Mass Rebellion, No Revolution

This is the era of mass protests. And yet social revolutions as history predicted them in the twentieth century are nowhere found. What goes in the name of revolution in some parts of the world is actually counter-revolution led by right-wingers. How rightists are getting increased support from masses, more precisely toiling masses, both in advanced and backward countries, is a matter of serious concern in recent years. After the collapse of USSR socialism is a ‘dirty word’ and socialist state is equated with dictatorship. Communists are portrayed as fascists. Socialist revolution is being increasingly evaluated as an impossibility. The dream of social revolution seems further out of reach now than at any moment since its emergence in the eighteenth century.

Mass protests aimed at toppling governments, rather repressive and autocratic governments, have swept the planet like a prairie fire. The list of countries that have witnessed mass upsurge in the recent past is formidable. Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Iraq, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan and Ukraine among others. In the 1920s the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street Movement shook the world as millions of people in numerous countries stood in solidarity with them. The impact of all these mass mobilisations didn’t last long. Nor did they bring in any radical change in social structure.

Each of these protest movements brought masses of people into the streets. Sometimes they even brought down government or drove a dictator into exile. In many cases they helped rightist reactionaries return with more brutal oppressive machine. As a result least successful mass revolts had to face massive repression and white terror, reversing the limited gains movements succeeded to achieve. Only recently people in Egypt observed the 10th anniversary of Rabba massacre, one of the worst massacres of protesters in modern history. Human Rights Watch documented at least 900 protesters killed in Rabba. To compare, estimates suggest about 1000 were killed in Tiananmen Square.

For one thing, most of these mass upheavals were city-centric, involving mainly educated middle class people. In India the ruling elites have popularised the term ‘urban naxal’. And these mass upsurges are described as ‘urban civic revolutions’ with limited goals to reach. The basic character of all these mass mobilisations is the same: ‘they tend to leave the stage of history just as quickly as they take to it’. Nobody now talks about ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Nor does Arab Spring attract Arabs to cry for more ‘Arab Springs’.

Of all these rebellions in recent years, Iranian Revolution, rather Iranian Islamic Revolution, was very powerful. But ultimately autocracy was replaced by mullahcracy which is out and out reactionary and anti-people. It’s a dictatorship of fundamentalists. No basic change in society. It’s more like a situation of ‘back to square one’. People are now protesting against hijab and moral policing.

Nearer home farmers’ year-long agitation against regressive farm laws was historic in scope and spread as well. Peasants took to the streets and came to Delhi. It was not really urban-centric mass protest but it finally took the character of urban-oriented mass mobilisation. The movement succeeded in generating solidarity support across the country. It halted the government’s anti-farmer measures for the time being. A kind of stalemate prevails and it doesn’t mean they have won the final battle. The government is just buying time.

The city-centric mass revolts with sporadic violent incidents, are peaceful protests though revolution is basically an armed insurrection. Revolution is defined and redefined variously at different junctures of history. Revolution is a structured phenomenon. ‘‘A revolution is about citizens seizing back control over a regime through mass mobilisation from below”. That was Leon Trotsky who formulated it against the backdrop of political developments in Russia.

The world is changing very fast. And change is hard. Old formulations are getting quickly outdated while appropriate new formulations are not emerging. But the basic question of revolution remains the same: how to mobilise masses, oppressed masses, in their millions against the system that oppresses them.

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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023