Men and women came together during the Egyptian revolution to call for liberation (Pic: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr commons license)

Between 2010 and 2020, from South America to the Middle East to South East Asia, millions of people took on their governments. Tragically, nowhere did those movements break through and win fundamental change. With this in mind, Vincent Bevins’ new book poses some difficult questions.

His first-hand accounts and interviews with protest organisers offer real insight into the movements’ strengths and weaknesses. In his discussion of the Egyptian Revolution, for instance, he asks why the movement occupied Tahrir Square.

It was, he argues, “an empty piece of land and its conquest offered no strategic value, except for its visibility”. Bevins here is grappling with the question of power. Tahrir Square was important because of its visibility—helping to spread revolution around the Middle East, and beyond.

Similarly, the occupation outside the military headquarters during the early phase of the Sudanese Revolution was crucial to spreading it, and led to the fall of the dictator Omar al-Bashir.

These visible occupations of spaces, however symbolic, mattered. But on its own, a square occupation will not overthrow the economic and political system—that requires social forces that can challenge capital.

The question posed for revolutionaries in Egypt and Sudan was how to expand outward from these occupations and reach the social forces that could take the revolutionary movements beyond the overthrow of a particular dictator.

Understanding that requires a clarity of politics that the movements Bevins discusses often lacked. In one case he examines, the Brazilian movement’s demands to the government did not come from activists, but from a YouTuber who simply selected five he liked from social media.

As Bevins drily comments, “You shouldn’t pick your strategy based on which post gets the most upvotes [on social media]… We can be certain that any worthy opponent is not making decisions that way.” In Russia in 1917 the Bolshevik call for “Bread, Peace and Land” would have got a lot of votes, but they were also strategic demands that skewered the capitalists, who were unable to deliver them.

The movements Bevins examines posed the question of political power, but could not provide an answer. He says, “Street explosions created revolutionary situations, often on accident” and notes they are “very poorly equipped to take advantage of a revolutionary situation”.

What sort of movement could? Here it is very interesting that Bevins is drawn to the ideas of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. While Bevins’ doesn’t quite understand Lenin, he does see how the political organisation built by the Bolsheviks’ gave flexibility to the revolutionary movement.

He quotes Lenin favourably, “Victory is impossible unless one learns how to attack and retreat properly.” But revolutionary organisation on its own is not enough. A mass “Leninist” Party could have made a real difference in these social movements—though it cannot substitute for it.

That points to a missing link in Bevin’s book—an alternative power to the capitalist state. Marxists argue this lies in the working class. It is workers’ labour that keeps the system running, and workers who thus have the power to stop the system functioning.

So revolutionary organisations must fight to ensure that workers are at the heart of social movements—taking the anger of the streets into the workplaces—and bringing that power into the revolution.

There is no doubt that the coming years will see further mass explosions of anger, so it is important that Bevin’s book is asking difficult questions. But while he is looking in the right direction for answers, he does not go quite far enough.

If We Burn—the mass protest decade and the missing revolution, by Vincent Bevins, Wildfire, £25

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