Angry flowers don’t win either

Reflections on 'If We Burn'.
Adam Williams

Where to begin? Well for once, this is an extremely easy question when considering Vincent Bevins’ new book, If We Burn. It’s chapter 19 of 21.

This is because the first 18 chapters cover protests that are very well known to most people, the political analysis of which is fairly surface level and the people interviewed are predominantly cliques of the type of people you find at all protests. 

That’s not to say there is no value in these chapters, but if politics and protests are not new to you and you just want to know the author’s opinion on how best to mobilise protests towards revolutionary goals, then go straight to the chapter ‘A Tale of Two Explosions’.

To be fair, Bevins conclusions are no doubt, going to be quite devastating to a lot of people, so I’m sure he just wanted to show the depth of his research. But for anyone happy to accept at face value that Bevins has covered a lot of protests and interviewed a lot of the people involved, they might as well skip to chapter 19.

Vincent Bevins at Web Summit 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a bit of context, I had people contact me about this book after I wrote the article, ‘Happy flowers don’t win’, which brought together football, a back injury, and my long-standing disdain for how protests are conducted in the UK. Interestingly, a similar term to ‘happy flowers’ is highlighted in Bevins’ book as used by the Turkish football ultras, ‘Vamos Bien’, to describe middle-class activists during the Gezi protests in 2013. In parts of Turkey, according to Bevins, middle-class activists are called, ‘The Flower People’. 

When I purchased ‘If We Burn’, I hoped I was going to read the protest equivalent of Carlos Marighella’s revolutionary war manual, ‘Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla’. Sadly, it isn’t that. However, Bevins does agree with Marighella in one important respect – when it comes to turning mass protests into something revolutionary, we would do well to listen to a certain Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

In my article, I argued that the UK protest movement tries to win the public over by getting them to like them. This often manifests into quirky banners, big smiles, singing songs, and, as a consequence, playing by the rules of the state. My argument was that if you want people to treat you seriously, then you need to act seriously, and that can only happen when a protest is the last resort of desperate and angry people. 

If you want people to treat you seriously, then you need to act seriously. Image: Unsplash.

Though I stand by this, ‘If We Burn’ highlights an extremely important factor that I didn’t touch on. Who leads the protest? Who speaks for the protestors? And, ultimately, who directs proceedings, before, during, and after? In other words, a protest without a strict and controlling (yes, controlling) vanguard, who has the confidence of the masses and who can direct the masses without dissent, ultimately stands no chance of achieving revolutionary goals. The golden rule is that the vanguard must come before the protests or, as Bevins states: do not wait for ‘the explosion… to form the organisation’ .

‘If We Burn’ shows very clearly that it does not matter how big, angry, inventive, disruptive, or destructive a protest is, there has not yet been a better way to achieve revolutionary results from mass protests than that created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In 2024, this is a very big claim and one, I believe, many people will not be happy to hear. 

And that is pretty much that. Bevins sensitively and respectfully shows how Western (mainly American) and Japanese cultural influences, as well as social media platforms and love of celebrities, allowed for far too much importance given to pop culture and online spaces, to the detriment of tried and tested organisational methods for a generation that wanted to either break with the past or has no concept of it. 

Bevins shows how social media allowed for far too much importance given to pop culture and online spaces, to the detriment of tried and tested organisational methods. Image: Flickr.

But, as one Tunisian activist admitted upon reflection on the Arab Spring, what happened was “more than an uprising, but less than a revolution”. If we are to take Bevins’ work seriously, this is pretty much all a vanguard-less protest can really hope to achieve.

So, as Lenin himself once asked when Russia was at a crossroads in the early days of the Revolution: what is to be done? 

Personally, I believe the Left has gone too far down the road of horizontal, leaderless action that is geared more toward YouTube clips and social media outrage than can be reversed. Modern tech culture is far too seductive, and ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ give off a strong illusion of actual action. The idea of a small vanguard cadre that directs events and ‘demands’ results is very much anathema to the modern Left's ideals of individuality and letting everyone speak ‘their truth’. 

As much as the Left idealises the golden age of revolution in the 20th century, it is a product of its material environment where, due to being brought up in the bosom of advertising, mass consumerism and Hollywood, too many people believe themselves to be the main characters of their own revolutions. 

When it comes to turning mass protests into something revolutionary, we would do well to listen to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Image: Wikipedia.

But revolutions are the result of thousands – sometimes millions – of nameless people making huge sacrifices for very often small or insignificant gains, in order to push forward a collective will that has been directed, essentially, by the finger-pointing of a chosen few. If, in the modern era, the concept of this collective sacrifice is gone, then, I would argue, so is the revolution which the Left still proclaims is needed.

Though superficial, the one aspect of modern protests that I think has developed is in its iconography, which can be genius, shocking, awe-inspiring or off-putting, depending on who is the observer, but which I believe is a genuine advancement. However, Bevins highlights a stark example of the futility of this advancement when all else has fallen behind. Describing a scene during the most recent Hong Kong protests, which I believe to be the most inventive and strikingly stunning series of protests in history, he writes, “Through the smoke a protestor emerged wearing an old, World War II-style gas mask and wielding a bow and arrow. This was no longer a protest, or even a riot. It was medieval siege warfare”. But, Bevins continues, “China was better at war than the young people of Hong Kong”.  

In the end, this is the ultimate lesson, and something that Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew to their core; to turn mass protests into revolution is in effect to go to war with the state. This does not necessarily mean a war to the death, but having a strict party apparatus that is able to give clear direction allows movements the ability to know when to advance, compromise, or even retreat when needed, as Leninism is also about pragmatism. As inventive and cool-looking as modern protests can be, Bevins concludes that it is the old school rules of party control that are missing from the modern Left and that this is a crucial omission. 

If it was easy to know where to start with ‘If We Burn’, it is harder to know where to end because, despite Bevin seemingly to conclude that Leninism is the best way forward, he ends on a kind of psychedelic word salad about feelings. For me, I think the best conclusion is this. We now have some good research on a decade's worth of protests. We can either choose to listen...or we can continue to lose.

Adam Williams co-founded GND Media and co-hosts the Green New Deal podcast and hosted the podcast mini-series Working Class Voices. Read Happy Flowers Don't Win here.

Feature image: Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Williams

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