November 2019
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Month November 2019

A World in Revolt

We are pleased to include in this issue of Insurgent Notes a series of very detailed accounts and analyses of the gilets jaunes or yellow vests movement in France prepared by activists associated with Temps critiques. The texts are informed by a distinctive theoretical perspective (regarding capitalist reproduction and the possibility of revolution) and their sustained involvement in the yellow vests movement from its inception. The fine nuances of the reports allow the authors to convincingly argue that it is essential to be attentive to what is new in the movement and to escape from the dead-end of merely enumerating a movement’s shortcomings in light of traditional understandings of what anti-capitalist movements are supposed to be like.

We are writing this editorial note as mass protests in Hong Kong approach the six-month mark with little sign that they’re running out of steam. And within the last few weeks, mass (at times, insurrectionary) protests have erupted in Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, and Haiti. And, even in all but completely repressed Egypt, brave souls ventured forth into the streets.1

Like the “yellow-vests” in France, the protesters are typically driven by a profound sense of outrage over the apparently never-ending and frequently worsening miserableness of their existences and a conviction that representative governments do nothing to address their more or less desperate conditions, except to act in ways that make them worse. To the best of our knowledge, none of the mass protests has been grounded in struggles over wages or working conditions. Instead, they are, all but entirely, shaped by struggles over prices and taxes.

In Chile, in response to an increase in subway fares, high school students initiated a campaign of widespread fare evasions in Santiago by mass occupations of subway stations designed to encourage commuters to go right in without paying the fare. In one memorable instance, it appeared that a group of students would be driven off from a subway station by police—only to be rescued by hundreds of other students arriving on the next train. Subsequently, protesters attacked almost all of the 164 stations in the city’s subway system; they destroyed 45 and burned down 20. Although this is all but certainly a premature judgment, it may well be that preserving and operating the mass transit system during a period of revolt might well be a better tactical move than destroying it.

What is evident is that many millions of people across the world are disgusted enough with the existing state of affairs that they are prepared to take extreme measures (and great risks) to demand changes. As one commentator noted about a protester in Hong Kong who acknowledged that he was risking his life, “He could be almost anywhere.” At the same time, we know little about the extent to which the protests are having ripple effects. One protester interviewed in Chile argued that most of the protesters knew little about realities and developments elsewhere. On the other hand, a veteran Chinese diplomat warned in an official Communist Party newspaper: “The disaster of ‘chaos in Hong Kong’ has already hit the Western world. We can expect that other countries and cities may be struck by this deluge.”

The conjuncture of mass protests in many countries invites consideration of the extent to which they portend a new field of possibility for revolutionary movements. In 1906, Rosa Luxemburg returned from her visit to and participation in the Russian revolution of the previous year and authored an historical account and powerful analysis of the worldwide emergence of the mass strike as a new weapon in the hands of the revolutionary proletariat. See The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. Among other things, she argued that no party could orchestrate a mass strike; its spontaneous character was, indeed, a defining feature of its revolutionary potential.

She wrote at a time when mass social democratic parties counted their combined memberships in the millions. The leaders of those parties assumed their right and obligation to command the class struggle within their respective nations, especially when they hoped to undermine and divert mass revolt, on behalf of the eventual triumph of the “slow and steady wins the race” theory of socialist victory. Not surprisingly, they seldom became adherents of a Luxemburgist mass strike strategy. Today, those kinds of parties have vanished from the face of the earth but it does not mean that the somewhat fantastic notions of workers’ vanguards leading the revolutionary forces have yet evaporated—at least in the minds of the handfuls of various true believers spread across the globe. Once again, however, events can teach lessons if we’re open to learning them. The mass revolts of 2019 were all but completely unexpected and remain “headless” revolts—no one is in charge. Indeed, any attempts to provide leadership from existing political groups have been met with scorn.

But, if the protests are to endure and be successful, there are issues that require attention. How can movements best insure their own sustainability? How can movements prepare for police and military repression or for effors by the government to restrict food supplies? How can such movements prepare for their own sustainability over time by addressing matters such as protections for those arrested and injured?

We have no answers to offer. But we do believe that extensive international exchanges among the revolting forces might begin to provide some. We believe that we need something of the same scope and ambition as Luxemburg demonstrated in 1906 now. Our French comrades have given us a good idea of how to begin.

We close, though, with a look back on the Occupy movement and the early days of the anti-police protests in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. When they occurred, we published what we continue to think were valuable analyses. But we do not think that they were adequate enough so that they could, as the French activists have done, see more of the future in the present.


  1. In Spain, recently, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Barcelona to protest the jailing of leaders of the Catalonian separatist movement. We wouldn’t want to discount the significance of the development but we see it as having a different character from the other examples we’ve cited.↩︎