In his book, Taking Power, On the Origins of Third World Revolutions (2005, Cambridge University Press), sociologist John Foran calculates a series of causal factors behind the development and success of revolutions.
According to Foran, the necessary ingredients for nearly all revolutions in the 20th century have been:
Exclusionary or colonial rule, or democratic polities.
Political cultures of opposition.
An economic downturn.
A world-system opening.
A revolutionary outbreak which encompasses a multi-class, -national, -gender coalition.
Additionally, as part of the outcome of revolutionary movements, successful revolutions are those which develop under the guidance and protection of a centralized and organized force in the form of a post-revolutionary state. Also, despite the initial success of a revolution, features of dependent development never go away quickly and internal forms of oppression may reappear.
What this means:
Dependent development is the economic structuring of a given national economy for the purpose of exporting value. Essentially, one of Foran’s major theses is that revolutions, with the exception of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, occur in Third World countries.
Exclusionary or colonial rule describe forms of local governance and power that are socially-exclusive, nepotistic, or aristocratic. Under colonialism, oppressed nations are politically and economically dis-empowered by oppressing nations. In other cases, political power may be consolidated by local economic elites or structured nepotistically around a single family. However, revolutions may also occur in countries in which the nominal ‘left’ has an opportunity at electoral representation.
Political cultures of opposition include leading ideologies, organizations and networks, cultural idioms, subjective historical experiences, and emotions all combined into opposition to a given ruling regime or political system.
An economic downturn typically causes a drop in the quality of life for the masses of people in Third World countries. Due to the nature of capitalism, economic growth and downturns are cyclical. The Third World proletariat only receives marginal improvements to their quality of life during periods of boom and major decreases during periods of bust. This, in turn, can create widespread disaffection from the reigning political establishment, legitimize political cultures of opposition, and help create the diverse character of revolutionary coalitions.
A world-system opening is a moment in which imperialist powers are too distracted, divided, or slow to effectively intervene against a revolutionary movement.
Revolutions inherently require participation from many sectors of a given society, including intellectuals, military personnel, peasants, students, national minorities, women, workers, and serving classes. While representation of different groups in revolutionary movements may vary depending on social-historical context, some degree of heterogeneity is always a factor in revolutions.
Likewise, in order for revolutions to succeed over a long period in a sea of global hostility and encirclement by capitalist powers, a certain degree of centralism is necessary. In the crudest sense, this is why anarchist revolutions have always failed or reneged on their ideals, and why the post-revolution governments of China, North Korea, and Cuba still exist in some continuous form today. As well, many of the material, economic, political, cultural, and psychological features of dependent development are slow to disappear following revolutions, and previous forms of oppression may reappears.
Analyzing Today’s Struggles
While Foran’s thesis is insightful in answering the question, ‘why do revolutions happen?,’ it is useful only insofar as its relates to the concrete struggles of today’s world.
In this respect, Foran’s thesis can be used as an analytical framework with which to approach modern conflicts:
Currently, the Palestinian people live under a settler-colonial occupation by Israel. Their economy is not simply underdeveloped, it is maldeveloped, and many Palestinians have fled their homeland for both political and economics reasons. Historically, Palestinians have resisted the theft of their land. These factors alone help explain the wide range of resistance today.
However, for the time being, the global political powers are firmly behind Israel, thus preventing any large world-systemic opening for success of the Palestinian liberation struggle. And, despite its strangulation by Israel, the informal Palestinian economy has thrived while the economic status of diaspora communities is too varied to be influenced by a single country’s economic downturn. Likewise, the world-system has successfully installed the comparador Palestinian Authority, blunting political cultures of opposition in the process. And, the reliance on resident Palestinians on informal merchant economies (along with outside aid from imperialist NGOs on one hand and foreign Islamists on the other) helps provide a material basis for the strength of groups such as Hamas (as opposed to those organizing opposition on a specifically socialist basis). Nonetheless, some form of opposition to Israel by Palestinians (both in Occupied Palestine and internationally in diaspora communities) is widespread.
Of course, one or several of these factors could change, thus creating the full set of causal factors necessary for a Palestinian revolution.
The most obvious of these factors would a world-system opening. If Israel were to lose its sponsorship by imperialist governments, it would be left vulnerable on the world stage and economically harmed. A wider range of opposition may result along with a situation in which revolutionary Palestinian forces could ascend without counter-revolutionary foreign intervention.
The development of a Palestinian revolutionary coalition which spans beyond the narrow ideological constituencies of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad is also necessary for the future success of any Palestinian revolutionary movement.
Any successful Palestinian revolution would be based on a social coalition containing contradictions which would necessarily continue to play out after the revolution. This settling of social contradictions (i.e., the process of establishing the dominance of one sector of the revolutionary movement over others) is also tied to the way in which any post-revolution Palestinian state would confront lingering features of dependent development and relate to other actors in the world-system. Would a post-revolution Palestine continue to revolutionize its internal relations while becoming an oppositional force against the capitalist-imperialist world-system? Or, would it reinstate oppressive institutions as part of its compliant re-entry into the world-system, itself becoming another reactionary comprador-led Middle East country? These are the questions a Palestinian revolution would create.
Syria, up until the recent conflict, was the classic example of a bourgeois-nationalist state turned comprador. (1) While Syria was able to gain independence from France in the 20th century, the years after were notable for its lack of a coherent socialist economic and social program.
By 2010, Syria, though nominally nationalist and socialist, had cultivated ties with Russian capital as a ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ foreign policy. This was the outward expression of an exclusionary internal political life and capitalist productive relations which ultimately served foreign monopolies.
While the Arab Spring led to an outpouring of political opposition to the Assad-led Syrian regime, a world-systemic opening was turning into its inverse: US-led imperialism began sponsoring various militant forces to fight Assad. This world-systemic shift would have normally caused the collapse of the Syrian government. However, in this case, Russia has maintained support for the Syrian government.
One result in the world systemic shift regarding Syria is the changed character of the Syrian opposition. With the support of the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition has rapidly turned into a reactionary force committed to the overthrow of Assad for US interests. This has shattered the popular character of opposition and the possibility of developing a broad revolutionary coalition against Assad.
One causal factor which could quickly change in Syria is the political culture of opposition. Within Syria, the possibility exists to create independent revolutionary opposition which, through entering into tactical united fronts today, can become a steeled fighting force for future revolutionary struggles. As part of the current conflict, Kurds in the northern Syria have secured de facto autonomy via independent armed struggle. By acting independently while opposing the FSA but also Assad, the Kurds have managed create a popular movement of sovereignty in their own northern border region. Whether and how this will be sustained remains to be seen. In my own estimation, the Kurds have more to gain from a united front and negotiated temporary alliance with the Russian-backed Syrian government than from the US/Israeli/Saudi/Turkey-backed FSA ‘rebels.’
Out of view from the western mainstream, India is home to one of today’s largest Marxist guerrilla movements. The Naxalites, now led in main by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), have been waging a decades long ‘people’s war’ against the Indian state.
Why is this?
India, historically, has been a colonized country. After independence it retained features of dependent development. As the same time, as a large and diverse country, it developed features of internal colonization- particularly against indigenous Adivasis whom provide the CPI-Maoist with mass support. Indian society has been and is socially-exclusionary, stratified by caste, gender, and nationality. It is also home to a small yet growing petty bourgeois ‘middle class’ which is divorced from the masses at large. While exporting value to its own and foreign capitals, the basic masses receive little from ‘development’ and are vulnerable to economic downturns.
India also has a long history of oppositional cultures, both against British colonialism and the following comprador rule. Maoism in India developed out the struggle against revisionist Marxists who had gained political power in regional governments.
Two things which are hindering revolution in India are the lack of a world-systemic opening and the lack of a heterogeneous revolutionary coalition. The US currently supplies the reactionary Indian state with hi-tech weaponry, including drones, to use in its offensives against the CPI-Maoist. The CPI-Maoist has yet to organize several sectors of Indian society on a sufficient basis for the development of a country-wide revolution.
Another factor worth considering is the semi-peripheral nature of India (i.e., the existence of Indian monopoly capital and labor aristocracy on a smaller scale as well as the phenomenon of internal colonization), and how this may affect revolutionary strategies over the long-term.
Beyond using Foran’s thesis to gain some insight into the development of world events and revolutions, can we approach this same thesis to guide our own praxes? How may Foran’s analysis of causal factors behind revolutions be applied in our own conscious interventions into world events?
Under Foran’s rubric, the actions of individuals and groups are directly part of political cultures of opposition. Beginning with the assumption that revolution in the First World is foremost hindered by the effects of imperialist parasitism, what options remain for advanced elements of oppositional political cultures in the First World? In short, how can revolutionaries in the First World aid in the development of revolutionary struggles generally?
In essence, the question comes down to affecting variable causal factors (i.e., respective political cultures of oppositions, world-systemic openings, and the development of socially complex revolutionary coalitions) in the Third World ‘storm centers of revolution?’
The can be done by building a wider First World oppositional movement dedicated to four programmatic principles:
Opposition to the twin revisionist ideologies of productivism and First Worldism
Adherence to the principle of revolutionary defeatism; and building internationalist oppositional political cultures against the global rule of one’s ‘own’ capitalist-imperialists
Supporting in theory and practice the development of national liberation struggles within imperialist countries toward the end of wholesale dissolution of imperialist political power
Stressing an internationalist, egalitarian, and forward-looking vision of revolution based on the long-term shared interest of humanity, i.e., on premised on developing socialism and communism.
Productivism and First Worldism
Productivism and First Worldism are twin ideologies which justify massive disparities with redundant and implicitly reformist interpretations.
According to First Worldism and Productivism, super-wages received by First World workers are but a fraction of the value these workers create via highly developed means of production. That is to say, First Worldism and Productivism believe a significant proportion of First World workers are exploited. Implied is that Third World countries can ‘catch up’ with First World countries through a concerted effort at developing their own productive forces.
While First Worldism and Productivism may seem new, they are not. Rather, they have always been part and parcel of the reformist, ‘structuralist’ trend of Marxism. Offering purely material justifications and technical explanations for global wage scaling, the First Worldist and Productivist viewpoint implies similarly technical and material solutions. In the end and despite their rhetoric to the contrary, First Worldism and Productivism implicitly negates the variable and subjective factors of revolution.
The wealth of the First World is not the result of advanced technology. This statement itself is redundant: in reality, wealth takes the form of advanced technology. The First World is wealthy because it imports surplus value from the Third World. Most Third World countries do not have massive colonies to rest the weight of super-exploitation on. When Third World countries do pursue development policies based on the Productivist and First Worldist outlooks, the end result is always capitalistic dispossession of the working masses and internal colonization. It is no coincidence that the First Worldist and Productivist trends were dominant during the defeat of socialism in China in the 70’s.
First Worldism and Productivism also have disastrous ecological implications. Any future socialism which is exclusively focused on ‘catching up with’ (and not defeating) imperialist countries will merely accelerate climate and habitat disruption spawned under capitalism.
First Worldism and Productivism are not problems of significance only in the First World. They are revisionist trends of international significance. First Worldism and Productivism look toward imperialist countries as examples of ‘advanced capitalism.’ They sow confusion in the proletarian movement by claiming the large ‘middle class’ in imperialist countries is exploited. This is despite the fact that supposedly ‘exploited’ First World workers have access to a greater magnitude of labor-value than supposedly ’empowered’ workers in nominally socialist countries like Cuba. First Worldism and Productivism, by claiming rich First World workers are exploited and poor Cuban workers are liberated, implicitly promotes capitalism and holds back political cultures of opposition.
Maoism (Third Worldism), on one hand, and First Worldism and Productivism, on the other, are two polar orientations in the International Communist Movement. Our efforts to build the Maoist (Third Worldist) movement, whether in the First or Third Worlds, is necessarily connected to the struggle to reorient global political cultures of opposition toward revolutionary internationalism and away from reformist social-democracy.
Within the First World, it is absolutely necessary to build oppositional cultures which work for the ‘revolutionary defeat’ of one’s ‘own’ imperialists. This applies in all realms of economics, politics, and war. Within the First World, we should strive to build an oppositional political culture which opposes the First World. Our aim is to blunt the international effectiveness of reactionaries and to build the progenitor forces of a wider revolutionary coalition within the First World. In our efforts to oppose ‘our’ imperialists, we should support forces of a global united front against imperialism.
Support National Liberation
As part of the struggle against First World imperialism, revolutionaries in the First World must support struggles for national liberation of oppressed nations. Oppressed nations in the First World and the exploited masses of the Third World are natural allies. The total liquidation of imperialist political power will best be achieved through the political ascendancy of revolutionary national liberation forces in tangent with a global revolutionary uprising against the First World.
Along with opposing First Worldism and Productivism, adhering to revolutionary defeatism, and supporting for national liberation, we must put forward specifically communist politics: i.e., understandings about the necessary means of revolution along with clarity over our goals. Communists strive for the total eradication of class divisions and oppression via conscious struggle.
Foran’s elaboration on the causal factors of revolution provide current revolutionaries with much food for thought. However, at the end of the day, it is up to revolutionaries to participate in a praxis which aids and directly engages in the development of revolution.
–Nikolai Brown is a co-editor of Anti-Imperialism.com and author of Third Worldism: Marxist Critique of Imperialist Political Economy.
(1)”Soon after assuming power in 2000, Bashar al-Asad introduced wide-ranging economic reforms that lay an irreversible foundation for a market-driven economic order. He enacted an investment-promoting decree; privatized state farms; introduced a private banking system; liberalized capital and trade accounts; heavily reduced customs duties; and promoted private sector-led investment at the expense of state-led investment.”
Lina Matar, The Socioeconomic Roots of the Syrian Uprising. http://www.mei.nus.edu.sg/publications/mei-insights/the-socioeconomic-roots-of-the-syrian-uprising