A Review of Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson’s Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age
December 10, 2021
IT’S HARD TO WRITE A HISTORY of what didn’t happen—which isn’t to say that efforts at doing so are of little worth. My particular field of research—nineteenth century British social history—for years was animated by the question of why there wasn’t more social unrest following the Chartists’ failed uprising of 1848. Historians writing in the 1970s ventured a range of explanations for the relative equipoise of late Victorian-era Britain. Had a nascent labor aristocracy effectively been drawn into social intercourse with a quiescent middle class? Were diffuse, unruly elements overawed by newly expanded police forces? Did domestic ideology weigh like a nightmare on the brains of working class leaders? Had political reforms rendered an earlier discourse of radicalism less plausible, leaving a narrative vacuum on the Left? Were the music halls partly to blame?
At some point between the Thatcher and Blair years, British historians mostly lost interest in this question, moving on to other matters rather than settling on a generally accepted answer. Perhaps the question itself, of how a period of mass unrest gives way to an age of equilibrium, cannot finally be answered, except tentatively or through the proliferation of overlapping explanations. Surely the general absence of struggle—let alone of revolution—in late-Victorian Britain was overdetermined.
In 1987, Colin Barker published Revolutionary Rehearsals, which compiled a series of essays on some of the revolutionary conjunctures of the prior two decades, including France 1968, Chile 1972–73, Portugal 1974–75, Iran 1979, and Poland 1980–81. While each of these situations had been shaped by their own distinctive dynamics, the five essays in Revolutionary Rehearsals put forward parallel conclusions. What had been missing in each of these sequences of struggle was a mass revolutionary party genuinely capable, in decisive moments, of linking and pushing forward workers’ and other struggles. The title struck a note of optimism, however, implicitly referencing Lenin’s remark that the 1905 revolution had been “a dress rehearsal,” without which “the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.”1V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” 1920, Marxists Internet Archive, 1999, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/. That is to say, Barker’s 1987 book presumed that second chances for successful socialist revolutions could very well emerge in these and other national contexts, and that the painstaking work of building parties in the present thus might bear fruit.
Earlier this year, Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson published a follow-up volume entitled Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, which opens with a consideration of the political transitions that occurred in Eastern Europe two years after the publication of Barker’s first volume. For organizers with Solidarność—if not for workers and students in Poland more generally—1980 to 1981 had indeed served as a dress rehearsal for a subsequent ascension to state power. But, as we unfortunately know all too well, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Lech Walesa, and their compatriots used this newfound power, among other things, to restrict abortion rights and to push through the privatizing Balcerowicz plan. In their framing introduction for the new volume, Barker and Dale show how the “negotiated transition” that took place in Poland—from authoritarian state capitalism to a partially democratic neoliberal dispensation—was consonant with roughly contemporaneous transitions in other parts of the world, including in South Africa, Spain, the Philippines, South Korea, Brazil, and Argentina.
The editors characterize the thirty-year period that followed these transitions in two overarching ways: first, as a time of neoliberal hegemony, which “altered the conditions under which revolutionary situations developed and the kinds of possibilities that they disclosed”; and second, as a time defined by the nonexistence of a global revolutionary conjuncture. The most recent such conjuncture occurred between 1968 and 1976, when social antagonists were “aware at some level that their struggles [were] linked to a broader moment of potentially systemic global change,” and when uprisings gained “system-changing heft due to the instability of hegemonic structures and a coalescence of social movements.”2 Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson, eds., Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 12, 15.
Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age pulls together case studies of revolutionary situations that took shape well after this global conjuncture and in a time of neoliberal ascendancy, drawing from these cases a composite image of the struggles that have shaped our era. In comparison with the composite image provided in Barker’s first volume, this latest portrait of an era’s antagonisms is missing some key elements, even as it also contains a number of novel forms.
As Barker and Dale note, the last thirty years of social struggle have not, by and large, featured “militant workers and workplace occupations, land seizures and inter-factory strike committees.”3 Ibid., 5. Such “infrastructures of resistance” previously had served as incubators of committed, working class organizers—the so-called militant minority—whose experiences and capacities were critical to the making of revolutionary parties. While the contributors to Barker’s first volume drew attention to moments when better organized revolutionary parties might have acted in decisive ways to help make socialist breakthroughs, Barker and Dale here implicitly suggest that the infrastructural supports for such parties have been relatively absent in recent years, meaning that the question of how to make socialist revolution in our time is necessarily more ambiguous. These days, it’s more difficult to identify precisely the single thing that went missing in each sequence of struggle. A fair bit more has been absent, or has gone awry. Surely the nonappearance of socialist revolution in our time has been overdetermined.
That said, the last three decades have not lacked for revolutionary episodes, nor have these years been without meaningful infrastructures of resistance. With respect to the latter, whether in Bolivia during the early 2000s or in Egypt during the Revolution of 2011, neighborhood assemblies have played a recurring role. Repertoires of contention have also included blockades of transportation and energy infrastructures, the mass reclamation of securitized spaces, and municipal strikes. And while we have not witnessed a revolutionary conjuncture on a global scale, social movements since the 1990s have also not been restricted to discrete geographical or political zones: the counter-
globalization movement of the late 1990s, the uprisings leading to the “Pink Tide” of the 2000s, the combined movement of the squares and Arab Spring of 2011, the feminist strike waves of 2015 through 2020, or the Black Lives Matter risings of 2020, each featured global—or at least transnational—linkages and lines of mutual influence. All of which is to say: a political project with an internationalist orientation that is committed to building from social movement experiences toward lasting socialist breakthroughs remains vital.
Such is certainly the perspective animating Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age. But the book’s editors strike an admirably candid tone in highlighting the uncertainties attendant upon this project. What forms of organization are most adequate to the moment? On what bases might discrete struggles be articulated? How can we engage with the infrastructures of resistance characteristic of our time in ways that help incubate our own and others’ organizing capacities and commitments? And finally, how, in prerevolutionary moments, can antagonistic forces avoid either being overawed by the repressive arm of the state or drawn back into the normal rhythms of political life?
With respect to this final question of state repression, it strikes me that perhaps the most compelling cause for pessimism these days is the now longstanding absence of radical left perspectives and roiling unrest among soldiers, particularly those deployed in imperial wars. Barker and Dale note that the three revolutionary conjunctures of the twentieth century each emerged in the context of war. The breakthroughs of 1917 to 1923 in Germany and in the erstwhile Tsarist Empire were made in part by soldiers’ soviets and by sailors’ mutinies. The struggles of 1943 to 1949, for their part, were advanced in various parts of the world by decommissioned soldiers of color committed to translating their effective fight against fascism into victories over colonial and racial oppression. And, during the revolutionary conjuncture of 1968 to 1976, opposition to the US war in Vietnam linked geographically distant and socially disparate forces in a shared cause.
To consider only one national context: US soldiers engaged in widespread fragging abroad; while stateside, draft resistance and mass student strikes challenged imperial war-making and gave ballast to the liberation movements of the time. Imperial planners, for their part, drew some lessons from the late- 1960s conjuncture, effectively doing away with the draft, making military service a semi-
plausible route to career advancement, and remaking techniques of counterinsurgency with an eye to minimizing casualties among the footsoldiers of empire.
Over the past three decades—the period that forms the focus of Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age—the US and/or NATO have been waging war, sometimes on multiple fronts, for all but a brief spell in the 1990s. And yet, notwithstanding the burst of antiwar organizing from 2001 to 2004, or the important efforts of Iraq Veterans Against the War, this military violence has not occasioned political crises in the old imperial core, nor has the US’s capa-city to wage war been put under strain by a radicalization to the left of soldiers and veterans. For as much as the waning of workers’ militancy has altered the political terrain over the last three decades, forcing a reevaluation of tactics and strategy on the Left, the absence of unrest among soldiers should, I think, equally prompt reflexive theorizing about the possible dynamics of socialist revolution. At the moment, it is difficult to imagine a prerevolutionary sequence spurring a sizeable portion of imperial soldiers to break ranks in a leftward direction. Absent this eventuality, our models of revolutionary rupture inherited from the past seem, on the surface at least, to hold a bit less water.
One significant counterpoint to this generally pessimistic narrative occurred in the winter of 2016, when more than a thousand US veterans joined the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in blocking the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Their efforts at practicing solidarity helped spur among those present, and among those following the events from afar, a confrontation with the US military’s historic and ongoing involvement in settler colonial dispossession and genocide. Since this moment, and especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter insurgencies of summer 2020 and Palestinian uprisings of spring 2021, lines of solidarity and shared analysis around questions of settler colonialism and racialized state violence have continued to be forged by those active in these various movement contexts.
In his chapter on “Social Movements and the Possibility of Socialist Revolution,” Colin Barker quotes Rodrigo Nunes’s account of how particular groupings can perform “vanguard functions” at opportune times. For Nunes, this role almost certainly cannot be assumed on an ongoing basis by any one faction or party, but rather moves about, sometimes in unexpected ways. If we’re wondering who might perform such vanguard functions for a renewed internationalist and anti-imperialist movement in the present, it’s hard to look past the lines of collaboration and shared analysis being woven between Palestine solidarity movements, Black liberationist projects, and Indigenous struggles.
Here particular infrastructures of resistance—the general strike, the port shutdown, the blockading of energy and transit infrastructure—are being linked to broad visions of emancipation. Whether these infrastructures can be generalized and these visions fleshed out is always an open question. And there are plenty of reasons for pessimism in our time. But that is no reason not to attempt decently to practice solidarity, and steadily to stay prepared for an unexpected opening, or for the coming of a new conjuncture.
Notes & References
- I. Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” 1920, Marxists Internet Archive, 1999, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/.
- Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson, eds., Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 12, 15.
- Ibid., 5.