On Leaderless Revolutions

The recent events in North Africa, especially in Egypt, present an opportunity to make a more general point on the nature of revolutions. Namely, revolutions have no leaders. Martin Luther King, to take a well-known example, would have had no hesitation to say that “he was riding the wave of activism, that people who were doing the work, who were in the lead in the Civil Rights movement, were young SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] workers, freedom riders, people out there in the streets every day getting beaten and sometimes killed, working constantly. They created the circumstances in which a Martin Luther King could come in and be a leader.” His role was of course important, but the people whose names are forgotten did the most important work. It was the accumulation of small actions (black kids insisting on attending school, white and black activists working together at the community level) that created the environment in which someone like Martin Luther King could come in and be an effective leader. It is thus large scale grassroots popular movements that for years work for change that allow revolutions to occur. This is true of every revolution.

The 19th century Russian anarchist (or, better, anarcho-syndicalist) Mikhail Bakunin said it best in his famous remark that revolutions can neither be decreed nor organised from above and can only be made and fully developed by spontaneous and continuous mass actions. Revolutions come “like a thief in the night.” They are “produced by the force of events.” “They are long in preparation in the depths of the instinctive consciousness of the masses – then they explode, often precipitated by apparently trivial causes.” (He was talking about anarchist revolutions that “arise spontaneously in the hearts of the people”, but the point holds for revolutions in general.) This means that every action (joining a protest, writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, joining a union or community group, or simply speaking out at a family dinner), however insignificant it may seem, aids the quest for social change for the better and eventual revolution.

Now, leaderless revolutions (the only true revolutions) pose important challenges to outside media and to outside spectators who seek “authoritative voices to clarify the picture of fast-moving events.” This is because there is no spokesperson for a revolution, no “expert”, that can be called in live on satellite-phone and be interviewed on the evening news. Indeed, “it is at the grassroots level and not simply in the media focus of Tahrir Square where the intense frustration, despair and rage has accumulated for years.” Mass actions over many years in Egypt that did not make the newspapers or the evening news, such as “hundreds of thousands of confrontations with local officials and elites, the organizing efforts of mutual assistance, individual and group assertions of women’s rights, tireless attempts to solidify common stands of workers against bosses (as in the great waves of strikes in the textile city of Mahalla), students’ rejection of authoritarian school conditions, and efforts to defend local neighborhoods”, and many more allowed the current revolution in Egypt to erupt. (Though it is not over yet, as the army has further consolidated its power over Egypt and there’s “a growing concern among those who overthrew Mubarak that the fruits of their victory may be gobbled up by an army largely composed of generals who achieved their power and privilege under Mubarak himself.”)

And of course, as noted in a recent article on the Egyptian revolution, even though Mubarak was the human face of an oppressive regime, he represents “wide and deep range of grievances that extend from national- level organs of the state and military down to local-level daily humiliations of officials’ contempt, bosses’ exploitation, mistreatment of students and women’s exclusion from the workplace and political life.” This is what the protests were really about, and the fall of Mubarak is just one piece of the puzzle.

Lastly, as Bakunin remarks, it should be remembered that “All revolutions have been carried through by the spontaneous action of the people; if occasionally governments have responded to the initiative of the people it was only because they were forced or constrained to do so. Almost always they blocked, repressed, struck.” Another anarchist writer, Rudolf Rocker, observed in 1938 that “Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are rather forced upon them from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. They do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace.”

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