The “Rules for Revolt” – or how to get killed while protesting

Sage Vals has a look at Chris Hedges’ article “The Rules for Revolt” which was based on events in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, and finds it’s rules interesting, but of little help for protesters and insurgents (H/T George Monbiot).

Information Clearing House is a blog specialising in un-reported or under-reported news from a U.S. perspective. Often, although not always, it takes an anti-United States Government position, believing that the media in the US does not provide sufficient information for its citizens to have informed opinions especially with respect to foreign policy issues. The implication being that much of this ‘news’ is covered up deliberately by the main stream media of all political shades. I’m not writing here to criticise the aims of the blog. While I don’t agree with the editorial line – which seems too negative and left-of-centre for my liking – anything that contributes to the dissemination of ‘inconvenient’ facts is welcome.

I was diverted to an editorial piece in the blog by a tweet from George Monbiot who said it contained “some brilliant guidelines for successful resistance”. While I am hardly a ‘March! Protest! Man the barricades!’ sort of person – believing that street protest, while it can be fun, rarely achieves anything, in the context of mainland UK at least – I am always intrigued in how it does or doesn’t work in other cases. So I followed the link George provided.

The article, by Chris Hedges, is titled “The Rules of Revolt”. It is a review of events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and attempts to draw lessons from what happened then.

I am not sure that Mr Monbiot read it closely enough. Rather than being helpful to those wishing to ‘Stop the City’, or ‘Occupy’ or proclaim that ‘The Land is Ours’, the article seems to give as much guidance to those who wish to oppress protesters and smother their cause as to the protesters themselves. The 12 lessons drawn are often vague, being just facts really, and when they are specific they may be of most use to the ‘oppressor’.

Here, I will go through the ‘lessons’ one by one and make comments on each.

Lesson 1 I agree that in certain circumstances, mass protests will frighten the political elite. But the circumstances are quite narrow. These will be the case in states which are already largely oppressive with little popular support and/or where there is a small ruling elite where subordinates may be willing to side with the protesters to remove and replace the elite with themselves. The new rulers will sacrifice the old ones to the demands of the crowds, but nothing much else will actually change. Where the government or ruling class is much broader based, and commands a sizeable chunk of popular support – nearly always the case in a western democracy – popular protest is unlikely to have any real affect. The Occupy movement being a classic example of this.

Lesson 2 “An uprising or a revolution usually follows a period of relative prosperity and liberalization. It is ignited not by the poor but by middle-class and elite families’ sons and daughters, often college-educated …and who are being denied opportunities to advance socially and economically”. This is undoubtedly true, and we see this everywhere in the last few decades. Anti-Vietnam protests in the 1960s and the student protests in the UK in 2010 fit this pattern. So much for Karl Marx’s ideas then.

Of course, Trade Unions can and do demonstrate both on their own account and may very well join in with other protests, but these are – unless actually provoked – usually very peaceful. In any case, working class action is usually about very specific grievances, such as pay and conditions, and rarely calls seriously for the overthrow of the state.

Chris Hedges notes that “Nonviolent mass demonstrations, while costly in human terms, often are more effective in totalitarian societies”. Again, I broadly agree, but this is not a guarantee of success. It is useless when the tanks actually do roll in, as per Tiananmen Square., although it may delay the arrival of the tanks for a bit, as compared to violent uprising.

Lesson 3 I’m not sure what Hedges’ lesson is here. If anything, it is that as protesters face the government they get more radical in their demands. This isn’t always so – demands can get diluted to accommodate disparate factions and to include those who really don’t know what they want – Occupy London at St Pauls Cathedral in 2011-12 is an example. The US Occupy Wall Street was little better in this respect.

But if increased radicalisation is usually the case, then the evidence Hedges presents doesn’t really support it.

He lists the “Seven Demands” of the Tiananmen Square Protesters. These demands include some of blatant self-interest, others are very ‘bourgeois’ and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong either of these aspects, it is hardly evidence of increasing radicalisation.

Lesson 4 While it can be accepted that an effective alliance of the organised working class with middle class student types could be a game-changer for a political uprising, it is unclear if there is much more to this ‘lesson’. I would suggest there is a much greater chance of such an alliance in the sort of unpopular repressive state that China represented in 1989 than in a western democracy. This is because, other than a general antipathy to such a state and its ruling elite, there was nothing to unite the working class to the student class in terms of what they wanted. What really is there in the “Seven Demands” that might appeal to a significant proportion of the working class, especially in the Chinese context of the time?

If a real unity of cause between these classes happens, it’s a great boost for the revolution, but there really does need to be a real common cause. The importance of alliances between workers and students is really a myth derived from the single example of the 1968 protests in Paris, and little else[1]. Often one group’s actions just encourages, by imitation, another uprising by a separate group aimed at quite different objectives.

How on earth the Occupy movement with masks, ‘workshops’ and street theatre was supposed to motivate the industrial working class to rise-up I just can’t imagine.

Lesson 5 “The most potent weapon in the hands of nonviolent rebels is fraternizing with and educating civil servants as well as the police and soldiers, who even though they suffer from the same economic inequality usually are under orders to crush protest”. This is most certainly true, and is the best lesson of the lot here for those organising a major protest or uprising.

This relationship-building works best for the uprising when the state forces are recruited – especially if by conscription – from the same social group or class as the protesters. It’s not for nothing that the Romans recruited troops from one part of the empire to police other parts! Again, in China, the only real link between soldiers and students was the general discontentment with the regime, but personal links do help. It is usually harder to shoot someone you know than someone you don’t. An example of this was the close relations between some of the protesters and the Egyptian Army in the recent revolutions and counter-revolutions there[2].

Lesson 6 “When a major authority figure, even in secret, denounces calls to crush a resistance movement the ruling elites are thrown into panic”. Once again, this is obviously true, especially where there is a small ruling elite. But if this person is speaking up in secret, how can the protesters, who presumably are not in on the secret, supposed to be able to respond? This, if anything, is a lesson for the rulers, not the protesters. Hedges’ analogy with Stalin is not a good one. Stalin was purging not just those who spoke out – they didn’t dare – but in response to totally invented plots! The purges must have weakened the USSR, but the 5 year plan was completed anyway, and within just a couple of years after the end of the terror Stalin’s forces turned around and crushed the German army. So the lesson is for the state to keep its minions in a state of fear. No help to the protesters at all.

Lesson 7 “The state seeks to isolate and indoctrinate soldiers and police before sending them to violently quash any movement”. Agreed, assuming the state is capable of such indoctrination. I would also argue that the Chinese rulers characterising the protesters as tools of “bourgeois liberalism” was absolutely correct from their Communist perspective. The evidence is the 7 demands themselves. The conclusion here is that “Any successful mass revolutionary movement, to counter this propaganda, must exhibit respect for the traditional values of society, including religious and patriotic values”. There is something to be said for this lesson, but so much that people (on the left at any rate) want to protest about is actually against ‘traditional values’, such as ‘patriotism’ as usually defined. What does this leave to protest about? Not much.

Lesson 8 “Secrecy is self-destructive to a nonviolent resistance movement”. Again, I agree, but preparation for an uprising may very well need to be secret. Machiavelli has lots to say about plots and secrecy. Once a protest is underway though, openness is essential. For one thing, any public protest is, in part at least, about public relations, or “awareness building” if you prefer. This obviously can’t be done in secret.

Lesson 9 The lesson as stated here is that the state can make use of agents provocateurs to encourage the state forces into acts of oppression. Clearly, this is primarily a lesson for the state authorities. The lesson for protesters, apart from being aware that this might happen, is to prevent mavericks (idiots) in the protest movement from doing anything provocative themselves – such as throwing concrete blocks from high roofs.

Lesson 10 “After deadly force is used to end a revolt… the state invests tremendous energy to foster historical amnesia”. Again this is certainly true in despotic countries (quelle surprise!), and can be true too in western countries. However, the full truth, or a fuller version of it, often comes out eventually (Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough) albeit in fits and starts. I have heard, anecdotally, that the events in Tiananmen Square are better known in China – and certainly are in the autonomous region of Hong Kong  – than one might imagine. The truth of the lesson (or is it simply a fact worth noting?) is broadly accepted.

Lesson 11 “Once a movement is put down, wholesale retribution occurs”. Yes, true. What is the lesson here really? Is there anything that can be done about it?

Lesson 12 I will quote this in full: “Nonviolence does not protect demonstrators from violence. It also does not always succeed. Nonviolence requires—despite what those who advocate violence contend—deep reserves of physical and moral courage. State violence is defeated through the refusal to be afraid, even after violence is used by the state to stamp out protests, and through continuing acts of nonviolent resistance. The goal is to show that violence will not work. But like hundreds of protesters in Tiananmen, many in the first generation of rebels may perish in the process. The generation that begins a revolt often does not live to see its conclusion”.

This is of course very true. That lives might be lost is without doubt true whenever there is a major uprising. It would be good if armchair revolutionaries always remembered this. It doesn’t have to be true, of course. The examples that come to mind where there was relatively little or no violence are the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, also in 1989, and (more surprisingly in the context of the scale of repression) the relatively small numbers killed in the Romanian Revolution of the same year. Indeed, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe was largely non-violent, although there were preceding years of struggle in places such as Poland.

These events largely fit the pattern: a ruling elite in government with little popular support and security forces having the same or similar self-interests to the protesters. In these cases, the withdrawal of external support for the regimes by the USSR is of course significant too. Where students were involved they were supported by the great mass of non-students because (nearly) everyone wanted the same thing: the abolition of the Soviet-Communist system and full, democratic self-government for each nation state.

Tiananmen Square does not appear to have been part of any long-term process in China. It is just possible to argue that the events of 1989 lead indirectly to the Communist Government opening up China to international trade; to a change in emphasis in the nature of Communism to allow a greater accumulation of personal wealth and encourage entrepreneurship; and hence to the creation of more well-paid jobs for precisely the class of persons who protested in the Square 25 years ago.

Or it could be that that it is in the nature of capitalism to triumph against all comers and what we see now in China is part of a gradual shift towards a freer market system which would have happened with or without Tiananmen Square. Who can say?

In any event, there are better “rules” for insurrectionaries to follow than those presented by Hedges. Try Lenin, Mao or Che; or especially Machiavelli: but be ready to break a few heads, and have heads broken.


[1] In this case too, the workers’ demands were very different from that of the students, although it could be said that the teachers in the marches were from much the same class as the students.

[2] I accept that the Egypt situation is far more complex than I have suggested here.


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