The Struggle Continues: On Vincent Bevins’s “If We Burn”
By Tyler McBrienOctober 3, 2023
If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution by Vincent Bevins
The phrase’s potency did not diminish after Mozambique won independence in 1975. Nor did it decades later when apartheid ended. In 2011, LGBTQ+ rights activists donned shirts with the phrase at David Kato’s funeral in Uganda and, more recently, Ugandan opposition leader and rapper Bobi Wine invoked the refrain on social media. Nigerian student activists call protests, riots, and other actions “aluta,” and refer to the “aluta spirit.” In 2019, the typically African epigram enjoyed popularity among Indonesians protesting human rights violations.
Though “a luta continua” means “the struggle continues,” it doesn’t mean the struggle should continue indefinitely. Modern usage often omits the latter half of the original wording: “A luta continua, vitória é certa.” This, which translates to “The struggle continues, victory is certain,” represents a grim acceptance of just how long the arc of the moral universe is, while maintaining the belief that it bends toward justice—eventually. People typically only take to the streets expecting to change them.
Without that second clause in mind, it may be tempting to read Vincent Bevins’s new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, pessimistically. In it, Bevins chronicles the protest movements that made the 2010s the most politically active in history, considering why such unprecedented mass protests so often had the opposite effect from what the protesters intended. Still, rather than focusing solely on these losses, he tracks the small wins, as well as the lessons learned and edifying counterfactuals disseminated from one movement to the next. Crucially, the book draws deeply on protestors’ own words. If We Burn thereby offers both a postmortem of the last decade of mass protest and a blueprint for the inevitable next. In searching for the missing revolution, Bevins may help others find it after all.
The book spans a geography similarly ambitious to that of Bevins’s 2020 history of the US government’s Cold War interventions, The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. In If We Burn, Bevins guides the reader through “mass protest explosions” in 10 countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Türkiye, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Chile—and, to a lesser extent, New York (Occupy), Spain, Greece, and Indonesia. In each locale, he sheds light on the ashes—what initially sparked the blazes, and how the conflagrations ended.
If We Burn is also temporally ambitious. Though he homes in on one decade, 2010–20, exploring these mass protests’ context often requires reaching back into the long-lost histories of the Left. In doing so, Bevins teaches essential terminology (such as “teleology”), concepts (such as Charles Tilly’s “repertoire of contention”), and slogans (such as 1968’s “Under the paving stones, the beach”). He pulls this off with lucid didacticism, never assuming readers’ prior knowledge. Nearly everything, from prefigurative politics (in which “what you are doing now will prefigure, or show a glimpse of, the world you want to live in tomorrow”) to YouTube (which he describes as “the video aggregation website hosted by the California technology company Google”), merits a simple yet thorough explanation.
The book balances interviews with the activists and Bevins’s own firsthand reporting. The mass protest decade saw people taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers all around the world. The disparate movements all assumed similar shapes—“leaderless, ‘horizontally’ organized, ‘spontaneous,’ digitally coordinated mass protests in city streets or public squares,” where participants sought to “‘prefigure’ the society they were meant to help bring about.” Appropriately, Bevins calls the protests “explosions,” evoking their ability to create an apparent political vacuum in short order. The book’s title comes from a Hong Kong activist who anonymously signed his posts 攬炒, or “laam chau”—a Cantonese phrase meaning “embrace fry,” mutually assured destruction. (In one viral post, the activist borrowed a catchphrase from the popular American book series The Hunger Games: “Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!”)
The “explosions” considered by the book share similar fates. Most—seven out of 10, by Bevins’s count—“experienced something even worse than failure.” The remaining three include one success (South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution), a draw (Ukraine’s Euromaidan), and a “delicate victory” (Chile’s constitutional referendum). Such generally tragic trajectories throw one of the most enduring truisms of leftist-struggle history into sharp relief: “It can always get worse.” And for most of the protesters in If We Burn, it usually does. The book brims with failure. The good guys lose big and lose often. Still, those losses contain lessons, both explicit and implicit.
If We Burn thereby marks an interesting entry into the canon of activist training texts. Bevins, who is quick to point out that he’s “just a journalist” with “no lessons to impart on [his] own,” joins a somewhat unlikely group ranging from Marshall Ganz and Erica Chenoweth, at elite institutions such as the Harvard Kennedy School, to more radical newcomers such as the W. E. B. Du Bois Movement School. Some of If We Burn’s protagonists clearly read their Marx and Lenin. They drew direct inspiration from past revolutions, both failed and successful; you get the sense that some of them could have taught at a place like the Du Bois Movement School. Many others simply reacted to the events unfolding around them. Revolutionary situations, writes Bevins, “compress time and speed up the flow of history. […] Decisions are made instantly, often based on something already learned in the past.”
In any case, fortune favors the organized. Bevins stresses the vitality of a “road map to somewhere better”—“if not a plan already prepared in advance, then a strategy elaborated quickly and effectively as events unfold”—adding that “simply being right is not enough.” He doesn’t offer the contours of that road map until the very end of the book. There, he asks interviewees: “If you could speak to a teenager somewhere around the world right now, someone who might be fighting to change history in some kind of political struggle in their lifetime, what would you tell them? What lessons did you learn?”
Turns out, they learned quite a few. For instance: “Organizations are effective, and representation is important.” Mass protest explosions effectively create political vacuums, but beware: if you’re not ready to step into the breach, someone else will. Activists also warned against confusing strategy with tactics, and understanding that “a particular type of contention may get you through one phase of a struggle, but not the next.” Throwing soup at a Van Gogh or gluing your feet to the stadium floor at a major sporting event can only secure headlines for so long. Act, but don’t fall victim to “Do Somethingism”—or the misguided belief “that every action is equally valuable.”
More implicit lessons are also interwoven with the book’s narrative. Somewhat surprisingly, Bevins does not center his discussion amid the digital spaces of Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp that saw widespread adoption during the mass protest decade, but rather the physical ones that protesters occupied—often referred to as the streets or “the Square.” Make no mistake: digital tools certainly proved indispensable for planning, organizing, and driving people into the streets. Still, it was the rapturous feeling in the streets that gave movements their meaning. These physical spaces provide fodder for some of Bevins’s most memorable passages, capturing the ecstasy of protests “somewhere between a music festival and the Paris Commune.” Life in the Square felt “legendary,” “mythical,” and “profoundly, unimaginably beautiful,” as social divisions crumbled and solidarity bloomed; it’s hard to imagine replicating “that intense, life-changing collective euphoria” in a digital space.
Perhaps most important of Bevin’s teachings is that failure is always an option. Possibility is the lifeblood of revolution, but possibility leaves room for both success and failure. “When trying to do something as difficult as changing society,” Bevins writes, “there are no guarantees that anything will go as it should.” Put bluntly, it can always get worse. Bevins describes an unshakable belief in success as teetering “on the edge between obvious truth and teleological self-deception.” One martyr of the Left, the Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961, once said before his untimely death: “I have never doubted for a single instant that the sacred cause to which my comrades and I have dedicated our entire lives would triumph in the end.” In other words: the struggle continues, victory is certain. Reporting across five continents, Bevins heard this sentiment repeated again and again. This continued engagement in the struggle, despite so few victories to be had, speaks more to faith than self-deception. Faith in victory “hangs over the entire project,” Bevins writes. “Without it, there would be no reason for these people to give me their time in the first place.”
Much of the book’s protest pedagogy isn’t new. It has been learned, unlearned, and relearned for decades, even centuries. In a certain light, the If We Burn activists’ belated embrace of organization and hierarchy looks an awful lot like a form of Marxist-Leninism—or “networked Leninism,” as one Brazilian activist half-joked. At one point during his retrospective interviews, Bevins mentions an old Vladimir Lenin line that “‘spontaneous’ uprisings would simply adopt the ideology that is dominant in the air around them,” to which his Ukrainian comrade replies, “Of course, that is exactly what happened.”
As is the case with any activist writing, there is danger here. In laying out these lessons, old and new, the next generation of activists—those hypothetical teenage hopefuls whom Bevins asks protest veterans to advise—may grow overly reliant on them. It is generally best, therefore, to keep the final rule of George Orwell’s “Six Rules for Writing” in mind: after instructing writers to select short words, cut extraneous ones, avoid tired metaphors, and the like, the novelist concludes by advising readers to “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Rules can be broken, lessons ignored. Even musicians with well-defined repertoires must improvise from time to time.
Tyler McBrien is the managing editor of Lawfare.
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