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How uprisings can be stopped in their tracks

This article is over 14 years, 7 months old
In the second part of our series Colin Barker shows how even the most inspiring mass rebellions can be derailed by a lack of politics
Issue 2072

We discussed last week how mass movements can transform the lives of their participants – and how they thus contain the possibility, but not the inevitability, of revolution.

They also contain the possibility of socialist revolution, but in a still more conditional way. Several examples from history show how even the most inspiring mass revolts can collapse because of a failure to think through political strategy.

The 1926 General Strike was the largest strike in British history. But its possibilities were not shaped by its numbers alone.

Throughout the strike, control remained with the leaders of the TUC, who shut it down before it “got out of hand” – resulting in a massive defeat.

The “May events” in France 1968 were even more significant, with student protests detonating the largest general strike in European history. May 1968 was an inspiration to the left worldwide, and remains so to this day.

Yet despite the fact that the strikes were launched through rank and file initiatives, the leaders of the CGT union federation and the French Communist Party soon managed to bring the strike wave to a speedy end.

In most occupied factories, the strike committees leading the occupations were unelected. Many “occupying workers” were sent home to watch their own struggles on TV.

In both the French and British cases, rank and file organisation and initiative was weak. There were few networks of militants in a position to start taking control of the strikes.

Full blown popular revolutions can overthrow repressive regimes without this sort of organisation – but they will achieve little more than replacing one ruling class with another.

East Germany in 1989 offers a dramatic example of this. Millions of workers participated in the revolts that brought down the regime – but they participated as citizens, not as workers.

There was no “left” to speak of within the East German movement, with its own organisation and critique of the regime, or with roots in workplaces.

The 1989 Eastern European revolutions only demanded an end to undemocratic forms of government. They didn’t confront the power of management in the authoritarian world of the workplace.

Iran in 1979 is another telling case. It was by no means inevitable the mass movement would lead to an “Islamic revolution”.

The nature of the 1979 revolution was contested. General strikes of oil workers played a key part in the downfall of the Shah’s dictatorial and murderous regime.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces undermined the workers’ organisations and brought them to heel.

But the Iranian left failed to offer any clear alternative to Khomeini. It did not defend the independence of the workers’ organisations. It failed to stand up for women’s rights, or for the religious and ethnic minorities that Khomeini was repressing.

It fell in behind Khomeini’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, letting his forces seize the initiative. As the left retreated, Khomeini crushed it brutally.

Popular movements do not develop automatically. How they grow depends on the organisational forms and ideas that different tendencies fight for within the movements themselves. In the cases we’ve discussed, two issues stand out strongly.

The first is the degree to which rank and file working class organisation develops, is able to act independently of union bureaucracies, and to formulate and fight for its own demands.

The second is how far the movement includes or actively reaches out to other oppressed sections of the population. The more that participants in movements embrace each other’s struggles, the more they can grow and deepen.

Neither of these issues is solved automatically. What counts are the political arguments conducted within movements. Here the role of revolutionary socialists is vital.

If socialist voices are absent or ineffective, other voices will be heard more strongly. Their effect will often be to divide or hold back the movement.

It makes an enormous difference whether at least the outline of socialist organisation has already been created in advance of a great popular insurgency.

Have active and conscious minorities of socialists already debated and come to principled positions about the sorts of issues that movements in their own country are liable to confront?

So the issue of party organisation matters, long before questions of mass movement and revolution pose themselves in immediately practical terms.

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