. Making Sense of Revolutionary Waves | Ceasefire Magazine

Making Sense of Revolutionary Waves Ideas

In the second essay of their three-part series on revolutionary waves, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen explore how such waves can be explained from a Marxist perspective.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, November 6, 2014 12:41 - 0 Comments



Debates about whether we are seeing some kind of revolutionary wave around the world often assume that we know what we mean by the phrase. In the first article in this series, we looked at the actual history of revolutionary waves. In this essay, we explore how such waves can be explained from a Marxist perspective. 


It is often said that we are in the midst of a wave of revolutions around the world. In a previous article, we showed that, historically, capitalism seems to generate such revolutionary waves with some regularity (but not very frequently); they span at least one region of the world-system, often more – but never (to date) all regions. This means that an adequate explanation has to be global, but also to take account of the relationships between different parts of the world-system, whether in terms of the strength of popular agency, the weakness of elites, or otherwise.

In fact, just as different regions of the world are structured differently within the world-system, so too are nation-states, provinces and even cities structured differently within a given region in terms of the particular configuration of social forces, from above and below.

As our previous essay showed, revolutionary waves see popular mobilisation increasing by one or two orders of magnitude, including groups who are normally passive. Such waves thus have a huge effect in restructuring popular agency, in that they reorganise the question of “who is active?” in social movements, political parties and so on – something which in routine times is normally more predictable.

In fact, relatively few movement (or revolutionary) organisations survive such waves in anything like the form in which they entered them. These processes do not remain confined to a single nation-state, but are diffused transnationally, with actors in other countries recognising themselves in earlier events elsewhere and taking advantage of what they hope will be a historical opportunity to make gains – or, as we saw during the Arab Spring, in the desperate sense that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rid of a hated regime. The gains people seek typically include both the unfinished business of earlier waves (reflecting the re-mobilisation of people previously resigned to defeat, explaining much continuity between waves) and new kinds of issues (reflecting the participation of new social groups).

This large-scale popular mobilisation means, by definition, that previous forms of hegemony are no longer working. Groups which were previously resigned or had not yet become coherent political actors (re-)enter the political contest; some of those which had been unenthusiastic members of hegemonic coalitions detach themselves; and long-time opponents of the hegemonic order are able to make substantial alternatives visible to wide sectors of the population.

The significance of revolutionary waves

Sometimes these waves involve revolutionary situations or indeed outcomes: parliamentary democracies replace monarchies, nation states replace imperial rule, state socialism replaces capitalism and so on. Most states in the world today are the product of one or another of these waves, a majority within living memory. Often states resort to coercion to put down such movements, but restoring consent routinely involves the substantial reorganisation of hegemony with major concessions such as the extension of voting rights, a shift from dynastic to national-state structure or decolonisation, the construction or extension of welfare systems, the extension of rights to women or ethnic minorities, the opening up of the cultural space, etc.

On occasion, of course, such waves are defeated by elites who can mobilise popular forces behind them (European fascism from the 1920s to the 1940s being the most obvious example), or elites changing the rules of the game (neoliberalism as a response to the movements of 1968). More commonly, however, popular forces make substantial gains because maintaining hegemony or constructing a new kind of hegemony requires including them to some degree.

Thus these global waves of social movements have been among the major social forces in the history of recent centuries. Decolonisation – whether the US in the 18th century, Latin America in the 19th, Ireland in the 1920s or Asia after WWII – is one major outcome. Democracy – in the French Revolution, the European resistance to fascism or the events of 1989-90 – is another such outcome. Social justice has been a common theme, from the Haitian revolution via the European uprisings at the end of WWI to the Latin American pink tide. So too is the democratisation of everyday life – in particular after 1968. Even when revolutions do not go as far as we might hope, the fact that large numbers of people become political subjects leaves lasting traces.

Explaining revolutionary waves

There are various possible explanations for why such waves develop. A conventional left explanation might involve Kondratieff wave theory, positing a declining rate of profit and hence a political crisis for the ruling fraction of capital (Colin Barker has shown that this does not work). In a sense, the argument made by Theda Skocpol and taken up by Jack Goldstone in relation to waves, which points to weakened institutions, often as a product of wars or other competition within the international state system, is a variant of this. Such arguments – highlighting the relative weakness of hegemonic relations within a particular region of the world-economy – have an obvious explanatory value for why such waves hit where and when they do.

Another set of arguments include George Katsiaficas’ “eros effect”, combining contagion (or, as we might now say, ‘networking’) with Ruud Koopman’s idea of deroutinisation to explain the mobilisation of new groups within individual countries and the spread of contestation between countries. None of these arguments have been fully developed in relation to revolutionary waves, which remain in some ways one of those massive facts of world history that are hidden in plain sight and rarely discussed.

In We Make Our Own History, we argue that it is the capitalist world-system itself which creates the conditions for global popular agency through the interconnections it creates, whether the sailors and migrants of the early modern Atlantic or the IT technicians and migrants of the twenty-first century. In capitalism, very large numbers of people experience themselves as to some degree connected to others at great distances, share some operative control of the means of communication, transport, coordination etc., and develop common identities (be they radical-democratic ideologies in the late 18th century or the imagery of Che Guevara or Bob Marley in the late 20th). The potential for interconnected popular uprisings is constantly regenerated: this enables not only practical networking but also contagion effects, when movements in one place inspire others who identify with them. Hence what we call the movement process has a particularly strong potential to develop in capitalist society, not only locally but also transnationally.

Secondly, weakened accumulation strategies or hegemonic alliances in some or all of the countries in particular regions are key to understanding movement waves. Various things can weaken such alliances: failure to continue producing economic gains for core actors, failure to keep subordinate members of the alliance onside, failure to maintain effective coercion over those not in the alliance or to integrate new social actors. Moments of possibility are thus generated which are made visible by a breach in one country or even just one city, leading to defections from the hegemonic alliance, not only from below but also from above, as in Lash and Urry’s account of the end of organized capitalism. So an explanation of revolutionary waves is simultaneously an account of movements from above in crisis[1].

This means that multiple outcomes are possible for such waves. In the early 2000s, facing what was then thought to be a terminal crisis of neoliberalism, predictions of likely outcomes included not only the success of the global justice movement but the rise of a new, Chinese geopolitical hegemony; the success of transnational Islamic movements; or a new regulatory era; and none of these were entirely impossible at the time. It may be a tautology to say that a genuinely long-running or major crisis indicates the long-term incapacity of the current regime of accumulation and its associated hegemonic alliance to continue, but – given the length and scope of the present crisis – this is a particularly significant tautology from an activist viewpoint.

The weaknesses of the status quo

At the start of any new hegemonic arrangement, relatively high gains can be generated for participating groups and concessions offered. This is not only a result of whatever economic switch has been made but also because the use of force, or the generation of a new alliance, offers the leading force in such arrangements an unexpected degree of freedom for a “honeymoon” period. However, as such arrangements continue, their benefits naturally decline – for some groups if not for all. Increasingly, actors who have previously participated within hegemonic arrangements (such as the US “middle class”) find themselves remaining more or less loyal out of fear of an unknown alternative or because of the costs involved in existing the alliance rather than because they are positively benefiting from it[2].

Such groups are therefore likely to defect if there is any substantial internal rearrangement, with the result that the day-to-day operation of power becomes more and more rigid and less able to reorganise itself to deal with challengers (consider, for example, the failure of neoliberal elites to offer any plan B in response to the financial crisis). On occasion, as with the end of Keynesianism, it is elite actors who come to the conclusion that the long-term cost of remaining within is higher than the exit cost. The varying importance of these different elements, as with that of new actors entering the field or previously-resigned opponents gaining confidence, is not a foregone conclusion. 1917 in Russia and 1919 in Ireland, 1945 or 1989 in Europe, 1994 in South Africa or what may be happening in Greece today – these are not all identical processes which can be neatly summarised with the same set of clichés.

In any case, sooner or later, something will have to give; and this is one major reason why regimes of accumulation do not last very long: typically 30 – 50 years in recent European history, if we consider Keynesianism, fascism and state socialism; the figures for national developmentalism or, for that matter, the period of high imperial rule in the majority world are not all that different.

A “passive revolution”, where a new faction within the dominant force reconstructs a new hegemonic alliance from above, is one possible outcome: monarchies may be abandoned to preserve capitalism, for example, or democracy may be abandoned in favour of fascism. Another possibility is the arrival in power of an “alternative elite”, such as neoliberalism or conservative national independence movements. Other possibilities are more positive, and include a range of more revolutionary outcomes.

Becoming actors in our own right

Moments such as these involve new social groups becoming political subjects, moving towards articulating what we call their ‘local rationalities’ – the everyday logics of how they live their lives – as what Raymond Williams and David Harvey call ‘militant particularisms’, and taking a conscious hand in collective political agency on their own behalf.

However, we categorise the present situation, one of the differences between (say) Ireland on the one hand and Spain or Greece is that previously passive social groups have not become politically active (yet) in Ireland; and one of the challenges activists face on a European scale is that they are only active in a few countries, while in others such mobilisation seems almost impossibly far away. Part of what makes the difference, of course, are the various modes of capitalism in operation in different European countries, and the different relationships between movement institutions (particularly trade unions) and political parties with the politics of austerity.

Put another way, the key question is the extent to which popular actors move from being fundamentally passive – giving tacit acceptance to overall structures and passive support to particular institutions of interest representation – to becoming active in their own right. In this sense, Gramsci’s description of “civil society” as the secondary trenches behind the formalities of the state is illuminating. If, when people come to feel that enough is enough and that something has to be done at the level of economic structure, state power or for that matter culture, they are happy to entrust the business of doing so to parties, unions and NGOs which specialise in this kind of mediation and reproduce the structures of passivity and constitutionality, that choice will in itself structure much of what follows. Of course, at times people come to realise this mistake, or follow more convincing practical offers that seem closer to their own experience: by definition, these are the creative moments, and sometimes the revolutionary ones.

When these groups do burst into the political sphere as active agents in their own right they have a double learning process. Partly they use a language inherited from above – today this might mean nationalism, football, constitutionalism, Facebook, hostility to movements etc. Partly they struggle to find a suitable language to express what they know, on a practical level, about how to do things – the experience of survival in the modern workplace, the loose network of friends with shared interests scattered around a city, design and media skills, and all the discontents they are aware of but for which politics does not yet have a language.

It is naturally challenging, as well as exhilarating, for activists who are not on their first engagement with politics to navigate this terrain. Such events bring out part-time activists, as well as people who had dropped out of politics for decades but now think it worthwhile re-engaging, and people who are finally finding a way to act on things they have felt for a long time. Not everyone involved in today’s protests is nineteen, though it is a good sign that so many are.

In the third and final article in this series we ask how we can use this analysis to understand social movements and revolutions today, and what difference it might make to movement activists.

Laurence and Alf will be discussing We Make Our Own History at the Historical Materialism conference in London this weekend. Check the conference programme for time and venue for the launch.

The third and final essay in the series will ask what social movements can take from this history in terms of their choices today.


[1] Incidentally, despite arguments in the 1970s about whether movement waves should be expected in core regions of the world-system or peripheral ones, the history discussed in the first article shows that they take place in both.

[2] One important implication of this disaggregation of previously-stable hegemonic alliances is a decrease in the ability of elites to successfully deploy repression, in Europe at least. The Maidan protests in the Ukraine – where Yanukovich’s use of lethal force in Kiev was followed by his unceremonious defenestration by members of his own party among others – are a heightened example of this fairly common endgame. Often – as in much of Eastern Europe in 1989 – elites realise that their ability to use lethal force has declined to the point where doing so would place them in more danger.

Laurence Cox is an activist and social movements researcher based in Ireland, co-edits the social movements journal Interfaceand co-directs an MA in activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor of sociology at the University of Bergen. His research focuses on social movements in the global South, with a specific focus on India. Alf is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage and the co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance and Marxism and Social Movements.

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