Extraordinary mass revolts have emerged in several countries around the world. Are we witnessing a new revolutionary wave, or are these isolated and unconnected events? John Molyneux gives his take.
In the last few weeks it has become clear that there is wave of popular revolt around the world. The extent of this has only just become evident. However, when we look back it is clear that the origins of this wave reach back to the end of 2018 and early 2019.
Chronology of the revolts
|Yellow Vests in France
|19 December 2018
|Haiti Mass Protests
|7 February 2018
|Algeria: Revolution of Smiles
|6 February 2019
|Hong Kong Revolt
|March 2019 went mass 9 June
|Iraq: Tishreen Revolution
|1 October 2019
|Puerto Rico: Telegramgate
|8 July 2019
|3 October 2019
|14 October 2019
|14 October 2019
|7-18 October 2019
In addition, there are places where there have been significant protests that might or might not develop further, for example; Uruguay, Peru and Costs Rica as well as the global climate change protests by school students and Extinction Rebellion. It is a tide comparable, in the last half century, only to that of 1968 and that of 2011 when the Arab Spring spilled over into the Spanish Indignados and the US Occupy movement. This article is not, and could not be, a full account or comprehensive analysis of these revolts. Rather it presents a number of provisional observations of characteristics and patterns and a few conclusions.
This explosion of rebellion round the world is not really a wave in the sense that the Arab Spring of 2011 was a wave—that is to say it not a simple sequence of linked revolts, one following the other, and each inspiring the next. Rather each rebellion seems to have had its own specific national trigger. In Hong Kong is was the Extradition Law; in Puerto Rico it was the leaking of the Governor’s tapes; in Catalonia it was the vicious sentences imposed on independence leaders; and in Lebanon it was a tax on WhatApp. However if we exclude Hong Kong and Catalonia where the issues are essentially about democracy or self-determination, the common thread linking all the revolts has been an uprising against poverty, inequality, rising living costs and corruption.
This should serve as a reminder of something socialists can easily forget when society seems calm and ‘the level of struggle is low’: namely that across the world there exists, underneath the surface stability, a seething mass of pain and anger which finds little expression in the ordinary business of politics. Most of the time this pain and anger is dealt with by people as individuals alone, and the pressure of the day to day struggle to cope is one the main factors, perhaps the main factor, that inhibits them from being politically active. But then sometimes a particular outrage or attack can touch a collective nerve in the working class and spark a volcanic collective response which suddenly opens up completely new horizons.
Consider Chile—I listened to YouTube video in which my old Chilean comrade, Mario Nain, speaks of Chile as being almost in a state of insurrection. Yet this is how Chile is described in its current Wikipedia entry.
The modern sovereign state of Chile is among South America’s most economically and socially stable and prosperous nations, with a high-income economy and high living standards. It leads Latin American nations in rankings of human development, competitiveness, income per capita, globalization, state of peace, economic freedom, and low perception of corruption.
Bertolt Brecht, in his great poem, To Posterity, speaks of ‘despairing when there was only injustice and no resistance’. What is occurring at present is proof that the decaying system of global capitalism is pregnant with potential revolution.
What is most immediately striking about the current wave is not only its geographical spread but its extraordinary mass character within each country. The sheer numbers are truly amazing. Some historical benchmarks: the biggest street demonstration in Russia in 1917 was probably the June Days when about 400,000 marched. The great united demonstrations which blocked the path to power of French fascism in 1934 involved 1 million nationwide and maybe half a million in Paris. Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington where he gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech, was perhaps a quarter of a million. In May ’68 the largest single mobilisation was about 1 million in Paris. The biggest demonstration in British history was the 2 million march against the Iraq War in 2003. Yet between 1 and 2 million turned out in Honk Kong on the 16 June out of a total population of 7 million; in Lebanon on 20 October an estimated 1 million took to the streets out of a national population of only 6 million; in Chile there were something like a million people on the streets of Santiago last weekend out of a population of 18 million. Wikipedia offers a list of the USA’s biggest demonstrations historically. According to this list the fourth largest ever—for the whole United States—was the 1.1 million on 22 July of this year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which completely shut down the entire 11-lane Expreso las Americas highway. Of course size in itself is not the same as revolutionary significance. The June Days demonstration in Petrograd in 1917 was full of armed soldiers, sailors and workers. Numbers, therefore, are not the only barometer to consider. Nevertheless, these immense numbers are very significant and require some explanation.
Obviously some people will put it down to social media, just as they called the Egyptian Revolution the ‘Twitter’ revolution, and I’m sure social media plays its part in that it offers an alternative way of getting out news and opinions to through traditional channels or my leftist means such as leaflets. But I don’t believe it is even half the story. In Egypt in 2011 the regime shut down the internet without in any way being able to halt the revolution. And in 2013 the existence of social media did not prevent the triumph of the counter revolution. The vast size of these mobilisations is reflective of much deeper trends.
What are these new trends? The first is the huge growth of the world working class. In 1993 the figure for waged or salaried employees was 985 million out of a world population of approximately 5.526 billion or about 18%. By 2013 the number of waged/salaried employees had grown to 1.575 billion out of a total of 7.086 billion or just over 22%. And significantly this figure constituted just over 50% of the world’s total labour force of about three billion. Of course not all these waged employees were workers (a minority would be managers)—but most of them were and this meant that for the first time in history Marx’s proletariat really did constitute something like a majority of society globally.
Even more important than the absolute figures is the trend. In the twenty years from 1993 to 2013 the number of waged/salaried grew by 589,814,000 (a staggering 60% of the 1993 figure). An average of 29 million people joined the waged labour force each year. Moreover, the growth of waged labour was concentrated in the developing countries; where the salaried/waged employee figure rose slowly from 345 million (1993) to 410 million (2013). In non-developed countries the growth was explosive, from 640 million (1993) to 1,165 million (2013). The non-developed world waged labour force is bigger than the global waged labour force twenty years ago. An estimated 445 million waged or salaried employees were in East Asia in 2013 i.e. more than in the whole of the developed countries. The current revolts are precisely in places that have experienced this process of proletarianisation. Inevitably superficial commentators will not see these revolts as working class because, by and large, the people on the street are not miners, dockers, car workers and so on. But they are, overwhelmingly wage workers. Indeed, what else could they be? This is what the contemporary working class looks like.
Closely linked to proletarianisation and to the size of mass demonstrations is urbanisation. The World Bank’s list of countries by degree of urbanisation shows over 30 countries that are more than 80% urban including Argentina (92%), Brazil(85%), Chile (89%), Lebanon (88%) Saudi Arabia (83%), UK (82%), US (81%) and Uruguay (95%). As with the spread of wage labour it is in the developing countries that the process of urbanisation is most rapid and many that were predominantly rural until very recently are now substantially urban e.g. Algeria (70%), Bolivia (68%), Mongolia (71%), Peru (78%) and Turkey (73%). The World Atlas lists 69 cities with a population over 5 million and 26 over 10 million.
This combination of urbanisation and proletarianisation has also produced a change of political strategy and tactics. In 1968 a strong pull was exercised, especially in the developing countries, by the strategy of rural guerrilla warfare, usually under the label of Maoism (in Asia) and Guevarism (in Latin America). Even in the advanced industrialised countries there was a strong temptation to ‘pick up the gun’ in one form or another (the Black Panthers, the Red Brigades, the IRA etc). And where that was rejected in favour of an orientation on the industrial working class, this meant a focus on the manual worker trade unions and a model of revolution proceeding largely from big economic strikes to bigger economic strikes to street demonstrations to occupations to a general strike to an uprising. In the current rebellions the spontaneous strategy of choice has been the monster demonstration – mass mobilizations of people power on the streets. Mass strikes have been, are and will be, extremely important in these revolutions, for example there have been general strikes in Lebanon and Chile, but the line of travel has largely been from mass political demonstrations to political strikes, not from economic strikes to a political movement.
In virtually all these rebellions young people have been the drivers; this is most obvious in Chile where the whole movement was begun by school students and students resisting fare increases; in Hong Kong with the sustained running battles with the police; and in the Lebanon. In one sense this is entirely to be expected as young people always come to the fore in revolutions. In what is happening at the moment, however, I think there is a specific generational factor involved. Three of the largest and deepest revolts have been in countries—Chile, Lebanon and Iraq—with absolutely traumatic pasts. In the case of Chile it was ruled for seventeen years from 1973 to 1990, by one of the Pinochet dictatorship, one of the most brutal in modern times. Pinochet came to power in a US-backed military coup which destroyed the radical Popular Unity Government of Salvador Allende, and was renowned for its use of death squads and extreme torture.
Lebanon’s trauma was almost exactly contemporaneous with that of Chile; it consisted of a multi-sided Civil War which claimed about 120,000 lives and drove a million Lebanese into exile. In the course of this conflict Beirut became an international by-word for destruction and chaos. The War left Lebanon deeply divided on sectarian lines—between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Druze Christians—which had originally been fostered by French colonial rule. After the 1990 ceasefire its political system (as in Ireland) was given a sectarian structure. One of the most magnificent features of the current revolution is that it has mobilised people from all of the communities and has posed a challenge to sectarian divisions. Of course this can be explained as an effect of collective struggle. But it could also be argued that it is the result of the development of a new young generation who are not an encumbered by the old sectarianism of older generations.
In the case of Iraq the trauma was the US invasion of 2003 which devastated the country and also plunged it into long running and bitter sectarian conflict, with imperialism playing off Shia against Sunni. It was normal during much of the post-war period for the mosques to receive 100 bodies per day. That Shia and Sunni have joined together in the current revolt is magnificent and again tribute in part to a new generation.
It is also striking, however, that those countries which took the lead in the Arab Spring in 2011 and suffered worst in the repression and counterrevolutions that followed—Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria (Tunisia is a partial exception)—have so far not been at the forefront of the present wave. This in contrast to Sudan, Algeria and Iraq which have has mass protests of late, but were relatively silent in 2011.Such are the dialectics of history; those that were last shall later be first.
I have not so far discussed Ecuador partly because I don’t have figures for the size of the demonstrations. Nevertheless the scale and intensity of the revolt against the government’s package of cuts and austerity measures was astonishing. This can be judged from some simple facts; a) from the outset the protests blocked all major roads and bridges into the capital, Quito; b) four days after the start of the uprising the armed forces were deployed to force the release of 50 servicemen captured and detained by protesting indigenous groups; c) on 8 October, the Ecuadorean President, Lenin Moreno, relocated his government from Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil after anti-government protesters had overrun Quito, including the Presidential Carondelet Palace.
Also of importance in Ecuador was the fact that immediately after the cuts were announced a quadruple alliance was formed between the main workers’ unions; the Frente Unitario de los Trabadores, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, the Federation of University Students of Ecuador and the Popular Front (led by the Communist Party of Ecuador). Not only are the Indigenous groups (roughly 6% of the population) included but they—victims of centuries of extreme oppression and marginalisation—appear to have been the most advanced component of the movement. Moreover, it is a striking difference from some of the other protests that such a leading role is played by a pre-existing left party. In any event this alliance brought the Government to its knees in a fortnight.
These marvellous mass revolts have shown themselves well able to withstand serious levels of repression. The Yellow Vests took a sustained battering from the brutal French cops and continued undaunted. The Hong Kong rebels have stood up to both assault by criminal thugs and ongoing police violence. On 11 October the Hong Kong authorities announced they had arrested 2379 protestors including 750 under the age of 18. In the Sudanese Revolution, which lasted seven months, approximately 260 protestors were killed, including over 100 in the 3 June massacre by the Janjaweed which also involved the rape of 70 women. Yet after the 3 June the movement came back in strength to achieve at least a partial victory. In Lebanon the Red Cross has reported having to treat 402 people with injuries from tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon. In Chile about 20 people have been killed and many others injured by ‘balines’ (lead balls), alongside over 3000 arrests and the cops have been randomly and brutally beating people on the streets, yet the uprising has continued and grown. Even more savage has been the level of violence in Iraq where as many as 200 have been killed, but without breaking the popular revolt.
In terms of the responses of the different regimes, the behaviour of President Moreno of Ecuador is fairly typical. When the protests against his cuts began he announced (5 October) he ‘would not negotiate with criminals’. After six days of escalating revolt he said ‘the country needs to recover its calm. Let’s sit down and talk’. And on 13 October the government entered into a televised negotiation with the Indigenous Confederation and agreed to rescind its cuts. Similarly, the Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, declared a state of emergency on 18 October and proclaimed he was ‘at war’ with the enemy within. Three days later he was restructuring his cabinet and announcing limited reforms. By the evening of the 25 October, after the million strong march in Santiago, he tweeted ‘The massive, joyful and peaceful march today, where Chileans ask for a more just and supportive Chile, opens great paths for the future and hope. We have all heard the message’.
But there are two dangers that need to be signalled here. The first is that politicians who declare war one day and sue for peace the next will shift back onto a war footing the moment it suits them i.e. when they feel they have the advantage. On no account should they be trusted. The second is that young demonstrators and revolutionaries who have marched through tear gas, water cannon and bullets to what they see as victory are apt to believe they are invincible and that they can conquer all through courage, daring and will power. Such a mood was prevalent among Egyptian revolutionaries after they deposed Mubarak. Unfortunately, revolutions are not as simple as that, and the consciousness of even revolutionary masses remains contradictory; they can be deceived, disoriented and even demoralised in such a way that the counter revolution can strike back. When it does, 200 massacred or 3000 arrested in no way marks the limits of the savagery that can be unleashed. Tragically revolutions can be drowned in blood as happened in Chile in September 1973; the Paris Commune in 1871; or Egypt in 2013. What this raises is the question of political strategy and leadership and it is to that I now turn.
In Sudan and Ecuador, the movements had organised political leadership from the start, with the national Communist Parties playing a significant, if not dominant, role. But this is not typical. More common—from the Yellow Vests to Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile and Iraq is an absence—of any clear political leadership and expression of the movement . Catalonia is somewhere in between, with established bourgeois nationalist and radical parties, but no clear political leadership.
This political vacuum is a serious problem not because people need to be taught how to rebel or to manage the tactics of struggle in the streets. It is a problem because it makes it very difficult for the revolution to articulate clear political aims or a definite plan for a better society. Obviously people want an end to poverty, austerity, corruption, neo-liberalism and a reduction of inequality and so on. But what exactly is required to achieve these aims? Is it enough just to put people of integrity and honesty in power? If what is required is system change, as the climate movement proclaims, what exactly does that mean and who is going to deliver it? What is going to be done about the existing state, including the hidden deep state? In the absence of serious answers to these questions, and they are unavoidably political answers, it is very hard for any movement, any ‘revolution’ to move beyond very limited reforms such as the removal of a hated dictator, the reversal of particular attacks.
What all this points to is the fact that socialists, in the present global situation, have an obligation to search for ways to put real socialist transformation back on the global agenda.
Finally, a note on climate change. I mentioned at the start of this article that alongside these revolts we have seen a rising movement over climate change. It is however noticeable that climate change—though produced huge mobilizations in some places like Montreal and New Zealand—has not figured in the much bigger and more working class movements we have been discussing. This is clearly because, for all its ultimate importance and all its ability to motivate a very considerable layer of new activists and rebels, it remains for most working class people still something of an abstract question compared to the price of fuel and the cost of living. And by and large it is concrete questions that move the largest masses into struggle. In 1914-18 it was not the threat or even the declaration but the actual experience of the War that drove the masses to rebellion. The point about climate change, however, is that it is only a matter of time before it moves from the realm of the abstract to the very concrete indeed.
When that happens all the latent strength of the international working class and the immense potential for revolt that we are currently witnessing on display across the world will stand us in immensely good stead. But it will also mean the political questions posed at the end here will acquire redoubled force.