Mass movements and rebellions can erupt suddenly. The left must win these movements to new, revolutionary ideas and lead the rejection of the old ideas that, if re-established, can dissipate and restrict movements and their demands.
We must learn the lessons of recent history and win the ideological battle within such movements.
Seven years ago this month a spontaneous rebellion in Argentina forced a neoliberal government out of office after it declared a state of siege to quell mounting unrest.
On 19 and 20 December 2001 over a million people – workers, street children, pensioners, students and the unemployed – crowded into the centre of the capital Buenos Aires. By the end of the first day, the finance minister had resigned.
On the second day police opened fire killing several people. The crowd attacked banks, McDonalds and symbols of wealth. The government resigned.
Continuing protests led to four successive governments being forced from office. Workplaces were occupied to stop closures. Mass protests and blockades by the unemployed took place and popular assemblies based in working class areas spearheaded resistance.
This had many features of a classic revolutionary situation. But the eventual outcome was the return of a government led by the populist Peronist party.
The majority of the unemployed, workers and others who were protesting, still clung to the idea that their demands could somehow be fulfilled within the existing system.
The far left took part but tended to prioritise their own slogans, rather than open a dialogue with the movement or each other.
The autonomists denounced the left but essentially did the same by creating “alternative” organisations, leaving the bulk of protesters to their own devices. Meanwhile the trade union leaders held to their allegiance with the Peronist politicians.
The government that emerged acted to co-opt and disperse the popular movement – stabilising Argentinean capitalism for a brief period.
A more recent example is the huge movement that has swept Italy over the dismantling of the education system.
In recent months demonstrations, occupations and strikes by education workers and students have some characteristics of Argentina seven years ago, though not its revolutionary potential.
The slogan, “We won’t pay for your crisis”, figures prominently. Anti-racism is at the core in a country that saw pogroms earlier this year against Roma and migrants.
It has also impacted on the wider working class – leading the main trade union federation to call a general strike on 12 December.
Many of the most radical sections of the movement are vehemently against the left after the experience of a centre left government that implemented with zeal free market and pro-war policies. Many have moved towards creating autonomous organisations based on a militant minority.
The majority of those on the streets are new to protest and believe their demands can be met within the existing system.
Italy’s main radical left party, Rifondazione Comunista, has some 50,000 members. Yet it is hampered by its previous loyal membership of the old centre left government, and by its refusal to pursue an ideological fight within the social movements. It recently voted at congress for a “shift left” – throwing itself into the protests to make up for lost ground.
We must build networks of activists who can shape and learn from the movement and build the radical left. A revolutionary party is a grouping of those who want to see a revolutionary transformation of society but understand that those demands and ideas have to be won among millions of working people.
In Britain, that has to be built now, so that it has sufficient social weight to have an impact when situations arise like that in Italy today, let alone that of Argentina.
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Historian John Newsinger writes