This paper was presented at “Color Revolution and Cultural Hegemony,” the 6th World Socialism Forum in Beijing, China, October 16-7, 2015.
The term “color revolution” is code. It is a code for regime change, and the term is often treated as synonymous with activities of the CIA and its assorted vehicles such as the National Endowment for Democracy and its various fronts.
However, not all activities which are the result of CIA interventions have designated colors; in this respect, to talk about color revolutions excludes some very similar processes. Further, not all developments that have been described as color revolutions are necessarily the specific result of planning and intervention by the CIA.
To identify the phenomena in question in a way which captures its essence, I suggest that it be described as a process of “Marketing Regime Change.” Why marketing? For one, we are not describing here cases in which regime change occurs through force. On the contrary, characteristic of this model is that it focuses upon non-violent regime change. Further, money is not at the core of this process — although, as the public records and reports of the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, USAID, and other agencies reveal, substantial funds are available to support these efforts at regime change.
I use the term marketing because we need to understand that this process draws upon all the techniques involved in marketing a commodity. Polling, use of focus groups, development of particular images, “branding” — all are part of this model. Selling a new product, selling a new lifestyle, selling a new government — it’s all the same. It is a process which Fritz Haug described as the act of “courting.” The seller courts the potential buyer: “Whoever goes courting makes themselves attractive and desirable. All manner of jewelry, fabrics, scents and colours offer themselves as means of presenting beauty and desirability”.1 The parallels to the marketing of regime change cannot be denied. As Ivan Marovic, one of the founders of Otpor (the Serbian youth group central to the ouster of Milošević), put it, politics is boring. “It’s not cool. Normal people hate politics . . . but . . . you need normal people if you’re gonna make change. To do that, you need to make politics sexy. Make it cool. Make it hip. REVOLUTION as a FASHION LINE’.2
Otpor (which means Resistance) provided the prototype for marketing regime change. Starting in late 1998 as a protest movement among university students, Otpor grew substantially over the next two years; among the methods it emphasized were to “develop a superior communications strategy,” to “create the perception of a successful movement,” to “invest in the skills and knowledge of activists,” and to “cultivate external support.” And they carried out their ultimately successful campaign against Milošević with street theatre, humor, concerts, posters and stickers, use of internet, fax, and email, distribution of training manuals and workshops for activists.3
For this marketing campaign, Otpor had substantial financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Funds, for example, went to purchase cell phones and computers, to recruit and train 20,000 election monitors as well as to support a sophisticated marketing campaign with posters, badges, and T-shirts.4
But it has never been only about monetary support. Regime change in Serbia and subsequent markets has always stressed training and guidance from the CIA and its various networks. For example, the IRI organized up to 10 meetings in Montenegro and Budapest with Otpor leaders beginning in October 1999 and paid for two dozen leaders to attend a seminar on non-violent resistance in Budapest in March 2000; there they received training in, among other things, how to organize a strike, how to communicate with symbols, how to overcome fear, and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime. And that model for regime change was disseminated after Otpor’s success in 2000; Otpor delegates (funded by the usual suspects) went on to provide training to youth organizations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere — in Georgia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Albania, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Venezuela, and Egypt.5
Marketing regime change has followed a very well-developed strategy — one constructed and spread by the cleverly-named Albert Einstein Institute under the direction of Gene Sharp. In Serbia, Freedom House (a US government-funded organization) provided the resources for a Serbian organization to print and distribute 5,000 copies of Gene Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy; further, drawing upon Sharp’s book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Otpor produced a Serbian-language book they called the “Otpor User Manual.” Finally, Otpor activists received direct training from Robert Helvey, President of the Albert Einstein Institute, at the previously-mentioned Budapest seminar.6
There is little doubt as to the nature and purpose of that training. As Gene Sharp indicated in an interview in February 2002, “it is necessary to develop a strategy, or a super-plan” for a massive struggle. “And we can help them by developing literature which provides a step-by-step guide. Step one, you do this; step two, you do that, and on down the line.”7 The political agenda is obvious. As Helvey (a retired U.S. Army colonel formerly employed at the US Defense Intelligence Agency) commented about the seminar in which he first heard Gene Sharp, “It is all about seizing political power or denying it to others” (Newsday, December 26th 1999, reprinted in the AEI’s report for the years 1993-1999, p. 7). Of course, if seizing political power is the goal, the precise means to achieve this is a matter of tactics. Helvey makes that clear in his book, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (published in 2004 by the AEI) where he indicates that “nonviolent strategy is no different from armed conflict, except that very different weapons systems are employed.”8
The thin line between violent regime change and marketing regime change can be illustrated by the case of Venezuela. Following the defeat of both the US government-supported 2002 coup against Chávez and the subsequent “bosses’ lockout” in the winter of 2002-3, the US supporters of regime change turned to Plan B. The annual report of the Albert Einstein Institute indicates that Helvey and another AEI staff member held a “nine-day consultation” in 2003 with supporters of the coup, and that report notes that “the objective of the consultation was to provide them with the capacity to develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela.”9 Plan B, in short, was marketing regime change. According to Reuters (April 30, 2003), that meeting took place in secrecy at an elite private Venezuelan university, and the sign on the door described it only as “Seminar on Strategic Marketing.”10
The overwhelming democratic victory of Chávez in the recall referendum of 2004 did not dissuade those dedicated to “strategic marketing.” As Eva Golinger noted in 2006, between 2004 and 2006, the number of Venezuelan organizations receiving funding doubled. Venezuelan students were an important part of Plan B. In 2005, student leaders traveled to Belgrade to meet representatives of Otpor and then proceeded to Boston to consult directly with Gene Sharp. Following yet another decisive electoral victory for Chávez in the December 2006 elections, the opposition students in 2007 turned to street demonstrations, and not very surprisingly they used Otpor symbols which also appeared in several other countries (e.g., Georgia and Kyrgyzstan) and in AEI literature — advertising symbols such as painted hands and a black-on-white stencil of a clenched fist.11
Although marketing regime change did not achieve its desired results in Venezuela, it continues to be explored there and elsewhere in many parts of the world. That combination of a well-developed strategy of courting potential consumers, training, and bags of money has been demonstrated to succeed where violent regime change has failed. Yet it would be a big error to blame everything upon the CIA. The analogy to the efforts to sell commodities should be instructive. Just as it would be an error to blame consumerism upon the existence of advertising, it is similarly an error to blame successes in marketing regime change simply upon the CIA. A commodity can only be sold if it appears to be a use-value; advertising and a marketing campaign may channel latent desires in a particular direction, but we need to start with the nature of the potential consumers.
What kinds of people are produced in a particular society? Relations of production matter. What kinds of people are the products of particular relations of production? Marx was certainly clear that the working class in capitalism does not drop from the sky. On the contrary, an essential part of Das Kapital is its stress upon the nature of workers produced under capitalist relations of production. Marx condemned capitalism not only because workers are exploited within capitalist relations, leading to the production of capital. He never forgot (as so many do) the second result of capitalist production, the second product. Marx never forgot that workers are deformedby capitalist relations of production.
A particular type of person is produced within capitalism. Producing within capitalist relations is what Marx called a process of a “complete emptying-out,” “total alienation,” the “sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end.”12 How else then but with money, the true need that capitalism creates, can we fill the vacuum? We fill the vacuum of our lives with things — we are driven to consume. In addition to producing commodities and capital itself, capitalism produces a fragmented, crippled human being, whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things. More and more things. Consumerism, in short, is not an accident within capitalism.13
But what alternative is there? In capitalism the worker exists to satisfy the need of capital, the need of capital to grow. However, Marx evoked an alternative in Capital — an alternative based upon the needs of workers. He called that alternative “the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development.” This concept of the inverse situation underlies Marx’s critique of capitalism throughout Capital.14
To build a society oriented to “the worker’s own need for development,” Marx understood that it was necessary to invert the capitalist inversion; we must end “this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production.” In that inverse situation, rather than being subordinated to “a plan drawn up by the capitalist” and to “the powerful will of a being outside them,” producers work with others according to their own plan — a plan where the “worker’s own need for development” is the driving force.15 Thus, rather than the crippling of workers, they develop their capacities: “when the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.”16 Workers, in short, put an end to the separation of thinking and doing, an end to what Marx called (in his Critique of the Gotha Programme) “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour.”17
Indeed, few things are clearer than Marx’s vehement opposition to the capitalist division of labor. There is “no doubt,” he indicated in Capital, “that those revolutionary ferments whose goal is the abolition of the old division of labour stand in diametrical contradiction with the capitalist form of production.”18 Accordingly, in that “inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development,” there is an end to the division between head and hand and to the alienation of the producers from their work, the means of production, the products of their work and each other — indeed, an end to all those characteristics of production under capitalism which create the conditions for an unquenchable thirst to consume things.
This brings us back to the question of the conditions under which marketing regime change (i.e. color revolutions) can succeed. For a commodity to make the mortal leap from latent commodity to real commodity, it must be a use-value for its potential consumer. But what are the characteristics that can make regime change a use-value? Those marketing campaigns provide particular seeds but what ensures the existence of fertile ground?
Recall that a principal target for this marketing strategy is young people. Let me suggest, then, that these campaigns can succeed to the extent that young people believe that their need for development is thwarted or constrained by factors outside their control. To the extent that there is a general feeling that they will not be able to develop in accordance with their hopes and expectations, they can be susceptible to clever marketing directed at the need for regime change.
And it is essential not to underestimate how clever those strategies are. Those campaigns may not begin by calling for regime change. As Gene Sharp indicated, if you don’t have the immediate strength to achieve this, you need “a carefully calculated strategy” — one in which you “hold that goal in mind for the moment and instead focus on resistance in more limited objectives.” If you can mobilize people “through limited campaigns for quite specific smaller objectives, one has the possibility of achieving those one by one. And then the resisting population grows in strength and can win limited objectives in case after case.” If you can do that, Sharp advised, “you are well on the way to ending the dictatorship” (i.e., regime change).19
How is it possible to resist such a strategy? Certainly, suppression is an option but that carries with it the real possibility that it will increase the conviction of people that regime change is needed. Return again to the paradigm of combating consumerism. To succeed in that battle, it is necessary to attack that problem at its roots. And, that is true as well when it comes to marketing regime change.
In Venezuela, the efforts at marketing regime change were not successful. Certainly, young people from the oligarchy and from professional backgrounds not only believed but were correct in their belief that the Bolivarian Revolution was thwarting what they considered their entitlement, their privileged entitlement. In contrast, the mass of people, young and old, looked upon the Bolivarian Revolution as a promise being fulfilled — a promise made in the Bolivarian Constitution with its emphasis upon “ensuring overall human development” and its insistence that participation and protagonism is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective.”20 And those promises were being fulfilled not only though the enormous gains in health and education that allowed people to develop their potential but also through new institutions such as the communal councils where people were transforming both circumstances and themselves. As a result, those privileged young people were isolated, and marketing regime change did not succeed in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan example points to the importance of creating the conditions which allow people to realize their potential through their own practice. That was the point that President Chávez always stressed — the centrality of practice. As he said in one of his Aló Presidente broadcasts in 2007, “Socialists have to be made. A revolution has to produce not only goods and services. It also has to produce more importantly than all of those things, new human beings: new men, new women.” And Chávez continued, “Marx’s thought must become a potent nutrient of the Bolivarian Revolution. . . . The way is practice with theory as the weapon, the tool.”21
Precisely because he stressed the centrality of practice, Chávez celebrated those communal councils as the new institutions at the core of the Bolivarian Revolution. These “cells of the new socialist state” (as he described them) would join together to form communes in this process of building the new state from below. From the communal councils to the communes — he saw this step as crucial and stated in one of his last speeches (2012), “comuna o nada” [without the communes, nothing].
This emphasis upon practice — protagonism and participation in workplaces and communities — is one of the central characteristics of socialism for the 21st Century as it has emerged as a vision throughout Latin America. For example, Álvaro García Linera, speaking to a December 2013 meeting of the Party of the European Left, insisted that “the left must recover the concept of democracy.” And what is that concept of democracy? “Democracy is practice, a collective action — it consists of increasingly taking part in the management of the common areas of society.” Democracy, García Linera declared, must knock at the factory gates. “It also must knock at the doors of banks, firms, institutions, resources — everything that belongs to people.”22
Come back to our discussion of color revolutions. Many people here have been defensive and have even spoken of “so-called democracy.” But this is the Battle of Ideas. That Battle of Ideas should not be only defensive; it should not be one-sided. We need to recover the concept of democracy and practice. Through their practice, their collective protagonism in workplaces and society, people can produce themselves as revolutionary subjects who will not be susceptible to campaigns for market regime change.
The best defense is an offence. We need to struggle against dictatorship ourselves — the dictatorship of capital. To really fight against the color revolutions, we need a color revolution — a color revolution of a different color. A red revolution. Remember that red is the primary color of the rainbow.
2 Eric Pottenger and Jeff Friesen, “Understanding the 21st Century Global Information War: Protect Your Zeitgeist,” January 24, 2012, colorrevolutionsandgeopolitics.blogspot.ca/2012/01/how-do-you-escape-color-revolution.html.
6 “Resistance,” www.aforcemorepowerful.org/films/bdd/story/otpor/resistance.php.
7 Interview with Gene Sharp www.aforcemorepowerful.org/films/bdd/story/otpor/gene-sharp.php.
11 George Ciccariello-Maher, “Einstein Turns in His Grave,” op. cit.
13 Ibid., 287; Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 2003), 32–44.
14 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1(New York: Vintage, 1977), 772. See “The Capitalist Nightmare and the Socialist Dream” in Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015).
15 Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 450.
16 Ibid., 447.
18 Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 619.
19 Interview with Gene Sharp, op.cit.
21 Hugo Chávez, Alo Presidente # 279, March 27, 2007, www.alopresidente.gob.ve. The context was Chávez’s comments on my “Socialism Does Not Fall From the Sky” in Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).
22 Álvaro García Linera, “A Message to the Left of Europe and the World,” speech delivered to Fourth Congress of the Party of the European Left, December 14, 2013, Madrid, translated by Marie-Rose Ardiaca in Transform! (February 5, 2014). See Michael A, Lebowitz, “Three Perspectives on Democracy” in The Socialist Imperative, op.cit.
Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author, among others, of The Contradictions of “Real Socialism,” The Socialist Alternative, Following Marx, Build It Now, and Beyond Capital. He was Director, Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela, from 2006-11.