The Challenge for Power

Larry O’Hara reviews Revolutionary Rehearsals In the Neo-Liberal Age edited by Colin Barker, Gareth Dale & Neil Davidson, Haymarket Press, Chicago 2021.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci famously urged pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, and this book conforms to that. Even at 443 pages the scope is tremendously ambitious: looking at instances of revolution world-wide: Eastern Europe from 1981 onwards, Sub-Saharan Africa, the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, the now receded ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America: especially Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, and finally the ‘Arab Spring’ as it affected Egypt.

The editor’s politics explain the book’s approach. All are/were ex-members of the SWP or their penumbra. Barker and Davidson (both sadly passed away) were in RS21, and contributor Mike Gonzalez was the SWP’s Latin America expert. The book is interesting not just for range, but some intellectual honesty and self-reflection.

The geographically-based Chapters are book-ended by significant theoretical contributions: the Introduction by Gareth Dale & Colin Barker, Barker’s ‘Social Movements and the Possibility of Socialist Revolution’, and finally Davidson on ‘The Actuality of the Revolution’. These sections address the issues: where are we historically, what is or might be the nature of revolution today, how does it relate to non-class based mass movements, and what should revolutionaries do now.

Regarding the geographical sections: some of which this reviewer isn’t able to comment knowledgeably on. After outlining facts/events the emphasis is on opportunities missed, and is thus often pessimistic. Gonzalez for instance, while conceding the Latin American Left has often ignored non-class based mass movements (p.242) weakly ends with suggesting ‘speaking truth to power’ (p.261); and denouncing Morales and Maduro for using participatory democracy as a “veil” for reaction (p.263). Maybe so. But what next? He doesn’t say.

The Introduction intriguingly categorises the 20th Century into three revolutionary waves: 1910-23, 1943-49 and 1968-76 (p.12). We are currently in a Neo-Liberal fourth wave, the authors frankly admitting they don’t know when the next revolutionary wave might arise. While sounding trite, a distinct improvement on some previous far left analyses. Unfortunately, the writers have a definition of revolution so broad it not only includes bourgeois revolutions, but failed ‘possible’ ones (p.6-10). This explains how they can agree there were 345 revolutions between 1900-2014 (p.6).

The Introduction finishes with both a strength and the editor’s Achilles Heel. After referencing interesting strategic ideas from Papagiotis Sotiris, they comment “if social revolution is to again belong on the agenda of the Left… it must find its centre: not simply in a change of government, but in the remaking of power and control across the whole face of society” (p.22). Agreed: but there is little in this volume about how to bring about such a governmental change, and how revolutionaries should constructively relate to such. Yet in the high tide of the Labour Left in the late 70s/early 80s, such matters were addressed, by the likes of Geoff Hodgson, Ernest Mandel and my old organisation Big Flame.

Barker’s Chapter starts by admitting there have been no successful revolutions since Russia 1917 (p.27): given they believe there were 345 possibles, a poor strike rate. Whereas previously mass movements were seen simply as recruiting pools (the ‘periphery’) Barker lauds them, believing they can become a “movement for itself, with the potential to effect social and political transformation” (p.46). Too optimistic, but certainly an improvement.

Davidson concludes the book by attempting to define the ‘Actuality of Revolution’. This has four aspects: material conditions ready, preparedness, objective conditions for victory, and a ‘conjuncture’. After quoting Lenin, he writes “the question of the party needing to act raises the question of who or what precisely takes the decision to challenge for power” (p.326). Quite. To be fair, Davidson does accept the existential threat posed by climate change (p.358-60).

The impulse behind this book: that socialism must involve mobilisation from below is commendable. However, the notion of agency to bring this about is intermittent, and the idea of struggle from below alone will do the trick, not in conjunction with (and perhaps later in opposition to) a Left Government is misplaced. Just remember the number: 345!

Larry O’Hara is currently writing a book on future left government strategy.

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