The 21st century has already witnessed revolutions in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, alongside other uprisings and transformational movements that reach all over the world. Although these movements had their roots in earlier movements and revolutions, they are different from their predecessors. For one, these movements are increasingly non-violent, and secondly, they are less ideologically driven. Maria Armoudian discusses how revolutions have changed this century with Leandro Vergara-Camus, John Foran, and Jack A. Goldstone.

Leandro Vergara-Camus is a Professor in Development Studies at SOAS University of London. He is an expert on Latin American protest movements and is the author of Land and Freedom: The MST, the Zapatistas and Peasant Alternatives to Neoliberalism.

John Foran is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is an expert in 21st-century political movements and is the editor of Revolution in the Making of the Modern World: Social Identities, Globalization and Modernity.

Jack A. Goldstone is a Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. He is an expert in social movements and is the author of Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: We seem to be having a lot more revolutionary activity, and I wanted to understand the twenty-first-century revolutions as opposed to the earlier revolutions. John Foran, you have identified something like thirty-nine revolutions and you have written about other kinds of mass transformations that have been occurring. I think you said there are three paths: revolution, autonomous spaces, and via elections. How do we distinguish these and what is different about them?

John Foran: The twentieth century was a very revolutionary period, particularly in what was known as the third world in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In the course of that century there were maybe five or six great revolutions, so-called social revolutions which transformed not only government, but the whole social structure and sometimes the economy. And revolutions by definition also require the participation of mass numbers of people to make them. So a revolution is a way of making history by a society. And in these revolutions, the five or six principal revolutions of the 20th century, maybe starting with the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to 1920; the Russian Revolution which was not a Third World revolution but took place in 1917; the Chinese Revolution which spanned several decades before Mao Zedong and the Communists came to power in China in 1949; the Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro which took power on January 1st, 1959; and in the year of 1979 there were two revolutions, one in Iran which overthrew the Shah and another in Nicaragua which overthrew the dictator Somoza.

What all these revolutions had in common and what distinguishes them from most of what we see in the twenty-first century is that they were made usually by armed guerrilla movements. They were headed by usually a single charismatic figure like Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro or Emiliano Zapata and they were therefore organised sort of hierarchically with a chain of command. By organising that way they were able to overthrow seemingly powerful governments who were armed and often supported by powerful outside allies. But what happened typically afterwards was that you had a hierarchical narrowing of the political system rather than a general participation by the people because they had come to power through these hierarchical entities. In the twenty-first century we have seen not yet a so-called grand social revolution, but we are seeing a number of very interesting what I would call movements for radical social change, which look very different. They are by in large non-violent in their character, they are organised typically more horizontally, more democratically without always identifiable leaders, and they are advocating a new kind of society in a way that is a bit difficult to define in the twenty-first century. So I think that the nature of what used to be called revolution has changed, and I think that is a good thing. I think that the prospects for deep social change in this century, which I believe is necessary, are better because of the way that these movements have organised themselves. They have yet to succeed but I think their prospects, should they ever succeed, bode well for having a more kind of democratic egalitarian outcome.

MA: What do you attribute the change in strategy to, since you say we are by in large non-violent now?

JF: That is again a hard question. These movements have made these decisions. And I think the first one to point to is the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico which took place in 1994. And they were an armed insurrection, but they very quickly became essentially a non-violent force that concentrated on improving conditions in the very poor southern state of Chiapas. There is a kind of poetry to some of these movements that is the language and the style and culture of these revolutions I think is simply a different kind of political culture that is more democratic, therefore in a sense less inclined to use violence. But nonetheless extremely radical and far-reaching in its vision for transforming societies.

MA: Leandro Vergara-Camus, I want to bring you in because he mentioned the Zapatistas, that is your area of study. Do you see this the same way?

Leandro Vergara-Camus: Yes, I think he is right and it has [a little bit] to do with the ability of movements to learn. And the Zapatista movement learned from the guerrilla movement in Central America and they learned that the use of violence brings attention, but it also brings more oppression. So the Zapatista rose up in arms to bring attention to their struggle, to centuries and decades of exploitation and marginalisation, but they also knew that arms were not the path for radical social change. So the idea of the Zapatista was much more to bring awareness, but also generate some kind of movement towards autonomy within civil society in Mexico, even autonomy within civil society globally and in order to deepen democracy and widen democracy. So not only understanding democracy in the sense of elections and political power, but also in terms of social justice, right to land, etcetera. I think movements today in the twenty-first century are learning from what worked in the past and what needs to change.

MA: One question about these movements for autonomy: I have a sense that I know what that means, but if you were going to look at it on the ground and describe it to somebody what exactly does it look like?

LVC: Autonomy means the ability to decide on one’s own life and one’s own future. And it means the ability to not depend on either the state or the market for subsistence and for progress. Autonomy refers also to the ability of communities to find within themselves the resources and the strategies to go ahead.

MA: Jack Goldstone?

Jack A. Goldstone: I think there are some other things we should note have changed. The societies in which those twentieth-century guerrilla revolutions occurred were mainly young, rural societies. And even if the revolution began in the capital city, the big task of revolutionaries was to take control of the countryside, and they had to defeat the existing state’s army and both of those purposes required the revolutionaries to raise their own military force. The option of proceeding differently didn’t really present itself as much as it does today. Today governments are much more in the glare of international media and so many, not all, but many states are reluctant to unleash overwhelming force against their own people. And so what revolutionaries and movement leaders have discovered is that if they can occupy a public space and be firm and peaceful then they can discourage the military and the government from attacking them. And if they stick to the nonviolence and stick to the occupation of space they can often persuade the military to start to defect and the government that opposes them backs down or in some cases runs away, as we have seen with Tunisia and Ukraine.

So you have societies that are more sophisticated, better able to us media, facing governments that are usually more reluctant to unleash all the power of force. But as I say they are acceptations. In Syria what started out as a non-violent resistance against the Assad Regime was met with overwhelming force and they had to turn to arms to defend themselves and they continue to face a brutal life and death civil war. Fortunately regimes that are willing to impose that kind of terror and damage on their own populations are much fewer today than in the past.

MA: Although Libya too started out as a non-violent protest and ended up in a violent conflict, but of course ended quite differently than Syria has so far.

JG: You are quite correct and it probably would have ended up in a similar fashion to Syria if NATO had not intervened to disarm much of the heavy artillery and tank force that was being bought into position by Gadhafi. That did become a violent war and unfortunately Libya is still wracked by violence because the militias who were mobilised for that conflict have not gone away. I think that is one of the contrasts we see: revolutions that start violently tend to stay violent for some time, whereas those that are able to change governments more peacefully are able to proceed to the tasks of putting together constitutions and building civil authorities without that kind of vicious conflict.

MA: You have also written about the more current in our rear-view mirror of yesterday Ukraine and also Thailand and Venezuela and Bosnia, you have said something like this is kind of a new wave of revolutionary movements.

JG: They are new in the sense that John Foran mentioned: they are typically non-violent, they are also taking place in much more advanced societies, both economically and politically, than the agrarian dictatorships that were overthrown in the twentieth-century revolutions. These countries have started to make progress towards democracy, they have developed substantial urban middle classes, they tend to have pretty active media. And what we are seeing in this case is not so much people rising up against sheer poverty and oppression as much as we are seeing the middle class and students taking the lead in demanding that their governments be more accountable, less corrupt, more constructive in meeting the needs of the people. I think these new movements, as John Foran said, are interesting partly because they don’t have usually a kind of charismatic leader who is out to take control of society. They are rising up from a kind of diffuse middle-class feeling of this government is doing us wrong, it’s working for its own benefit and not ours, and we shouldn’t have to tolerate that anymore at this point in the twenty-first century.

MA: It seems to me based on what you have all said is that there are two forces of globalisation going on at the same time that are contributing to this. One is of course we have got the neoliberal economics that seems to be contrary to what some people actually desire for their everyday lives, but the second force is the role of how information is spreading and becoming a form of education for people if they do want to organise. John Foran?

JF: What is new in the 21st century is that we are in the age of globalisation, we are living in a global economy in which many argue that nation-states don’t have the power that they used to have. The global economy is certainly run by a relatively small number of very powerful corporations and banks and so forth. And there is a new type of revolution, if you will, that takes that into account and isn’t aimed necessarily at a national state or taking power in a single country. And again, the Zapatistas inspired what became known as the global justice movement around the world, linking young activists that thought that the problem was corporations and the problem was also the lack of democracy that existed because corporations could influence governments and elections so easily. And the high-water mark of the global justice movement was the [1999] shut down of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle by several thousand demonstrators who came from all points and sat down and engaged in acts of civil disobedience and blocked streets and prevented delegates from entering to negotiate the World Trade Organisations agenda which was precisely to set the rules to make markets freer to this neoliberal economy that you alluded to.

The other global movement that I think is the one to watch and the one that I pay the most attention to and actually participate in myself is the global climate justice movement, and that takes the ultimate global problem as a target and that is of course the inexorable rise of climate change. And so this is very much a kind of networked, loose association of many groups across the world, and they do use the new social media that you raised and they use it to good effect.

MA: So there seems to be simultaneous organisations and some that cross paths and it is interesting in the age of [the] decline in journalism with this rise of new media. Simultaneously we have some countries that are trying to ban the use of social media. How do you see this, Jack Goldstone?

JG: This is really a futile effort and simply indicates how really frightened of open information for the public leaders like Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan really are. [In] Egypt there had been a lot of talk about social media being crucial, and certainly the initial organisers of the April Sixth Movement were very smart and managed to reach out to a few thousand people using social media. But the demonstrations were joined by people from all walks of life who communicated partly by telephone, by conversation, cell phone, seeing what was going on in the street. And when President Mubarak got alarmed and shut down social media, people left their computer screens which had become uninteresting, and went out into the street, into Tahrir Square because that was where the interesting buzz was happening. In a sense I think this is attacking the symptoms. People are anxious to communicate, they are anxious to share ideas, they will do it by Twitter, they will do it by Facebook, but they will also do it by cell phone, satellite, and cable television has become a very big factor, it is hard to shut down all the TV stations and people have found very clever ways of circumventing efforts to limit their access to internet, email, cell phones, and so on. Twitter is broadcasting information on how to use SMS messaging to circumvent the curbs that Turkey has tried to put on Twitter. So I don’t think you can stop people from reaching out to each other in this day and age unless you really want to use military force to isolate them. There are just too many avenues and channels now and people have learned how to be flexible and really creative in using them. They are building local communities, global communities that intersect across different kinds of boundaries, and that has made it much harder to supress these kinds of popular movements that have arisen this century.

MA: Leandro Vergara-Camus, let’s bring you back in here. You have talked about this sort of education and information age as well, and the Zapatistas I think were one of the first to use the internet to communicate with the world. One other aspect of your work looks at the moving back and forth between non-capitalist relations within the organisation, within the movement, but then having to go back out and having to have capitalist relations with the outside world. How does this all work?

LVC: Technology I think is a very important issue, but it has been overblown. Because the strength of the Zapatista is not in their use of technology, the strength of the Zapatista is that they have been able to bring together a variety of communities that are isolated in to one organisation that has manage to politicise their members by distributing power within communities: in discussions, the decisions are taken in assemblies, people that didn’t have the right to vote in the rural communities in Mexico because they didn’t have right to land, were given political rights within the Zapatista community. So they brought in people that had been disenfranchised from the political system in Mexico, but also from the rural community, the villages. By bringing people in and making them participate you politicise them and you create a sense of community, you create a sense of an ability to change one’s life, and you empower people. So mainly the strength of the organisations that I have studied at least, like the Zapatistas, the strength is they are able to control the territory or a space, then they are able to politicise members of those communities through allowing them to participate in taking decisions, in thinking about strategies, in learning how to confront power. At the same time that they are learning how to confront power, they are also learning how to take power, to take control. Not only take control of the political process within their community, but also taking control of land and then being able to feed their families, being able to start producing… and very often compared to other types of actors because they control land, they are able to at least get around the market for one essential need that we all have which is to feed ourselves. So that gives them kind of other ways to manoeuvre that other actors do not have and it also allows these movements to be stronger. The technology is something that facilitates all that, but it is not the essential ingredient.

MA: There are two things that I think you bring up here. One is that the Zapatistas and the MST, the Brazilian landless movement are among the poorest people who have organised, and yet that seems to be an anomaly. If we look at Jack Goldstone’s work it seems like the movements tend to be driven by the middle class. The second piece, which is something I think John Foran has written about, is that it is not so much ideology driving as it may have been in the twentieth century, but about everyday life. John Foran, that seems to be a prime difference between twentieth and twenty-first-century movements?

JF: I would agree with that. My basic starting point for studying revolutions had been just that, that revolutions are in fact made by people, people have to become active in large numbers to make a revolution and you have to ask the question: how does that happen? And one of the most general ways in which that happens is people begin to elaborate a critique of the existing system, whether it be the lack of political freedom or whether they are economic circumstances. And sometimes they do this in very ordinary language. They talk about bread, they want freedom, they want to govern themselves and you don’t really need an ideology. In the twentieth century most of the great social revolutions did have an ideology and that was socialism. In the twenty-first century there are much more usually organised. I think again that is part of this whole consolation of things that make the twenty-first century different that people are not going to necessarily agree on a single well-defined ideology is one point, and another I think is that people wanted to make their own culture of resistance, and that varies widely, but it is found in every revolution.

MA: Jack Goldston, what about this anomaly? You may not call it a revolution in this case because you have distinguished this out.

JG: I think it is a mistake to try and fit all revolutions into a single pattern or box, even if you differentiate there is a twentieth-century pattern and a twenty-first-century pattern. Because these are creations of human beings, and so there will always be exceptions and innovations. What you have in the cases you mentioned in the Zapatistas and the Brazilian land movement, they are movements of the poor but they decided to be more peaceful and use media rather than guns to achieve their objectives. So they may have drawn on different groups, but they absorbed some of the lessons that other groups had followed in the same time. I mentioned Thailand as a place where the middle class has been up and arms and that is true in Bangkok, but it is also the case that poorer people in the northern part of the country have also mobilised to defend what they see as their champion. So you see throughout the world is a variety of different contexts, a variety of different peoples. What we have seen in the last few years in Ukraine, in places like Kiev and in Bangkok, and now in Caracas, Venezuela, are movements in which the middle class is taking a leading role in demanding more genuinely democratic and accountable governments. But there are other places in the world where the poor, or people who are facing ethnic discrimination, or who have regions who have been treated badly, are also mobilising and absorbing some of the same lessons, using some of the same ideas and tactics and tools to pursue their goals.

LVC: One thing also which needs to be taken into consideration when we think about revolution is that there is never a revolution that is made only by one class. All the revolutions have involved multi-class alliances. And one of the most important factors, I think, in any successful revolution is a split at the level of the ruling class. If there is no split at the level of the ruling class there won’t be a revolution. There needs to be some kind of split at the top so that the pressure that comes from below can change the situation.

JG: I fully agree. Generally, it is the case that the bigger the change, the more the rulers need to be in a divided and vulnerable position and the more you need really broad alliances between different groups in society trying to create change.

MA: There has been this study that has looked at successful revolutions and found that the non-violent ones are far more successful than the violent ones. Do you also find that to be the case?

JF: I try to argue that in general, not in all cases, that is the way of the twenty-first century and I would like to include in this conversation another path to power, which is simply for radical forces to come to power in elections. And the now classic examples of this are the quite radical governments that have been elected in the last fifteen years in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and together with other Latin American countries are known as the Pink Tide. Pink because they are radical political and economic projects which are socialist or twenty-first-century socialist, which they sometimes call them, [and] are wedded with democracy in a shift from the twentieth century taking power by single parties. And I think this is also a sign of the twenty-first century, because in Latin America, at least in the twentieth century, it was very difficult for a party to the left of centre to come to power. If it came to power as in the case of Chile under Allende in 1970 it faced extreme external opposition from powerful actors like the United States and its own internal elite, and in the twenty-first century it seems a lot harder to dislodge governments that have been democratically elected: they have simply got more legitimacy. Case in point, being in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez won election after election and when the military and the elite rose against him in a coup in 2002 they were unable to sustain that coup because people came out and opposed it, and also because his government was seen as legitimately elected by all their neighbours, the organisation of American states. Not a single country except the United States supported that coup, and that sort of legitimacy that comes with that also I think saved him in that situation. But these are governments that come to power with a more or less radical agenda and try and legislate the social changes, the social programs to benefit people that a revolutionary government might do and I think they are a form of twenty-first-century revolutions, they are democratic revolutions.

MA: When we are talking about more or less the global south moving a little bit more to the left with these agendas. Meanwhile it seems like the global north or the first world have really electorally moved to the right. Is there any way to bridge these and try to understand what is going on globally or is that too big of a question?

JG: I don’t think it is too big a question. I think it is “the” big question and you know you have put your finger on this very important trend that we are seeing growth in inequality around the world and in the developed countries it is being supported by governments who are committed to making the world an easier place for business to thrive but are not as committed to making the world a place where ordinary workers and young people looking for their first job can thrive. They are making that decision, I think, based on what they are told about the need to be competitive and the need to be business-friendly and hoping it would work out. But we are certainly seeing a challenge to that notion and the challenge is even stronger in developing countries where governments tend to be more corrupt in setting rules in favour of business and breaking and discarding rules and leaving people really desperate to find a way to escape from a kind of top-down business and corruption that is hurting their chances to move forward. So I think we are going to see this become a global struggle in which the emerging working and middle classes in the developing world maybe leading the way in demanding governments that work to support their interests and not so much the interests of business leaders and elites.

MA: Leandro Vergara-Camus?

LVC: I think what we can see in these thirty years of neoliberalism is that neoliberal hegemony is much stronger in the North than it is in the South. The left-wing parties in Italy and France and Germany and the U.K. went really far away from what they were in the seventies and in the sixties. If you think of the Third Way, for example, you wonder if they are really parties of the left. The union movement has also been hit very hard in these decades of neoliberalism in the North. That has been the case in the South but in the South movements have managed to remerge, some of them have moved away from political parties that were too on the right for them and others have managed to create new parties like in Bolivia and in Ecuador for example, the indigenous movement was able to create their own political party that represented their own interests instead of aligning themselves with old left-wing parties that were also moving towards the centre. So the political dynamics of the different regions are completely different, but this distinction I think between the strength of the neoliberal hegemony in the north versus the south I think is an important difference.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.