Book Review: Revolutionary Rehearsals, edited by Colin Barker

A friend of mine in the ISO recently recommended that I read Revolutionary Rehearsals, edited by Colin Barker. I'm glad I did, as it contains some incredible history that I didn't know much about, and some intriguing analysis. On the whole, an excellent book.

The book delves into detail about five situations when a country was on the verge of a bottom-up, workers' revolution to overthrow capitalism (in one case, Stalinism). Each one failed to do so, but the struggles have much to tell us. The authors consider them to be "rehearsals" for real revolutions (hence the title).

A French policeman throwing a tear gas canister at an enormous mass of people
The book contains the following chapters:

1. France 1968: "All power to the imagination"
2. Chile 1972-73: The workers united
3. Portugal 1974-75: Popular power
4. Iran 1979: Long live Revolution!...Long live Islam?
5. Poland 1980-81: The self-limiting revolution
6. Perspectives

Each of the first five chapters is written by a different author and covers a specific struggle. The final chapter provides over-arching analysis and lessons.

The history is great - each historical chapter provides a compact, readable summary of the unfolding of the revolutionary times. Each gave me more information on its specific subject than I've found anywhere else. I'll describe a little bit about each piece of history first.

May 68

"May 68 was the largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country and the first general wildcat strike in history, involving eleven million workers for two weeks in a row, and almost caused the collapse of the de Gaulle government." (Paraphrase from Wikipedia.) It was the closest any advanced industrial country came to an anti-capitalist revolution - although Marx thought industrial economies were necessary for socialism, Russia and China were quite "backward" at the time of their revolutions and the other countries in this book were also "backward" compared to the USSR and Western powers.

May 68 occurred in a wealthy country that was not particularly in crisis at the time, in an atmosphere of youth and student radicalization, and of course, amid world-wide youth revolt and anti-imperialist struggles, and an enormous cultural shift that we sum up as "the Sixties". I believe that it is the most informative revolutionary crisis for us in rich countries today. Of all such crises, it was the one in which spiritual themes came most to fore.

Some graffiti, again from Wikipedia:
  • "Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life has been a drag. Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them."
  • We don't want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.
  • In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society.

Workers and students were not concerned about material issues, as much as the far more fundamental questions of class, control, and meaning. It was a revolt against the status of being a worker, against "work" itself. The revolutionary forces were profoundly skeptical of the state, of liberal "democracy", of the established trade unions, and of the Communist Party. As well they should have - all of those institutions led to their defeat.


I've usually heard about this only in reference to the "first September 11th" in 1973, when Pinochet, aided by the CIA, led a coup of the democratically elected Allende government, and installed a horrific military dictatorship which tortured and murdered thousands of people. This chapter gives the backstory of a year of very overt class struggle, including very advanced workers' and community organization and coordinated economic sabotage by sectors of the ruling class.


In 1974 a military coup against the dictator gave rise to a huge political opening. There was some movement for workers' control and socialist revolution, stymied by, among others, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Portugal eventually settled into a "modern" parliamentary democracy like much of Western Europe.


We in the West usually know only that Khomeini came to power and imposed his particular brand of crazy theocracy. Actually, the story is far more interesting - the Shah was driven out by a popular revolution, including a massive oil workers' strike and then a general strike. In the power vacuum that followed, many ideas and groups competed. Unfortunately, leftists were not very well organized or consistent and were unwilling to defend difficult issues like the emancipation of women and religious pluralism. Khomeini already had a large following who during the Shah's reign had listened to his sermons on cassette tapes smuggled into the country. He was able to establish "Islamic" capitalism that was supposedly fairer to the worker but which required smashing the khoras - workers' councils - that had arisen in the meantime. Counter-revolution has rarely been so complete - he even took over, rather than abolished, the dreaded SAVAK (state security and torturers) of the Shah's regime.


This was the most fascinating revolutionary situation to me because I had not really heard about it at all. Did you know Reagan criticized Poland's repression of the Solidarnosc [Solidarity] trade union just four months after he broke the air traffic controllers' strike?

This is the only example in this book within a Stalinist country - one that called itself "socialist". Solidarnosc was at times headed toward a truly socialist revolution, but interestingly they never called it that, because the word had been tainted by the regimes that used it. The union wanted a strong state to negotiate with and was never able to grasp that it could instead abolish the state and institute a new social order.

Style and Viewpoint

Yeah, the book is written by socialists. In the kind of annoying sense. All the writers are members of the SWP (Socialist Workers' Party, related to the American ISO). Much of the first five chapters has a bit of a doctrinaire flavour; the narrative is interspersed with what almost seems like boilerplate about the lack of an organized revolutionary party to give direction and agitation, etc., etc. But much of the commentary on the dangers of reformism in its many guises is spot on.

I would argue that the usual model of a revolutionary party is exactly that kind of a danger. Many of the reformist forces were organized leftist parties. This is a reflection of the structure they took. Can you really replace our society with a bottom-up, horizontalist, truly democratic structure if the transition is led by a strongly hierarchical vanguard party? Yet this is the structure the SWP takes and that it advocates. The book, at least in the last chapter, is clear that the state should not be taken over but destroyed; but the hierarchical structure of your usual self-professed vanguard party all but ensures the perpetuation of the state. "Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of the machinery of domination." - Gorz

The last chapter, "Perspectives", warrants a careful read. It collects some of the most important lessons, and despite my critique above, it actually has a nuanced take on "socialism from below" versus "socialism from above". It provides an incredible description of the dynamics of revolutionary situations, their internal development, their creativity, their festiveness, and their inclusiveness. The chapter discusses the vital role of the confidence of the people and of the ruling class, and the "permanent potential instability of bourgeois rule". It contains an excellent discussion of reformism:

It works at once within, for and against the existing system. It takes over, from the world it only partly contests, all manner of organisational forms and assumptions. Aping its adversary, it reflects back capitalism's own demarcation between 'political' and 'economic' questions.
[T]he situation of dual power is strictly temporary.... The issue is, who will conquer whom? Nothing, in such circumstances, is more dangerous to the popular movement than those reformist tendencies which deny the real character of the situation - in the interests of 'mediation', 'compromise' and 'balance' - to smooth over the antagonism that now structures all social relations.

I was particularly struck by the following metaphor for the "intermediate layers" of society: "local councillors, union officials, sections of the intelligentsia, liberal clergymen, 'professional' workers of various kinds - in short, the non-commissioned officers of class society."

The book claims that at various points these revolutions failed because of the lack of an organized group to provide a revolutionary perspective. But at its core what was missing was just the revolutionary perspective. That perspective needed to be communicated to "the masses", but it was then up to the masses to take it up and organize around it. The examples in the book actually show the power of bottom-up organizing without, and in some cases despite, organized leftist parties and established trade unions. While the exhortations are for Leninism, the examples provide more support for anarchism!

I agree with its conclusion that we need an organized left, capable of communicating with the larger mass of workers and society in general. I don't agree that this needs to be a party - perhaps this could even be a networked structure of relationships among the population, capable of producing radical analysis and transmitting radical ideas in an efficient way. Organizing is required, but not necessarily an organization (see once again Here Comes Everybody).

Final Words

One of my favourite lines from the book is "'Realists' can be very unrealistic in revolutionary situations." It echoes another slogan from May 68: Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible. (Be realistic, ask the impossible.) Revolutionary Rehearsals provides a lot of food for thought about what can be achieved in a revolutionary moment, and how best that might be done.

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