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What is the real case for socialist revolution?

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles printed each week in Socialist Worker
Issue 1886

The argument for socialist revolution is not really a case about ‘violence’. It’s about developing genuine popular power within society. It’s about a vast expansion of democracy.

The core meaning of socialist revolution is that working class people develop new institutions, rooted in their everyday lives, which challenge and replace the power of existing top-down authorities. In order to be vehicles of the will of millions, such institutions have to be democratic.

In different times and places workers have given such institutions different names-the commune, the soviet, the workers’ council, the self governing republic. They will probably invent new names in the future.

Socialist revolution has to be a process ‘from below’, engaging the active involvement of millions. Through socialist revolution ordinary people take control of all matters affecting their own lives.

That’s not just a question of ‘politics’ in general. It extends to economic life, and thus to the socialisation of the means of production. There can be no real democracy while a few people control society’s wealth.

It extends to the workplace. Democracy means nothing while some people boss others about, and earn more for the privilege.

It extends to questions of ‘law and order’. Unelected judges, magistrates and police chiefs can never solve the problems of crime and everyday violence that alienated life under capitalism produces.

In every sphere of social life working people take control and discuss what they need and how best to achieve it. They take control of the means to shape a new world.

Such a change goes beyond just altering institutions. It engages the deepest levels of human society and psychology. Under capitalism, most of the time, our rulers’ power depends on keeping us in a condition where we’re both divided among ourselves and feel powerless.

Here lies the real significance of nationalist, racist and sexist divisions under capitalist society. They divert the frustrations engendered by life away from their real sources onto ‘scapegoats’.

At different times, the targets have been Catholics, the Irish, Jews, black and Asian people, gays and others. Our rulers often encourage such scapegoating-witness the disgusting hysteria against asylum seekers whipped up by both Blair’s government and the tabloids.

But underpinning such divisions is something deeper-a profound sense of powerlessness engendered by everyday life under capitalism.

In order to live, we have to work for someone else, to submit to humiliation by bosses. The ‘market’-where in theory we have ‘freedom’-offers few real choices to most working people.

Everyday life is where the gap is greatest between brute reality and the idea of ordinary people exercising democratic power over the conditions of their lives. Voting in elections every few years cannot close that gap.

Popular revolution is necessary, but not only because there’s no other way to get the ruling class off our backs. Far more important are the mobilising effects, the changes that occur in people, in their very psyches, when they join together in struggle.

A century ago the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote that ‘every revolution is a festival of the oppressed’. This is the most important and precious thing. People transform themselves.

We regularly see this on a small scale in strikes and social movements. People grow in confidence-they actually feel better. In Poland in 1980 the impact of the mass strikes and victories was felt not only among the workers themselves, but all across society.

Patients in hospitals recovered faster, and discharged themselves. In a few weeks the wards filled up again-only this time with officials and managers, who were suddenly feeling terrible!

Popular revolutions unleash the inherent social creativity and collective power that are the necessary basis of a different society. That potential is locked down under capitalism. Revolution is the process of breaking the locks.

Revolution is necessarily a collective, shared process. Confidence in our capacity to make a new world depends on the sense that we’re not isolated and helpless individuals, weakened and incapacitated in the face of seemingly all-powerful rulers. That is why revolutions always come as a surprise-not only to ruling classes, but to ordinary people themselves.

Every honest historian of popular revolutions always records this, along with the accompanying feelings of joy and self empowerment. People change faster in revolutions than in any other human condition.

New possibilities disclose themselves. Human horizons suddenly expand. A grey world takes on new colours. Only through the experience of revolution can the powerless begin to experience their own capacities, test and expand their own strengths, and actually become self consciously capable of running a new world.

That has nothing to do with violence, and everything to do with expanding freedom.


  • Send your questions about ‘Where We Stand’ to Colin Barker, Socialist Worker, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH, or by e-mail to [email protected]


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