Review | Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age

Andy N reviews Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, a new collection discussing political upheavals since 1989. He finds a wide ranging and insightful work, which will deepen both the theory and practice of the modern left.

Colombian police officers. Keywords: Colombia police violence
Members of the ESMAD (mobile riot police). Photo: Policía Nacional de Colombia / Flickr

Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson, Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021) 410 pp. £17.99.

In the period it has taken me to write this review, the world has seen several noteworthy political developments:

  • The last democratic gains of the ‘Arab Spring’ removed by a coup in Tunisia.
  • A wave of lethal violence in South Africa, with a former president disingenuously trying to portray himself as a friend of the dispossessed.
  • The election of a radical president in Peru, suffering months of attack from the Peruvian, and global, Right.
  • A wave of catastrophic weather events, both floods and heatwaves, killing hundreds of people across the globe.

What these events illustrate is both the continuing after-shocks of the mass movements and revolutions that we have seen over the last 30 years, and the urgency of the current situation facing humanity with respect to climate change. A new world is not just possible, but urgently needed.

This urgency means that the publication of Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age edited by Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson is extremely welcome. If it’s the case that books are weapons, then I would argue this one is a fully loaded Katyusha rocket launcher. My main aim in this review is quite simple: I want you to read Revolutionary Rehearsals, I want you to persuade your mates to read it, I want you to be part of discussing it. Finally, I want you to try and find ways to put the ideas within it into practice.  As well as giving us a fantastic oversight of the mass movements that have shaken, and in many cases toppled, regimes around the globe, it raises a great many questions for those of us who are engaged in what Victor Serge called ‘the conscious participation in the making of history’.

The structure of Revolutionary Rehearsals is straightforward. It begins with an introduction and first chapter by Colin Barker about social movements and the possibility of socialist revolution. After this, there are a series of chapters which pass chronologically from Eastern Europe in 1989 though Africa, Indonesia, Latin America, and then Egypt, in each case analysing the mass movements and revolutions in these areas. Revolutionary Rehearsals closes with a final chapter by Neil Davidson which draws the collection to several conclusions. The chapters are fairly self-contained, meaning they could easily be read separately, whilst providing an insightful and well spread collection.

30 years of upheaval

Colin Barker’s chapter gives an overview of the waves of struggle that we have seen in this and earlier periods of history. He points to some of the features of movements that have won victories, when ‘variegated collective actors’ find ways to ‘connect their collective powers – as the experience of the Oaxaca teachers, the Quebec students, the teachers, parents and students of Chicago, the workers and indigenous peasants of Bolivia and Ecuador and others has shown’ (p61). It is this connection of different social forces that is the key to victory. Writers from the Marxist tradition and academic analysts of social movements both contribute to Barker’s analysis, giving a flavour of the scale of the movements that we have seen both in this period and earlier.

Barker ends with a sense that we still have many unanswered questions, arguing that ‘we live in an age of social and political experimentation’ (p61) and noting ‘the weakness of alternative projects based on enlarging emancipation and democratic control. It’s not that they have been completely absent, but they have seemed underdeveloped and only partially articulated’ (p64). These conclusions suggest a much more tentative approach to the tasks we face than the tone of Barker’s conclusion to the original 1987 Revolutionary Rehearsals, a book which surveyed five revolutionary upheavals between 1968 and 1981, and which was a partial inspiration for the current book. In the 1987 book Barker argued that the key task for socialists is ‘the development of an international revolutionary current, rooted in the everyday struggles of the working class… The central task of socialists is to develop everywhere revolutionary parties genuinely capable of giving leadership to workers and other struggles’ (RR 1987 p 243-4 ).  In the current work, Barker’s argument is that ‘those who already recognise the practical need for (organizations) require healthy doses of modesty and openness to diversity of expression if they are to make headway’. I am sure Barker was just as in favour of strong socialist organisation as ever before we tragically lost him, but he is clearly arguing that we do not in fact have all of the answers about how to organise and fight, in fact we live in an age of great uncertainty around how to organise as a revolutionary left.

I find these conclusions both (a) convincing and (b) very worrying. We are very late in the day, 173 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, to be still needing to engage in experimentation. Nevertheless, history is throwing up new problems and possible solutions which cannot be assessed purely from our existing repertoire of analysis.

Democratic gains, at risk

Following this are chapters giving an account of the movements in several countries and regions. Gareth Dale gives an analysis of the upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) in 1989 and argues that the particular history and collective memory of movements shapes the way that the struggles develop. He argues that ‘networks of militants in Poland succeeded in keeping alive memories of resistance’ and that ‘an accumulated memory of strategic knowledge, tactical repertoires and organisational skills came to be embodied in such networks’ (p76). This process took place over decades of struggles by the Polish working class. Whilst the development of such experience across the different states of CEE was uneven, in 1989 ‘popular movements brought to a thunderous end the torrid decades in which independent political and industrial activity had been systematically stifled’ (p88).

Similar in some respects are events in Indonesia. Tom O’Lincoln describes how a mass movement with students at the core brought down Suharto, leaving a situation where ‘there is a tentative acknowledgement in society that things have become marginally better in economic terms and with regard to democratic change’ (p169). Meanwhile ‘the millions who think none of this is good enough are at least more able to speak their minds’. In both Central and Eastern Europe, and Indonesia, there are enduring democratic gains, but in both areas, these gains and the rights and safety of a number of oppressed groups are threatened by the rise of populist demagogues.

Wane the pink tide?

There are a range of styles between and within each piece. Jorge Sanmartino gives a visceral description of the uprising in Argentina, including a piece on the use of motorcycles during an uprising which could have come as easily from the work of China Mieville as Marx, along with hard analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the mass response to the financial crisis.

The scale of the ultimately successful assault on the Bolivian regime by the workers and Indigenous people of El Alto is made clear by Jeffrey Webber: his account takes a blowtorch to any notions that Capital is always getting its own way in the 21st Century. The combination of the Indigenous peoples’ movements, the networks of informal workers allied with what Webber calls the ‘formal working class’ shook the country to its core in 2003. In 2005, this brought down a neo-liberal regime, replacing it with the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) presidency of Evo Morales.

However, these chapters are followed by a sombre appraisal of the ‘Pink Tide’ by Mike Gonzalez, who argues that what we are now seeing is the abandonment of any kind of revolutionary project by the governments of the region. He writes that ‘though Venezuela is the most damning example, the other pink tide regimes have adopted neo-liberal strategies, subordinated the economies to the extractive multinationals and accepted the dependence that it implies’ (p261). However, as I write the election of a leftist president in Peru, as well as the re-election of a MAS president in Bolivia, show that in terms of the elections of governments the pink tide has still not ebbed. We can surely be optimistic that the workers and Indigenous peoples of the region will mobilize in further mass movements and reignite a revolutionary dimension to the process.

Looking across the globe

Claire Ceruti’s concise and at times self-deprecating account of the end of Apartheid brings out the role played by the Apartheid regime, the formal leadership of the liberation movement in the ANC, and the masses organised in the unions and communities. The De Klerk government did not unfortunately follow the example of Czar Nicholas in staring dumbly at an oncoming express train, but engaged in negotiations with the ANC in what was in comparison a skilful manner, conceding ground when forced to by the mass movement but cynically using Inkatha thugs to delay and disrupt the process. Ceruti argues that ‘the ANC’s core politics militated against taking it beyond the negotiations, even in its own interests’ but that because the ANC was ‘an almost mythical organisation returning from distant exile…the reality of the ANC’s compromises were not enough to shock people out of their loyalty’ (p120). The result of this is that while formal democracy was won in South Africa, inequality remains as bad as ever, with the recent violence around the role of former President Zuma being the latest result.

One aspect of the book that gave me pause for thought is that after the chapter on Eastern Europe, it focuses exclusively on the Global South, and looking at the sweep of post ’89 history this seems like a correct decision. This is a contrast to the 1987 Revolutionary Rehearsals which included France, Poland, and Portugal. In 1968 one slogan was ‘we shall fight, we shall win – London, Paris, Rome, Berlin’, but after (East) Berlin’s role in 1989 we have rarely seen the kind of fights in the Global North that would have merited a chapter. One exception which could have merited analysis is the fight of the Greek working class against austerity. Its absence is a shame, as comparison with the similar events in Argentina would be fruitful, and the extremely rapid surrender of Syriza is a lesson that all of us need searing into our brains. In addition, we have seen the feminist strikes around the world, including Poland, which could definitely have been included if they had not occurred too late to make it into the book.

Workers and the revolutionary left

The role both of the working class as a revolutionary force and that of revolutionary organisations is a constant theme and a potential source of further questions. In Egypt, Sameh Naguib describes how a strike wave finally bought down Mubarak, but the power of workers nevertheless did not coalesce into a source of alternative power:

‘Workers had shaken the country with strikes and occupations, but did not form an alternative centre of power. The occupied squares and streets were an inspiring show of self-organisation and direct democracy, but their power proved ephemeral’ (p283).

The revolutionary left plays an important role in a number of these struggles – but never the decisive one. The Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt grew, but could not divert the course of the ultimately defeated revolution as the mass mobilisation against the Mursi regime opened the door to a full-on counter revolution. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, Leo Zeilig describes how the International Socialist Organisation played a key role in organising protests, gained some political representation, but was ultimately unable to prevent the Movement for Democratic Change from collapsing into neo-liberalism. It would have been fruitful to see more detail and discussion of what these comrades did and did not achieve. Which tactics showed promise? Was it just a matter of size?

One alternative centre of workers power that is missing from this period is the workers council. Pioneered by the workers of St Petersburg in 1905, and a feature in 1917, Germany in 1919, Hungary in 1956, and in embryonic form as powerful factory committees in Solidarity in Poland in 1980-81, but now strangely absent. The question of why this is, and what can be done about it, is important and needs further study. Is it the type and size of workplaces? Is it the role of unions in providing an alternative channel for workers representation? In a world of online networking, is it that the need for a physical body to coordinate isn’t felt the same way?

Whatever the factors, the result of this absence as well as the dominance of various forms of reformism and the weakness of the revolutionary left, is that we nowhere see a break with capitalism.

Finding revolution today

Neil Davidson’s final chapter contains a mass of ideas drawing conclusions about the necessity and prospects for revolution today. He outlines the extent to which we can see the notion of barbarism as the alternative to socialism staring us in the face, in the form of the environmental crisis. He looks at the conditions necessary for revolution, focussing on four areas: the material preconditions, revolutionary preparedness, revolutionary situations, and a new concept he outlines – the international revolutionary conjuncture. Some of these, such as the material preconditions, one might think are unproblematic in a world where even the most peripheral countries have their own members of the super-rich 1%, but as he shows, arguments opposing revolution on this basis are still deployed, giving an example where the Bolivian ambassador to Canada argued in an interview that the MAS government could not adopt a socialist strategy until the backwardness of the country had been addressed.

The idea of an international revolutionary conjuncture is outlined as an extended international process that could give rise to revolutionary situations in particular countries. He argues that three such conjunctures have taken place: from 1917–23, 1943-49 and 1968-76. I found this quite precise periodisation problematic when coupled with his insistence that international conjunctures give rise to revolutionary situations, and not the other way round. Would this not imply that workers in Latin America or the Middle East are well advised to limit their struggles as any successful seizure of power would be in danger of isolation? Looking further back, I am not convinced that the threat of intervention that a successful workers revolution in Spain in 1936 would have faced was graver than would have been faced by a similar revolution in any West European state in 1968-73, though the form would be different.

It is clear however that we see waves of revolutionary potential, and that the three he identifies are the most sustained and intense, and his arguments around these issues, whatever my own reservations, will benefit from discussion and debate.

There is a further and connected discussion about the relationship between exploitation and oppression, which Davidson argues is vital as ‘the success of any future revolutionary conjuncture will depend on overcoming the exploitation/oppression distinction in new forms of unity against the totality of capitalism’ (p362). In a wide-ranging conclusion Davidson – with the same tone as other contributors – endorses the words of Daniel Bensaid: ‘the watchword is: ‘Be Ready! Ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens!’ (p356). One simple illustration of the presence of the unexpected is the fact that covid – which has had the effect of puncturing at least some of the populist demagogues such as Trump and Bolsonaro – is not mentioned in the book.

Lessons for revolutionaries

In conclusion this collection of writing contains many rich lessons for revolutionaries. It will benefit from debate, from re-reading, and doubtless others will explore ideas that I have not had the space to touch upon. If some of us feared with the rise of Trump and friends that we were living in ‘a time of monsters’ this collection has certainly boosted my spirits. We are also living in a time where we can see what Trotsky called ‘the direct interference of the masses in historic events’. It is tragic that two of the three editors of this work are no longer with us to take part in the discussions to come. Our best tribute to them will be to read, discuss, and debate the book and thus deepen our understanding that:

‘Not only demonstrations, but all forms of mass self-activity can be preparations for some greater moment of social transformation, if they are treated as such. We can in this way try to hasten the onset of the next conjuncture, but it is not in our gift to initiate it: the key thing is to recognise the conjuncture when it finally opens and act accordingly’ (P364).

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