DAVID HEMSON reviews the uprisings sweeping the world today
Something new is growing worldwide; protest movements and demonstrations are emerging day after day in country after country in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. While protests often run their course and exhaust themselves, the current movements are continuing as the issues they fight for are unresolved. There is a new mood arising as people are refusing to stand down and go home. Taken together, we are witnessing the opening of a world revolutionary movement, one which is leaping across continents and countries and continuing even in the face of a murderous onslaught of sniper rifles, guns, bullets, rubber bullets and dense clouds of tear gas. In the past such repression has often exhausted the resisters’ energies. Not this time; these the movements have become resilient and hardened.
In the recent past, headlines have reflected the rise of populist right-wing regimes which focused hostility on migrants and minorities. We have shown that there are also countervailing movements of youth and workers against capitalist austerity and authoritarian rule. But there was still more to come. At that time these movements were largely unreported but were steadily building up beneath the surface. We pointed to the uneven and unstable balance of forces between right and left, between the forces for socialism and for unbridled capitalism.
Now rising movements are opening new vistas of opposition to right-wing populism, paralyzing governments and relentlessly wresting concessions. Over time this movement will prove to be the basis for a renewal of the socialist movement worldwide.
The world is now ablaze with protest. Movements have exploded in unprecedented mass resistance against some of the most divisive, brutal and authoritarian regimes of our time. India has just seen its second general strike within a year, mobilizing a colossal 250 million workers (see OTB3), alongside a new youth uprising against Modi’s communal anti-Muslim legislation. Similarly, this worldwide wave of revolt has swept across long-entrenched sectarian divides throughout the Middle East.
The list of countries is long and growing: Sudan, Algeria, Bolivia, Britain, Catalonia, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Pakistan… There are entirely unexpected additions to the list. Malta, a country which (according to a local editor) “just doesn’t do protests” joined the list late in 2019, in an outburst of anger against state complicity in the assassination of a courageous journalist.
There are spontaneous linkages of every kind: across continents, east-west, south-south and north-south. Although many of the countries involved are situated far from the capitalist heartland of the United States and Europe, similar social movements have sprung up in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland). In France, the Yellow Vests have been protesting on the streets for over a year, and the country is now gripped in an ongoing virtual general strike. This uprising has inspired protest movements across the world and fear among rulers; in Egypt, the police state even banned the sale of yellow vests for fear of what could result.
From particular causes to broader movements, a new mood is emerging. In rising to their feet, demonstrators have confronted and overcome their rulers’ age-old practice of bigotry and racism. The rising movements in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq have become highly integrated and determinedly non-sectarian, cutting across the old religious divide. The protest movement mobilizing against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act in India has similarly brought together the youth of all the multiple patchwork of religious, caste and language communities.
Not all movements germinate on national soil; some take an international shape almost as soon as they emerge. Many youth are outraged by the climate crisis being ignored, sidelined or ridiculed by governments; while the evidence of catastrophes mounts daily. Unprecedented infernos are spreading across the globe; from the Arctic to the Amazon and now to Australia. Demonstrators face capitalist governments with no vision for a better future for working people. The most active element in many of these movements is women and youth, often well-educated but finding no possibility of decent work.
The speed at which the international climate strike movement led by Greta Thunberg has swept across the globe has been astonishing. Dramatic climate changes have awakened youth consciousness in opposition to governments adamantly denying global warming and rejecting calls to reduce emissions.
We salute the martyrs, first-aid activists, fighters, militants, resisters and anti-corruption journalists who have faced the live and rubber bullets of brutal regimes, had gas canisters aimed at their heads, confronted militarized police and stared down armed militias who tried to smother their resistance! These rising movements have been based on the almost reckless courage of the resistance. In Iran, demonstrators face armed police with the slogan: “Down with the Supreme Leader! Death to liars!” In Hong Kong their songs denounce the rule of the autocratic Chinese Communist party, knowing violent retribution could follow. In Iraq they march defiantly even while in the sights of snipers dressed in black. This takes courage indeed.
Social groups have their own momentum; often youth and worker movements may act independently and later combine. The largely spontaneous internationally organized groups such as climate crisis and anti-sexual abuse activists are combining with other movements of youth and workers which are sweeping through major economies. The depth and breadth of these international social movements taking root in advanced and developing countries alike is shaking and reviving democratic and socialist movements.
Young people are occupying squares and plazas or trying out new tactics such as street theatre and agitational crowd-bombing. An international culture of resistance spreads rapidly across national boundaries and cultures, drawing on revolutionary experience from films, musicals, plays; with resistances making up their own marching songs or drawing on others. In Lebanon the movement took up the marvelous freedom hymn of the wartime Italian partisans who died for freedom Bella Ciao.
Youthful movements readily reach international levels, learning from social media. They can draw on the diaspora of Lebanese, Chilean, Iraqi, Chinese and other ethnic groups, exchanging ideas across the globe. These movements are fresh and innovative, quickly learning the tactics of confrontation with the police in Hong Kong and Chile; using umbrellas, gas masks and adopting counter-teargas measures. First-aid groups have been formed to treat those assaulted, gassed and injured and get them to hospital. In Hong Kong, specialized units are sheltered in the ranks and suddenly emerge with ladders and other equipment to scale walls and bring demonstrators to new areas. A valuable stock of knowledge of resistance tactics is being built.
Although some movements are initially specific and limited, the combination of youth and workers’ movements indicates the future taking form. In India in January last year there was a strike of 200 million workers affecting all sectors, urban and rural, across the country; this January a globally unprecedented 250 million striking workers and farmers combined with the tens of thousands of students resisting Modi’s communal citizenship legislation. These elements are combining to spread resistance. A significant new factor is the overlapping of particular movements, like the combination of huge mobilisations of trade-union solidarity with the protests of other strata, such as the climate strike of the youth, the yellow vests in France and the student uprising in India.
These movements have succeeded in breaking up intractable political logjams (as in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran) and offering hope in a war-torn region. Their ideas are a robust antithesis to sectarianism and hate. In Lebanon, the militantly non-sectarian movement has drawn Christians and Muslims together in opposition to a state and constitution based on sectarian divisions. Women are most prominent in the uprising. One woman famously tackled and disarmed a policeman preparing to shoot into a demonstration. Not even the intervention of the battle-hardened Hezbollah militia could break up their resistance. While the state was paralysed, the people themselves organized parades of working people and professionals to celebrate the national day.
Lenin once said that “politics is a concentrated expression of economics”. The astonishing range of grievances points in many directions: opposition to sectarian legislation, rising inequality, mass unemployment, corruption and looting of the state, electoral fraud, privatization of public services and rising fuel and public transportation prices.
The politics of the present resistance, however, reflects the contradictions of international capitalism, of a system which has not recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. These movements have arisen during a period of slowing growth; there is a sharp increase in inequality, particularly in developing countries. While the wealthy become wealthier, in the countries of the Middle East, Latin America and Africa the youth are engaged in a desperate struggle for jobs. Rage against inequality and its political face is fueling the movement of thousands and millions.
It is democratic issues which are to the fore, but social issues follow closely behind. The Hong Kong demonstrators are well aware that their chance of gaining democratic rights has “zero prospect” when these are ruled out on the mainland. Yet the struggle is not dimmed as human rights have a class connotation. There is a unifying thread in the policies the movements are resisting. In country after country governments are placing the burden of economic crisis on the people, and suppressing legitimate protests with bullets, tear gas canisters and specialized police units. In Iran and Iraq, and also in Zimbabwe, black-clad snipers of the regime shoot live bullets into crowds of unarmed civilians fighting for cheaper fuel or bread.
These movements lack experience and have a fresh outlook; this frees them from the constraints of conforming to the past or present paths of opposition. Despite its freshness, or possibly because of it, the movement learns fast. Political parties are not responding to their needs. The state, ruling elites and parties are regarded as a solid corrupt block against the working people, immune to the possibility of reform and seeking only to divide the people’s united opposition.
Their deeply rooted experience, which has now become instinctive, is that politicians of all colours are part of an irredeemable and utterly corrupt ruling class. Protests arise against rigged elections in Kazakhstan, Algeria and many other countries. They seek to remove the entire political system and replace this with open democratic participation in the interests of the people. Just how this will be done is not yet answered, but there is no sign of trust in political reform from above; quite the contrary.
New Ways of Thinking
In contrast with the movements of the 1960s, two major diversions are missing. Firstly, and most importantly, these new ranks are not infected with the ideas of Stalinism. This argues that the revolution is national and can be won in two stages: the achievement of democracy, and only then the resolution of all social issues – socialism. The common understanding of the state today shows a decisive rejection of this “two-stage” idea, initially limiting the struggle to a “national democratic revolution” in which the working people make an alliance with a section of the national bourgeoisie to advance democracy as a stage towards the realisation of the social issues. Recent experience has confirmed that the ruling class is mobilized in parties that refuse to stand aside. As in Algeria, Chile and elsewhere, the quest for “genuine democracy” cannot be realised and the struggle has to continue.
Stalinism in itself has no appeal. Demonstrators have witnessed many regimes which have ruled for thirty years or more with the support of Stalinist regimes of Russia (previously) and China. Some of the most corrupt regimes in the world lay claim to be “progressive” or “radical”, even while shooting down workers resisting vicious austerity, as in Zimbabwe and Iran.
Equally, despite facing an onslaught of bullets, the demonstrations have not taken up guerilla struggle. In the 1960s this seemed an alternative to prolonged mass resistance and insurrection. Guerillaism has been a disastrous policy for the workers’ movement. Its outcome has been dictatorship, degeneration (in Latin America), corruption in government (Africa and Lebanon) and a fiercely anti-democratic character. Despite the fact that the current movements are not expressly passivist or non-violent, the idea of taking guerilla action as the route to power seems to have no appeal.
Despite the extraordinary speed with which these movements have swept into the streets, we are facing a protracted period of struggle. Resistance is accelerated and strengthened with every new movement, but the ruling classes internationally are not inclined to stand down. Despite this, the economic crisis and growing divisions within the ruling parties and governments weakens the autocrats’ resolve. A period of political instability, with weakened states struggling to hold on to power and regain the initiative, is opening.
The continental-wide and regional character of these movements is successfully linking one movement to another. This is clearest in the Middle East, where the resistance in Lebanon has helped re-ignite resistance in Iraq and Iran. Opposition is swelling to the autocratic theocracy of Iran, which has an ally in Hezbollah and which largely controls the governments in Lebanon and Iraq. In Latin America, the fire spreads from Chile to Ecuador to Haiti and sends tremors throughout the continent. The neoliberal experiment in Chile is now being proclaimed by the movement as “a neoliberal graveyard”. Instead of basking in the honour of hosting the climate change conference, Chile has had to declare a state of emergency and to decline acting as host.
The protracted nature of resistance will allow the youthful movement to learn from experience. The movement of the Yellow Vests in France has been going for over a year; in Hong Kong for over six months; in Chile for months; in Colombia it is starting; and in South Africa it has been on-going at a low but persistent level ever since 2004. There seem to be two factors behind the long haul which is opening: the discrediting of regimes which, as in Zimbabwe, have gorged themselves on state assets and rotted over decades; and the inability of capitalism to make reforms which would meet the movement’s demands. It is this lack of any consistent reforms that has led to a hardening understanding by ordinary people of the incorrigible nature of the state.
All this is developing a home-grown cadre in many countries, as knowledge accumulates about who are the real friends of the movement and what strategies succeed. In this period, a cadre has to be created within the crucible of struggle. The most creative leadership is being trained in struggle from below in networks of activists. No “leaders” can parachute in and claim ownership of these movements. Currently these appear “leaderless” – an advantage in some ways, as each movement explores the way in which coordination can be developed and common strategies and ideas evolved.
Leaders develop from the experience of prolonged struggle. In Hong Kong, Lebanon and elsewhere there is a youth movement, sometimes a little naïve (not for long), gaining hard experience from failing allies and many tried strategies. The protracted nature of these struggles is giving them time to deepen their political knowledge and harden their commitment and international perspective. Over time the climate crisis will be seen for what it is: a capitalist crisis to be resolved with class struggle across borders. These are the strengths; the weak factor is the absence of a living international centre drawing together the strategy and relaying the connections.
And a World to Win
These movements are powerful and have scored important successes: the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq have had to resign; ageing autocratic leaders in Algeria and Sudan have been swept aside; the Iranian theocracy is on the defensive. The Iranian regime is facing its greatest challenge in 41 years of rule. Cross-country mobilizations have proven their strength. In Sudan a provisional government of civilians and military has been brought together, while the economy remains unchanged; the threat of fresh mobilization keeps the military from retaking power.
While socialism is not yet on every resister’s lips, these movements are being driven to socialist conclusions. The crushing weight of austerity, privatization, rising prices and the removal of subsidies is strengthening the realization that it is not corruption and gross mismanagement alone which is burdening working people, but that each of these issues is an aspect of international capitalism.
The wide international spread of these prolonged movements is opening up an extraordinary period. Every protracted struggle is associated with a prolonged economic crisis in which the existing regimes place greater economic burdens on working people. As capitalism internationally slows down, this is the only way in which these regimes can survive. Movements internationally will face this onslaught with all the power which has been accumulated, offering the prospect that victory in one country can lead on to a collapse in the worldwide structure of capitalism.