Issue 177 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Bursting the chains

What makes a revolution? Sabby Sagall examines the conditions that have led to some of the great revolutions in history and shows that they are the outcome of a long process of crisis and struggle on the part of the different classes involved

No taxation without representation: the Boston Tea Party
No taxation without representation: the Boston Tea Party

The world today was formed in its most important aspects by four major revolutions. Modern capitalism emerged from the womb of European feudalism in the 16th century. But the new society could not have flourished and matured without the revolutionary upheavals that swept away the feudal landowning classes and absolute monarchies of Europe. The English Revolution of the 1640s, the American Revolution of the 1770s, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 were the decisive events that laid the foundations for the growth of industrial capitalism and parliamentary democracy.

The English, French and American revolutions were all led by the middle classes who had acquired wealth but lacked political power. They mobilised the exploited and oppressed classes to sweep away the vestiges of the old order. The Russian Revolution differed from these. It fell to the working class to transform society because the middle classes were too corrupt and cowardly. The workers, however, were not willing to stop at the stage of parliamentary democracy but began immediately to build socialism.

Certain common components can be found in all four societies in the period prior to the outbreak of revolution: economic crisis, a background of earlier economic growth, rising expectations, growing incompetence and weakness of the ruling class, intensified class antagonisms and a transfer of allegiance by the leading intellectuals.

The outbreak of revolution in all these societies was preceded by a period of serious economic or at least financial crisis. Before the English Revolution the two Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, had used their power to support the corrupt trading monopolies and parasitic nobility, so hampering the growth of capitalism and a national market in trade and industry. Both kings came into intensified conflict with parliament over their attempts to increase taxation of the middle classes.

The triggering factor in the American Revolution was conflict between the American colonists and the British state over taxation. The key slogan was 'No taxation without representation.'

In 1787 the French feudal parliament, the Estates General, which hadn't met since 1614, was summoned by King Louis XVI because of the appalling state of the government's finances. The monarchy tried to solve the crisis at the expense of the aristocracy who, in turn, attempted to offload the problem onto the middle classes--the merchants, bankers, lawyers and better off peasants. Again, the financial crisis arose because the parasitic ruling class was checking the advance of French capitalism.

In Russia 1917 the Tsarist regime had reached all out collapse in all areas of government activity. Three years of world war had strained Russian finances to the limit. High prices and scarcity were important factors in the rising class tension.

In every case the government and ruling class of the day tried to solve the crisis at the expense of the social classes beneath them. In the English, American and French revolutions the urban middle classes provided the leadership for revolution while the peasants, artisans and labourers did the actual fighting. In the Russian Revolution the workers both provided the leadership and, with the peasants, did the actual fighting.

The societies had experienced over previous decades economic expansion and an increasing national income. England in the first half of the 17th century grew in prosperity through agricultural development and trade. Important sections of the middle class, such as larger farmers, merchants and bankers, had acquired increased wealth through capitalist farming and commerce. In 18th century America the merchants and farmers experienced a growing prosperity.

France in 1789 was perhaps the most striking example of a wealthy society with an impoverished government. Population growth, agricultural production, manufacturing and foreign trade had all registered a general upward trend throughout the 18th century. The lion's share of the increasing prosperity was taken by the middle classes, precisely the groups who in the 1780s were the loudest against the government, refusing to bail it out through increased taxes or loans. The peasants were better off than they had been a century earlier. By 1789 they had been able to save enough after paying feudal dues and state taxes to buy up roughly a third of the land. But they were more discontented than ever. The mere fact that many of the obstacles to their enrichment had been removed made those which remained all the more objectionable.

Even in the case of Russia in 1917, the years before the breakdown of government under the strain of war had seen the growth of the country's productive capacity to a higher level than ever before. Industry had been developing since the late 19th century. In 1909 an economic boom followed the slump of 1907-08 and industrial production rose continuously until the outbreak of war in 1914.

This social and economic development enabled sections of the middle class to increase their wealth and power and so raised their expectations. An increasingly intolerable gap between what they had been led to expect and what they got drove them to overthrow the old order. The revolutions came about during economic crises following periods of rising living standards.

The urban middle classes in the English, American and French revolutions were able to mobilise and lead the dispossessed and impoverished masses, the artisans, labourers and land hungry peasants behind their banner, inscribing on it the slogan 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'. The masses were promised the earth. But once the middle classes had achieved political power to match their economic power, they excluded the masses from any say in the new world. They reshaped the existing state to consolidate their wealth. But in Russia the middle class drew back in alarm from the movement which its counterparts had so successfully led in earlier centuries. Instead the working class had to lead the revolution.

The rising wealth and power of the middle classes led to increasing clashes between them and the old order. In England there were bitter struggles between the monarchy and old landowning nobility, on the one hand, and the middle classes, led by Cromwell, on the other. Puritanism appealed to the more prosperous artisans and peasants, to the middle class traders and bankers and even to the progressive gentry of whom Cromwell was a representative. Following Hampden's refusal to pay Ship Money in 1637, there was a general refusal by the middle classes to pay taxes in the years 1639-40.

In America the ruling class was still young and exhibited none of the ineptness and decadence of the British colonial ruling class or of the French and Russian rulers. Hardly an American colony escaped some form of rioting in the period between the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Battle of Lexington in 1775. A large section of the rising American ruling class, moreover, supported the revolution.

In pre-revolutionary England, France and Russia the middle classes hated, envied and felt morally superior to the nobility. However, until the actual revolution middle class people of wealth and ambition, especially in France, wanted to join the upper class rather than abolish it. But the aristocracy was so reactionary that it thwarted these aspirations.

One reason that the revolutions were possible was that the old ruling classes were corrupt, weak and divided. More and more people saw them as unable to fulfil their functions.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of revolution there was a crescendo of protests against the ruling class. Opposition groups gained widespread support, and government attempts at repression were often half hearted because of their own loss of confidence. Many Cavaliers began pursuing a romantic search for a golden medieval past. In France the authority of the ruling class was undermined by doubts on the part of individual members of the justice of their rule. Count Mirabeau was an aristocrat who supported the movement for constitutional monarchy. In Russia, for decades before 1917, the aristocracy had bemoaned the futility of life and Russian backwardness. The novelist Leo Tolstoy, himself a large landowner, went as far as distributing his lands to his peasants.

The increased class antagonisms and the ideological weakness of the ruling class led to intensifying activity on the part of intellectuals and pressure groups directed to radical political change. The typical grievances were aired in numerous treatises, pamphlets, lectures and discussion groups. Enlightenment thinkers in Britain and France gave expression to ideas of fundamental change, of creating a society based on reason and individual liberty.

In England the Puritan churches, and also committees of merchants and progressive gentry, operated as embryonic pressure groups giving ideological justification and confidence to the rising middle classes. In America, Merchants' Committees and state legislatures were pressure groups organising challenges to British colonial rule.

In France the revolution was incubating for several decades before 1789. Discussion circles gathered to debate the work of the Enlightenment thinkers, turning gradually to political agitation.

In the three earlier revolutions the dissidents didn't consciously think of themselves as working for revolution. Until the end they believed they could achieve constitutional reform through agitation. In Russia, however, organised groups hostile to the Tsarist regime had long flourished: liberals, anarchists, various socialist groups, although the vast majority of intellectuals supported a revolution which went no further than parliamentary democracy. Only the Bolshevik Party upheld the idea of a working class led socialist revolution.

The underlying feature shared by the revolutions is that fundamental social change became both necessary and possible when the existing social system became a barrier to further human progress. Despite growing weakness not one of the old ruling classes was willing to give up power.

Today we are surrounded by economic crisis, the reality of a society in decay, with declining production surpluses, making advances in social welfare and workers' living standards much harder to achieve. Ruling classes are not only unwilling to grant improvements, but seek to withdraw hard won rights and reforms and to erode living standards established through decades of struggle.

This is why the task of building a new, revolutionary workers' party, linking militants and activists from all sectors of society, becomes more urgent than ever.


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page