Revolutions often appear to come from nowhere. People living under a brutal regime who for generations have got on with their everyday lives—making a living, studying—suddenly revolt.
No one can predict how the struggle in Tunisia will develop. A revolution is never a single event. It is a process that unfolds over weeks and months, or even years.
There can be great advances but also dramatic retreats.
The revolutionary Karl Marx wrote that, “It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. Revolution is impossible without a nationwide crisis.”
Society can look tranquil on the surface—but that doesn’t mean that people are happy.
Rulers themselves are often the most taken in by the illusion of their popularity and seemingly unassailable position.
They live in a bubble of wealth and privilege surrounded by servants and advisers who only tell them what they want to hear.
But when the spell is broken and resistance breaks out, changes that might have taken years in “normal” times can happen in a matter of hours.
Fear of a heavily armed police force and army can dissolve as the mass of people become politically active.
Workers and students all around the world have been inspired by events.
Tunisia has been labeled another “Twitter revolution”, just as the mass demonstrations in Iran were two years ago.
And the ability to instantly communicate across the country has been a fantastic asset in recent struggles.
But we must not mistake a tool in the struggle for the struggle itself.
Twitter didn’t force Ben Ali to flee the country he had ruled for 23 years, no more than chalk on the walls or leaflets brought down the Tsar in Russia in 1917.
In every revolutionary situation it is the real action of human beings taking to the streets, defying the police and fighting with courage and imagination that changes things.
Throughout history our side, the working class, has only ever won anything through such struggles.
Struggle can change the world—but it changes us too.
As we fight alongside other workers and activists we feel more than an isolated cog in a huge, anonymous system.
When we start to take control of our lives, assumptions about society are challenged.
Are the police neutral?
Is there really no money for hospitals and schools?
Is it best to leave important decisions to a handful of people at the top?
How this process will develop in Tunisia will depend on the politics and organisations that shape the movement in the coming weeks and months.
For example, will the local defence committees, thrown up to protect communities from the militias supporting Ben Ali, develop into broader forms of self-government?
Such committees could provide the seeds of independent political organisation.
Revolutionary movements have been derailed in the past when sections of the opposition are co-opted into government and turn away from the struggle.
Old regimes always try to cling to power by making a few concessions yet changing little in reality.
But Tunisia shows how fast things can change when years of pent up bitterness explode.
The global economic crisis means that ordinary people across the globe are suffering the same hardships and worries about the future.
The revolutionary movement in Tunisia has become a beacon for millions wanting to rise up and challenge their rulers.
The situation is ripe with potential for such struggles to move beyond winning a change of government.
Ordinary people have the power to challenge the very basis of capitalism—and build a socialist world that can meet the needs of everyone.
Judith Orr is the new editor of Socialist Worker. To get in touch phone 020 7819 1180 or email [email protected]