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How crisis can lead to revolution from below

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Chris Harman continues his short series looking at revolution in the 21st century
Issue 1909

PEOPLE OFTEN talk as if revolutions are made by existing groups of socialists getting a bit bigger and suddenly changing things.

In the late 1960s people used to echo Che Guevara and say, “If you are a revolutionary, make a revolution.” Nowadays they are more likely to say, “There are too few of us to make a revolution. All we can do is apply pressure on the government to make a few reforms.”

But revolution never occurs just because of the behaviour of groups of socialists, however big or small. It occurs because vast masses of people, many of whom have never considered such questions in the past, thrust themselves into the centre of the political stage.

The Great French Revolution of 1789 was not started by the activity of a handful of republicans. It started when thousands of people from the poorest areas of Paris decided to march on the royal palace at Versailles.

Russia’s February 1917 revolution started when women textile workers went on strike, sick to death of working long hours for starvation wages. They threw snowballs at the windows of factories where their menfolk worked to get them out alongside them.

Such events happen spontaneously, when vast numbers of working people suddenly decide that they can only get what they want by taking things into their own hands. Those who campaign for revolutionary change are usually as surprised by the turn of events as anyone else.

These mass uprisings occur when wider social processes cause people to break with their old ways of reacting. Lenin, the Russian revolutionary leader, analysed these processes in 1915, two years before the explosive events of 1917.

He pointed to two elements that are necessary for this transformation in people’s behaviour to occur. First, ordinary people have to reach the point where they find the conditions under which they live and work intolerable.

But this alone is not enough to ensure mass rebellion. People can react to terrible cuts in their living standards by becoming demoralised and turning against each other, rather than becoming militant.

That is why Lenin also stressed a second important element. Great economic or political crises do not just create bitterness at the base of society. They also put the ruling class into such a mess that it cannot find an easy way out.

These crises create panic among the most powerful capitalists. So does getting drawn into protracted wars that they cannot easily win.

In such situations, rulers start blaming each other for what is happening. Each capitalist tries to escape from the crisis at the expense of rival capitalists, as well as by cracking down on the mass of people.

In extreme circumstances, this infighting can paralyse the propaganda and repressive machines of the rulers. Each section of the ruling class tries to use the media and the secret police against its rivals. And each tries to stir up sections of the masses to support its plans against those of its rivals.

But even short of this, infighting among the ruling class means that the masses no longer face a solid wall of resistance to their demands. This gives people confidence that militant action can have an effect.

A revolutionary situation opens up when you get both together, when, in Lenin’s words, “the lower classes do not want to live in the old way and the upper classes are unable to live in the old way”.

Nobody at any level of society is satisfied with the existing order. Everyone is desperate for a solution—no matter how “extreme”.

Capitalism in the first half of the 20th century repeatedly created such revolutionary situations, with its great wars and its great economic crises. Capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century is again creating such situations, with its anarchic globalisation of production and finance.

What happened in Argentina two and a half years ago is a prime example of what we can expect elsewhere in the decades ahead.

Throughout most of the 1990s Argentina had been a model globalised national economy. Its president and ministers were the toast of establishment economists everywhere for the speed with which they had deregulated, privatised and welcomed in foreign capital.

Then the country was hit by the backwash of a financial crisis that began in Thailand, on the opposite side of the globe. Argentinza’s foreign debt mushroomed out of control. The domestic market for its goods collapsed. Unemployment rocketed. The state froze everyone’s bank accounts. And the ruling class split down the middle over what to do.

It was then that people who had never before considered taking to the streets—the unemployed, manual workers, government employees, sections of the middle classes—marched on the presidential palace to fight with police for 24 hours before driving the government from office.

Argentina has not been an isolated case. We can see the same elements at work in uprisings in Albania, Indonesia, Serbia, Ecuador and Bolivia over the last six years. And we can expect more in the years ahead.

A country can seem to enjoy peace and stability for years at a time.

But then it can discover it has been like a raft floating in the calm patch between two great waves that suddenly threaten to overwhelm it.

Under such circumstances, the masses can suddenly enter political life in a way no one could foresee. Next week I’ll look at the role revolutionaries play in these situations.

Chris Harman will be speaking on “Revolution in the 21st century” at Marxism 2004 next week. See for more details


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