“Perhaps”, wrote a columnist in the staid Financial Times on 30 August, “2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt”.
The columnist cites North Africa and the Middle East (including Israel), but also Chile, China, Greece... If Britain does not look like that yet, maybe it is just that this country is a backwater, and needs to catch up.
Capitalist crisis has shaken people up. “Ordinary citizens who feel excluded” have stirred against “an internationally connected elite”.
In reaction to decades of top-level talk of “greed is good” and being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, “egalitarian political traditions that still strike a popular chord” have been rekindled.
The columnist sees the USA as the “one striking exception”, because the main “rebel” movement there, the Tea Party, has worked through organised political channels, not “disorder on the streets”.
Arguably, the notable thing about that exception is the markedly right-wing character of the Tea Party movement, not its channelling into organised politics. Leftish revolt in other countries would channel more into organised politics, and be more effective, if it had the easy channels to political effectiveness which small-town right-wing populism has in the USA and was not obstructed by the bureaucratisation and hardened apparatchik-rule which has gutted parties like the Labour Party, and unions too, over the decades of capitalist triumphalism.
The many-hundred-thousand strong rally in Egypt’s Tahrir Square on 29 July, when hard-Islamists waved Saudi flags and chanted “The people want Allah’s Sharia” and “we are all Osama [bin Laden]”, shows that in other countries too sizeable elements of the revolt of “ordinary citizens who feel excluded” against the rich elite can be co-opted by right-wing forces.
Revolt is breaking out all over, and most of it is broadly leftish, democratic, egalitarian. But some of it is channelled by the populist right. Socialists need to do more than shout “down with...” slogans and try to boost generic anger, revolt, or resistance; we also need to formulate and popularise positive demands to allow democratic and egalitarian impulses to express themselves rationally rather than being perverted.
Back in 1901 Lenin wrote, against other socialists who criticised him and his comrades for pursuing too much controversy rather than focusing on pushing forward resistance in general: “Catholic and monarchist labour unions in Europe are also an inevitable result of the interaction of environment and elements, but it was the consciousness of priests and Zubatovs [police agents] and not that of socialists that participated in this interaction”.
Revolt is an inevitable result of the interactions of the capitalist crisis. The question is which “consciousness” will participate most decisively.
And even more so today than in Lenin’s time, or Marx’s. In Marx’s day, every popular revolt made its way in a political culture long broadly shaped by the battle of bourgeois democracy against the old kings and feudalists. There were exceptions — trends like those whom Marx called the “reactionary socialists” — but the broad direction of popular revolt could usually be assumed to be democratic, the question then being whether it would be socialist too.
By the time Lenin was writing, many years of work by mass Marxist or semi-Marxist parties in the most capitalistically-developed countries had shaped a culture which also made the default direction of popular revolt broadly and generically socialistic.
The ravages of Stalinism, and then of its ignominious collapse, and the progressive hollowing-out of bourgeois democracy, have changed those parameters.
Our job is to make the coming years a time of the re-establishment of socialist and democratic parameters, as well as a time of revolt.