In 2019 we witnessed an inspiring wave of rebellions spanning four continents and two dozen countries. Significant rebellions of varying scales have happened in Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Haiti, Nicaragua, Catalunya, Guinea, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Honduras, Iran, Kashmir, West Papua, Indonesia, Egypt, Czech Republic. There have also been major strikes in France, India, Quebec, South Korea and Jordan.
Such a widespread wave of global struggle has not been seen since 1968. What has caused these rebellions and why are they happening at the same time?
The initial sparks of the rebellions tend to be demands for relatively minor reforms, such as protests against the subway fare increases in Chile or against a Whatsapp voice-calling tax in Lebanon.
Yet these demands shift rapidly to revolutionary demands like the downfall of the regime. Most of the rebellions express mass resistance to privatisation, corruption, and the enormous economic disparity between the obscenely wealthy elite minority and the immense majority.
Chile is a case in point. In early October a group of Santiago high school students protested a public transport fare increase by jumping subway turnstiles. Over the following days more students followed their lead and the state started locking subway entrances. Students used their collective strength to tear down the barriers, occupying stations by the thousands. Within a fortnight, their defiance had sparked a nationwide rebellion for the end of neoliberalism.
The rebellions have common demands because they have common causes. The effects of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 are still being felt and the “recovery” has only been a recovery for the rich. Going further back we can see how the rebellions are a response to the international capitalist class’s long-term neoliberal offensive. This is summed up by two slogans from Chile: “not 30 pesos, but 30 years” and “neoliberalism began in Chile and it will end in Chile”. It is no wonder that these are primarily rebellions of the poor, working class and lower middle class, those hardest hit by neoliberalism and the austerity programs since the Global Financial Crisis.
Demands for the extension of democratic rights are also common to many of the rebellions. In some cases this has to do with the history of neoliberalism and eroded democratic rights in bourgeois democracies such as Puerto Rico and Nicaruagua. In others it has to do with a longer history of authoritarian rule such as in Sudan and Iran. In all cases calls for democracy come out of the recognition that the economic and political demands can only be met if the masses have collective control over their lives.
A common area of grievance is costs related to the climate crisis – from out of season bushfires in Lebanon, to increased fuel costs or transport costs in France, Haiti, Guinea, Ecuador, to name but a few. Passing the costs of fossil fuels onto the working class is a way for the capitalist class to remain profitable while they destroy the environments they exploit. No wonder then that these rebellions come at the same time as the massive surge in climate movements like School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion.
The Role of Women
Time and time again we see women on the frontlines of the rebellions. This is not surprising. Economic and social transformation are neccessities for women who face oppression, such as unpaid domestic labour, everyday misogyny, sexual harrasment and rape. In a revolutionary movement, the stakes are even higher for women.
There are many iconic images such as the young Sudanese woman throwing canisters of tear gas back at security forces and the Lebanese woman kicking an armed cop in the groin, preventing him from shooting protestors. Such images only scratch the surface of the role of women in the rebellions. Take Alaa Salah, the Sudanese woman who stood on the car reciting revolutionary poetry to a sea of protestors chanting thawrat, “revolution”, back to her. She was one of many women who led the masses, not only in inspirational chants, but in organising students and workers in neighbourhood committees, sit-ins at military headquarters, and eventually to tear down Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship.
The Role of Students
The fare-hopping high school students who inspired millions in Chile are just one example of how students have been crucial to many of the rebellions. Alaa Salah is one of many student activists organising on university campuses in Sudan. Students have been vital to the long Algerian struggle. The national union of university students in Ecuador helped kick off demonstrations there. High school and university students brought the Lebanese rebellion to new level.
Students have played a prominent role in Hong Kong too. After heroically occupying Hong Kong Polytechnic University, students escaped the police siege by abseiling off an overbridge and rode off on motorbikes waiting below. Students are on the frontlines of the millions of Hong Kongers who have taken to the streets for half a year, defying police repression and forcing the state to cancel an extradition bill that would erode their already severely limited democratic rights.
Waves of Global Struggle
A few of the rebellions began in mid to late 2018 such as the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement in France, the Sudanese Revolution and the Haiti uprising. A few more began early to mid 2019, including Algeria and Hong Kong. From then on the wave of rebellions steadily increased with half a dozen countries exploding into action in October. It is not unusual for rebellions to jump from country to country like this. History shows that revolutions can spread: The revolutions in 1848, those following World War One, those of the late 1960s and the Arab Spring.
The reason these struggles take on an international character is that capitalism is an international system and the working class is an international class. Workers and the oppressed in all countries face the same attacks on living conditions and wages as their labour is exploited for the profits of the ruling classes. The hope and righteous fury that channels its energy through the power of the mass collective is infectious. Not only within a country, as the number of protestors rapidly grows, but across countries. The masses inspire themselves and each other by collectively throwing up the possibility of a totally different kind of society.
The School of Struggle
When seeing images of rebellions on social media it can be hard to tell which country you are looking at. It’s hard to tell because there are many countries rebelling, but also because the tactics used in one country get picked up by others. Hong Kongers have taught the Chileans about small brick barricades, they’ve taught Catalunyans about tear gas defence and the Be Water principle. But, perhaps more importantly, solidarity is extended across countries. Hong Kongers have carried flags of Catalunya and used songs and chants from the Chilean rebellion. A long chant heard in Lebanon calls out to the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Chileans, the Hong Kongers and the rest – urging them to continue their revolutions and calling for revolution in all countries.
Lessons are also being learned from past struggles. This is most apparent in the rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with the Arab Spring in living memory. The revolutions of that period and the counter-revolutions that followed make more salient to protestors what kinds of strategies and tactics are necessary to win.
One example of this is the breaking down of sectarian divisions. The stirring up of sectarian conflict is a common tactic of ruling classes in MENA to misdirect rebellion away from the regime. And MENA governments are often divided along sectarian lines, allowing the ruling class to scapegoat a particular group when crisis hits. Many protestors across the MENA rebellions have tried to break the power of this tactic by organising across sectarian divides. In Sudan, the state has conducted a genocide of the Darfuri people for decades. But when they arrested 32 Darfuri students in an attempt to scapegoat them as terrorists, the Sudanese rebellion began a new chant: “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!”. In Lebanon, they chant “all means all”. Meaning they reject all the mainstream political parties including both the centre left and centre right, no matter what ethnic or religious interests they pretend to represent. By recognising that all regime figures serve only the interests of the rich and powerful, the masses find unity in opposition to a shared enemy.
What Comes Next?
Many of the rebellions have been called “leaderless”. Though there are of course individuals and sometimes organisations taking the lead on the ground throughout the rebellions, it is true that there tends to be a lack of any significant political grouping that rebels are organising around. Worker organisations have been particularly absent in many cases. There are early signs of this changing in Hong Kong as new unions emerge out of the protracted rebellion. An exception is in Sudan where the Sudanese Professionals Association took a leading role early on and helped to form the Forces for Freedom and Change.
There are advantages and disadvantages to a leaderless movement. On the one hand it makes it harder for state forces to contain the rebellions if they do not have a clear organisational centre to target. On the other hand, without cohering around a highly organised political program the rebellions are at risk of being crushed, stifled, or exhausted in the face of a highly centralised and organised ruling class.
Lessons for Us
There are many lessons these rebellions offer us. I will look at just a few here. The first is simply the reminder that the regular crises of capitalism lead to mass struggle. The idea that people are too apathetic to fight back is a myth. In reality, the tensions caused by this exploitative system light embers that smolder in people’s hearts. It can be hard to know what spark will set off a mass struggle, but when it does it can spread like wildfire.
We are also relearning the lesson that, for revolutions to succeed, it is crucial that the masses form organisations capable of meeting the challenge ahead of them. Such organisations cannot be built from scratch in the heat of the struggle. Class conscious workers need to build revolutionary organisations in the here and now, and ready themselves politically and organisationally for moments of mass struggle.
We also learn that students can change the world. They can’t do it alone, but they can be a crucial element in building movements and inspiring the masses. They are also in one of the best positions to study and develop political theory and to start building the organisations necessary to win the fight for everyone’s future. As the student activists in Lebanon chant: ثورة بـ كلّ البلدان thawrat bikuli albuldan “revolution in all countries.”