REVOLUTIONS DO not break out just because of the efforts of groups of socialists, I pointed out last week. They occur because great social crises create situations in which, as the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it, “the lower classes do not want to live in the old way” and “the upper classes” are “unable to live in the old way” any longer.
The globalisation stage of capitalism, by leading to greater unpredictability and uncertainty for the ruling classes in whole regions of the globe, makes such great social crises inevitable in the century ahead of us.
The crazy dynamic of capitalism itself ensures that there will be many more great social upheavals—what are sometimes called “revolutionary” or “pre-revolutionary” situations.
But not every “pre-revolutionary situation” ends in a successful socialist revolution.
The sudden entry into political life of huge numbers of people through mass strikes and spontaneous uprisings leads to an unprecedented level of discussion.
Politics is continually talked about everywhere people meet together—in every bus queue, in every shop, in every factory and office, in every school, at every social gathering—in a way that is inconceivable to those living in non-revolutionary times.
Disgust at the present system on the one hand, and the experience of striking together and demonstrating together on the other, makes workers particularly receptive to the notion that collectively, democratically, they can take charge of society themselves. Socialist ideas suddenly fit with their experience.
But revolutionary socialist ideas are not the only ones on offer. Sections of the ruling class are also looking for remedies to save themselves from the crisis.
They begin to give their backing to generals who dream of military coups, or to political adventurers and gutter journalists who try to redirect the bitterness of the mass of people against religious or ethnic minorities.
Balancing between these extremes are those who say society should be changed in a non-capitalist direction, but slowly, through negotiations and legal processes, not direct confrontation.
This “reformist” approach always finds a massive audience in the period after the first great popular upsurge.
The people involved in the upsurge have been brought up in a class society where they are told they are not fit to run things. They do not all change their ideas overnight. Even after overthrowing one government, most are likely to place their hopes in a new government, apparently less hostile to their demands.
The sheer scale of the social crisis means such “peaceful”, “moderate” solutions based on “partnership” are not possible. But many people see them at first as “more practical “ and less “violent” than pushing for full revolution.
So in Russia in 1917, after a spontaneous uprising overthrew the Tsar in February, people then put their faith in governments headed first by a war profiteer, Prince Lvov, and then by a lawyer committed to keeping capitalism intact, Kerensky.
In Argentina two and a half years ago people who threw out four presidents from the old pro-capitalist political establishment, eventually came to tolerate two others from a similar background, Duhalde and Kirchner.
There has never been a revolutionary upheaval without an interim period in which people put their faith in half-baked measures that cannot possibly work.
Meanwhile, all the bitterness that produced the first great upsurge begins to accumulate again.
But now it can go in two directions. It can go to feed support for those capitalist interests looking for their own reactionary way to “restore order” to society. Or it can lead to people seeing the need to complete the revolution, to go beyond overthrowing a government to overthrowing the system by taking power into their own hands.
What seemed like a single, spontaneous movement on the day now crystallises out into three currents—in effect, three parties, whether they use this name or not. There is a revolutionary party, a reactionary party and, attempting to bridge the gap between them, a reformist party.
The outcome of the revolutionary situation depends on the battle between these three great parties. In conditions of great crisis, where the reformist option can provide no solutions, it becomes a battle for influence over its supporters.
This is not simply a battle of ideas, although these are important. It is also, centrally, a practical struggle. The ruling class relies for its supremacy on the working class being fragmented and lacking in confidence in its ability collectively to run things.
The working class can only overcome such impediments in a revolutionary situation through the experience of struggling for control in the workplace and on the streets. It is the momentum of moving forward together that gives even the most “unpolitical” workers a sense that they are part of a movement that can create a new society.
That is why reformist attempts to slow down the movement can be so disastrous. They break the feeling of strength and allow fragmentation to return and with it the capacity for the reactionary ideas promulgated by sections of the ruling class to regain their hold.
That is why revolutions always reach a vital point in which they either go forward, or begin to go back. And going back can mean a return of the old capitalist order in an even worse form than before.
A revolutionary party may not be necessary to start a revolution. It is absolutely necessary to ensure its victory, to make sure the right choice is made between socialism and barbarism.