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Detonating a Revolution

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Uprisings have swept aside governments in Indonesia, Argentina, Georgia and Bolivia in recent years. Can they bring fundamental change?
Issue 1881

UPRISINGS have become a regular feature of the modern world. Twice in the last two months mass uprisings have toppled governments-in Bolivia and Georgia. Similar revolts have shaken every continent in the last five years.

In May 1998 the Indonesian dictatorship of General Suharto was overthrown by a popular uprising. In January 2000 an uprising in Ecuador toppled the regime. In October 2000 revolt removed Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic. In December 2001 an uprising toppled the Argentinian regime. In Africa last year months of huge strikes and protests in Madagascar removed the regime there.

This catalogue should confound anyone who argues that mass protest never achieves anything. Each of these uprisings was sparked by specific grievances. But protest became uprising when such movements tapped a deeper popular discontent.

The Bolivian uprising began with protests over gas, but drew on deep anger over huge levels of poverty. In Georgia anger over elections meshed with fury at the extreme poverty of a large section of the population. All these uprisings unleashed a flood of hope for fundamental change and improvements in people’s lives.

The uprisings have won some important changes.

Trade unionists and opposition activists in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, operate far more openly today than under the Suharto dictatorship. Such freedoms, and space for democratic organisation, are vitally important. But none of the uprisings of recent years has brought a wider transformation of society and people’s lives.

In each case sections of the ruling class, the rich elite who dominate wealth and power, have succeeded in re-establishing control over society. A ruling class does not simply give up its wealth and power in the face of a rising against a particular regime.

Such uprisings often take place when the ruling class splits, divided over how to maintain its control over society in the face of economic and political crisis and popular anger. Faced with revolt, figures from within the ruling class can come over and seek to place themselves at the head of it or ride the movement to win power for themselves.

The ruling class may jettison figureheads who have served their interests for years, but they organise and manoeuvre to ensure their rule is restabilised. They use all their wealth and political experience, drawing control over key institutions such as the army and media to do so.

Often this is backed up by forces outside the country-from multinational corporations to the world’s most powerful governments and bodies like the International Monetary Fund. The clash between those at the top out to re-establish control, and the impulses from the mass movement for far reaching change, is not resolved overnight.

In Argentina it took almost 18 months from the uprising of December 2001 before the ruling class was able to establish some kind of stable regime. In the process a succession of presidents came and went. There were waves of protests which threw the plans of those at the top of society off course. The regime was also forced to make some concessions.

Everywhere a key strategy of those fighting to restabilise the rule of the wealthy is to seek to channel and co-opt the mass movement.

The magazine Inside Indonesia, an English language publication covering events in that country, describes the 1998 uprising: ‘There was an explosion of civil society. Demonstrations forced corrupt local officials from office around the country. Peasants occupied land taken from them in the past. Scores of new political parties, labour unions, anti-corruption bodies and other organisations were formed.’

Faced with this, sections of the ruling elite who had long backed the old regime had no choice but to make major concessions. But they were also working to limit real change.

The article continues, ‘The June 1999 election largely succeeded in domesticating reform energies. The shift of focus was from the streets to parliament, from mobilisation to legislation. In the regions new coalitions sprang up between the new parties and the old military, bureaucratic and business groupings. With the line between ‘reformists’ and ‘status quo’ inside the government now very blurred, the ‘reform’ movement lost momentum.’

This means that there has been no fundamental change in the lives of the millions who drove the 1998 uprising. To bring about that change would mean taking over the levers of economic power and getting rid of the old hierarchies that have dominated the state. None of the uprisings have done this.

Inside Indonesia says, ‘In 2002 the number of workers laid off rose by 34 percent, and even the government now admits that the unemployed will probably number 40 million by the end of 2003. Wages do not cover basic living costs.’

While the details vary enormously from country to country, the broad process is similar everywhere. A mass movement is ‘domesticated’ by sections of the ruling class. A key reason for this has been the lack of any sizeable political force clearly standing for the interests of the mass of ordinary people and fighting for far-reaching social transformation.

There have been glimpses of forces which could bring about such a transformation. In Argentina there were neighbourhood committees and a flowering of grassroots democracy in some areas, the mass unemployed workers ‘piqueteros’ movement, and workers taking over factories abandoned by bosses. But these forces were unable to link up with the crucial force of employed workers. This would have forged a movement which had the social breadth and economic muscle to impose the will of the majority on society as a whole.

The best example of where far reaching change could have been won is Bolivia. A key part of the October uprising was the country’s working class, above all the powerful tin miners. Days after the uprising a crucial meeting of representatives of unions and popular organisations took place.

The debate gave a sense of the desire among many workers and the poor to take control of society themselves. One speaker argued, ‘We’ve changed the president but his henchman is still in power. We have won a battle, but we have still not won a war.’ Another argued that in the uprising ‘workers valiantly sacrificed their lives. But they only got mere constitutional change. Those who rose up wanted better conditions of life and a new sort of state. We need the exploited to take power.’

Other key figures argued that instead some kind of ‘social unity’ was needed between the popular movement and the new regime.

Unfortunately those voices won the day, and the meeting agreed on a ‘tactical retreat’ to give the new regime time. This allowed the government and the ruling class behind it to survive, and dissipated the potential of the uprising.

In every great revolt similar debates have come to the fore. All too often in the uprisings of recent years there have been no sizeable forces pushing for the movement to go forward. Even in Bolivia the forces pushing forward were not powerful and determined enough to win the day.

If you look back through history to revolts which have achieved fundamental change a very different picture emerges.

Three revolutions have changed history and won far-reaching social change-in England in the 1640s, France in the years from 1789, and Russia in 1917. In each, arguments emerged echoing those in Bolivia. But in each there were organised forces with real influence in the mass movement clearly arguing for the revolt to go forward and for no compromise.

In England there were leaders like Oliver Cromwell with his New Model Army and radical groups like the Levellers. In France you had the revolutionary Jacobins led by people like Maximilen Robespierre and Louis Antoine St Just. And in Russia you had the socialist Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

The way struggles are played out in today’s world will be very different in crucial ways from those earlier revolutions. But their success contains a vital lesson.

Revolts and uprisings are only the beginning of a process of real social revolution. All sorts of currents fight for influence. To ensure success demands that those who want far-reaching change pull together and act in a coherent fashion.

That does not mean separating from the movement or people setting themselves up as ‘leaders’ only out for themselves.

It means people immersed in the movement who share a vision of a radically different society drawing together, sharing experiences, and drawing lessons from each other and from history. It means a party acting together to argue with those they are fighting alongside to convince them of the need to push the movement forward. Ultimately it means convincing the majority to take direct control of society themselves and so forge a transformation of society from top to bottom.

That is what Socialist Worker means when we argue for the importance of building a revolutionary party today.

The recent uprisings have shown that, while we live in an epoch of wars, it is also an epoch of revolutions. These arguments are important today in ensuring we win the fundamental change.

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