If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution
By Vincent Bevins; Public Affairs; 352 pages.
The 2010s were rocked by mass protest movements across the globe. Millions of people occupied city squares, defied dictators, confronted police and exposed the dramatic inequalities that had been entrenched throughout the world during the neoliberal era.
Yet by the end of the decade, the world was even more unequal, undemocratic and unjust than before. This was the case even in those countries that had seen the biggest protest movements in their history.
In Egypt, millions came together in Tahir Square to overthrow the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Yet by 2013 a new military government had been established. In Brazil, a huge protest movement against increased transport fares initiated by far-left activists shattered the stability of the Workers’ Party government. Yet the country went on to elect an extreme right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, in 2019.
That year in Chile, an enormous wave of protests, street fighting and strikes took aim at 30 years of neoliberalism by both centre-right and centre-left governments. However, within a few years the newly elected left-wing President Gabriel Boric, a former student activist, was facing a powerful right-wing movement that prevented significant change to Chile’s authoritarian constitution. The list could go on.
The problem is not just that these movements weren’t able to transform society, nor that they weren’t able to usher in a period of serious advances for the socialist left and the workers’ movement. The problem is that in many cases right-wing or far-right political forces were able to capitalise on the very crisis produced by these protest movements to pursue their own goals.
Sisi’s Egyptian coup was preceded by huge protests against the Muslim Brotherhood government that had been elected after the fall of Mubarak, protests that were viewed by many as a continuation of those of 2011. Similarly in Brazil, protests emerged in 2015 against the Workers’ Party government, using much of the imagery of an earlier movement against the transport fare increases but now dominated by right-wing activists and focused entirely on removing the centre-left party from office.
It is this dilemma that is the central theme of Vincent Bevins’ book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.
Bevins interviewed hundreds of activists involved in the protests of the 2010s to try to understand what went wrong. “The people who sat down with me did not want to stop their analysis at the recognition that repressive forces were repressive”, he writes. Many of the activists thought that “those kinds of answers were too easy. They wanted to hold themselves to a higher standard”.
The first point that Bevins draws out of his research is that there is no such thing as a political vacuum: “If you blow a hole in the center of the political system, taking power away from those who have it, then someone else is going to enter the empty space and take it”.
In a situation of rising inequality, political apathy and social instability, the actions of small groups of radicals, sometimes only in the dozens, can intersect with growing discontent and explode onto the streets, drawing in hundreds of thousands and sometimes even millions of people.
However, “a diffuse group of individuals who come out to the streets for very different reasons cannot simply take power themselves”. As Karl Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Those who cannot represent themselves, must be represented”.
It is precisely in this context that the politics that influenced the protest movements of the decade became a liability. Bevins argues that the common sense of much of the global activist and leftist scene in the early 2000s was dominated by a focus on prefigurative politics that fetishised “leaderless”, “horizontally organised” and “spontaneous” forms of protest. This kind of politics venerated the diffuse nature of the protest movements rather than grappling with their limitations.
The choice of actions by these movements—the occupation of squares, street fighting, mass assemblies—rather than other actions such as strikes, reflected the fact that they arose after decades of decline and defeat of the workers’ movement and the socialist left throughout the world. As Bevins argues: “It should be obvious that humans do not spontaneously adopt the correct response to a given set of injustices”.
“If you are a protest movement taking on the most powerful government in the history of Asia”, he notes, referencing the 2019 Hong Kong protests, “you should not pick your strategy based on which post gets the most upvotes on a forum like Redditt. We can be certain that any worthy opponent is not making its decisions that way”.
What is most interesting about Bevins’ book, though, are the conclusions that many of the activists themselves drew from their own experiences. “I spent years doing interviews, and not one person told me that they had become more horizontalist, or more anarchist, or more in favour of spontaneity and structurelessness”, he writes. “[S]ome people stayed in the same place. But everyone that changed their views on the question of organization moved closer to classically ‘Leninist’ ones.”
“I had a lot of fun on the streets”, Theo, a Hong Kong activist, tells Bevins, “but the decentralized nature of the movement meant that there was no room for discussion about how it should work, or how a coherent strategy could be developed”.
“After Maidan, I decided I do not believe in self-organization”, explains Artem Tidva, a leftist activist involved in the Ukrainian Maidan protests until they became dominated by right-wing nationalist groups. “I used to be more anarchist. Back then everyone wanted to do an assembly, whenever there was a protest ... But I think any revolution with no organised labor party will just give more power to economic elites who are already very well-organized”.
Bevins argues that the crimes of Stalinism and the failures of many left-wing parties and governments around the world in the twentieth century led many to reject the need for organisation altogether. “Yes, we have to confront that they have the potential for misuse”, Bevins argues. However, “if your goal is to confront the problem facing humanity, that means a focus on ends, and it means constructing a movement that can stand the test of time, in addition to remaining democratic and accountable”.
This of course raises the thorny question of what kind of organisation we need, something beyond the scope of this review. But that we need organisation I don’t think can seriously be contested any more. The idea that we should wait around for a spontaneous uprising or limit our organising in the here and now to a small, diffuse, supposedly “non-hierarchical” circle of friends, is utterly irresponsible. And there is a rich history of revolutionaries building socialist organisations in almost every context imaginable: from the most liberal of capitalist democracies to the most authoritarian of dictatorships.
The 2010s were a decade of radical possibilities and missed opportunities. Those years buried the idea that we live in a stable, safe and equal society, and starkly revealed the crimes of the rich and the powerful. The protests that erupted involved more people than at any other moment in world history and confirmed that people will fight back against the system—and against those who had written off the potential for mass revolt. However, those years also highlighted that the lack of an organised socialist movement undermined what was possible.
“I heard over and over, across five continents, in the face of obvious setbacks, serious tragedies, and widespread depression, people would tell me: this is just the beginning, we have planted the seed for something bigger”, Bevins writes. “In the long term, these struggles can be part of something greater, and we can come back stronger than ever and win.”
Let us not make the same mistakes in the 2020s, let’s make sure we can come back stronger—and win.
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