemocratic circumstances and ended when democracy was achieved. Radical-democratic aspirations were contained, diverted and contained within the book. Liberal-market Transition. This pattern was followed by South Africa (1990-1994) and Czechoslovakia (1989-1990). The tenor and frequency of insurgent episodes changed slightly as neoliberalism became increasingly dominant. The examples of this century, which include Venezuela, Bolivia, Egypt, and Bolivia, are all clearly opposed to the neoliberal system.

Bolivia, 2000-03, was the country with the most radical. There, during the “water war” and “gas war” centered on El Alto, workers and peasants united to wage a formidable struggle. They drew on long-standing resistance cultures, including indigenous radicalism and revolutionary Marxism, to create a network of insurgent force in the form peasant assemblies, neighborhood councils, and other forms of power. Their strength was a result of the connections formed between spontaneous popular risings as well as more stable organizations. This combination is crucial to any mass rising.

Last lesson: All our case studies warn of the dangers associated with seeking out ruling-class allies. For example, Egypt’s civic movement teamed up with the military to resist the Muslim Brotherhood government in June 2013. The result of this error was counter-revolution and the violent repression of all opposition forces — whether secular or Islamic.

This volume was written by you about the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the section’s interesting claims is that the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t solely due to economic decline, but also due to internal resistance from workers against the state. How important is it to include the working class in this history?

The 1970s-1980s economic stagnation that resulted from the USSR’s inability to adapt its state capitalist structures to a globalizing economyIt was essential to maintain its military spending and regional hegemony. But we should note that earlier workers’ revolts had constrained the room for maneuver of Moscow and its allied regimes. One example is the June 1953Uprising in East Germany. It was defeated by Soviet tanks, but it also forced East Germany’s regime to divert funds for welfare, slowing down capital accumulation.

When mass insurgency reappeared in 1989, the bulk of the movement was working class, and at key moments industrial action was significant — notably the wildcat strikes of early October that played a key role in toppling the Berlin Wall. This trend is evident in the majority of literature. Mainstream accounts about mass rebellions always downplay the working class constituencies. Whether in Algeria, Belarus, Myanmar, or Sudan, or indeed Kazahktsan right now, street demonstrations took the headlines but strikes were critical to the rebellion’s momentum. With their self-confidence and media contacts, middle-class individuals and organizations “grab the mic” and push their perspective to the fore.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge a reality: Since the early 1980s we haven’t seen uprisings that center on the militant and independent activity of workers, and, relatedly, few mass movements have aspired to systemic social transformation. The volume includes an example by Sameh Naguib of Egypt. Industrial action was a key element of resistance in the years before the revolution of 2011. Strikes played a crucial role in the fall of President Mubarak. However, industrial action at work and public protests remained largely distinct.

Roughly over the last decade, the United States has seen mass uprisings in the form of Occupy Wall Street, teachers’ strikes, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. The organized left remained focused on pushing for its demands through midterm and presidential elections, repeatedly after these upsurges. What do the “revolutionary rehearsals” in this volume tell us about the fate of movements that made electoral victories their primary strategy?

There are good reasons to organize and campaign for the electoral realm, it is not surprising. However, when grassroots mobilization is stopped because it is against electoral interests, it saps the popular energies that are the foundation of all leftist success. There are many examples of electoralist strategies that demobilize radical-democratic movements throughout the volume. Claire Ceruti’s chapter on South Africa shows that mass mobilization was decisive in bringing apartheid to its knees, but as soon as the African National Congress (ANC) scented the whiff of elections it moved to stabilize bourgeois order and reined in the township and workplace agitation. The upshot: The nation’s (overwhelmingly white) ruling class maintained their villas and their other kleptocratic spoils, while the Black masses remained in penury.

Leo Zeilig discussed the Zimbabwean revolt. The trade union federation created a political party initially founded among the poor. However, when electoral goals prevailed, its social justice commitments dissolved and it was forced to resign. In Indonesia, the subject of Tom O’Lincoln’s chapter, a spirited left arose within a mass revolt, but its dominant strategy envisaged emancipation as following two separate steps: first, democratization, and only later a struggle for socialism. In practice, this meant they were left behind the established bourgeois political powers.

While the U.S. political landscape is not as diverse as that of Zimbabwe or Indonesia in certain respects, the electoral dynamic is the same. Take for instance the electoralist demobilizationBlack Lives Matter rebellion. Antiracist protesters diverted their energies away from public protests to the telephone banks, and the streets were taken by Trumpist forces. This led ultimately to their own mini uprising: the occupation the Capitol building. If the electoralist left identifies too closely with America’s plutocratically-managed democracy, it’ll risk ceding initiative for future “revolutionary rehearsals” to the far right.

Both Colin Barker (and Neil Davidson), your co-editors for this volume, died in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Please tell us a bit about them and their legacy.

The volume was Colin’s brainchild. In a sense it’s a sequel to his Revolutionary RehearsalsIt was published 35 years ago. Both he and Neil were inspirational figures in the British socialist left. This was so in their activism — they were both immersed lifelong in campaigns, coalitions and revolutionary organizations, always with humanity and humor — and in their ideas. Each one of them was focused on central problems of Marxist theory, especially states and revolution.

Neil’s topics were nations and nationalism, then Scotland’s bourgeois revolution, and “uneven and combined development” and finally bourgeois revolution in general. His major work was How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois RevolutionsHe clarified and revived the notion of bourgeois revolution. This refers to state transformations that create independent centers of capital accumulation.

Colin, meanwhile, was writing on state theory, and on the workers’ uprising in Poland of 1980-81. Later, he brought Marxist theory and social mobility theory into conversation. He explored the relationship between class struggle and social movements. He looked at the role of mass struggles in driving meaningful socialist change, and was very partial to the words of Marx on why revolution is indispensable to a socialist transition: “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

Revolution, in the sense of the sort of historical uprising narrated in the case study chapters and also in the deeper sense of fundamental societal transformation, provides the subject for Colin and Neil’s valedictory essays that bookend the volume. In their different ways, both are assessing the long-term possibilities of system-transformative change, and exploring what revolutionary politics can mean in non-revolutionary times.

It is safe to say that global capitalism has entered a turbulent age. This is due to the possibility of future pandemics and climate chaos, as well as the tensions and likely clashes among the declining U.S. Empire and its challenger to East. Neil’s chapter discusses the relationship between such structural changes and the appearance of “revolutionary conjunctures” (such as arose in the late eighteenth century, the 1840s, 1917-23, 1943-48, and 1968-76), as well as the various senses of “the actuality of revolution.” One of these senses, he writes, concerns revolutionary preparedness: “the understanding that all forms of mass self-activity can be preparations for some greater moment of social transformation, if they are treated as such.” Although we can try to hasten the arrival of the next revolutionary conjuncture, it is not in our gift to initiate it. It is crucial to recognize the conjuncture when it occurs and to act accordingly.

Note: Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age This publication was published by Haymarket Books. Take a look at this excerpt Here.