Extracts from Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age

The late Colin Barker discusses social movements and the possibility of socialist revolution and Sameh Naguib explores the tragedy of the Egyptian revolution in these extracts from Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age.

Cover image of Revolutionary Rehearsals

Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age is from Haymarket who kindly gave permission to republish these extracts. The book is edited by Colin Barker, Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson. You can read a review here. rs21 is hosting an online book launch on Sunday 19 September where you can discuss the book with some of those involved in it.

The following is an extract from Chapter 1: Social Movements and the Possibility of Socialist Revolution, by Colin Barker.

If the notion of ‘labour movement’ is open to broadening and contestation, so is that of ‘class struggle,’ and not least in terms of its objects. One feature of neoliberalism has been a shift in both the social composition of ‘protest’ and its forms and arenas. In the 1980s, a good deal of commentary sought to explain this growing diversity in terms of a rather facile distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movements, with the former apparently focusing on ‘materialist’ questions while the latter focused more on ‘postmaterialist’ questions concerning such matters as cultural autonomy and ‘identity.’ These distinctions were always dubious.[99] What does appear to be the case is that two kinds of issues have become more prominent in movement struggles and demands: the first centred on matters to do with ‘democracy,’ ‘political representation,’ and ‘rights,’ and the latter on questions around ‘social reproduction’—with a good deal of overlap and interplay between these.[100]

The earlier phases of neoliberalism were associated with the expansion of formal democracy in significant numbers of states, notably in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, and in Africa, but notably not in China or the Middle East. Where democratization was successful in Latin America, it was initially accompanied by some falling back in popular protest activity during the first part of the 1990s, but this slight lull was then replaced by a marked new upturn in movement activity associated with opposition to neoliberal social and economic policies—now facilitated by the lessened repression.[101] Many of the radical impulses generated in the new wave were channelled into new elected ‘left’ governments associated with the Latin American ‘pink tide.’ These, however, after introducing some measures of social reform (in part paid for by a swelling demand for raw materials exports) and reducing poverty but leaving basic inequalities untouched, adopted measures that critics dubbed ‘reconstituted neoliberalism,’ limiting and undermining the previous popular advances and posing yet unsolved questions about relationships between left parliamentary parties and movements. In particular, these governments threw into confusion the movements to whose activity they owed their very existence. Zibechi cites the view of Bolivian scholar Huáscar Salazar:

The cycle of struggles between 2000 and 2005 tended to surpass the state. However, with the rise of Evo Morales, ‘the state managed, little by little, to reconstruct its base of power and each time strengthened its political monopoly, appropriating anew tasks that society had previously undertaken.’ The governmental dynamics managed to absorb the communal energy expended during struggles and to dismantle the movements that could have called into question the MAS’s management of the state.[102]

Yet, if Latin America’s ‘progressive governments’ failed to promote them, the movements of the twenty-first century have, as Jorge Sanmartino’s chapter suggests, revealed a popular thirst for a different, expanded form of democracy closer to visions of ‘self-emancipation’ than to older visions of reform from above. Similar aspirations emerged in southern Europe in the Egypt-inspired ‘indignados’ movements of 2011 and in ‘Occupy’ in the US, where calls for ‘real democracy now’ resounded. If that aspiration for a fuller democracy had a rather abstract expression in the ‘assemblies,’ it had deeper roots in the communal practices and organizational forms of Latin American indigenous and urban organizations and in such developments as the ‘recovered factories’ of Argentina (and to a degree Greece), where popular democracy was intermingled with forms of practical economic cooperation.

Social reproduction issues have also been at the heart of struggles against cuts in welfare spending and against privatization in Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe. The sphere of ‘material interests’ is never limited to wages and working hours alone, but includes a whole welter of matters of vital importance for everyday urban and rural life: the supply (and price) of water, fuel, electricity, transport, housing, education, and health and welfare services have provided “flashpoints” for popular struggle in Bolivia and Ireland, in African and Brazilian cities, in the suburbs and centres of European cities. In Paris’s banlieues and across a series of American and European cities, anti-racist and youth movements have battled against murderous police: the cycle of revolt that swept Greece began with protests at the police shooting of a schoolboy in Athens, a police killing in north London was the spark that set off widespread riots, and a whole series of racist police murders gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. If, in the 1980s in Britain, David Bailey notes, the typical protester was a worker in a trade union, a whole variegated mixture of social actors—students, environmental protesters, residents and tenants, immigrants and anti-racists, anti-war and anti-cuts campaigners, and others—have moved toward centre stage in more recent years.[103] In different mixtures, the same story could be repeated across continents. The social shapes, and the forms of collective activity, that characterize movements have altered markedly along with the immediate sources of their discontents. Nor is there any iron wall that keeps workplace and social reproduction issues apart: the crisis in jobs and living standards that neoliberalism has brought to hundreds of millions across all five continents is also a crisis of ‘home’ and ‘community,’ of social life. It is also a major arena of class struggle.[104]

The following is an extract from Chapter 9: The tragedy of the Egyptian Revolution, by Sameh Naguib.

The inauguration ceremony for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which took place on June 8, 2014, was filled with symbols of restoration. The event took place in the garden of one of King Farouk’s palaces. The audience included all the top generals of the army and police, the top businessmen, judges, ex-ministers from the Mubarak era, and an assortment of Gulf sheikhs and leaders. In the front row sat Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the journalist and writer who advised Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, Sadat in the early 1970s and General Sisi both before and after the 2013 coup. The new first lady made a theatrical entrance coming down the palace steps together with Jihan Al-Sadat, who herself was first lady in the 1970s. What was on show was a celebration of continuity, from the kings of the first half of the twentieth century to the officers of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. After the ‘turbulence’ of 2011–13, the state and the ruling class were firmly back in power.

But what actually happened during those ‘turbulent’ years? The complex ensemble of events and processes that began in January 2011 and continues to shape the Egyptian polity and society today have been a source of inspiration, demoralization and, perhaps above all, confusion to observers internationally. Was January 2011 an actual revolution? What were the structural causes for such an upheaval? Why did the revolutionary process lead to a Muslim Brotherhood presidency and Islamist-dominated parliament? What was the role of the working class and the Left? How was the army leadership capable of both overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood presidency and reversing the whole revolutionary process? What are the prospects for revolution in Egypt today? Has the revolutionary process ended, or will the structural crises that led to 2011 and the political experiences gained by wide layers of young Egyptians during and since that historic event lead to further revolutionary upheavals?

These are obviously not just questions of academic and general historical interest. The series of events that started in Tunisia and Egypt seven years ago have irreversibly changed the political and social landscape of the whole Middle East. Wars, civil wars, collapsed states, sectarian strife, further revolutionary upheavals and counterrevolutionary waves all seem to be on the agenda for the foreseeable future. The effects of this turbulence and the outcomes of the current struggles will reverberate far beyond the Arab world. Understanding the events and processes of those fateful years, of which the Egyptian revolution is at the very epicentre, remains a fundamental task for all those who were inspired by those eighteen days at the centre of Cairo. This chapter will attempt to provide an analysis of this unprecedented cycle of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary mobilizations, focusing on the abovementioned questions.

In regard to the events of 2011, perhaps it would be best to start with the question of what before delving into the questions of why and how. The what question has triggered all kinds of academic and political debates. The year 2011 has been described as a ‘refolution,’ a ‘coup-volution,’ and even simply as a coup.[1] For many of the participants in the events of 2011, it was not only a revolution but one that has yet to be completely defeated. In everyday conversations in Egypt, there is ‘before’ the January revolution and ‘after’ the January revolution.

So, do the events that began in January 2011 in Egypt constitute a revolution? What started as a promising revolutionary situation in 2011 did not lead to any revolutionary consequences, but rather to a military coup and counterrevolutionary regime. In fact, if we take a ‘before’ and ‘after’ approach, it would be safe to say that the regime that emerged after the coup of July 2013 was far more authoritarian and neoliberal than the Mubarak regime in power before 2011.

However, if we take a more dynamic approach to the question of revolution, examining the processes that took place ‘during’ that period between January 25, 2011, and the coup of July 2013, focusing on the active participation of the masses and the unprecedented levels of mobilization, and the effects of the initial waves of mass protest on the state structure, particularly the police, then we can go beyond the question of definitions to the more important task of understanding what happened and why it failed. The fact that it has taken a brutal and ongoing counterrevolutionary mobilization to halt and reverse that process is in itself an indication that the events of 2011 involved an unprecedented ‘interference of the masses in the course of history’ that was ultimately defeated.[2]

How does one understand such a failed revolutionary attempt? On a social level, there was no transfer of power, even temporarily from one class to another. On a political level, there was a transition to formal democracy and free elections in 2012. That transition, however, constitutionally ensured that real power remained in the hands of the army and the old Mubarak security apparatus. It was also ephemeral as the storm of counterrevolution rapidly put an end to the experiment. Perhaps the events of 2011 in Egypt are best captured by focusing on the concept of a ‘revolutionary situation,’ involving a challenge to the existing state rule that gained the support of a significant part of the population, and the inability of the state to prevent that process from unfolding.[3]

The revolutionary situation of 2011 involved an unprecedented and audacious attempt by millions of Egyptians to create a different world. The story of that attempt and how it was defeated is the subject of the rest of this chapter.


[1] See, respectively, Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) and Robert Springborg, Egypt (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

[2] Leon D. Trotsky [1932–33], “Preface,” in The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1977), 17.

[3] Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York: Random House, 1978), 190–93.

[99] Colin Barker and Gareth Dale, “Protest Waves in Western Europe: A Critique of ‘New Social Movement’ Theory,” Critical Sociology 24, nos. 1–2 (1998).

[100] Cristina Flesher, “Fominaya: European Anti-austerity and Pro-democracy Protests in the Wake of the Global Financial Crisis,” Social Movement Studies 16, no. 1 (2017).

[101] Paul Almeida, “Defensive Mobilization.”

[102] Raúl Zibechi, “Progressive Fatigue? Coming to Terms with the Latin American Left’s New ‘Coyuntura,’” NACLA Report on the Americas 48, no. 1 (2016): 22–27; see also Jeffery R. Webber, “Assessing the Pink Tide,” Jacobin, April 11, 2017; Jeffery R. Webber, The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

[103] David J. Bailey, “Contending the Crisis: What Role for Extra-parliamentary British Politics?,” British Politics 9, no. 1 (2014); see also David J. Bailey, “Hard Evidence: This Is the Age of Dissent—and There’s Much More to Come,” The Conversation, January 11, 2016, https://theconversation.com/hard-evidence-this-is-the-age-of-dissent-and-theres-much-more-to-come-52871.

[104] See, for example, Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Pres, 2017); Notes from Below editors, “The Workers’ Inquiry and Social Composition,” Notes from Below, January 29, 2018, http://www.notesfrombelow.org/article/workers-inquiry-and-social-composition.


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