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Could a revolution ever happen here?

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
In the final column of our series Sadie Robinson looks at the prospects for struggle in Britain
Issue 2211

Will workers in Britain overthrow capitalism and make a socialist revolution?

Many people think that, despite Britain’s radical history, revolution can’t happen in Britain today.

They say that British workers naturally believe in gradual reform, or that trade union bureaucrats will stop any struggle from getting “out of hand”.

Some say British workers are too tied to parliamentary democracy to fight against it.

But parliamentary democracy is relatively new in the history of British capitalism. Universal suffrage only dates back to 1928.

And many workers are far from enamoured with parliament. The expenses scandal exposed the corruption at the heart of parliament to millions last year.

Even before that, many people didn’t vote, because they didn’t think changing the party in government made any significant difference to their lives.

Others argue that the British working class is fundamentally different from how it was in the past.

Some say that the growth of the service sector and white-collar jobs means that many workers have become middle class, and so don’t have the same power or desire to transform society.

But the way the working class looks is always changing.

In the 1930s far fewer people were employed in cotton mills in Britain than had been a century earlier. That didn’t mean the working class had disappeared.

It meant that industrialisation was transforming the nature of work – and the spread of capitalism around the world meant that other countries were producing cheaper cotton and competing with Britain.

Today more people work in the service sector than in manufacturing. They include call centre workers, post workers, bus drivers, cleaners and shop workers.

All of these people have to sell their ability to work, their labour power, to exist. This makes them workers.

Is the machinery of reformism strong enough to stop revolutionary struggle breaking out?

Many workers have bitter experiences of their union leaderships blocking strikes, even when an overwhelming majority of the membership want to fight.

The current situation at British Airways is a perfect example of this.

But the conservatism of union bureaucrats can’t always stop workers fighting.

Sometimes they are forced to call action for fear of losing legitimacy in the eyes of their members.

Workers have also fought in spite of union leaderships and struck unofficially.

The key question is workers’ confidence.

Revolutionaries stress rank and file organisation and involving the maximum number of workers in activity because it builds that confidence and changes ideas about what is possible.

A contrary argument is that workers don’t have any power today because union membership is relatively lower than it has been in the past.

Yet union membership in Britain is much higher than in many European countries that have seen a much greater level of struggle in recent years.

And capitalism still rests, as it always has done, on workers – and if they refuse to work they can grind the whole system to a halt.

Workers have fought without unions and built them in the process.

Migrant cleaners in Britain are one recent example – they organised to win better wages, conditions and union rights.

Revolutionary situations come about when there is a general crisis in society that affects all classes.

The inbuilt crisis in capitalism, and workers’ struggle, can create revolutionary situations.

But for a successful socialist revolution, we need a revolutionary party.

The party won’t make the revolution – workers will. But reformist ideas won’t automatically disappear.

A revolutionary party can intervene to argue against reformism, drive the revolution forward and defend it against those who want to smash it.

Today capitalism is in crisis and its legitimacy has been undermined in the eyes of millions.

The ruling class wants to force savage attacks on workers.

In Britain today many of the reforms won in the past face being torn up as the Tory-led coalition launches its onslaught.

Not only does the potential for revolution exist – the need for a revolution to create a socialist society is more urgent than ever.

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