One of the problems with small leftist political organisations is that they see themselves as Leninist;
most of them don’t admit it, but their structure and forward planning revolves around the possibility of
revolution. Go on the Internet, or talk to lefties when they are slightly unguarded or drunk, and similar
issues come up. “When the Revolution comes they’ll be up against the wall.” “After the Revolution
things will be different.” “The Revolution will not be televised.”
Yes, it would be, if it were going to happen.
A revolution is not the same as a civil war with a revolutionary objective, which is quite important.
If you have circumstances where the people are extremely unhappy with the government for clear and
justifiable reasons, AND there is no prospect of changing the government by more peaceful means,
AND the armed forces have lost their faith in, and support for, the government — bingo. You can then
organise a swift seizure of power by your radical forces and, having done so, start implementing your
agenda (assuming that it’s an agenda that the people approve of — otherwise you have problems).
Much more common, point (3) does not apply. The armed forces support the government and want
to defend it — to defend their salaries or their uniforms or just their doglike love of the bosses in power.
In that case you have to get the armed forces out of the way, which means building up a force of
equivalent power (if more dispersed in space and time). But in order to do that you have to militarize
your revolutionary movement and you can forget about democracy as part of the post-revolutionary
agenda. Also, of course, there’s an excellent chance you will lose. Besides, a civil war is exceedingly
bloody. South Africa’s proto-civil war cost tens of thousands of lives even though it was mercifully
called off in 1994, before it had really got going (though tell that to the inhabitants of Katlehong or
A revolutionary civil war is the last thing you want; the last, fatal option if you cannot bring change
by any other means.
When points (1) or (2) do not apply, but point (3) does, the chances are that you will have a military
coup, because a disgruntled military is usually the most powerful force for change in a country. In rare
cases, military coups can be progressive acts. Much more often they are reactionary, and if they don’t
start out reactionary they head that way fast, when Brigadier This of the Third Armoured tells Major
That of the First Parachute that he’s done his duty and now the Brigadier will take over.
When none of the points truly apply, you have a big fat waste of time. Examples of this are the
African Resistance Movement in South Africa, the RAF in Germany, Brigate Rossi in Italy, Angry
Brigade in Britain. Note the militaristic names of these European groupuscules, like the Red Army in
Japan. Even the Weather Underground in America was probably plugging into those TV movies about
the French Resistance in World War II. Note also that a brigade is about 3 000 people, whereas few of
these bodies would have been able to muster enough backing to make up the 200-person complement of
a short company.) Usually these movements strove to provoke repression from the government, in
which they often succeeded brilliantly, and through this repression to mobilise the masses, in which they
In recent years, the best example of a successful revolution where all three points applied is — um.
The Creator can’t really think of one. Perhaps the Iranian revolution comes close, and perhaps there you
have also an example of the problem even with a successful revolution. Is it really likely that those
people marching in the streets of Tehran and getting bowled over like human ninepins by the rifle fire
of the Royal Army — is it really likely that they thought they were dying for the right to have a
totalitarian religious dictatorship staffed by fuckwits who thought that provoking a proxy war with the
whole Arab world was a hell of a good idea? In a revolution you don’t get to choose your leaders. It’s
the purest lottery whether they’re any good or not.
The big illusion of revolutionary activity in the twentieth century was twofold. As it happened, there
had been a successful revolution against the middle class, in Russia. This caused the middle class to
become much more paranoid about working-class-led revolutions than ever before. Because the middle
class was scared of revolution, those who didn’t think that the middle class was up to much decided that
there had to be something to this revolution lark. Besides, a revolution had put Lenin and Trotsky and
Bukharin and Zinoviev and that other guy with the unpronounceable Georgian name in a fabulous
saddle where every leftie would love to sit. So Saul Bellow, who is no friend of the left but had no
particular reason to lie about matters in the late 1940s, talks about pre-war leftists looking for maps of
the Manhattan sewer system, in the hope that it could be useful when the Revolution came.
Which it never did.
The other illusion was caused by the collapse of colonialism. In practice, colonialism collapsed
because the United States wished to control the territories occupied by France and Britain and therefore
put pressure on them to get out; the United States had ideas for ways of controlling those territories
without being ostentatiously present itself. In a number of cases France and Britain and, at first, Holland
and, eventually, Portugal did their best to hang on to the colonies and murdered countless people.
Where they did this, you had a kind of revolutionary civil war. (In all foreign-occupied countries the
chief battle is against the locals who have sold out to the foreigners.) However, because of the foreign
occupation, the long-term goals of the civil war were often confused, reduced to the idea that getting rid
of the white devils who were killing us was a fine and decent thing and anyone willing to help out with
that was a good egg. Very often the end product was to put people in power who were anything but
good guys, as in Algeria when Boumedienne kicked Ben Bella out and added corruption to Ben Bella’s
existing tyranny. (Maybe “tyranny” overstates things, but Ben Bella was nobody’s democrat.)
So people fooled themselves that a wave of revolutionary liberation was spreading across the planet,
led by cool people with sharp-edged cheekbones in dishy berets. In fact the revolutionary nature of
Third World countries was almost invariably an illusion. What these governments, even the ones which
took power following serious struggles, wanted, was to hang on to power and (often) to personally
profit from it. As a result, the 1960s European and American revolutionary fetish of Third World
imagery was, more often than not, based on falsity. It was also a degree of compensation for the
disintegration of the hopes of the 1917 Revolution. Many Westerner lefties adopted what they called
Maoism, usually meaning nothing at all, and thus avoided having to pass through the calvary of
admitting that Stalinism had been a huge blunder and that revolution was not necessarily a good thing.
Today there is no prospect of revolutionary change in most countries. Where revolution, or
revolutionary civil war, is possible or worth contemplating, is mostly in peripheral countries like Nepal.
It’s far from clear how truly revolutionary the civil wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia really are; in
great measure they seem to be intended to restore the situation (or the potential situation) before the
But it is simply impossible to imagine a revolution taking place in contemporary South Africa, for
example. None of the conditions apply; the government are not especially unpopular, the armed forces
are loyal to it, and if you really don’t like the government you can vote for something else with a
reasonable prospect of success — if your arguments are solid. As a result an attempted revolution would
misfire. The preparations for it would fail — as we have already seen in the case of the Boeremag. The
Boeremag was a right-wing equivalent of the Brigata Rossi, except that the South African government
had no special reason for preserving it in the way that the right-wing Italian government found the
survival of the Brigata Rossi a convenient excuse for repression and tyranny. Hence the Boeremag was
shut down quite quickly. Note that virtually nobody actually supported the Boeremag. The “Groep van
77” right-wing Afrikaner separatists whose rhetoric was identical with the Boeremag’s and possibly
inspired them, sat on their hands and did nothing to help while their armed comrades were hunted down
Nor is there a revolutionary situation in the townships. Recently John Pilger, in his address receiving
his honorary doctorate at Rhodes, claimed that there had been 5 000 demonstrations in South Africa in
the previous year. Pilger’s South African statistics are usually unreliable, but supposing he is right, his
conclusions are wrong. Demonstrations are legal in South Africa (provided you notify the cops
beforehand you almost invariably get a permit) and the government loves holding demoes to show their
support. The bulk of those demonstrations were probably marches proclaiming the public’s love for the
new shopping-mall. Where they weren’t completely politically innocuous, the commonest kind of
demonstration is the “service delivery” protest, in which you go out on a march calling for the
government to hurry up and tar the roads like they promised last year, and maybe burn the mayor in
effigy because you’re darn sure he’s pocketed the cash earmarked for those roads.
This is not revolutionary, it is reformist, and it takes place within the structures of a social-
democratic government. In fact, most such demonstrations are led by governing-party members. Hand
out AKs to the members of such protests, and most of them would either hand them straight to the cops
for the reward, or write indignant letters to Gun Free South Africa. A small minority would nip off and
rob the local trading store, in the same way that service delivery protests sometimes end in people
ramming their point home by lynching a foreigner. This does not constitute a threat to the state. If it did,
would it represent a desirable change?
What it does indicate is that there may be a groundswell of dissatisfaction with government
performance within governing party structures. However, there’s no sign that anybody is in a position to
take advantage of this on any radical basis. (On the contrary, politicians — unsurprisingly — seem much
more concerned to take advantage of it to further their own careers and feather their own nests.) It might
be possible for left-wing parties to take advantage of this groundswell provided they do so with great
tactical care. It might also be possible for dissidents within the party to increase their lobbying capacity
by building informal — or even formal — structures to make legitimate criticism of party performance.
But that’s boring and does not fit in with most leftist fantasies, especially not ones which involve
spiffy uniforms and brief visits to dungeons to explain to one’s former friends how regrettable it is that
they betrayed the revolution, before they are taken out and shot. Until leftists can get over their
revolutionary hangover, this kind of attitude will remain and will choke planning and sensible
preparation. Unfortunately, these days revolution is not the royal road to power or success. It’s usually a
lot more difficult to arrange than reformism.
When reformism becomes powerful, of course, it becomes a potential threat to the status quo. In that
case, the establishment might seek to repress it. In that case again, the reformist movement would do
well to consider revolutionary activities (in the way that the ANC did not really do until it was much too
late in the 1950s). But that is a story for another day.
Rolling Back the Right Wing. (III) Rantin’ ‘Bout A Revolution.
One of the problems with small leftist political organisations is that they see themselves as Leninist;