If 2011 were to end tomorrow, it would already constitute one of the great years of revolution. Already we have witnessed, to borrow a phrase from the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, “the forcible entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”—the hallmark of revolution.
The struggles in Egypt and Tunisia are far from complete. It remains to be seen whether the political revolutions that have happened can deepen into social revolutions, in which workers begin to create their own democratic bodies to run society and challenge the foundations of capitalism.
Yet many who stand in solidarity with the uprisings see the return of revolution to the world as specific to repressive regimes.
The differences with Britain are clear. In Britain, for example, we have approximately one police officer for every 400 people. In Tunisia under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, the authoritarian regime employed one member of the security forces for every 40 people.
Anger in the Arab regimes built up like steam in a pressure cooker, suddenly exploding onto the streets. Britain is more like a pressure cooker with many safety valves—MPs we can vote for, independent trade unions, some legal rights, and so on.
These limited freedoms should be defended. History shows the ruling class would be prepared to eradicate democracy if they felt threatened—and thought they could get away with it.
This happened in Italy, Germany and Spain under fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Chile and Argentina under military regimes in the 1970s.
But even where democratic institutions do exist, it doesn’t mean that revolution won’t ever happen.
Many say people in Britain are just too apathetic to make a revolution. But when people speak of apathy, they often confuse two quite different senses of the term.
The first describes a population whose lives are getting better all the time, who believe that their children will enjoy a brighter future and whose hopes are fulfilled by the system.
None of this describes Britain in 2011. People are working longer and harder than they were even a few years ago—often for less pay and with less job security.
Well-loved services like the NHS are being eroded in the interest of profit. Most people today believe their children’s lives will be worse than theirs.
In such situations, apathy describes people who feel both bitter and powerless. This kind of apathy can suddenly flip over into its opposite—activism.
What does it take for such a change to occur? It is certainly not necessary for the mass of the population to descend into destitution.
If that were true, then the centre of revolutionary initiative would be sub-Saharan Africa—not the Arab world as it is now, or Latin America as it was through the past decade.
The clash between people’s expectations and what the system delivers for them is more important than their absolute wealth or poverty.
But for revolution to erupt, the ideas in millions of people’s heads also have to change.
This was the problem that the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci sought to address. He was inspired by the Russian Revolution and hoped to apply the lessons to the very different circumstances in Western Europe.
Gramsci argued that many people, much of the time, function with what he called “common sense”. This is a mishmash of ideas uncritically absorbed from wider society.
We are taught at school the importance of discipline and the need for individual success in exams. Economic necessity forces us into tedious jobs where we labour in conditions dictated and enforced by managers.
The resulting sense of powerlessness and isolation can allow us to absorb all kinds of peculiar notions—that capitalism has been there forever, that hard work is rewarded with success, or even ideas such as nationalism or racism.
But, Gramsci argued, our heads also contain a healthy amount of “good sense”. This consists of ideas that bind us together with our fellow workers—notions of solidarity and common struggle. Such ideas are either directly experienced by workers who take part in actions like strikes, or are passed on by friends, co-workers and others.
This good sense lays the basis for an alternative conception of the world. But most of the time the clash between good sense and common sense results in “a situation in which the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit of any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political passivity”.
This is not a static state of affairs. Capitalism is an unstable, chaotic system that goes into crisis again and again. These crises are not just economic, but also political and ideological.
At such moments common sense ideas can begin to crack apart. Consider the most concentrated form of pro-capitalist ideology—the economics taught in universities. Remarkably, this remains the same as it was before the crisis, despite its now obvious failings.
At a more mundane level, the fact that HSBC bank grabbed £12 billion in profit last year would seem
unremarkable in normal times. Today it enrages vast numbers of people.
The ideological cracks can widen as the crisis develops. Politicians, capitalists, senior civil servants and newspaper editors can clash as they try to shift the blame for the crisis and impose their preferred solutions.
This can lead a minority, sometimes quite a large minority, to question aspects of capitalism—or even the system as a whole.
But for a revolutionary situation to develop, something more than this is required. It is only when people begin to fight back that they discover that, far from being weak and isolated, they have enormous power.
This can become evident in any form of collective action—a demonstration, a university occupation or a riot. But it is far clearer during a militant strike.
For capitalism to function effectively, it has to bring people together in large workplaces—and not just factories, but also offices, warehouses, supermarkets and so on.
It is our labour, our exploitation, that produces all the profits the bosses grab from us. This means that it is at work that we are at our most powerful. Our ability to withdraw our labour can paralyse capitalism.
And because such struggles are collective, to succeed they must challenge the petty differences that divide workers such as race, gender and sexuality. This is the key to changing ideas.
Old ideas do not just change simply because clever revolutionaries put forward new and better ones. People have to learn through their own experience that a new view of the world is necessary to make sense of their struggles.
Revolutionary outbreaks always begin with struggles to reform the system. In a crisis, the fight for reforms can take on a revolutionary dimension.
This does not happen in a day or a week. The Russian Revolution of 1917 took eight months to develop from the fall of Tsarism in February to the insurrection of October.
The German Revolution that followed lasted five years, from 1918 through to 1923, before it was defeated.
Part of the reason why the German revolution was so prolonged was the role of the “safety valves” in more democratic and developed capitalist societies.
In such societies, the contradictions do not just exist inside people’s heads—they also take organisational form. The trade unions and parties like the Labour Party express people’s desire for reforms, but within the framework of capitalism.
This leads to arguments within the working class itself. Even in small strikes and local campaigns there are battles over whether to use militant tactics driven from below or try to gently persuade those at the top.
A revolution magnifies these to life and death questions. There will always be moderate leaders who seek to run to the head of the movement, only to hold back the struggle and direct it into electoral or legal channels.
In order to win in a revolutionary situation, revolutionary organisation and ideas would have to start to replace reformism.
In Russia in 1917 the Bolsheviks entered the revolution with about 23,000 members. By the end they had grown ten-fold. This was sufficient in a country with no mass reformist organisations and a small, if militant, working class.
In Britain a much bigger organisation is required. To have just one organised revolutionary for every 50 workers would require a party of half a million.
Building such an organisation requires more than simply raising slogans telling people that capitalism is the problem. Revolutionaries also have to work alongside non-revolutionaries, and sometimes their organisations, in common struggles for reforms.
While we do this, we have to both argue for the most militant methods, which raise the confidence and combativity of workers, and patiently persuade those we work with of our revolutionary ideas. That is why the Socialist Workers Party both organises independently and also seeks to work with wider forces.
The SWP organises a few thousand people. Creating a revolutionary organisation of hundreds of thousands will require waves of struggle that radicalise millions, break apart existing reformist organisations, and create and destroy new ones.
Revolution in Britain is not an immediate prospect. But the instability of capitalism means that one day London’s Trafalgar Square really will feel like Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Such moments will take even revolutionaries by surprise. But if we hope to win in such a situation, the work we do today to forge revolutionary organisation is vital.
Joseph Choonara is co‑author of Arguments for Revolution: The Case for the Socialist Workers Party, available from Bookmarks for £3. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk