Sadie Robinson looks at the claim that revolution is impossible today, and explains why workers can take power in the 21st century
Millions of people know there is something deeply wrong with the world. They are sick of poverty, inequality, war and racism and wish society was run differently. At the same time, many think it impossible to overthrow capitalism.
But a socialist revolution—where workers collectively take control of the means of production and democratically plan to meet the needs of everyone—is possible.
Revolutions unfold at times of serious social crisis. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described revolutionary situations as periods when the ruling class can’t rule in the old way, and workers won’t be ruled in the old way.
These crises flow out of the way capitalism is organised—the fact that it rests on the exploitation of workers and competition between bosses and countries for profit. This means that there will be revolutions in the future.
So what are the arguments against the possibility of a socialist revolution?
Some politicians caricature the “working class” as miners, steel workers and dockers. They say that, because these groups are smaller today, so is the working class.
The nature of the working class has changed—more people work in call centres than in mines—but the reality of class division remains the same.
The vast majority of people are workers—forced to sell their ability to work in order to survive. And the exploitation at the heart of capitalism, where the ruling class exists purely on the back of workers’ labour, hasn’t changed.
So while the ruling class likes to pretend that workers’ power is depleted and class struggle is dead—in reality without its labour society would grind to a halt.
That is why the revolutionary Karl Marx described capitalism as a system which creates its own “gravedigger” in the form of the working class—because it has the capacity to overthrow and transform society.
Bosses may say that they are the “wealth creators”. But strikes bring them face to face with reality.
Every tube strike in London is met with frenzied rants from politicians and the tabloids complaining that London is being held to ransom and no one will get to work.
The class struggle that is inherent to capitalism means battles take place across the globe—“now hidden, now open” as Karl Marx said.
French workers and students have marched and struck in their millions. Workers’ struggle continues to rock Greece.
In China, where bosses thought they could exploit an obedient workforce, workers have fought back.
In Britain we haven’t yet seen struggle on this scale, but the fantastic militancy of the firefighters’ strikes this month gave a glimpse of what’s possible.
Our rulers want us to think we’re powerless because they are terrified of our power. That is why Nick Clegg warned in April that Britain could face “Greek-style unrest” if a government was elected without a proper mandate and made cuts.
Everything in society is geared towards making us think that change is impossible—that is why Marx said that the dominant ideas under capitalism are the ideas of our rulers.
From education to the mass media, we are told that politics and economics are best left to experts, that society has always been like this—and for good reason!
Ideas that we are all inherently selfish—that racism, sexism and other backward ideas are natural—are constantly reinforced and unsurprisingly accepted by some workers.
These ideas have to be overcome. But revolutions don’t happen because a majority of people suddenly change their ideas. The transformation of ideas on a mass scale grows out of the process of mass struggle.
Ideas change when people fight back and begin to see what they are capable of—and that all workers, black and white, men and women, have a common interest against the bosses.
The divisions that keep workers separate can fall away. For example, French workers recently carried placards reading: “Expel Sarkozy, not the Roma”.
Ordinary people often reject racism and sexism, they oppose privatisation and support strikes even when the headlines denounce them.
People have contradictory ideas. We are influenced by the dominant ideas in society but also by our experiences—which often contradict that ideology.
For much of the time, people are concerned with their own lives. This doesn’t mean they aren’t political. In revolutionary situations, even those who didn’t consider themselves political can be transformed—quickly.
The ruling class will ruthlessly use everything in its power to defend its position.
The state isn’t neutral. Lenin called it “an organ for the oppression of one class by another,” using “special bodies of armed men”—the army and police—to keep workers in their place.
For example, in Chile in 1973, the CIA aided a ruling class military coup to depose Salvador Allende—elected promising reforms.
But workers have the potential to wrench power away from this minority.
In 1917 the world’s ruling classes, along with Russian counter-revolutionaries, tried to crush the Russian Revolution.
Counter-revolutionary General Kornilov declared, “We must save Russia, even if we have to set fire to half of it and shed the blood of three fourths of all Russians.” They failed.
For a revolution to beat back the state it needs the majority of the working class on its side and it must be prepared to use force to prevent ruling class resistance to change.
This doesn’t necessarily mean huge amounts of violence: stronger movements require less physical force to win. They can break the hold of ruling class ideas, its control of the economy and its monopoly of force by giving confidence to rank and file soldiers to mutiny and join the revolution.
The picture above shows a key moment in the Portuguese revolution of 1974—when the armed forces joined the workers’ demonstrations.
When the Paris Commune was established in 1871, working class women persuaded soldiers to hand over their weapons to the people.
In Russia, soldiers defected to the revolutionary side and arrested their officers.
In Britain in 1919, the ruling class was terrified because it couldn’t rely on the army to use force against mass strikes. Soldiers were striking themselves—and flying the red flag! When the Yorkshire Light Infantry was sent to Russia to crush the revolution, soldiers refused and set up a soviet instead.
Revolution is objectively possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The strength of revolutionary leadership, and a strong revolutionary party that has the trust of the workers, is vital.
Following the Russian Revolution in 1917 workers launched a huge wave of struggle across much of Europe.
But the lack of well-rooted and experienced revolutionary parties left the leadership to the reformists—who destroyed the revolutionary potential.
In 1919 British Prime minister Lloyd George met union leaders and told them, “We are at your mercy”. But there wasn’t a strong revolutionary party to lead the movement—and union leaders were able to contain the struggle.
In Portugal the 1974 revolution saw millions became politically active. Fernando Rosas described the mood to Socialist Worker in 2005: “We felt everything was possible. A humble woman worker feels herself able to rule cities.”
But again there was a problem of leadership. The Communist Party was concerned with cementing its own power and imposing a regime from above, instead of workers creating a new society from below.
The Socialist Party, meanwhile, was backed by the West and played a key role in containing struggle.
In revolutionary situations, things don’t stand still—workers either go forward and take power or the bosses force things backwards. As Saint-Just said during the French Revolution, “Those who half make a revolution dig their own grave.”
The lesson from history is not that revolutions can’t succeed, it is that, even though workers make revolutions, they need a revolutionary party to win.
Revolution is not a single event or a day of struggle (although there are key days when swift action is needed). It is a process of conquering specific objectives which, once won, carry workers forward to struggle for power—and the collective seizure of power then has to be organised.
It’s important to stress that the Russian Revolution was initially successful. A key to that was the Bolshevik Party.
The party gave a lead to workers to carry through the insurrection.
For a few years, we had a glimpse of what socialism could be like. Workers ran all aspects of society through councils called soviets. They were properly accountable, democratic and immediately recallable. Everyone took part in discussing how society should be run.
Old ideas like anti-Semitism and sexism were thrown off. Women gained rights it took years to win in capitalist countries. The revolution even fought off 14 invading armies.
The reason it ultimately failed was that revolutions failed elsewhere.
The leaders of the revolution always argued that it needed to spread. Unfortunately, revolutions did not win elsewhere, and a new bureaucratic, state capitalist class took over.
Russia shows that socialism is possible. And the mass of revolutionary upheavals throughout the 20th and 21st centuries—including in Germany, Iran, Mexico, China, Spain, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil—show the potential for revolutionary change.
The need for socialism grows more urgent by the day. We must continue to battle for reforms in the here and now.
Struggles for reform give confidence to workers to fight for more. But we can’t reform away the exploitation at the heart of capitalism.
Only a revolution can do that.
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