Twenty five years of revolution

Issue: 135

Colin Barker

Twenty-five years ago Bookmarks published a collection of essays under the title Revolutionary Rehearsals. The book has since been republished by Haymarket Press of Chicago. In its pages Ian Birchall wrote about France in May 1968, Mike Gonzalez about the struggle in Chile in the last year before Pinochet’s bloody coup, Peter Robinson about popular power during the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, and Maryam Poya about the Iranian Revolution, while I produced a chapter about the Solidarity experience in Poland during 1980-1, along with a general chapter attempting to draw some lessons from these brilliant and also tragic experiences. Last year the Chaekgalpi Press in Seoul published a Korean translation of the whole book, kindly inviting me to produce a new preface. What follows is an English version of that text.

It is almost a quarter of a century since Revolutionary Rehearsals was first published in 1987. The book focused on a number of important cases over the previous 20 years, in which a very particular possibility seemed to open up: namely that mass workers’ movements might challenge for state power. The exploration of that possibility guided the selection of chapters.

The period since 1987 has been, in one sense, extraordinary in the sheer number of revolutions that have occurred. If one thing seems certain, it is that revolution is alive and well across the globe, and is indeed a very “normal” part of the political process in the modern capitalist world.

There has been a whole series of vitally important and dramatic transformations in political regimes. A wave of “democratisation” has swept away a variety of political dictatorships. If the wave perhaps began in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1970s, in the 1980s it brought down dictatorships across Latin America, and in the Philippines and South Korea, followed by the “communist” (actually state capitalist) regimes of Eastern Europe. The 1990s witnessed the end of the apartheid regime of South Africa and the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship in Indonesia, along with moves towards democracy in numbers of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a trend that continued into the new millennium. At the time of writing, in the spring of 2011, a new wave of revolutionary struggles is challenging many autocratic regimes across North Africa and the Middle East.

There is a paradox, however. On the one hand, “liberal democracy” has extended its sway across the world, and its expansion has been aided by extensive popular protests, including strike waves and mass demonstrations, on a previously unimagined scale. Yet, at the same time, social inequality has been growing in rich and poor countries alike, as “neoliberalism” has strengthened its grip on national and international economic policy-making. Neoliberalism is a policy whose intentions and effects are to shift the balance of power and wealth away from working people and towards the capitalist class. Indeed, the past few decades have seen the rich massively increasing their share of income and wealth, and not only in good times.

When the capitalist banking system ran into crisis, the major capitalist states raised trillions of dollars to save the banks—and went on to insist that the bill for the subsequent deficits must be paid by working people, and that public services should continue to be privatised, ie converted into new sources of profit for the capitalist class.

All of this is now widely understood across large parts of the working classes of the world. But it has taken time and bitter experience for that to be learned, and the learning has shaped the form of revolutions.

After the Polish military smashed the workers’ movement Solidarity in December 1981, the continuing underground opposition to the regime shifted its ideological ground. In the autumn of 1981 Solidarity’s first congress had called for a “self-governing republic” that would extend democracy into the workplace and the economy. But now, after its defeat, the movement’s leaders and advisers began to look to “the market” as the solution to the ills of their economy and society. Illusions in Western capitalism spread. Instead of looking to the organised power of working people to remake society, they came to identify freedom with the free market. But they were not the only ones to be so convinced: the increasing paralysis of the state capitalist economy also persuaded wide layers among the Polish ruling class that there was no alternative to the market and private property. The fruits of this parallel development were harvested in the spring of 1989, when Solidarity’s leaders sat down at a “Round Table” with representatives of the regime and came to an agreement for a “negotiated transition” in Poland: to parliamentary democracy and the reinstallation of private capitalism.1 As in neighbouring Hungary, the transition from one regime to another was accomplished with little by way of strikes and demonstrations. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe—notably in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania—it took popular uprisings and mass demonstrations to dislodge the old regimes. Large numbers of workers participated, but there was little sign of the development of new popular institutions from below, and only sporadic challenges to managerial power in workplaces. After 1989 the privatisation of profitable resources proceeded apace, and unemployment and inequality grew.

In South Africa mass strikes and township protests finally compelled the apartheid regime to come to the negotiating table. The outcome was the profoundly popular election of an African National Congress (ANC) government in 1994. However, within two years the ANC leadership followed advice from the IMF and the World Bank, abandoning its previous economic policies in favour of a neoliberal strategy. Working people lost out in a big way. South Africa remains near the top of the list of the world’s most unequal societies, with the African share of national income actually falling. Although the level of everyday popular protest in post-apartheid South Africa is also among the world’s highest, successive ANC governments have worked to contain and deflect popular resistance.

Thus the years following the first appearance of our book did not prove favourable to the perspectives we discussed. Rather, revolutionary challenges were contained and deflected by what some political commentators called “negotiated transitions”—or what Czechoslovak wits called “velvet revolutions”—a form perhaps first seen in Spain in 1976, but then followed in Latin America, Eastern Europe and South Africa.

These kinds of political transformation seem to have some preconditions. On the ruling class side, sections of the “old regime” must see the writing on the wall, and be prepared to abandon their previous power monopoly. More important, on the side of the opposition, “moderate” leaders must be found who will work to contain the activity of their own supporters within “safe limits” and to guarantee the safety, and often the continued wealth and security, of at least most of the old regime’s cadres. In this way, the “risks” of popular revolution may be reduced, and openings can be created for at least the more far-seeing of the old regime to achieve satisfactory “safe landings” when regime change occurs. The machinery by which “negotiated transitions” are achieved may include “Pacts”, “Round Tables”, “Amnesties”, “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” and the like. The crimes of former murderers, torturers and thieves may be forgiven. A “negotiated transition” requires both a “reforming” wing within the ruling class and a dominant “reformist wing” within the opposition. The reformist opposition leaders must work to contain popular demands and organisations, by a mixture of co-optation and demagogy, and by excluding dissenting voices. There is also a more general condition: politics and economics must be treated as separate and distinct spheres, so that contradictions between political equality at the ballot box and rapidly widening economic inequalities are not too obvious. Such an ideological separation underlay the East European “dream of the market”, that everyone would be free—and equal.

The ongoing march of neoliberalism, however, has reduced its ideological appeals. Its social and economic effects have become more prominently apparent, as political and economic power have become more concentrated and more closely interwoven. Across continents there has been a widespread growth of popular suspicion and hostility towards the privatisation of public services, towards the granting of private property rights to wealthy corporations at the expense of the poor, towards the increasing dependence of the poor on food and fuel whose prices are governed by commodity speculators. Increasingly neoliberalism smells, not of “freedom”, but of the corruption of public offices by the lure of wealth. Major environmental, economic and social crises have offered speculators and those with privileged access to decision-makers new opportunities—to profit at the direct expense of their shattered neighbours’ lives.

Many of neoliberalism’s advances rested on major working class defeats. Too often commentators have read these defeats as meaning the end of the working class as a focus of resistance. What they missed was that defeats were, as in past history, often the occasion for new beginnings, and for the remaking of workers’ movements. Older industries and occupations might crumble, but new sectors were being driven into the proletariat, and bringing impulses to revived insurgency. “White collar” workers have come to play a far more central role in popular resistance, from Mexican teachers in Oaxaca to militant Egyptian tax workers in Cairo. The gap has continued to narrow between workers and students, who played an unexpectedly prominent role in the May 1968 movement in France, now that “higher education” has become a mass industry run on bureaucratic and capitalist lines. Millions of former peasants have been driven into the hugely expanded cities of the “Third World”, where they have developed new capacities for organisation and struggle. Some movement transformations have been dramatic and rapid: the core of Bolivia’s labour movement, the organised miners, suffered appalling defeats in the mid-1980s, yet a decade and a half later a recomposed popular movement proved able to achieve an astonishing victory against water privatisation in Cochabamba, initiating a five-year period of revolutionary upheaval.

Thus, if it took a while for the realities of neoliberalism to din themselves into the brains of those subjected to its processes, by the end of the old millennium the evidence of that popular recognition was widespread. The period when popular revolution could be smoothly substituted by “negotiated transitions” as a mechanism of political change was ending. Issues of “economic justice”, interweaving economic and political struggles were again becoming more prominent in insurgent agendas. The poetic cries of the rebellion of Chiapas in 1994, which coincided with the official beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement (a key development in neoliberalism’s programme), would be picked up and amplified by a host of different voices and movements over the subsequent period. In the very last month of the 20th century an international demonstration at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle provided slogans that resonated with movements over the next decade and more: “Our world is not for sale” and “Another world is possible”.

The idea of freedom was no longer attached to the concept of the market. On the contrary, a new generation now identified the market as a principal cause of injustice and exploitation. The crises and injustices associated with the real workings of capitalist world economy provoked major waves of popular insurgency as the 21st century began. Uprisings in Ecuador in 2000 and in Argentina in 2001, both of them associated with economic crisis, brought down their governments. In Cochabamba the new century began with a successful mass movement against the privatisation of water. In 2002 in Venezuela a right wing coup backed by big business was defeated by a huge popular movement that restored Hugo Chávez to the presidency to which he had been elected four years earlier. In 2003-5, again in Bolivia, popular uprisings drove out successive presidents who failed to respond to their demands. In 2006 a mass movement overthrew the government of Nepal. These struggles were increasingly interwoven with mass strike movements and popular insurgencies that focused directly on economic and social demands. So, too, it has been with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

The past 24 years have thus provided many more materials on “revolutionary rehearsals”. And the coming years will surely provide many more. The world is still reeling from the largest global crisis since the Second World War, whose aftershocks are being felt both in the heartlands and the peripheries of world imperialism. Everywhere national and transnational governmental institutions are demanding that working people must pay for the banking crisis with cuts in real wages, welfare services and pensions—while those responsible for the crisis are walking away with larger salaries and bonuses. Transnational bodies like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, which lock national governments into their neoliberal policy embrace, do not even pretend to be responsive to popular movements and demands.

There is thus every reason to suppose that mass popular movements will again—and in much less than the next quarter century!—pose directly the possibility of a socialist transformation of society. Possibility is not, however, inevitability. Reflection on previous experience suggests some of the conditions of success.

What marks the beginnings of a revolutionary era is the entry of large masses of the oppressed and exploited into active engagement with political life. The opening of mass struggles “from below” signals the breakdown of political “normality”, a condition nicely described by US historian Lawrence Goodwyn as one where “a relatively small number of citizens possessing high sanction move about in an authoritative manner and a much larger number of people without such sanction move about more softly”.2 Normality is commonly preserved by a mixture of fear and disbelief in the possibility of significant change. Its breakdown is marked by a release of popular energy and imagination.

The question is then, what form does this take? How are popular aspirations formulated and expressed? Is the old distinction between “political” and “economic” demands maintained, or do they begin to dissolve—as famously analysed in Rosa Luxemburg’s account of mass strikes?3 Capitalism’s supporters always hope to maintain this separation: recently the Financial Times, the leading British capitalist newspaper, summarised its concerns about the ongoing revolutionary situation in Egypt by saying, “The economy itself must be depoliticised”.4 That “depoliticisation” of economic life was what the capitalist class loved about the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. Socialists take the opposing view, asking whether popular practical hopes are invested only in a change of government, or also encompass demands to do with, for example, wages and prices, working conditions, democracy in trade unions, and managerial power in workplaces. Is economic as well as political corruption challenged from below? Are there processes of “saneamento” (the Portuguese term from 1974), of “cleaning out” those whose power depended on their connections with the old regime? The expansion of struggles focused on “economic” questions is a vital part of every popular upsurge with the potential to change the very bases of social life.

What’s involved is not just a matter of weakening and undermining old patterns, but of beginning to create and spread new kinds of relationships and institutions in all areas of social life. What kind of new regime is possible? If no new regime is more democratic than the movement that creates it, we need to ask whether those engaged in revolutionary upsurge are building new kinds of democratic organisations, not just in the obviously “political” sphere but in neighbourhoods and workplaces, in the organisation of “public order” and justice, and in the institutions of the popular movement themselves, in unions and parties, in people’s assemblies and workers’ and peasants’ councils. Is the general demand for democracy and mass participation in every sphere of social life emerging, and being theorised and broadcast across the insurgent movement?

A mass movement from below can generate the conditions for this to occur, as nothing else can. For in such a movement, popular learning and development speed up enormously, once the old barriers of fatalism and fear begin to dissolve and those who “moved about more softly” start to feel their accumulating strength—and to mock and pull down the formerly powerful. The idea that the whole of society can indeed be remade on new foundations takes on a suddenly realistic hue. Issues that once were the debating topics of tiny minorities can become practical questions for millions: what kind of economy do we actually want. Are working people capable of running society themselves?

It is in relation to just such matters that we can measure the deepening of popular revolutions. A merely “political” revolution that overthrows an old government can be accomplished by a determined minority. One estimate is that around 20 percent of the population of Egypt was actively involved in the overthrow of Mubarak—a brilliant popular achievement, but still a minority. A socialist revolutionary process, however, will necessarily involve a far larger proportion, for it must reach far deeper into all the forms and aspects of everyday life. To the degree that working people do begin to manage their own productive and organised life activities under their own steam, developing democratic means of decision making, to that degree also their confidence in their own cooperative powers can develop. Their own individual and social transformative growth becomes both a means and an end. The importance of such “cultural” and “psychological” development can hardly be overestimated.

Revolutionary movements make it possible to set aside old assumptions and prejudices, whether about religious, ethnic and national antagonisms, or gender superiority and difference. However, there is nothing automatic about such advances: they have to be fought for openly, and the proponents of old divisive ways pushed back in favour of new, enlarged ideas of solidarity. Popular movements do not only contest power with the old rulers; they involve deep and contentious debate about their own forms, their own procedures, their own meaning and purpose. They develop, for good or for ill, through processes of mass learning, by debating, testing and absorbing the lessons of different engagements with the old forces and forms of authority, through defeats and advances, dramatic turning points and reversals. Leon Trotsky described this experimental method of discovery and learning as one involving “successive approximations” by mass movements, a method involving great leaps of understanding and imagination as well as collapses of mutual trust and fierce internal arguments.

To the extent that, in their development of new forms of organisation and their challenges to old forms of authority, movements burrow away at the institutional and cultural supports of capitalist power, a revolutionary period is marked by a peculiar form of contested government, sometimes termed “dual power” or “multiple sovereignty”. The former ruling classes, and their very principles of power, are severely weakened, but they have not yet been decisively replaced. The rising power of the movement of working people has not yet gained full power and confidence in itself. It is a situation of huge instability, but also one, in Trotsky’s phrase, of great political “flabbiness”. The question of the moment becomes ever more stark: will the popular mass movement march forward to take power for itself, through its own new democratic institutions, or will sections of the old ruling class exploit its uncertainties, divert its energies, and find ways to demobilise the movement and recover their old power in some new form?

In this volume’s chapters on Chile and Poland, that ruling class recovery took form as military dictatorship, a particularly brutal form of capitalist rule. Barely less brutal was the Islamist dictatorship in Iran, erected on the defeat of left and secularist forces in the 1979 Revolution. But the chapter on Portugal shows that ruling classes have other possibilities, not least a recourse to the politics of social democracy. In place of the direct contest of mass movements with capital and the state, let’s have an election! In just this way, the five years of revolutionary contestation in Bolivia from the great victory of the Cochabamba “water wars” of 2000 ended with the election of the left government of Evo Morales in 2005. Popular energies were displaced onto the electoral path. In one sense, the Morales election registered a huge victory for the people of Bolivia—but also a failure to resolve the crisis of Bolivian society. The capitalist class’s property and power remained intact, and poverty for the mass of Bolivians continued.5

In conditions of “dual power”, the role of revolutionary Marxist parties takes on its maximum significance. Such conditions produce opportunities, not only for socialist advance, but also for reformist politicians to seek to ride to office on the wave of popular discontent and mobilisation. For their project to succeed, it is vital that the popular movement demobilise its forces and lower its aspirations, to focus instead on the parliamentary arena. In such circumstances, revolutionary socialists’ active involvement in the movement becomes vital, for they can develop an alternative pole of argument and agitation, stressing the need to maintain and further develop the movement’s independent activity and organisations—for it is in these, and not in parliament, that the possibility of a real social transformation resides.

In a world locked in crisis, where the flames of revolt are once more rising, these matters will again be posed as practical questions. The republication of this volume seems timely.


1: There were tragic paradoxes. The first minister of labour in the new government was Jacek Kuron, co-author with Karol Modzelewski of the 1964 “Open Letter to the Party”. In 1964 Kuron had called openly for a workers’ revolution; in 1990 he was giving fireside chats on television to explain the necessity of rising unemployment…

2: Goodwyn, 1991, pxxxi.

3: Luxemburg, 1986.

4: Financial Times, 2011

5: Jeffery Webber has chronicled the Bolivian experience in two recent books: Webber 2011a and 2011b.


Financial Times, 2011, “The economics of the Arab spring” (24 April).

Goodwyn, Lawrence 1991, Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland (Oxford University Press).

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1986 [1906], The Mass Strike (Bookmarks),

Webber, Jeffery R, 2011a, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket).

Webber, Jeffery R, 2011b, Red October: LeftIndigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill).