Ideas | What To Do In A Revolutionary Wave

In the final installment of their three-part examination of revolutionary waves, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen consider their practical implications for activists and social movements.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2015 14:16 - 0 Comments

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What to do in a revolutionary wave

How can we understand the present situation?

Debates about whether we are seeing some kind of revolutionary wave around the world often assume that we know what we are talking about. The first article in this series looked at the actual history of revolutionary waves. The second explored how we can explain such waves from a Marxist perspective. The broad historical perspective outlined in previous articles has no particular problem in including at least some of the movement experiences of recent years – and provides a way of thinking about some problems raised in discussions about the idea. Firstly, waves have never been global, so the fact that we are only seeing revolutionary situations in some countries is entirely normal. Some authors write as if there must be such a situation in their home country, or in the countries they are most interested in: but unfortunately it is entirely possible, however galling, to live through a whole revolutionary wave watching from the sidelines. Nor is there any reason to expect revolutionary waves to be homogenous in their actors, ideologies or methods: the historical record shows a great variety in levels of homogeneity, if that is not an oxymoron. Furthermore, long waves – or a series of linked waves – are by no means uncommon; everything does not have to happen at once. Lastly, revolutionary situations do not have to have revolutionary outcomes.

Positively, what constitutes the current wave? The Latin American cycle of struggles since the turn of the century is perhaps the most consistent “backbone”, and has seen what is by now a 15-year process of popular uprisings, movement-backed governments and other dramatic struggles. It is perfectly possible to agree that none of the new states are post-capitalist in any way (indeed, to be deeply disappointed by the experiences of a number of countries) and yet to argue that the change in power relations – as between movements and states, in relation to indigenous populations, in relation to US geopolitics and to some extent in relation to the international economic order – is at least as significant as that in many historical revolutionary waves.

Movements in western Europe have had a similar degree of longevity, from the anti-capitalist “movement of movements”, which extended into the anti-war movement of 2003 (substantially undermining the Blair and Aznar governments), and acquired new strength (and some change in direction) with the Icelandic saucepan revolution and anti-austerity struggles in Greece and Spain in particular. As previously noted, they have repeatedly forced the EU into suspensions of its own political rules in this second period. It is clear that these movements have never had the strength of Latin American movements, but they have been a consistent presence, with significant political effects and close links to Latin American events. South African struggles also show this combination of longevity, political weight and international links within a variety of left networks.

North America (and Oceania perhaps) have seen a different development, one in which 9/11 saw a fragmenting of the alliances of the global justice movement and in which Occupy in particular has seen a recomposition around themes of social equality. By contrast, the world’s two billion-people states, China and India, have both been experiencing a long cycle of popular protest which has shaken power relations locally without coming anywhere near doing so at a national level, and which has been substantially isolated internationally. While these situations are certainly manifestations of the hegemonic crisis of neoliberal capitalism, they are fundamentally outliers – albeit important ones – in terms of this wave.

The events in the Arab world are different again: more recent, unambiguously revolutionary (albeit in a number of countries representing only attempts at political rather than social revolution), and reflecting not so much a crisis of neoliberal hegemony as a crisis of US geopolitical hegemony. In this, of course, they share something with the much deeper crisis represented by events in Latin America.

It will be seen that this is not a list of “everything that is happening”: it makes no attempt, for example, to classify events in Turkey, Brazil, Bulgaria or the Ukraine, for the simple reason that none of these constitute regions of the world-system. They are important events, and no doubt influenced by events elsewhere; it is no disrespect to our comrades in these countries to reject the kind of instant punditry which seeks to derive a new theory of revolution or describe the new state of radical politics on the basis of the latest uprising – if for no other reason that these are not identical situations.

So what can we say about the current wave?

One of the most obvious features of the current wave of movements, pace Paul Mason, is that they are not all the same – in terms of their actors, in terms of their ideologies, in terms of their tactics, even in terms of their modes of communication. This is unsurprising,  because we are dealing with events in a number of regions of the world-system, some of which go very deep indeed (and hence involve a very wide range of social actors) while others are “shallower” in these terms. These movements are also the objects of a series of long-running sibling rivalries between multiple lefts – Marxist, autonomist, anarchist, anti-imperialist, radical nationalist, indigenous, radical-democratic and so on – each with its own preferred language and tendency to identify with particular tactics and modes of organisation, and where different countries have different lefts (or rather arguments between different sets of left actors) making the running (without even mentioning religious groups, the nationalist right and so on). Even in Latin America, there is huge diversity between countries in this respect and no simple account will work.

In terms of time boundaries, we are making a case for seeing this as a single wave, albeit not a simple one: things happened during this time, movements changed, states responded, crisis struck. Yet in city after city – and in our own networks – the actors involved are often the same ones: the same communities, workplaces, parties, networks, and indeed individuals. There are certainly developments in methods – from Indymedia to social media, from colour blocs to colour tides, or from jazz hands to general assemblies – but overall (whatever the experience of individual countries or movements) there is no radical break between the struggles of the early 2000s and those we are living now.

This has, we want to suggest, more radical implications than those suggested by the proponents of the “everything is new” rhetoric. The historical record suggests that it is the long cycles of struggle – or the sequences of linked waves– that most clearly signal the weakness of a particular social, economic and political order and the growing self-confidence and determination of subaltern challengers. This describes the long cycle of liberal revolutions that began in the Atlantic, ended slavery in Haiti, saw national independence in Latin America, and in some ways continued through to 1848. It describes the “European civil war” that started with the revolutions of 1916-24 and proceeded through fascist reaction and the European resistance up to the welfare state and state socialist arrangements of the postwar period. It describes the period of anti-colonial struggle, resistance to Japanese occupation and decolonisation in Asia. Formal democracy, welfare states and independence from empire are not nothing – although it is clear that they fall far short of what participants wanted. A crucial question, then, has to be how we can achieve outcomes which are more in line with our own purposes.

What should movements do? What should Marxists do?

If we do find ourselves fifteen years into a cycle of struggles against neoliberalism which can usefully be characterised as a revolutionary wave, but in terms drawn from the actual and rather ambiguous historical record, and where we ourselves may not be in anything remotely approaching a revolutionary situation, what should we do?

Movements in Ireland represent an interesting example. Ireland has seen both significant levels of mobilisation at various points over the last five to ten years and sufficient levels of popular dissatisfaction as to force de facto suspensions of normal democratic operations: in both national referenda on EU matters and trade union ballots on austerity, when the “wrong answer” has been given voters have simply been sent back to do it again, under a barrage of thinly-veiled threats. As in Greece, parties have been elected on anti-austerity platforms and become part of pro-austerity coalitions; in Italy and Greece we have seen technical governments more or less imposed by the EU. We are currently seeing EU threats aimed at preventing the election of what would be a very soft left government under Syriza. Both bailout conditions and new EU budgetary rules have entailed removing large portions of economic decision-making from the reach of popular votes, in individual countries and across the EU as a whole – accentuating a feature already present in EU institutions from the ECB to the Lisbon Agenda. We have also, it should be noted, seen one actual change in constitutional arrangements from below, in Iceland.

Up until the current protests against water charges, Irish activists – like those elsewhere in the English-speaking world – found themselves watching as societies tremble and governments fall elsewhere, but popular mobilisation at home stops far short of what might constitute a revolution. Apparently out of nowhere, we have now seen a massive movement of physical resistance to the installation of water meters, huge popular levels of refusal to register and some of the largest protests ever in the history of the state – against the backdrop of an ongoing shift to the left in the electorate. This movement appeared from “under the radar”, after the collapse of the alliance of left groups opposing household charges and the water tax, out of working-class communities with long histories of grassroots struggle. We are now moving into a new phase, as the February deadline for registration approaches. The unions and Sinn Fein, who have supported demonstrations (but not physical resistance) so far, have made it clear that they will not support active non-payment, leaving the grassroots movement alone. Whatever the outcome of this issue, very large numbers of people have become mobilised in opposition to the consensus of state, media and academic voices and in direct confrontations with police: that experience will not go away quickly.

At one level, the practical implications of this series of articles amount to little more than a collection of fairly common observations – which is perhaps grounds for hope if they are also accurate. One reason for this is of course that the Marxist tradition – that of the founders, of the generation formed in the movements around 1919, of the Resistance generation and of that of 1968 – has been formed in dialogue with these waves, both intellectually and politically. This alone would justify keeping the Marxist tradition alive, and if necessary repeating what should be obvious in the face of “sophisticated” arguments which miss the essential for the sake of seeming clever.

  • Not to give up hope. In particular, not to spend so much time staring at the suffering caused by neoliberalism and analysing its deep structure as to become convinced of its inevitable or unstoppable character – and not to focus on writing and speaking in ways that induce this kind of despair in others who might otherwise be inclined to take action.
  • There is of course a converse risk, best expressed by the phrase “one more push, comrades!” and consisting in the assumption that the time is always ripe. However, in the midst of revolutionary waves it can be genuinely unclear to participants what is, and is not possible – as shown by the large number of revolutionary situations during such waves which do not have revolutionary outcomes in any sense. If we are in a revolutionary wave, then, we should try to stretch our sense of possibility at least somewhat. This is probably particularly true today given that in the global North the risks are more likely to be measured in terms of burnout rather than of massacres.
  • It is particularly important to stress that revolutions are not simple win/lose situations. This is in part why 1848 and 1968 are often mentioned as revolutionary situations that were ‘lost’ in the immediate sense but nevertheless had substantial effects in terms of social change. Something similar can be said of many, if not most, revolutions on some level. Another way of putting this is that even where a regime was able to recover temporarily, in the longer term a new set of hegemonic arrangements, incorporating some movement demands and actors, has been necessary. This, of course, nuances the calculations about whether and when it is worth taking risks. At one level, the question is the extent to which a revolution can permanently disrupt a given set of power relationships; at another level, of course, the question is which actors are offered concessions, and to what extent we rate formal democracy, welfare, national independence etc. as valuable in themselves.
  • For fairly obvious reasons, internationalism in all its various forms is an important way of learning from struggles elsewhere and not having to do all our learning in the first person, with all the costs that entails. At times it can also open the possibility of effective solidarity in one or another direction and of enabling a broader part of the population to start from at least some of the gains of movements elsewhere.
  • If an immediate revolutionary opportunity is not visible in our own context, it nevertheless makes sense in a revolutionary wave to do whatever we can to build popular capacity for revolution: in the sense of disseminating ideas, developing forms of communication and education, and building links of solidarity and cooperation, in particular across movements and communities. History has not been kind to the idea of first creating an organisation and then using it in a revolutionary context: at times (1914) such organisations have simply balked at taking action; at others (insurrectionary parties) they have succeeded in installing deeply authoritarian regimes; more commonly they have simply been overtaken by events. In this sense, it makes more sense to put time and energy into movement and less centralised forms of organisation; as we argue in We Make Our Own History, the desperate need of many on the left to find a Party to believe in, at home or abroad, is a real weakness, a search for Prince Charming rather than for a Modern Prince. Put another way, the measure of Marxism is not whether one can identify with a party; it is whether a party is an adequate expression of the best in social movement struggles.
  • More generally, fetishising any single mode of organising or tactic is a risky strategy – both because parties, unions, networks, community organising, radical media, general assemblies, occupations and everything else change their practical meaning over time, but also because the key fight may not at any given point in time be where we would like it to be, or not only there. Of course it remains important to reflect on organisation or tactics, and to make clear choices when needed; the challenge is how to subordinate those reflections and choices to broader discussions of strategic principles around how power is organised in society. Put another way, a concept like “dual-power situation” is in the long run more useful than an emphasis on a particular type of organising as the only way forward. Defining a whole tradition through the prism of loyalty to a particular site and mode of action is to invite a giant clout on the head from history. It is of course hard to clarify our principles in a broader sense that still retains practical meaning – something which is perhaps a general problem of human action and certainly a frequent one in social movement organisations. (Perhaps the single most important principle is precisely the legitimacy – and possibility, under some circumstances – of revolutionary action. It is a real challenge to recognise this and hence become able to think about power and strategy in revolutionary situations seriously but also, as Wolf Biermann puts it, without “hardening” into a narrowly militarised or paranoid mode of thought and action.)
  • A more indirect implication is the need for an attentive eye to the weaknesses of likely opponents: the “cracks”, as John Holloway puts it, which may enable us to win. Here, too, fetishisation is a risk: university libraries are full of now-unread texts which discern the internal contradictions in this or that aspect of economics, state legitimacy, popular culture, international relations and so on without identifying these as aspects of a broader totality, or as historical products subject to change. The crucial level in practice is that of the organisation of hegemony – what Gramsci calls “theoretical and directive leadership” – and it is here in particular that we should look for opportunities to disaggregate currently-hegemonic alliances and to detach individual actors to our side as allies, or at least as neutrals.

These should be fairly obvious, but there is no harm in stating them once in a while: since revolutionary situations arise so rarely in any individual lifetime, the risks and potential costs are high and the scope for learning in action are limited, the more that can be done by way of articulating what we think are useful lessons – and exposing our own limited understanding to the critique of others – the better.

Returning to the specifics of the current crisis, with its multiple popular actors, this analysis suggests particular attention to the weaknesses of neoliberalism in securing continued hegemony – and to demands, and popular institutions, that accentuate this weakness. In particular the length of this crisis is politically encouraging, as is the narrowness of neoliberal orthodoxy and the difficulties it experiences in finding new modes of organisation to incorporate popular pressures. All of this suggests that there may indeed be scope for revolutionary movements to push for a path which is not simply beyond neoliberalism, but beyond a new capitalist resolution of the crisis.

Anyone familiar with our movements knows that we have a long way to go in this respect – but so too do the kinds of alternative elite contenders which might be expected to successfully impose a new kind of capitalism capable of containing our movements in the longer term.

We Make Our Own History - Pluto Books - Ceasefire
Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen are co-authors of We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism.

This is the last installment in a three-part series on revolutionary waves. The first two essays are What Makes a Revolution? and Making Sense of Revolutionary Waves.

Laurence Cox is an activist and social movements researcher based in Ireland, co-edits the social movements journal Interfaceand co-directs an MA in activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor of sociology at the University of Bergen. His research focuses on social movements in the global South, with a specific focus on India. Alf is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage and the co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance and Marxism and Social Movements.

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