Reviewed by Roger Marheine
If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution. by Vincent Bevins (New York: Public Affairs Press., 2023. 336 pp.)
“I used to be more anarchist. Back then (2014) everyone wanted to do an assembly; whenever there was a protest, always an assembly. But I think any revolution with no organized labor party will give more power to economic elites, who are already very well organized” (Ukrainian activist, Artem Tidva).
“It is important to understand that injustice in society does not ‘spontaneously’ lead an ‘unorganized’ mass of people to take the correct action required to move them closer to a perfect society—that is magical thinking” (Brazilian activist, Rodrigo Nunes).
Vincent Bevins, an American journalist now living in Brazil, established his progressive intellectual credentials with his first book, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World (2020). Now in If We Burn, (1), he traces the strengths and flaws of global protest movements between 2010-2020 which he clarifies were the largest and most numerous in history. Their failure to bring significant revolutionary transformation is Bevins’ great theme–thus the “Missing Revolution,” of the title.
Bevins interviewed over 200 activists and organizers, from twelve different countries. If We Burn contains 290 pages of text with 29 pages of “Endnotes” and an accessible index. (2) He asked activists to assess their failures with a single question: “If you could speak to a teenager somewhere around the world right now, in Peru or Korea or Tanzania, some who might be fighting to change history in some kind of political struggle in their lifetime, what would you tell them? What lessons did you learn?” (258)
Time and time again, he received the same answer. Mass protests often proved remarkably effective at disrupting the old order (e.g. Brazil, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Egypt), but the protesters possessed vague political ideologies and lacked the organizational skill to seize power. In the vacuum, reactionary (in some cases overtly fascist) demagogues or oligarchs took control. It resulted in worse conditions for human rights and intensified economic inequality. He utilizes the term “revolutions without revolutionaries,” made famous by Middle Eastern author, Asef Bayat. (3)
Young activists should read Vincent Bevins’s If We Burn to clarify their praxis, the theory and practice of historical struggle. Bevins argues for the necessity of structure and specific leadership, noting Lenin’s Vanguard Party as the preeminent model. His claims are a refreshing antidote to the argument that 21st century uprisings must be “apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized, [and] leaderless mass protests” (265). He critiques activists’ insistence on participatory democracy, often called “assemblies” that actually undermined movements and prevented revolutionary action. The failed rebellions resulted in thousands killed, tortured, or imprisoned; further, a demoralizing cynicism and crippling despair now permeate much activist culture.
Anarchism, Spontaneity, and Naïve Reformism
Despite being an experienced journalist, Bevins concedes his own original naivete: “I too was guilty of this teleological mode of thought…that if you simply gave the [corrupt regime] a kick, it would come unstuck and move in the right direction. Paradoxically, liberals, socialists, conservatives, and anarchists alike all thought that way even if they define ‘the right direction’ rather differently” (279).
Bevins writes approvingly of Lenin, especially in Lenin’s critique of spontaneity as a tactic and anarchism as an ideology: He quotes Lenin favorably on the creation of the Vanguard Party–a well-trained revolutionary organization as a necessary structure to prevail against limited reformism, amateurish tactics, fascist reaction, and as important, the mistake of anarchist spontaneity.
He argues that anarchism as anti-organizational and ideologically anti-communist, suffers from a crippling individualism. Well-intentioned anarchists may fight against injustice, and even pay with their lives. However, without formal military organization, they can be easily defeated. Bevins also makes a second criticism of anarchists who tend to focus only on negation—the tearing down of the old unjust structures. Recent anarchists often had no plan to build a new society.
In contrast, Bevins praises the ideology of those twentieth-century revolts, which were more heavily influenced by Marxist political ideas–focusing on opposing imperialism, overthrowing capitalism, and fighting for socialism. While he emphasizes Lenin and the Soviets, the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban and other revolutions stand as examples.
Bevins’s brief critique of the U.S.’ 1960s “New Left” and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) rings true. He traces SDS’ fundamentally anti-communist roots, its loose and thus incompetent organizational structure, and its failure to carry out a coherent strategy. He declares the “New Left” as fundamentally rooted in anarchism and Gandhi’s pacifism. Too many economically privileged SDS leaders were incapable of moving beyond liberal reformism and toward revolutionary politics that linked workers’ struggles, the war economy, imperialism, and capitalism itself. To be sure, many activists were radically politicized in the 1960s and 1970s, but the mass organizations themselves became political dead ends.
The Media is the Message: the Revolution will not be Televised (though it will be tweeted)
Bevins acknowledges that mass media and local individual digital media (cell phones, Facebook etc.) can bring events to a wide audience, and inspire others to join. He does insist that romanticizing digital organizing and seeking major media coverage reflect a glaring misunderstanding of contemporary activists. He quotes Alex Ross, Hilary Clinton’s State Department digital expert and hardly a friend of progressive activists: “The Che Guevara of the 21st Century is the network” (quoted in Bevins 92). Digital organizing can work as a temporary tool, but the internet can be halted, and organizers can be traced and subsequently arrested.
Major media may depict large, violent demonstrations but frame them to reflect their own bias. Bevins declares, “One only needs to think of how a big television station in the United States might cover ‘spontaneous, leaderless mass protests’ apparently espousing broadly liberal, pro-Western goals compared to a revolt led by a disciplined group with a clear ideological [anti-capitalist] project” (278).
Bevins shows a sophisticated familiarity with different national media. Thus, he notes that Brazilian corporate media follows the U.S. media party line on geopolitical issues. In contrast, various media platforms in Argentina and Mexico may depict the U.S. as a “meddling imperialist power, or at least a very unreliable ally” (88).
Neoliberalism’s Hegemonic Ideology
One of Bevins’s most insightful observations cites the ideological flaw in protests that were “dominated by neoliberal subjectivity.” He argues the Arab Spring revolts in particular were preoccupied with broad issues of political accountability and legal changes—essentially a very limited reformism. He concludes, “a generation of individuals raised to view everything as if it were a business enterprise was de-radicalized, came to view the global order as ‘natural’ and became unable to imagine what it takes to carry out a true revolution” (271). Thus, he echoes the often heard claim attributed to Frederic Jameson that it’s easier today to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
Bevins mocks “Do Somethingism” that stresses any “political action” is viable and useful. Appeals to charity as in feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving or other Christian holidays in no way addresses capitalism’s assault on the poor. Neoliberalism provides an array of “do gooder” opportunities in which individuals may participate while never broaching the subject of capitalism itself.
Culturally, Bevins provides a telling commentary on popular music. He quotes band leader Malcom McClaren whose New York group in the 1980s found itself blacklisted when it showed the hammer and cycle in its act: “In America you can be gay, you can be a drug addict but you cannot be a Communist” (qtd in Bevins 26). (4)
Bevins traces dynamic, and sometimes ideologically diverse, changes in Brazil’s punk music scene—the preferred musical form for youth. In the 1980s, a nihilistic content dominated, as groups promoted gangs and drug wars. By the 1990s, a new content emerged as groups offered some vaguely left-wing politics and pacifism. Emphasizing the eclectic ideologies, Bevins notes a vegan anarchism (in fact, a form of individualism) found wide audiences. Bevins observes that Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement rallies often featured punk bands who were openly anarchistic, its leaders having read standard anarchist authors (Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Bakunin)! Finally, more recently, Brazilian feminist anarchist groups emerged including the notoriously named “Menstruacao Anarquika” (“Anarchic Menstruation”). Along similar lines, Russia’s Pussy Riot, a recent anarchist woman’s group, protested the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s regime. Aesthetically creative and profoundly critical of social injustices, these groups reflect Bevins’s main argument—they lead to an “autonomous left,” but not to a viable revolutionary organization (Bevins 36).
Bevins’s text is a rich compilation of material on national uprisings, from Brazil to Ukraine. It offers an array of fascinating interviews of activists who attempt to assess their protests. That self-criticism often revealed vital information on the mistakes made.
Bevins shows convincingly that too many movements were ideologically limited–focusing on human rights and not on economic control or challenging capitalism itself. He scathingly critiques militant anarchists as well as myopic liberal protesters who only negate but have no plan to fill the political vacuum their explosions create. He emphasizes that revolts sought media attention in a naive attempt to have corporate media build the movement for them.
Bevins’s text ends with the 2020 pandemic and thus does not include an analysis of the Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests. While embodying the greatest numbers of protesters in U.S. history, BLM has not (yet) produced significant revolutionary results. That is, without a sustained revolutionary party, organized both to assault capitalism and maintain the struggle during the inevitable reaction, the protests remained an impressive historical flair of great magnitude, but ultimately, not one of historical transformation. Of course, BLM’s complicated history is still unfolding. (5)
Marxist-Leninists know a thing or two about disappointment, about things not turning out as planned, about the thing they fought for turning into its opposite. So why do we trudge forward, the cynics ask. Why do we sustain the pain? The answer is we have a theory and a history of past practice that has generated a political science of revolution. Marxist Historical Materialism and Lenin’s theoretical creation of the Vanguard Party established fundamental truths about achieving qualitative social change.
While not a Leninist activist himself, Bevins (“I am only a journalist”), arrives at a refreshingly honest assessment of recent protests. If neoliberalism is to be overcome, old Marxist-Leninist lessons must be relearned in the 21st century.
- Bevins’s title comes from a Hong Kong activist who posted a phrase borrowed from the American book series The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins): “Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us.” While the activism could be viewed as life imitating art, Bevins notes ironically that pop culture was too influential for some activists which actually stifled the imaginative quality of their analysis.
- Bevins covered activism in Egypt, Hong Kong, Tunisia, Libya, Ukraine, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Bahrain, Germany and the United Kingdom. Bevins also interviewed U.S. activists, particularly those involved in Occupy Wall Street.
- See Asef Bayat. Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Pr. 2017. Bevins concurs with Bayat’s detailed account that uprisings suffered from lack of revolutionary theory and ultimately failed despite mass heroism of activists.
- Music is often the single most important art form for young people, and thus it heavily influences them as thinkers and activists. In the last two decades, U.S. groups like Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy have huge followings and produce very strong critiques of capitalism. Still, only Boots Riley’s The Coup has actually called for communism.
- BLM’s mass protests brought to light the ongoing horrors of racism, police violence, and the prison system–particular neoliberal oppressions against urban men of color in U.S. cities. As an umbrella movement it is still under construction and is evolving.
–Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.