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Why a Decade of Revolts Didn’t Bring the Revolution


Vincent Bevins (@Vinncent) is a journalist and the author of If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.

Kate Yoon (@accidentallyk8) is a recent graduate of Yale Law School and editor at the LPE Blog.

In If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, Vincent Bevins chronicles the protests that erupted across the globe from 2010 to 2020. Fueled by viral images on social media and democratic, horizontalist ideals, millions of people marched on the streets to demand change. By the end of the decade, however, it became clear that the protesters – in Brazil, Hong Kong, Turkey, and Ukraine, to name just a few of the countries that Bevins examines in the book – did not get what they had been demanding. Some mass movements faced brutal repression and crackdown, while others were even co-opted by right-wing organizations to bring about the opposite of what the protesters had originally wanted.

Why did this happen, and what can the experiences of the “mass protest decade” teach us about protests, social movements, and revolution? Earlier this term, Vincent Bevins shared his insights with the LPE Blog’s Kate Yoon.

Kate Yoon

In your book, you investigate the “mass protest decade” from 2010 to 2020. As you show, the protests that took place during this period often had unintended consequences and sometimes even led to a state of affairs that was worse than that which preceded the protests. What did these protests share in common, and why did so many of them end in failure? 

Vincent Bevins

In the history of mass uprisings, there are always unintended consequences to some extent. Even if you look at the most successful protests of all time, things rarely went the way that they were expected to go. But what was puzzling and troubling about this decade was the number of mass uprisings that created what appeared to be moments of euphoric victory. Then, if we come back to the story a couple years later, not only are things not better, but they are, according to the standards articulated by the original protesters, worse than where they started.

There are some commonalities across the 10 to 13 cases that I look at in the book, and some of that is a result of intentional reproduction of tactics that were seen in one place. The example that most shaped the rest of the decade was the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Cairo. Many movements tried to do some version of Tahrir elsewhere, even when national or political situations were quite different, and even after it became clear that the Egyptian uprising ended quite poorly. But there are also a set of material and ideological factors that make a certain response to injustice the easiest, or the most readily available, compared to everything else that can be done to push for political change.

In the 2010s, a very specific set of tactics becomes hegemonic. That is the apparently spontaneous, leaderless, horizontally structured, digitally coordinated mass protest in public squares and public spaces. This repertoire was so successful that it brought far more people onto the streets than expected. These mass protests either overthrew governments or created opportunities for deep reforms in governments that felt they needed to make concessions to the protesters.

But it turned out, at least in this decade, that a protest of this type is poorly constituted to take advantage of a revolutionary situation, and often even failed to elaborate a coherent set of demands when governments did not fall. Instead, there are tragic moments in the book where you have protesters watching in horror as somebody else enters the power vacuum, often someone that they believe to be worse than the original dictator or government that they were protesting. Alternatively, in the cases in which the governments are only destabilized, the governments try as hard as possible to figure out what they can give to the streets, but can’t. 

There’s a scene in the book that illustrates that phenomenon. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, center-left, democratically elected leader, is sitting alone in the presidential palace, watching TV with the volume off, and taking notes, writing down what everyone has written on the signs, because she’s trying to come up with a solution that properly responds to what it is “the streets” are asking for. Personally, I was speaking to dozens, hundreds of people in those weeks, and I found that there was not really an answer to that question. Ultimately, that kind of energy slowly dissipates, as no one can figure out what to do, or the government that is trying for a while to give in to the streets opts ultimately for repression.


Could you say a bit more about the Brazil example? I thought it was one of the best examples of how these mass protests ended up having unintended, even catastrophic, consequences. 


I do hope that the Brazilian case was exemplary of something. I put it at the center of the book because I lived through it, and I know it the best. I also think that there are some elements of Brazil that are uniquely perplexing: there was a popular government in power, and the protesters were sincerely idealistic in their left-anarchist principles, but ultimately the protest helps to bring about an extreme swing to the right. 

What you have is a group called the Movimento Passe Livre, the MPL, which since 2005 has dedicated itself to agitating for the end of public transportation fees in Brazil. This is a group that was an active part of the alter-globalization movement. They were linked directly to the U.S. website that will be familiar to my generation, Indymedia.

This is a group of leftists and anarchists organizing for eight years according to explicitly horizontalist principles, with the goal of the full decommodification of public transportation. From 2005 to 2013, every time there’s a rise in bus fares, they organize protests. These are raucous direct actions, prefigurative protests. They do something called a catracazo, which means that they block turnstiles so that public transit is free. By way of explanation, the bumper-sticker version of prefiguration is: be the change that you want to see in the world.

This was a small enough group that the members knew each other quite well. Because there were so few of them, it was not a problem that all their decisions had to be made through full consensus. Sometimes, this would mean a 14-hour meeting, or a 16-hour meeting, but they would usually come together around a plan. They plan very carefully how they can instigate a popular revolt, and they ultimately succeed in June 2013.

Why is 2013 successful when previous protests were not? This brings me to the other dynamic which is very important in this decade, which is the way that protests are represented in both social media and traditional media. In Brazil, dominant outlets interpreted the thing that was happening as if it was the Arab Spring. As a Brazilian journalist told me, we saw a thing that we didn’t understand, so we slotted it into a pre-existing category that we already had in our brains, which was the stuff that we had seen on TV in the Arab Spring. And so as I say in the book, some people explicitly call this the Brazilian Spring—which I think is quite absurd, but it was a possible way to make comprehensible something that was fundamentally very confusing. 

The popular uprising comes because there’s a police crackdown on the protesters, which shocks the country and causes even Brazil’s more conservative media to come around to supporting the protests. But as the protests get bigger and bigger, people arrive in the streets with very different ideas of what the protests are about. The new arrivals come into initially verbal but ultimately violent conflict with the MPL, and two things happen over the next seven days.

One, Brazilians that we would now easily identify as the beginning of a far-right movement, so I call them proto-Bolsonaristas, actually expel many of the original leftists from the streets. Two, a group of young Brazilians who are on the libertarian or neoliberal right, who have been either funded by the a network of think tanks based in Washington D.C., or trained under the Koch brothers in the United States, recognize, I think correctly, that the meaning of the streets is up for contestation. And this group of young Brazilians, receiving money from the United States, form a copycat group, Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL), and they pretend to be all the things the MPL actually is. They pretend to be a grassroots, leaderless, horizontally structured, idealistic, digitally powered group of young activists.

Over the years that follow, they become far more famous and important than the original MPL. By 2016, they play a major role in a protest movement which ultimately demands the removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. In 2018, they campaign for the election of Jair Bolsonaro, probably the most extreme right leader in the democratic world. Several members of the MBL are elected and enter government in 2019 with him.

So in 2013, you have a group of leftists asking a popular, democratically elected, left-of-center president to deepen the gains that they recognize the Brazilian people have received under the Workers’ Party. And by 2018, you have somebody who is celebrating the return of the dictatorship. It’s one of the many horrible ironies of the book that the MPL had all their 14-hour meetings in the offices of Tortura Nunca Mais, Torture Never Again, in downtown Sao Paulo, since Jair Bolsonaro launched his campaign by celebrating the torture of Dilma Rousseff. 


Your argument is that the protests of the mass protest era were characterized by a lot of heterogeneity and ambiguity in what they were trying to accomplish. But aren’t all protests characterized by that degree of ambiguity? What do you think was distinctive about this mass protest era?


If you think about the French Revolution, or the Bolshevik Revolution, or the Cuban Revolution, the prototypically “vertical” or “organized” revolutions, even official Marxist-Leninist doctrine would have always said that, yes, there was a dedicated vanguard, but the revolution only happened because of the masses. In the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, you have disciplined activist organizations like CORE and SNCC and recognizable leaders like Martin Luther King, but you also have large groups of regular people who come together to support what they are doing. But in the 2010s, you get protest movements where there is basically only horizontality. 

There are a few reasons for this. I think there’s an elective affinity between the material conditions faced by many of the people in the mass protest decade and a certain set of pre-existing ideological affirmations. The two things led to an explosive combination. 

By the 2010s, there has been a concrete decimation of a lot of the organizations that would have been natural protagonists for mass mobilization, like unions or the Black Panther Party. Dedicated organizations were missing or disconnected from the people – either because of their gradual weakening in the First World, or in more extreme cases like in North Africa, because authoritarian governments had crushed civil society.

The book also highlights key moments where the ideological element comes into play. Brazil is an interesting case because the MPL was explicitly horizontalist. The MPL, when presented with the arrival of lots of people that wanted to join the group, could not integrate them because to do so would change the meaning of the group. Everyone was supposed to have an equal role no matter what. And if you created some kind of political education program, or “cadre formation program” in the more vanguardist tradition, or even a more basic induction program, that was called a “Leninist” deviation by members of the group.

The protests of the 2010s resulted from a combination of what was easiest to do, which was not only because of social media, but also because of the concrete configuration of neoliberal society, and then some ideological elements that blocked obvious choices because they were too reminiscent of 20th-century decision making.


By the end of the book, I had the sense that you were advocating for a return to some of the “Old Left” strategies of returning to parties or unions. Is that a correct read of your argument?


The answer may sound like a dodge but it is a limitation of, and a fidelity to, my method that stops me from answering simply in my own voice. Even though I am very critical of media, I am still a journalist. And I still try to be faithful to some of the best of the ethics of journalistic practice. The method of this book was interview: I spoke with around 250 people and asked them all the same questions, and I tried to synthesize the answers. Personally, I think the most valuable part of the book is the story itself.

But one answer to the question of what went wrong was that the movements were too decentralized. This reply was incredibly common, and came from people on both the left and the right. The question as to what to do about that, I can break up into a couple of large categories. Some people do say, “these are my horizontalist principles, I’m sticking to them,” but this is a small minority. Everyone that changes their opinions moves in the same direction. Some people say that we should somehow return to Lenin. Not of course to pretend that it is 1917, but to read the works in that tradition, and see what may be relevant in 2024.

Another answer is to come around to something more in the middle, which is what I’ve often called—although I think I saw someone say this on Twitter—a “common sense anti-anti-Leninism.” Rodrigo Nunes talks about this in his book, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal. He says you can’t throw everything out that works just because it reminds you of the Soviet Union. If you are just doing the exact opposite of something you don’t like, you’re still trapped in the mental prison that was created by that historical phenomenon. If something works, it’s okay to use it even if it was associated with the political tradition of the  “Old Left.”

Now, to be more direct, I do think it is true that politics is impossible without effective collective action. Organizations like parties, unions, and social movements have been successful at transforming societies. This is a work of history and we should not shut the door on the imagination of new types of structures and political activities in the future, but I think I can say that this has proven true in the past.


Given what you call the rise of anti-politics, do you think that the return of more coordinated, centralized organizations like unions or parties is a real possibility in this moment?


I don’t know. It’s really tough. I certainly am not trying to offer something like, here’s one weird trick for doing a revolution. A lot of people came to the conclusion that what we need is something that is very hard to construct. That we thought that we didn’t have to do that hard work because somehow the Internet made it possible to not do it. But in a historical work like this, sometimes the best answers that people come up with are things that are not so easy to accomplish.