Yellow Vests, Class Struggle and Spontaneous Revolution by Gaither Stewart

Les Gilets Jaunes

Image by Patrice CALATAYU via Flickr

by Gaither Stewart
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Rome, Italy
January 18, 2019

In What Is To Be Done of 1902 Lenin opposed revolutionary spontaneity because it “strips away the disciplined nature of the Marxists idea of revolution, leaving it arbitrary and ineffective.” True to himself, Lenin then returned to opposition to spontaneous revolution after WWI during the German Revolution of 1918-19 when in a spontaneous uprising against the post-WWI system Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacist League failed in an attempt to overturn German capitalism.

Similarly, in November 1918, when Kurt Eisner, a politician of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), became Minister-President of a newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria—which Eisner considered a socialist republic—distanced himself from the Russian Bolsheviks and declared that his government would PROTECT property rights, he in effect declared his personal spontaneous revolt. Thus he had no external backing whatsoever and a faulty, and still capitalist program.

In the following January Eisner’s party lost heavily in the Bavarian Parliament elections and in February he was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist. As a result bedlam exploded—guns firing, people dying—in the Parliament palace overlooking the city of Munich. Movements for change and government broke down in Bavaria which has henceforth been dominated by Bavaria Catholic Christian Democrats. The Eisner People’s State thus vindicated Lenin and substantiated his fears of the devilish waste of spontaneous revolution. Things do after all go around and around but do not always return … a boomerang gone astray.

Revolutionary spontaneity is the belief that revolution should begin below, without the guidance of a revolutionary party, or a vanguard party as was said in Lenin’s times. Lenin’s fear, borne out by German events, was that a spontaneous movement could be infiltrated and taken over by reactionary forces. The Yellow Vests in France face similar issues today.

The dedication and tenacity of the people wearing the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes- GJ) are wonderful. Their initial goals of lowering taxes on working people in general and bringing down the capitalist exploiter, French President Emmanuel Macron, are meritorious and revolutionary: Even their boasts of having no leadership may at first seem convincing.

However, there are many howevers. For as Lenin wrote, “Revolution is (always) brewing and is bound to flare up.” Because revolutionary threat is frequently brewing, Capitalism is always as fearfully afraid as it is vigilantly alert to threats to its existence. For Capitalism’s ultimate fear is the people. The Yellow Vests are the personification and manifestation of the people.

To me personally the real “people” in command implies the ultimate arrival of some form of Communism, the specter of which haunts not only Europe of today, as Marx warned, but the entire western world. For the fundamental struggle today, as it was yesterday for Marx, is class struggle. And class struggle is what the Yellow Vests movement is thus far apparently and hopefully all about. The only identity of the Yellow Vests we can be relatively sure of for now is that it is representative of the people. Which people is to be yet determined. But I believe in the French case, in the cause of the real people.

At this point in time the Gilets Jaunes claim to have no leaders. True? Maybe. Maybe not completely. Who decides today, this Saturday, what is to be done? When yellow vested marchers-protesters reach the Arc de Triomphe, they can’t just mill around the arch all day. They have to do something. They have to go somewhere. Twelve avenues depart like spokes from the Arc de Triomphe on Place Charles de Gaulle, the Etoile. Shall they take Avenue Hoche or Avenue Foch, Victor Hugo or Avenue de la Grande Arrmée? Someone will shout over a megaphone “Let’s head for the Trocadero!” And off they go. Someone is leading. At the very start, now over two months ago, someone suggested that protesters meet at Place de la Concorde and march up the Champs Elysées carrying placards against President Macron’s gasoline tax “And hey, let’s all wear yellow vests, you know, like those in our car trunks in case you’re standing on a road at night changing a tire.”

So at that point certain persons step forward from the masses. First they are urban guides. Yes, take Avenue Foch. Prompters. Then they act as spokesmen of the movement to provide answers to petty-bourgeois journalists’ questions as to what it’s all about … or perhaps to a government arbiter who wants to propose unacceptable offers.

But simultaneously the legitimate question arises: Are those first spokesmen really representative? Are they elected. Or selected? That is often where the problem lies. Not always, maybe not even often, do the best step forward. Ambitious persons do. Well, it takes a bit of ambitious leadership too. For as Lenin and Marx always insisted: leadership is necessary. As the New York Occupy Wall Street Movement that began in September 2011 showed: without leadership popular movements wither away.

The anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist movement of 1968 that swept across the world confirmed Lenin and Marx’s warnings that the threatened bourgeois reactionary class always lies in ambush, always trying to infiltrate such movements and to deviate them from revolutionary goals and vitiate them of their anti-capitalist nature. Secret services work that way. That’s their job. After all they work under cover.

Do rabid protesters-hooligans undermine their own movements by devastating shops and burning cars? Or do undercover agents do the dirty work to sully the name of the protest movement? For secret services of the world know how to use the “strategy of tension” and false flag operations: secret agents burn ten cars and blame it on protesters and then crack down on the whole movement. Secret agents were at work in Berlin in 1933: “Burn the Reichstag in Berlin, blame it on a Communist and establish the Nazi dictatorship.”

Infiltrators come from all sides, government agents on the one hand, political opposition on the other, support and join protest movements, and attempt to take them over from the inside and deviate them from their original goals. Example: Italy’s two government rightist parties, the Fascist Lega and Liberal Five Star Movement have tried to gain a foothold in the Yellow Vests in France. Wisely the Yellow Vests have thus far rejected such offers.

Is the Gilets Jaunes Movement spontaneous? Is that possible considering the national spread of the movement? If the movement is spontaneous I want to believe that it is developing a leadership internally, and that it can remain true to its goal of bringing about the collapse of the French government. In that sense it is a positive sign if certain members step forward as guides and spokesmen so as not to display the inherent weaknesses of just another fly-by-night movement without leadership.

Still, as always, the question is complex. Who will become the leaders? And will these leaders move in the direction indicated by the demands of the base of the movement: “Down with the government and the system it represents.” If the emergent leaders are true leaders then the revolutionary demands by necessity will be anti-system, i.e, anti-capitalist, not just for another variant of capitalism: free market capitalism, finance capitalism, state capitalism, welfare capitalism, democratic capitalism, corporatism or fascism, each and every one of which is ultimately based on capitalist exploitation of labor.

Therefore the necessity of anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist leaders for any movement aimed at the overthrow of the system which ultimately means the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by something else. Therefore the necessity of a leadership—vanguard or revolutionary specialists—to guarantee the original goals of the anti-systemic, anti-capitalist movement. Hopeful emergents from the underworld of the unrepresented protesters of forgotten classes with their besieged hopes, observers of class relations, journalists and writers, and political leaders must keep in the front of their minds: class struggle, working class, class struggle, capitalism, working class.


Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).

from the archives:

The Tools Of Nonviolent Struggle Should Never Lose Their Edge

The Yellow Vests and the Left by Jim Kavanagh + Yellow Vests Shift to the Left

Caleb Maupin: Neoliberalism: A Study in Evil

Capitalism: A Crime Story

The Time Is Up–The Time Is Now

Beyond Voting by Howard Zinn + What Else You Can Do: 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action by David Swanson

Elections and Politics are the Games of Elites

Shifting Systems With Nonviolent Strategy + Think Outside the Protest Box by Rivera Sun

8 thoughts on “Yellow Vests, Class Struggle and Spontaneous Revolution by Gaither Stewart

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  3. Intriguing post.

    I believe that certain “leaders” will arise in any large movement and, while it is a natural thing and somewhat necessary in order to have some semblance of organization, it should be tempered with some way of spreading “leadership” around to various people with potentially great ideas. Basically I’m saying that some balance between no leadership and a typical system with specific “leaders” should be attempted. We can’t impatiently rush progress but we also need to make sure that we continue to make progress without losing sight of what we want to accomplish – taking down Capitalism.

    This might be difficult, but it would have the benefit of being able to make decisions more easily than what we were doing at Zuccotti Park, for example, but could weed out overly ambitious people who would attempt to stay in positions of leadership,

    It’s difficult to make a valid point in a short comment so I hope I didn’t come off as confusing.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting post that a lot of people should be discussing. It’s the only way to get ourselves out of this horrible system of virtual slavery. We need to encourage courage and get people to take responsibility for their actions on an individual level and a societal level.

    • Thanks, ashiftinconsciousness, always appreciate your insights.

      Back when I was in a socialist organization at University, what we did each week was have a different person lead the meeting. We were all expected to be a “leader.” Not sure it was the best idea especially for those who are/were very shy.

      • Well, while I understand the desire to get everyone involved, I think it might be better to allow some people to come forward in leadership roles, but to prevent any one person from taking over. In other words, allow those with leadership traits to use them but make sure the group uses those traits to the advantage of everyone as opposed to being used by the leader to push forward her/his agenda. I, personally, am fairly shy when it comes to speaking in front of crowds, but at the small discussion groups we had regularly at Zuccotti Park during the OWS protest I occasionally spoke at length and felt comfortable.

        I know this is off topic, but bringing up OWS made me think about something I feel like getting off my chest: I don’t like the common idea that OWS was a complete and utter failure. Most people are stuck in mainstream ideas such as needing a leader to be the face of any group and/or a politically motivated movement needing to become a political party. OWS continued helping people long after the press stopped their attacks. The group raised money from contributions for years and purchased the debts many people were handcuffed by, getting them out of economic slavery. And I also believe the movement led to Bernie Sanders’ popularity in the 2016 election cycle. If the ruling class indoctrination had been rendered less effective by more people finding their courage Clinton wouldn’t have been able to ambush Sanders in the primaries and the outcome of the election very likely would have been very different.

        Also, if all of the people (millions) who supported OWS in discussions with their friends but who took no action to help had gone to the nearest Occupy site once in a while to significantly increase the presence at rallies, things would have transpired differently. We have a nation full of armchair activists who say they want change, and democracy, but will sit on their lazy asses and turn the television on to watch the latest hit show instead of cooperating in the change they say they want. Instant gratification has trumped moral courage and patient working at attaining a more compassionate, democratic system that could drastically reduce suffering around the world. Rant over. 😎

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