New revolutionary rehearsals. Part one: The limits of neoliberal ‘democratisation’

by · January 7, 2012

Vaclav Havel — face of the ‘velvet revolutions’

Vaclav Havel — face of the ‘velvet revolutions’


For those of us drawn to Marxist politics in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collection of essays edited by Colin Barker called Revolutionary Rehearsals was a brilliant riposte to ideas that history had ended with the victory of liberal capitalism and that “there is no alternative”. Here was a book that showed the possibilities and limitations of a series of revolutionary moments in the period from May 68 in France to the crushing of the Solidarność movement in Poland in 1981. In May last year Colin wrote a new introduction to the South Korean edition, bringing the book’s arguments up the present. We are reproducing it here in two parts with his permission.

The English language version of Revolutionary Rehearsals is currently in print via Haymarket Books here. The South Korean version should be for sale here when it is released. The original was published in the UK by Bookmarks. A website of Colin’s writing can be found here.


It is almost a quarter of a century since Revolutionary Rehearsals was first published in 1987. The book focused on a number of important cases, over the previous twenty years, in which a very particular possibility seemed to open up: namely, that mass workers’ movements might challenge for state power. The exploration of that possibility guided the selection of chapters.

The period since 1987 has been, in one sense, extraordinary in the sheer number of revolutions that have occurred. If one thing seems certain, it is that revolution is alive and well across the globe, and is indeed a very ‘normal’ part of the political process in the modern capitalist world.

There has been a whole series of vitally important and dramatic transformations in political regimes. A wave of ‘democratization’ has swept away a variety of political dictatorships. If the wave perhaps began in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1970s, in the 1980s it brought down dictatorships across Latin America, in the Philippines and South Korea, followed by the ‘communist’ (actually state-capitalist) regimes of Eastern Europe. The 1990s witnessed the end of the Apartheid regime of South Africa and the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship in Indonesia, along with moves towards democracy in numbers of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a trend that continued into the new millennium. At the time of writing, in the spring of 2011, a new wave of revolutionary struggles is challenging many autocratic regimes across North Africa and the Middle East.

There is a paradox, however, On the one hand, ‘liberal democracy’ has extended its sway across the world, and its expansion has been aided by extensive popular protests, including strike waves and mass demonstrations, on a previously unimagined scale. Yet, at the same time, social inequality has been growing in rich and poor countries alike, as ‘neo-liberalism’ has strengthened its grip on national and international economic policy-making. Neo-liberalism is a policy whose intentions and effects are to shift the balance of power and wealth away from working people and towards the capitalist class. Indeed, the past few decades have seen the rich massively increasing their share of income and wealth, and not only in good times.

When the capitalist banking system ran into crisis, the major capitalist states raised trillions of dollars to save the banks — and went on to insist that the bill for the subsequent deficits must be paid by working people, and that public services should continue to be privatized, i.e. converted into new sources of profit for the capitalist class.

All of this is now widely understood across large parts of the working classes of the world. But it has taken time and bitter experience for that to be learned, and the learning has shaped the form of revolutions.

After the Polish military smashed the workers’ movement, Solidarity, in December 1981, the continuing underground opposition to the regime shifted its ideological ground. In the autumn of 1981, Solidarity’s first Congress had called for a ‘self-governing republic’ that would extend democracy into the workplace and the economy. But now, after their defeat, the movement’s leaders and advisers began to look to ‘the market’ as the solution to the ills of their economy and society. Illusions in western capitalism spread. Instead of looking to the organized power of working people to re-make society, they came to identify freedom with the free market. But they were not the only ones to be so convinced: the increasing paralysis of the state-capitalist economy also persuaded wide layers among the Polish ruling class that there was no alternative to the market and private property. The fruits of this parallel development were harvested in the spring of 1989, when Solidarity’s leaders sat down at a ‘Round Table’ with representatives of the regime and came to an agreement for a ‘negotiated transition’ in Poland: to parliamentary democracy, and the re-installation of private capitalism. [1] As in neighbouring Hungary, the transition from one regime to another was accomplished with little by way of strikes and demonstrations. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe — notably in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania — it took popular uprisings and mass demonstrations to dislodge the old regimes. Large numbers of workers participated, but there was little sign of the development of new popular institutions from below, and only sporadic challenges to managerial power in workplaces. After 1989, the privatization of profitable resources proceeded apace, and unemployment and inequality grew.

In South Africa, mass strikes and township protests finally compelled the Apartheid regime to the negotiating table. The outcome was the profoundly popular election of an ANC government in 1994. However, within two years, the ANC leadership followed advice from the IMF and the World Bank, abandoning its previous economic policies in favour of a neo-liberal strategy. Working people lost out in a big way. South Africa remains near the top of the list of the world’s most unequal societies, with the Black share of national income actually falling. Although the level of everyday popular protest in post-Apartheid South Africa is also among the world’s highest, successive ANC governments have worked to contain and deflect popular resistance.

‘Velvet revolutions’

Thus the years following the first appearance of our book did not prove favourable to the perspectives we discussed. Rather, revolutionary challenges were contained and deflected by what some political commentators called ‘negotiated transitions’ — or what Czechoslovak wits called ‘velvet revolutions’ — a form perhaps first seen in Spain in 1976, but then followed in Latin America, Eastern Europe and South Africa.

These kinds of political transformation seem to have some preconditions. On the ruling-class side, sections of the ‘old regime’ must see the writing on the wall, and be prepared to abandon their previous power-monopoly. More important, on the side of the opposition, ‘moderate’ leaders must be found who will work to contain the activity of their own supporters within ‘safe limits’ and to guarantee the safety, and often the continued wealth and security, of at least most of the old regime’s cadres. In this way, the ‘risks’ of popular revolution may be reduced, and openings can be created for at least the more far-seeing of the old regime to achieve satisfactory ‘safe landings’ when regime change occurs. The machinery by which ‘negotiated transitions’ are achieved may include ‘Pacts’, ‘Round Tables’, ‘Amnesties’, ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ and the like. The crimes of former murderers, torturers and thieves may be forgiven. A ‘negotiated transition’ requires both a ‘reforming’ wing within the ruling class and a dominant ‘reformist wing’ within the opposition. The reformist opposition leaders must work to contain popular demands and organizations, by a mixture of cooptation and demagogy, and by excluding dissenting voices. There is also a more general condition: politics and economics must be treated as separate and distinct spheres, so that contradictions between political equality in the ballot box and rapidly widening economic inequalities are not too obvious. Such an ideological separation underlay the East European ‘dream of the market’, that everyone would be free — and equal.

The ongoing march of neo-liberalism, however, has reduced its ideological appeals. Its social and economic effects have become more prominently apparent, as political and economic power have become more concentrated and more closely interwoven. Across continents, there has been a widespread growth of popular suspicion and hostility towards the privatization of public services and of ‘the commons’, towards the granting of private property rights to wealthy corporations at the expense of the poor, towards the increasing dependence of the poor on food and fuel whose prices are governed by commodity speculators. Increasingly neo-liberalism smells, not of ‘freedom’ but of the corruption of public offices by the lure of wealth. Major environmental, economic and social crises have offered speculators and those with privileged access to decision-makers new opportunities — to profit at the direct expense of their shattered neighbours’ lives.

Many of neo-liberalism’s advances rested on major working-class defeats. Too often, commentators have read these defeats as meaning the end of the working class as a focus of resistance. What they missed was that defeats were, as in past history, often the occasion for new beginnings, and for the re-making of workers’ movements. Older industries and occupations might crumble, but new sectors were being driven into the proletariat, and bringing impulses to revived insurgency. ‘White-collar’ workers have come to play a far more central role in popular resistance, from Mexican teachers in Oaxaca to militant Egyptian tax-workers in Cairo. The gap has continued to narrow between workers and students, who played an unexpectedly prominent role in the May 1968 movement in France, now that ‘higher education’ has become a mass industry run on bureaucratic and capitalist lines. Millions of former peasants have been driven into the hugely expanded cities of the ‘Third World’, where they have developed new capacities for organization and struggle. Some movement transformations have been dramatic and rapid: the core of Bolivia’s labour movement, the organized miners, suffered appalling defeats in the mid-1980s, yet a decade and a half later a recomposed popular movement proved able to achieve an astonishing victory against water privatization in Cochabamba, initiating a five-year period of revolutionary upheaval.

Thus, if it took a while for the realities of neo-liberalism to din themselves into the brains of those subjected to its processes, by the end of the old millennium the evidence of that popular recognition was widespread. The period when popular revolution could be smoothly substituted by ‘negotiated transitions’ as a mechanism of political change was ending. Issues of ‘economic justice’, interweaving economic and political struggles, were again becoming more prominent in insurgent agendas. The poetic cries of the rebellion of Chiapas in 1994, which coincided with the official beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement (a key development in neo-liberalism’s programme), would be picked up and amplified by a host of different voices and movements over the subsequent period. In the very last month of the 20th century, an international demonstration at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle provided slogans that resonated with movements over the next decade and more: ‘Our world is not for sale’ and ‘Another world is possible’.

The idea of freedom was no longer attached to the concept of the market. On the contrary, a new generation now identified the market as a principal cause of injustice and exploitation. The crises and injustices associated with the real workings of capitalist world economy provoked major waves of popular insurgency as the 21st century began. Uprisings in Ecuador in 2000 and in Argentina in 2001, both of them associated with economic crisis, brought down their governments. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the new century began with a successful mass movement against the privatization of water. In 2002, in Venezuela, a right-wing coup backed by big business was defeated by a huge popular movement that restored Hugo Chavez to the Presidency to which he had been elected four years earlier. In 2003, in Bolivia, popular uprisings drove out successive Presidents who failed to respond to their demands. In 2006, a mass movement overthrew the government of Nepal. These struggles were increasingly interwoven with mass strike movements and popular insurgencies that focused directly on economic and social demands. So, too, it has been with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

[1] There were tragic paradoxes. The first Minister of Labour in the new government was Jacek Kuron, co-author with Karol Modzelewski of the 1964 Open Letter to the Party. In 1964 Kuron had called openly for a workers’ revolution; in 1990 he was giving fireside chats on television to explain the necessity of rising unemployment….