From protest movements to revolutionary change

January 29, 2024
Issue 
book cover and protest in Egypt
Background photo: 'Marching in Dokki Street' (Giza, Egypt, January 26, 2012) by Hossam el-Hamalawy/Flickr (CC By 2.0 DEED)

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution
By Vincent Bevins
Hachette, 2023

A question troubled journalist Vincent Bevins, as a resident of Brazil in the early 2010s. He began to ask why, given the wave of seemingly progressive protests of the early 2010s, did Brazilians get the opposite result, with Jair Bolsonaro — Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator” — elected as president in 2019?

Bevins extended his reach of enquiry to encompass many of the protest waves of the 2010s, including Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Tunisia and Hong Kong and found similar results. Egypt stands out, having had, since a military coup in 2013 a more repressive regime than the one unseated by the Tahrir Square protesters. Ukraine is another good example of the rightward shift.

His book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, alternates between-summaries of the events leading up to the waves of protest — a worthwhile exercise in itself — and quotes from the more than 200 activists and others Bevin interviewed. As a narrative of the complexity of politics in these (mostly) post-colonial countries, the book is a reminder of recent history that could easily be forgotten by the left because of the generally dismal outcomes.

Bevins draws out many important themes. Many of the protests began over a seemingly isolated event or policy, such as the self-immolation in Tunisia of a disgruntled street vendor pushed around by petty authorities, the public transport fare rise proposal in Brazil, or the extradition law in Hong Kong.

Bevins shows that the protesters in most cases did not have a plan for what would occur after their demands were met, nor a coherent political strategy to guide their actions. In Egypt for example, the protests led to the first free elections ever, but repressive governments followed, with the elections overseen by the military, the left divided over participation and a low voter turnout. There was no strategy beyond the elections, or for imposing structural change.

A protest movement does not a revolution make, and the activists Bevins interviewed state very clearly that what they created (in many cases) was a political vacuum that was able to be exploited by the right, which in some cases, emulated the left’s protest tactics.

Bevins characterises the protest movements as “leaderless” and influenced more by anarchistic principles than left organisational traditions such as Leninism. He makes a compelling case that these were repudiated in the 1960s in the United States, using the Students for a Democratic Society as the example of leaderlessness or “horizontalism”. This model was much copied — for example, in feminist and other social movements. These so-called “New Left” methods have been adopted with ubiquity, everywhere from Brazil to Hong Kong — the latter with its “be water” slogan.

These trajectories also demonstrate how easy it is for disorganised forces with diffuse aims to lose control of the cultural and political narrative, especially with the hegemonic influence of US-generated cultural content.

The cultural influence of the US was magnified in the 2010s and since then by social media. Activists interviewed for the book cited popular films such as The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta as influences. As one Brazilian informant says, “A lot of my generation were inspired by the Zapatistas … but how did we find out about them? From Rage Against the Machine.”

The lack of historical perspective — specifically, of the history of left struggle, led many to unquestioning reformist positions, with the scale of the protests begging the question as to how far the demands could have gone, if the movements had been — after the chaos of the inciting events — better organised and more politically aware.

The book also makes a good case for understanding horizontalism as the result of decades of neoliberalism, which places the agency of the individual at the forefront of social relations.

As academic, Asef Bayat, has stated, “unlike the revolutionaries of the 1970s that espoused a powerful socialist, anti-imperialist … impulse … Arab revolutionaries were preoccupied with broad issues of human rights, political accountability … (and) took free markets, property relations and neoliberal rationality for granted”.

Bevins’ book is a very useful contribution to understanding where the left is right now — and provokes many questions that it was not designed to answer, but which should be on the minds of all left tendencies.

For example, a theme highlighted but less explored — and not the main focus of this book — is the actual intervention of the US State in the politics of these countries. In Brazil, it was clear that the right-wing were aided and abetted by the US in the anti-Worker’s Party (PT) protests which followed the anti-public transport fare rise protests and the prosecution and imprisonment of PT leader Luis Ignacio “Lula” de Silva.

The other aspect of the protests, which needs further exploration, is that they led to widespread disillusionment amongst their supporters, as events took a rightward turn.

How the left can re-energise and organise these forces is an important topic being discussed in these countries and across the world. Green Left (and LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal) does a great job of keeping in touch with the international left and chronicling some of these discussions.

It is more important than ever that the left engages with the kinds of issues raised by Bevins’ book, takes the debates further and uses any lessons to inform new generations of activists.

[Maree F Roberts is an author and activist based in Melbourne. Her website is mareefroberts.com.au.]

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