Revolutions Or Revolutionary Situations?


In Greece, on 5 May 2010, a general national strike comprising myriad demonstrations was sparked by plans to cut public spending in response to the sovereign debt crisis. Athens became ground zero to massive insurrection. Protesters stormed the parliament building, offices of the finance ministry were set ablaze, and several banks were firebombed. Riot police expeditiously ended this uprising the same day it began.

In Bangkok, Thailand, from 13 May, red-shirted proponents of the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship engaged in urban warfare with the Thai Army. On face value, the redshirts took up arms to protest at an underhanded political procedure. The Thai military brought the uprising to an unceremonious end on 19 May.

Both events were attempts at revolution, at a drastic overhaul of interrelated political and economic systems, or at least the deposition of those who straddle such systems — and both were subdued by military force. If we sift through the rubble in both Athens and Bangkok, clues about the activity of revolution as an imminent force in today’s politics may very well surface.

Vladimir Lenin said that "a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution." Though there hasn’t been a revolution in Bangkok or Athens, I sense that what we are witnessing is the proliferation of revolutionary situations. But what does this mean?

A revolutionary situation is that which holds the potential for a full-scale revolution: a set of political and economic circumstances prone to their own destruction. With majorities in both Greece and Thailand suffering acute economic pressure, and with political consciousness crystallised on a desire for alternatives, Athens and Bangkok stand as revolutionary situations of the first order.

While several publications have tried to anatomise the uprising — recoding the human subjects as a paint-by-numbers insurgency — what remains understated and often overlooked is the sheer intensity embodied by all who took to the streets.

Certainly, this breed of passion is nothing new. However, it now appears with impressive frequency, exploding out of the innumerable sites of exploitation held in cold indifference by an economic matrix that encircles the globe. Recall, for instance, the demonstrations in Tehran following last year’s election, the retaliation of a neglected New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the unrelenting struggle for life on the Gaza Strip.

Athens and Bangkok should be taken as evidence for the existence of this explosion waiting to happen. And even as the classic organs of misinformation posit the latter as a result of political corruption, closer inspection grounds both events in a similar state of origin.

While the Athens protests were a direct response to an economic crisis, the situation in Bangkok is slightly more complicated. The most succinct and diagnostic account I’ve read of Thailand’s historical present is by Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly. However, I wonder about their claim that "the underlying motivation of the protesters is clear: they are fed up with having election results overturned." It’s not just the political procedures that pressed a multitude of men, women, and children hard up against a hostile military-industrial complex.

A better explanation would point to the state of emergency invoked as response to the devastating power of a permanently present series of economic crises. What thus arises is a disjuncture between freedom — the ability to redefine the very situation one inhabits — and economic oppression. To call up the immortal words of Bill Clinton: "It’s the economy, stupid!"

For a revolutionary situation to escalate to a revolution proper, convulsions have to be felt in the economic base, not just at the level of parliamentary procedure. Direct action, as put to use in Athens and Bangkok, however, is counter-revolutionary. Is this not precisely what the military-industrial complex requires to ensure its economic and ideological longevity, skirmishes against a mob of "terrorist" farmers hurling bottles of piss and vinegar? Such is the impression I get from Richard Winter, writing on, who describes his friends — "wealthy Thais who were educated abroad" — as stridently opposing the protesters, and who also bemoans the detrimental impact this protest might have on "people who have come from the rural provinces to work in Bangkok for as little as 100 baht (AU$3.60) a day".

Yet perhaps the outcomes might have been different if that revolutionary energy had solidified into a singular response as opposed to manifold factions. The efforts in Greece were undirected and, worse still, those in Bangkok were utterly misguided — here, a "dictatorship of the proletariat" had been perversely engineered to match the will of a politically ousted and ethically bankrupt billionaire.

Solidarity has always stood as midwife to revolutionary success, from 18th century France through 20th century Russia and beyond, where collectives mobilised against a common enemy. Though commonality is admittedly more complicated in the ideological wake of late capitalism, so long as humans bear fidelity to an idea of freedom, along with its relationship to exclusion, inequality, famine, and thus economic oppression, revolution will remain a possibility.

The lesson to be learned from Greece and Thailand is as simple as it is powerful: it is that humans are blessed with the courage to go up against their situation, at whatever cost, seeking its transformation.

Images from Athens and Bangkok only confirm the existence of this courage, manifest as a revolutionary fervour best described by Maximilien Robespierre in his final speech delivered one day before his arrest and execution.

Robespierre proclaimed the existence of a "tender, imperious and irresistible passion, the torment and delight of magnanimous hearts" sharpened on "that deep horror of tyranny, that compassionate zeal for the oppressed, that sacred love for the homeland, that even more sublime and holy love for humanity".

What he was describing is courage — at a time when it was needed most. This is precisely what we are seeing today: an abundance of courageous humans.

The protesters will undoubtedly and unfairly be labeled "terrorists" — as such, they will be subject to the deadly censure of military power, and those few left standing will be locked up.

It is through lack of solidarity among the oppressed that their revolutionary cause will be lost, and it is through lack of solidarity with the oppressed that their silent extermination will persist. In the meantime, the invisible hand of the enemy has just exposed itself twice in quick succession. As the debt crisis spreads to Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere, that hand will continue to expose itself and, whenever resisted, it will form a fist.

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