Dan Connell’s Rethinking Revolution

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

David Finkel

Rethinking Revolution
New Strategies for Democracy and Social Justice
by Dan Connell
Lawrenceville, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: The Red Sea Press,
2001) 459 pp., $24.95 paperback.

BOOKSHELVES THESE DAYS are filled with the literature of ex-revolutionary disillusionment. This is particularly true when it comes to the broken dreams of so many national liberation or “anti-imperialist” struggles: Once viewed on the 1960s and `70s far left as the key to overthrowing world capitalism itself, these are now seen as hopelessly doomed by their own economic backwardness or the overwhelming power of the “Empire.”(1)

Dan Connell’s Rethinking Revolution is something entirely different. Connell explores the experiences of Eritrea, South Africa, Palestine and Nicaragua in a manner that is critical and genuinely reflective, yet forward-looking, concentrated especially on those grassroots forces and voices that can regenerate the movements, complete the unfinished agendas of liberation and forge new ones.

A word about the book’s author is in order here. Dan Connell was, to my knowledge, the only radical left western journalist reporting in English during the 1970s on the armed struggle for independence in Eritrea. His accounts from the field in The Guardian (the now-defunct U.S. left newsweekly) were always important reading, even at times when little else in that paper was.

Here was a national liberation movement that truly struggled Against All Odds (the title of Connell’s earlier book, published in 1997, chronicling its ultimate victory). Eritrea, claimed as a province of Ethiopia both under Emperor Haile Selassie and the subsequent military Dergue, wasn’t supported by either side in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, nor by China, all of which saw Ethiopia as the ultimate winner in the conflict.

Among others, Israel and Cuba alike were deeply implicated in aiding the Ethiopian war of annexation and colonization against the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF). The struggle was further complicated by the rivalry between the EPLF and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), an earlier formation that focused on the military aspect of the struggle but not the simultaneous tasks of political and social transformation.

Against all this, the EPLF could not be defeated, precisely because of the extraordinary power of its popular organizing, its commitment to the empowerment of women and the unity of a linguistically and religiously diverse population. And the Eritrean struggle also inspired democratic struggle in Ethiopia and the ultimate exhaustion of the quasi-totalitarian military dictatorship there.

Rich Discussion

Revolutionary and post-revolutionary Eritrea constitutes one of Connell’s case studies in Rethinking Revolution. The book is structured, however, in a striking four-by-four matrix that enables the author, and compels the reader, to foreground central social and theoretical problems.

Instead of consecutive sections on Eritrea, South Africa, Palestine and Nicaragua, Connell’s four parts are titled “Transitions,” “Women,” “Workers” and “Parties.” Each part in turn devotes one chapter to each of the countries under discussion. In this manner, then, feminist and labor issues take on their own critical importance rather than being subsumed under a discussion of party programs or economics.

The discussion in each of these sixteen chapters is exceptionally rich and repays multiple readings. We learn, for example, of the profound political and moral crises that have gripped the Sandinista party since its shocking unforeseen defeat in Nicaragua’s 1990 election, and the tragic setbacks of women’s role in the Palestinian struggle after the defeat of the first Intifada.

We explore the deep complexities and partial bureaucratization of the South African trade union federation COSATU in relation to the post-apartheid African National Congress government. And in Eritrea, we see the EPLF’s successor party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice, struggle with enormous tasks of economic reconstruction; attempt to maintain democratic grassroots organizing even while its main cadres are absorbed into state assignments; seek to contain the problematic influence of externally-based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs); and confront the ravages of a new, terrible, tragic and unnecessary border war with Ethiopia.

Connell’s account on the whole is balanced, especially in synthesizing and quoting extensive interviews with active participants. In particular, women militants offer systematic and trenchant critiques of leadership policies both in Nicaragua, where many have left the FSLN to take up independent initiatives, and in Palestine where most find it essential to remain inside the political parties because, as one puts it:

“It is easy for women to talk to women about these [feminist issues], but they need to be taken up within the political parties, too. This is where the power is in our society. Without political organizations, women will be lost. The continuation of the struggle within these parties is very important.” (152)

At all points, popular participation and power remain Connell’s focus.


At the level of political journalism I can see only one weak point in Connell’s discussion, which lies in his treatment of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s not that his account lacks sharp critical insight — quite the contrary, even though one would have liked some attention to the top ANC leadership’s initial default and late response in relation to the AIDS crisis.

The problem for me is that Connell’s focus in South Africa is overwhelmingly on leaders and activists of the South African Communist Party. Undoubtedly these are voices that should be heard, and much of what they have to say on post-apartheid economics and politics is reflective and insightful, mixed in with a goodly dose of reformist apologetics on the SACP’s governmental role.

There is, however, a non-Communist South African left, which is meaningful even if not numerically huge — a Pan-Africanist sector, and independent Marxist currents — that deserves a hearing. And there are activists from within the ANC/SACP itself whose opposition to government policies on housing, utility cutoffs for non-payment, etc. have resulted in ostracism.

Connell also treads rather lightly on the disappearance of the once-touted Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) into the neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan (GEAR), although he does note that it was the union movement COSATU rather than the SACP which first protested it. (338-9)

Connell is not completely one-sided, inasmuch as he does quote the critical analysis of the independent left journalist Hein Marais. It seems to me, however, that we should hear from people like Mzwanele Mayekiso, Trevor Ngwane, or a veteran independent Marxist like Neville Alexander. Connell appears to give the critical non-Communist left short shrift with a cryptic reference:

“(T)he notion of abandoning race as a central category of oppression and inequality in favor of a strictly class-based analysis, as some on the left urged, was way premature, if not off-base altogether.” (342)

Indeed! But we are not told who “on the left” advocates such a bizarre reductionism, nor do we hear from those who might offer a more balanced critique. This seems linked to Connell’s own optimistic balance sheet on this ex-Stalinist party:

“The SACP had made enormous strides toward understanding these [i.e. race, class, gender, rural/urban, tribal and ethnic] features of their society and in articulating an economic and political agenda to deal with them . . . this is a party better positioned to give leadership to the process than most.” (342)

I would suggest at the very least, given the huge weight of international and domestic capital, that a critical independent opposition from the left is an essential component of a healthy “process” at least as much as SACP “leadership.”(2)

Furthermore, since politics and ideology also matter, one wants to ask: What did the SACP have to say to the world or its own membership about Eritrea, during the long and heroic independence struggle of that nation?

The Problem of State Power

I want to briefly also touch on Connell’s theoretical framework, although the issues involved go far beyond what can be discussed here.

My impression is that Connell’s thinking is very close to, and influenced by, that of the SACP, but in any case it’s best to quote him directly. Connell’s introduction is titled, tellingly, “No More Socialist Blueprints,” and begins:

“For most of the twentieth century, left thinking about how to make a revolution was clear and straightforward: capture the state, reconstruct it to serve working class interests, then use it to transform the society. All else should be subordinated to these tasks.

“Today, this formula is in question. Several of the movements covered here have begun to characterize the state as contested terrain, rather than as a fixed entity that can be won (or lost) in a single exhilarating upheaval and then smashed and reconstructed on some entirely different class and political basis. Furthermore, say some, capitalist society is not only class-defined but also essentially patriarchal. This demands coincident attention and action . . .

“In the conventional formulation, revolutionary social transformation was to proceed according to a set of `scientific’ procedures once the movement had state power — land reform, collectivization, nationalization, rapid industrialization, the institution of central planning and so on. Oppressive social relations — gender, ethnicity and other `secondary’ factors — would resolve themselves as class distinctions were eradicated . . .

“Though much oratory was expended on the virtues of `proletarian democracy,’ precious little of it was evident within the working class or in its political vanguard, the party.” (5-6)

Connell goes on to provide a concise and useful summary of the vagaries of Soviet and Maoist theory, but let’s try to unpack what I’ve quoted here.

In the first place, what Connell calls 20th Century “left thinking” and “the conventional formulation” may be a somewhat simplistic rendering of classic revolutionary Marxism. It represents, however, a pretty good synopsis of the theory and rhetoric, if not necessarily the practice, of pro-Moscow Communist parties (of which the SACP itself was a prominent example). As such it was deeply rooted in the politics of the dominant movements of the left.

Rather than rehash this history, Connell to be sure asks the right question: With what is this flawed theory (inadequate for the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first) to be replaced?

On the positive side, the answer is exactly where Connell puts it: The party alone is not the revolution, the revolution and the reconstruction depend upon mass movements with their own integrity, among which women’s and workers’ movements are of absolutely central importance.

At the same time, the formulation of “the state as contested terrain” is deeply ambiguous. Quite frankly, this is a formula often presented, not only in the “Third World” but in the industrialized capitalist states, particularly by social democratic intellectuals inspired by a reformist reading of Antonio Gramsci,(3) to justify all manner of corrupt and bureaucratic politics (including voting for the Democratic Party).

Yet one also sees in Connell’s rich descriptions examples of mass movements genuinely engaging in this “contested terrain.” Without claiming originality, let me offer two cryptic formulas as a first step toward resolving the contradiction.

1) The conquest and reconstruction of the state “to serve working class interests” cannot be abandoned. Taking state power must be seen as a necessary, though not sufficient, component of any revolution.

Think about Argentina, for example, as described eloquently in James Cockcroft’s report in this issue of Against the Current on factory seizures often led by women workers. Here is an authentic economic and social crisis of classic revolutionary proportions; what chance is there for a solution unless workers’ control at some points of production can be extended to the state?

Connell’s work itself offers plenty of empirical verification for the “necessity” of gaining and holding state power. In Nicaragua, as flawed as the Sandinistas’ handling of (for example) peasant and indigenous issues in the 1980s may have been, its defeat was a terrible tragedy for the population — and one that greatly accelerated the corruption and moral degeneration of the party itself, and the dissolution of its dreams into the scramble for material survival and bureaucratic privilege of the subsequent decade.

In Palestine, the corruption of the Palestinian National Authority and its deep alienation from the masses are certainly not the result of holding state power, but quite the opposite — the shadowy illusion of power in the West Bank and Gaza without any substantive reality under the continuing Israeli colonial occupation.

2) The state may be “contested terrain” — but only in those circumstances when political power has been ripped away from the capitalist ruling class.

In Sandinista Nicaragua of the 1980s, the state was authentic “contested terrain” in which working class and popular interests genuinely fought it out with domestic capital and imperialist pressure. Something similar, schematically, can be said of independent Eritrea under the EPLF/PFDJ.

In South Africa, the overthrow of apartheid constituted a genuine political revolution and, in that sense, a huge step toward freedom. Yet power in the state was not taken away from capital as such; and the hard reality is that the “contested terrain” in this context is an illusion, in which the working class and the poor inevitably lose whenever their interests collide directly with big business and international capital.

Is this not why so much of the Black population in South Africa has suffered a sharp decline in living standards; why the state economic sector built up under apartheid to eliminate white poverty is now to be privatized rather than benefit the Black majority; and why the poor who helped bring down white rule by refusing to pay for utilities are now having them shut off?

One can agree with South African journalist Hein Marais, interviewed by Dan Connell, that what is involved here is not a “sellout” by the African National Congress, which after all always pursued a national-capitalist program. But this hard reality is what is obscured in the complex and sophisticated formulas offered above all by the SACP leadership, which Connell in my view does not subject to sufficient critical scrutiny.

Vibrant Text

While an opportunity to explore these issues in depth would be welcome, I don’t want to obscure the main point of this review, which is that Rethinking Revolution is a brilliant and vibrant text, the best study I’ve seen of contemporary liberation experience. Connell succeeds above all in writing from within the struggles, not as a detached outside analyst.

I’d like to conclude with a couple of observations intended to highlight the importance of the issues Connell explores.

First, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough, is the unmitigated catastrophe of the institutionalized single-party state, substituting for the democratic power of the population.

Perhaps the worst example in present-day politics is the case of Zimbabwe. This is a particularly disturbing spectacle from the perspective of those of us from a political current that proudly organized material aid in the 1970s for the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU, later ZANU-PF after the formation of the Patriotic Front).(4)

ZANU-PF in power pursued a triple policy that has proven fatal. First was the ruthless elimination of political opposition stemming initially from rival forces in the liberation struggle. Second, under pressure from imperialism, was the refusal to institute authentic land reform when it had the moral authority to do so.

Third was the increasing concentration of power not only in the ruling party but its top leader Robert Mugabe. As a result Mugabe, who should have had the revolutionary stature of Nelson Mandela, has become a new Papa Doc Duvalier, a megalomaniac and homophobic bigot to boot, turning his country into the Haiti of southern Africa.

It is difficult to estimate the number of lives that will be claimed by economic collapse, famine, AIDS and political disintegration in this once-hopeful country.

Nothing like this level of catastrophe has been experienced in the cases chosen by Dan Connell; yet the debacle of the Sandinistas in failing to confront the political and moral stench surrounding Daniel Ortega is symptomatic.

Second, Connell is entirely correct in placing emphasis on issues of women’s liberation, not only because of their intrinsic importance but as a barometer of the health and vibrancy of liberation struggles as a whole.

His chapter tellingly titled “Women Only Decorate the PLO” chronicles Palestinian activists’ efforts to deal with the decline in female leadership and participation after the high point of 1988-90.

For a supplementary text I would strongly recommend the essay by feminist researchers Penny Johnson and Eileen Kuttab, “Where Have All the Women (and Men) Gone?” (Feminist Review No. 69, Winter 2001, 21-43; www.tandf.co.uk/journals)

Writing in January and February 2001 in the context of the second Intifada (which broke out after Connell’s book was completed), Johnson and Kuttab document the impact on women’s participation, and broad popular mobilization, of multiple debilitating factors: the enormous brutality of the Israeli assault against the civilian population, the militarization of the struggle on the Palestinian side, the decline of grassroots organizations following the return of the exiled PLO bureaucracy under terms of the Oslo Accords.(5)

Finally, the extraordinary complexities facing social movements in post-apartheid South Africa will have profound relevance to the latest and most important case of a left party taking power through election in what remains very much a capitalist state: the victory of the Workers Party in Brazil. In this context Connell’s study explores issues that become more critical by the day.


  • A striking example of disillusionment and surrender, Fred Halliday’s Two Hours Which Shook the World, is reviewed by Phil Hearse in ATC 97 (“Fred Halliday and Pax Americana,” March-April 2002, 40-42).
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  • A critical perspective on present realities, through the lens of a community struggle against evictions, is “We are the Poors”: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa by Ashwin Desai (Monthly Review Press, 2002). Reviewed by Naomi Klein in The Nation, 12/16/02, this account of opposition to ANC policy at the base illustrates exactly the kind of grassroots activism that Dan Connell highlights in the rest of his book.
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  • I am pleased to report that the name of Gramsci appears nowhere in Connell’s index.
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  • I refer here to the International Socialists (IS) around 1977-78. This is not to imply that we endorsed the notion of a single-party state.
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  • Johnson and Kuttab describe a Palestinian “politics that could be termed `authoritarian populism’ which denies specific constituencies and publics in favor of `the people.’ The people or `the street’ give — or potentially withhold — vital legitimacy to the government, but have weak or absent roles in political interpretation, opinion formation or, most importantly, decision making.” The counter tendency to authoritarian populism -– “mobilizing active democratic publics” — requires precisely the kind of organization, “including an active and strategically minded women’s movement,” that are struggling to survive under the present appalling circumstances. (25)
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  • ATC 103, March-April 2003