Socialist Worker

'Millions came to realise how intolerable their economic and social existence was'

by Hazel Croft
Issue No. 1782

THE UPRISING in Argentina shows that revolution is still possible in the modern world. It has shown mass action from below can topple governments and inflict a defeat on big business policies.

Vast numbers of ordinary people, many of whom had never imagined they could change society, took to the streets and showed they have the power to confront the capitalist system.

The uprising has proved wrong all those who say people are too apathetic to fight or that they have been bought off by material possessions. Argentina is not a Third World peasant state. It is the most highly industrialised country in Latin America. The majority of people live their lives much like people in Britain - with cars, videos, fridges and similar material possessions.

The uprising also proves wrong those who claim that our rulers' control of the mass media means the vast majority of people are duped into accepting the system.

People's experience under capitalism can contradict the ideas pumped out by the media, bosses and governments, and force people to take action. The newspapers and TV in Argentina certainly did not tell people to oust presidents or bring down governments.

Speedy uprising

THIS IS not the first time in recent years that mass action from below has ousted hated rulers and governments. Less than two years ago an uprising overthrew Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Serbia.

A million people took to the streets, and faced down armed police. Demonstrators attacked the parliament and media buildings. Milosevic's 12 year old regime fell apart in days. In Ecuador two years ago a mass revolt by peasants and workers against IMF-backed free market policies forced out the president, Jamil Mahaud. In Indonesia in May 1998 a wave of revolutionary struggle overthrew General Suharto.

Anger against 32 years of repression and economic attacks on the poor exploded as students and then workers rose up in revolt and within weeks had toppled one of the world's most vicious dictatorships. And in Albania in 1997 a mass revolt by workers and the poor against the chaos of free market policies brought down the government of Sali Barisha. These recent revolts show how even the most repressive and seemingly powerful regimes can crumble in the face of mass protest.

Such revolts are often unexpected and unfurl with astonishing speed. Suddenly a revolutionary overthrow of society seems not just a pipedream or an abstract concept, but a real possibility. In defiance of the old ideas, the mass of ordinary people who come together to challenge society can be transformed.

People discover they are capable of things they had hardly dreamt of, and realise talents and potentials previously crushed by the grind of capitalism. And from collective action and organisation the most oppressed and exploited people in society - women, black people, ethnic minorities - often emerge as leaders in the revolutionary movements that spring up.

Sparking revolution

THE RUSSIAN socialist Lenin argued that there were two main factors needed for a revolutionary situation to develop. First, the working class and the oppressed can no longer go on living in the old way. Secondly, Lenin argued, the ruling class also needed to be in crisis. 'It is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes. 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.'

The combination of these factors creates a huge social crisis, as a battle develops for the future of society. There is no single or predictable spark for a revolutionary crisis. It can come from government crisis, the impact of our rulers' wars, or the effect of slumps or economic turmoil.

A revolution is not a single one-off event. It is a process of struggle, with ebbs and flows, advances and retreats. The struggle can seem to come as if from nowhere and take everyone by surprise. No one, for example, expected to see such a swift downfall of General Suharto in Indonesia or of Milosevic in Serbia.

These revolutions came from the crisis and instability of the capitalist system, but also stemmed from the previous day to day struggles, both victories and defeats, from below.

The revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg described this process brilliantly in her account of the struggles that shook Russia in 1905: 'This first general and direct action awoke feeling and consciousness in millions upon millions as if by electric shock. And this awaking of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the circumstances that the working class mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism.'

Cruical choice

IN ALL revolutionary struggles the ruling class will try and get away with merely conceding reforms, the better to ensure that the fundamentals of the old regime remain in place.

It fights to ensure that ownership of land, factories, industry and banks remains the same. It works to make sure the leaders of the army and the police are allowed to continue to exercise control. Unfortunately this is what has happened in all the major revolutionary uprisings in recent years.

In Serbia, Milosevic's regime was replaced by a new leadership which sought to restore 'order' - that the manager's writ ran in the factories and offices, and the policeman's in the streets. In Indonesia the former opposition which came to power has also restored such 'order', and has followed policies which continue to impoverish millions of people.

In many of the revolutions which erupted in the last century the working class have thrown up organisations which offer a different way forward, and which looked to a real transformation of society by deepening the revolution. Workers have set up councils of directly elected delegates based on workplaces. These are thoroughly democratic organisations, with the immediate recall and accountability of delegates, and are rooted in working class struggle.

They have been able to help ensure that the mass of people can deal with the problems thrown up by the revolution itself. And they have proved in embryo how production and the rest of society can be organised in a new society, based on meeting people's real needs rather than the pursuit of profit.

The best example, as we argue elsewhere on this page, comes from the successful Russian Revolution in October 1917. But similar workers' organisations arose in many other revolutions throughout the 20th century. For example, in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 workers and revolutionary councils were set up in towns and villages, in factories and offices, in government ministries and on farms in the countryside.

In the capital, Budapest, workers formed a central workers' council which coordinated production in the factories, the distribution of food and medicines, the organisation of transport and the publication of newspapers. These kind of workers' organisations have often existed alongside the existing state machinery when revolutions have erupted. There has existed a period of 'dual power', during which the weakened institutions of the state vie for control with the new workers' organisations. But this state of affairs cannot last indefinitely. The crisis in society has to be resolved one way or another - either in favour of the revolution or for the restoration of the old ruling class.

The ruling class will try to use its existing control of the state machinery - such as the loyal sections of the army or police - to regroup its forces and try to crush the revolution. Tragically this is what happened time after time - from Germany in 1919 to Chile in 1973, as the ruling class slaughtered thousands of workers and restored their order.

That is why to ensure a lasting transformation of society it is necessary to break up the old state machine. That means ousting not only the figureheads of the old regime, but all sections of the old ruling class - the factory bosses and managers, judges, army generals and police chiefs.

And it means workers taking hold of the economic basis of society, and directing the whole productive process towards meeting the needs of everyone.

What we think

Steps that can ensure victory

UPRISINGS OR revolutionary upheavals often see people across society unite against a hated old regime. That unity and spontaneous protest can sweep away the old rulers. But sharp debate soon emerges over what happens next.

All sorts of people come forward with ideas on how to resolve the crisis gripping society. The outcome of the clash between these rival ideas determines which direction society moves in.

Sections of the old order seek to wrap themselves in new clothes and put forward a programme they hope will gather enough support to allow them to restabilise society on the old basis. The trade union leaders will also seek to use their influence over workers to limit the movement from below, in return for some policies they can sell to their members and a greater role for themselves in society.

In the wings too are all sorts of other, darker forces, looking for a chance to exploit and misdirect some of the anger seething in society in a much worse direction - extreme nationalists or those hankering for a 'strong leader'. Many in the movement have much better instincts about what is needed than anything on offer from all these forces, and will spontaneously grasp towards more radical solutions to the problems they and society face.

But spontaneity will not on its own deal with the concerted attempts by those at the top of society to channel the movement and ensure that no fundamental change takes place. To win such change needs a coherent force putting forward and fighting for concrete demands that push the struggle in the direction needed. It means finding demands which deal with the real problems people are facing - of hunger, poverty, jobs, housing and more.

It means building on the best instincts of people in the movement to pull such demands together in a coherent programme which can offer a way forward for society. The basis of such a struggle must be among the class which has the power to impose solutions to the problems people face - the working class. In Argentina some aspects of such a programme can be sketched.

People are hungry in a society where there is no shortage of food. Argentina is a major wheat producer and one of the world's biggest beef producers. It also has one of the world's biggest food processing and cold storage industries. There is more than enough meat in the refrigerated warehouses to feed everyone.

If workers seized control of the cold stores and the beef industry they could organise to ensure everyone had enough to eat in the great cities of Argentina. To do that would mean building grassroots organisations, workers' committees, in industry and in different localities, to ensure food and other such necessities are distributed fairly.

The same approach can deal with other pressing questions facing people: providing work for the unemployed, ensuring pensioners live decently, and preventing the banks from stealing people's meagre savings.

When workers use their power to show a way forward that can benefit the immense majority of people, they can pull other sections of society behind them, from the unemployed and people in the countryside to sections of the middle class.

The fine detail of what demands are needed can only be worked out by an organisation on the ground in Argentina, one with a feeling for the real problems people face and a sense of how the struggle can move forward. To work out what is needed also means workers fighting to open up or take control of the media to ensure full and open debate.

None of this is a pipedream. It is exactly what has begun to happen at the highest points of revolutionary upheaval in the last century. The clearest example was in Russia in the successful workers' revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks' socialist party was at first a small minority when the revolution broke out. But it put forward demands - summed up in its slogan 'Bread, peace, land' - that could deal with the pressing concerns of the majority of people.

It also put forward a strategy for how to win those demands - All Power to the Soviets. This meant that the workers' committees, soviets, that had sprung up across the country should be the basis of a new way of organising society.

That enabled the Bolsheviks to win massive support among workers and so carry the revolution to a successful conclusion. We have no clear idea what will happen in Argentina, or whether there are sufficient forces pushing within the movement for this kind of approach. What we do know is that Britain is not immune to the kind of crisis that has swept Argentina, and that we need to work as best we can to ensure that such a force is built within the movement here.

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Sat 12 Jan 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1782
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