The need for radical change now could not be clearer. The threat of human extinction within decades casts a shadow over the present.
Oppression makes the lives of millions of people a misery and across the world. There are explosions of anger at tyranny. Revolution and the need to overthrow the existing order has become a common sense to many activists who have in recent years thrown themselves into struggles.
These range from global battles over climate change and Black Lives Matter, to the fight for freedom and democracy in Sudan, Myanmar and beyond. But even among those who fight for fundamental change there are questions.
Here Socialist Worker answers some questions on revolution raised in Socialist Workers Party branch meetings.
1. Revolutions are currently more common in the Global South. Can they happen in the West?
Revolutions take place when societies come under the most intense pressure.
That can be from shocks such as war, economic crisis or social crisis—including pandemics.
Tensions grip our rulers as they try to make working class people pay for their mistakes.
Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, described the moment as “a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth.”
It’s true that these kinds of stresses have in recent decades given rise to revolts in the Global South far more often than in rich countries.
But similar processes also occurred in the West in the 20th century and can do so again.
Mass strikes that shook the system took place in Germany in 1918-19, Italy in 1920, Britain in 1926, France in 1936, Belgium in 1961 and France in 1968. In each, there were opportunities to turn workers’ action into far wider social revolts.
And that’s what happened in Portugal in 1974. Workers took over their factories and swept away a rotten regime and put socialism on the agenda.
And, though part of the Eastern Bloc, workers in Poland revolted in 1981, took control of docks and shipyards and forced the regime there into crisis.
Rulers in economically advanced countries generally have more ability to grant concessions to head off workers’ movements, and they have the service of mass reformist parties.
In times of class confrontation, the leaders of the unions and Labour-type parties play the role of a pressure valve, seeking conciliation and compromise.
But during the most intense crises, the ruling class has no compromises to offer and can only turn to repression—and that can lead to explosive situations.
As climate calamity stalks even the richest countries in the world, such situations have become easier to imagine.
Whether they can be turned into revolutionary moments of hope depends in part on the levels of consciousness and organisation, and the type of leadership given to the workers’ movement.
2. Should revolutions involve people from all classes?
Feeling part of a huge protest crowd—a sea of humanity that includes people of different classes—can feel very reassuring.
And, during periods of intense crisis, it’s not only workers and the poorest people that are directly affected. Sections of the middle classes—including some managers, small business people and top professionals—are also impacted.
Driven to desperation by economic crisis, and repulsed by the state’s failure to deliver the kind of society it promises, some join the demand for radical change. They may even align themselves with revolutionary movements.
These relatively privileged elements use their often superior education and status to try and place themselves in the leadership of groups demanding change.
But the class demands of this middling layer are not the same as those of workers.
They want a society that recognises and rewards their talents. They want positions of power and influence for themselves, rather than for the mass of ordinary people.
And they want “stability” so that the normal business of capital can continue.
That means that at crucial junctures of a revolution, the middle classes can be swayed by concessions.
That is the process that is now unfolding in Sudan.
The forces grouped around former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok are determined to negotiate a settlement with the country’s military rulers—despite the opposition of the working class and its resistance committees and unions.
Hamdok wants a deal that satisfies the bankers and bureaucrats, but he knows that this can only come at a great cost to the poor.
The cross-class alliance that starts as a comfort generally ends up smothering moves towards radical change.
3. Why are workers so crucial to revolutions?
Workers have a special role in revolutions, and it’s not just down to their superior numbers.
Because of the way capitalism is organised, the people who do the majority of the work have enormous potential power to stop the system.
But coming to recognise that power is itself a political process.
In revolutionary situations, workers’ general strikes are usually decisive. That’s because they hit at the centres of profit making and therefore at political power.
And by taking action collectively on such a large scale, mass strikes can be transformative.
First, by joining together with perhaps millions of others, individual workers start to see themselves as part of a collective with shared economic and social interests.
The dog-eat-dog world of petty prejudices suddenly makes a lot less sense than it used to. And ideas ingrained over generations can change in a matter of days.Revolutionary situations are proof that people and their ideas change in struggle.
That goes part of the way to turning workers into a force in their own right.
Second, the mass strike breaks down the carefully sewn division between economics and politics.
To escape from the bosses’ crisis, workers are forced to move beyond ordinary union demands over pay, conditions, pensions, and so on.
Instead, to find relief they have to challenge the power of those trying to make them pay—that is, they have to challenge the system that stands behind the bosses.
Workers that were previously unorganised also join the fight. They start to form new unions and find the courage to do battle over their conditions, perhaps for the first time.
In this way the economic becomes political, and the political becomes economic.
Mass strikes then pose the question of state power. Which class is going to rule, the capitalists or the working class?
4. What about those who are hostile to revolutionary change?
Even when the material conditions that give rise to oppression have largely been removed, there will be a small minority that clings to bigotry.
And there’ll be others, even among workers, who declare themselves enemies of change and choose to side with the ruling class.
How does a revolution deal with these minorities?
Here we have to make a distinction. There are those who maintain reactionary ideas, but who are isolated and pose only a small threat. And there are the forces of the old ruling class, who are a far more serious problem.
In the case of the former, we expect that the newfound confidence and unity of workers will be able to silence those who want to hold on to their bigotry.
When necessary, committees of workers may try to overcome prejudices with education and their own moral pressure. But those who have aligned themselves with the forces of reaction are far more dangerous.
They want to smash the revolution and will create a river of blood to do so.
And for that reason, workers must again play a decisive role—this time in organising the defence of the new societies they have created. That means workers in revolution must be ready to take up arms.
The exact circumstances of each revolt has dictated the response.
Think of the street barricades of the Paris Commune of 1871, the improvised tanks of the Spanish Civil War of 1936, or the winning over sections of the army in Hungary in 1956 and Portugal in 1974.
Past revolutions and their victories and failures show today’s generation of socialists the need for revolutionary organisation. It is not enough to simply have a revolutionary understanding. It must be put into practice by agitating the workers’ movement, linking struggles and building the revolutionary party.
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