This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Angry mass revolts have been erupting in many countries across the globe. On Friday 25 October, up to two million people demonstrated on the streets of Chile’s capital Santiago (see page 15). That was the eve of a weekend that saw up to 500,000 demonstrating in Barcelona for the release of political prisoners, anti-government protests across Iraq and a 105-mile long human protest chain in Lebanon.
In recent weeks, explosions of protest have also broken out or been ongoing in Hong Kong, Ecuador,
Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Bolivia, and Haiti – among others. Prior to these there was the ‘gilets jaunes’ flare up in France and the beginning of a revolution in Sudan which has already ousted President Omar al-Bashir.
These movements draw inspiration from each other, sometimes echoing a tactic or symbol seen elsewhere.
The triggers and demands vary from country to country. But common to most has been fury at austerity, inequality and corruption. “Across continents, it seems, we
inhabit an age of anger”, said a Times editorial. The authors of an article in the New York Times called the protest wave: “A louder-than-usual howl against elites in countries where democracy is a source of disappointment, corruption is seen as brazen, and a tiny political class lives large while the younger generation struggles to get by”.
In Lebanon, protesters have insisted on having a united struggle of Shia, Sunni, Druze and Christians, opposing divisive separation. Also in Iraq, sectarian divisions are being overcome through protest. The demands gaining an echo in Lebanon include the removal of the corrupt political elite and changing the entire political system. A fifth of the population – 1.3 million people – has participated in that movement so far. A tax on data services like WhatsApp was an initial trigger. But the BBC reported a protester as saying: “We are not here over WhatsApp, we are here over everything”.
In Chile, the movement is also demanding political change, with mass support coming behind the demand for a constituent assembly to ‘restructure society’.
The hundreds of thousands who have protested in Ecuador were enraged by a savage austerity
package. A general strike took place, led by the General Union of Ecuadorian Workers. The National Assembly was stormed, and the government of Lenin Moreno forced to relocate away from the capital, Quito (see ‘Uprising in Ecuador forces government climbdown’ at socialistparty.og.uk)
In alarm and desperation, ruling elites have been trying both the carrot and the stick. Demonstrators in a number of countries have faced brutal state repression, yet have been determined to continue. Over 15 have been shot dead in Chile. In Iraq, 42 were killed in protests on 25 October alone.
On the other hand, concessions have been hastily announced to try to quell the ferment. Iraq’s cabinet is being reshuffled, Chilean president Pinera cancelled transport fare increases and is dismissing his cabinet; in Hong Kong the extradition bill has been withdrawn; in Lebanon the government rapidly scrapped the WhatsApp levy, and announced some reforms. And now the prime minister has announced his resignation. But in all these countries, among others, such measures have rightly been dismissed by protesters as far too little.
Commentators in the capitalist media have bemoaned the difficulties governments have in trying to counter protests which in many recent cases have been ‘leaderless’, spontaneous outbursts, mobilising on social media. ‘Who can be negotiated with?’ they ask. While socialists have little sympathy on that score, we strongly call for workers and youth to have their own committees and organisations, to be able to democratically discuss and decide the steps needed to both defend the protests and escalate them towards victory.
Suspicion towards political organisations is understandable given the past experiences of workers internationally – of being betrayed by formerly left leaders who moved to the right and accommodated to the interests of capitalist big business. But genuine workers’ parties – with leaders elected and subject to recall – will be indispensable for maintaining unity of purpose in the movements and formulating programmes that firmly express working-class interests.
Organised workers in the trade unions need to be the backbone of those parties, bringing in their experience of workers’ struggles and their potential power to bring society to a halt through strike action. Due to their common class interests they can also take a lead in building and arming the movements with the ideas necessary to counter the capitalist class. In practice, this can only be through developing socialist programmes for removing capitalism, opposing coalitions and pro-capitalists and forming governments of representatives of working people that can build societies in the interests of the overwhelming majority. No trust can be placed in any of the political representatives of capitalism!
While these vital organisations are still to be built, the period since the 2011 mass uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa hasn’t passed without lessons being noted. For instance, the demands now being raised by protesters for ‘complete change at the top’ show recognition that removing single presidents or prime ministers is not enough; other capitalist representatives can step into their place.
Journalist Simon Tisdall mentioned in the Observer on 27 October that over 40% of the global population is aged 24 or under, and referring to the present revolts, aptly wrote: “This global phenomenon of unfulfilled youthful aspirations is producing political timebombs”. While struggles will ebb and flow, the overall trend is that they will widen and escalate. Along with that, development of consciousness on the political and organisational tasks needed will inevitably speed up, providing the other vital element, along with the will to struggle, for achieving lasting victories.