Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Revolution? You must be crazy!

Ian Birchall explains why we need to overthrow capitalist society, and how to do it
Workers and soldiers demonstrate during the Portugese Revolution
Workers and soldiers demonstrate during the Portugese Revolution

A wave of strikes spreading ever more widely. Up to a million people converging on parliament. Sections of the army refusing to obey orders. Workers demanding the sacking of managers who had collaborated with the old regime. For people like myself, who have spent years trudging round to small meetings talking about what happens in a revolution (and sometimes wondering if we really believed it), it was an occasion of utter delight to see the revolution in Serbia unfolding just as the text-books said it ought to.

Yet, of the many millions who saw those pictures from Serbia, most will have concluded that such things only happen in faraway countries with rulers who rig elections. At present many thousands of working people are open to the idea that we need a left alternative to Blair with a radical programme for change. Yet most would draw the line at the word 'revolution', still thinking in terms of a left wing Labour government. Socialists are quite honest in joining united fronts with such people to fight for our shared aims. But an essential part of any united front is the free exchange of ideas, and it is vital that we defend our notion of revolutionary change.

Revolution has been an essential feature of human history. The forms of society we know today did not result from polite parliamentary debate, but from war, revolution and violent conflict. All property has its origins in violent expropriation.

One of the revolutions that formed the modern world was the French Revolution of 1789. For the previous century France had been ruled by an arrogant, corrupt and incompetent monarchy. A small group of philosophers had written books attacking the regime--they faced prison and exile, and often had to circulate their works in secret, so they seemed to reach only a tiny minority of the population. In 1789 everything changed. The king, confronted with economic crisis, called an assembly of the people's representatives. On 14 July the people of Paris, afraid the king would block the process of reform, seized the fortress of the Bastille to get control of the weapons stored there.

If anyone had conducted an opinion poll or organised a focus group on the evening of 14 July 1789, and asked people if they wanted to abolish the monarchy, they would have been hard pressed to find a republican. Yet within five years the king had been removed from office and executed, and a new constitution gave the vote to all adult males. To this day all coins in France carry the slogan 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' as a reminder that modern France is the product of a revolution.

But, some will tell us, Britain is different. Yet where did the parliament that our politicians hold so sacred come from? Its powers were originally established by a bitter civil war in the 17th century, during which the king was executed. The monarchy was restored, but it was now controlled by parliament, though this originally represented only the wealthy. Indeed, in the following century the British had a reputation in Europe as being a particularly revolutionary people, since they had dared to behead their king. Illegal and sometimes violent action by Chartists and Suffragettes extended the right to vote, and ensured that we can at least get rid of an unpopular government.

The outcome of war

Le vote ne change rien

But how about developments since 1945? Surely it was parliament that gave us the modern welfare state? That is only true if we see British history in some sort of sealed vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world. In 1917 the Russian Revolution sent waves of terror through every ruling class in the world. Fourteen states sent troops to Russia to try and kill the new workers' state at birth. Over the next few years the working class seemed set to take power in Hungary, and then Germany and Italy. Amid this crisis the Labour Party adopted its new programme, committing it to the common ownership of industry. The revolutionary wave continued--British General Strike in 1926, Chinese Revolution in 1927, French General Strike in 1936, Spanish Civil War in 1936-39--though Stalin in Russia and fascism in Western Europe combined to try to crush it.

During the Second World War armed resistance movements throughout German-occupied Europe aimed not simply to overthrow fascism, but to ensure that the prewar conditions that had bred it would be abolished forever. By 1945 the threat of revolution loomed again, in Italy, Greece and Indochina. In this situation one of the most perceptive young Tory MPs stated, 'Unless we give the people reform, they will surely give us revolution.'

These circumstances, not just a parliamentary majority, made possible the government that gave us the NHS and other reforms. A much poorer society than today offered much bigger reforms because the spectre of revolution was still feared.

The popular image of revolution, expressed in television programmes like the Scarlet Pimpernel, is that revolutions are the work of cruel, authoritarian minorities imposing their will on the majority. The exact opposite is the case. All genuine revolutions are made by the majority.

Revolutions are not made by revolutionaries. Our revolution will be made by unpolitical people--the sort who walk past Socialist Worker sales as though they hadn't seen them--when circumstances reach a point at which they can't go on living in the same old way, when the personal solutions that had enabled them to survive just don't work any more. As a result, all revolutions are surprises to the defenders of the existing order. Thus in May 1968 the well informed business magazine the Economist published a special supplement praising French economic development, characterised by 'intelligent economic liberalism' and 'pathetically weak' trade unions. By the time it was on sale 10 million French workers were on strike and occupying their factories.

But revolutions are surprises even to revolutionaries. A revolutionary who is incapable of being surprised will not last very long. Thus in January 1917 Lenin (aged 46) said that the older generation like himself might not live to see the Russian Revolution. In February 1917, on International Women's Day, women in a textile factory in Petrograd went on strike and contacted the local Bolshevik district committee to ask for assistance. The Bolsheviks had simply intended to issue a leaflet for International Women's Day--they had no plans for strikes. It was the factory women who forced the vanguard of the proletariat to take action which culminated in the February Revolution. Before 1917 Lenin argued for many years that Russia was not yet ready for working class revolution. It was only when he saw how far the working class had gone in organising workers' councils, called soviets, that he realised the time was ripe for working class power within months rather than years.

True revolutions are profoundly democratic. Millions of people, normally bored with politics because they think it has nothing to do with their lives, realise they do have the power to change things, and as a result they take things into their own hands. Gracchus Babeuf recalled the early days of the French Revolution: 'The slightest question to be debated in the National Assembly aroused all minds. People gathered in crowds around the sanctuary of the laws, the people itself discussed the question... I have even seen patriotic deputies leave the assembly and visit the numerous groups which had formed in the surroundings, deriving precious ideas from the citizens' discussions.'

Victor Serge, writing in Germany in 1923 when revolution seemed imminent, described how workers would gather on the street: 'All day, until midnight, at busy crossroads, groups of men are discussing... I've often listened to their discussions: the Communist, the Social Democrat and the National Socialist are usually all there, and the Communist has the best of the argument.' Young women would wait at the barracks gates for their boyfriends, asking, 'You'll bring out some grenades, won't you dear?'

To stress the vital spontaneity present in any revolution is not to deny the need for a revolutionary party. On the contrary, just because people have become more open to political debate and more aware of their own potential power, there is a need for an organisation that can present a clear programme for action.

Suppose last October in Serbia there had been a socialist organisation with several thousand members and a regular newspaper, its members well known in their workplaces for consistently defending workers' rights, and as a result listened to seriously. Precisely at the moment when the jubilant crowds were realising they had the power to bring down Milosevic, they would have been able to intervene, saying, 'This is not enough.' They could have called for the setting up of workers' councils, and quickly left Kostunica and the parliamentary opposition isolated.

A future scenario

So how could a revolution happen in Britain? Here's one possible scenario. This is not a prediction, and certainly not a political perspective, but simply an exercise in political science fiction.

Over the first 15 years of the 21st century more and more people become dissatisfied with New Labour's failure to tackle the real problems of society. The Tories remain incapable of offering a credible alternative. Many people stop voting altogether, but a significant minority turn to the Greens and the Socialist Alliance. There is a wave of strikes and angry demonstrations. A group of left Labour MPs split to form an independent party. The government calls a general election.

In the new parliament the Greens, Socialist Alliance and Independent Labour have a majority. They form a coalition committed to implementing an action programme of improvements to health, education and welfare, higher pensions, and a radical expansion of public transport to counter gridlock and global warming.

How are these policies to be paid for? The old slogan 'Tax the rich' comes into its own. All income above £40,000 a year (or rather the equivalent at 2017 prices) is taxed at 90 pence in the pound. This is a popular measure, and the only people opposed are those earning £40,000 a year or those hoping to do so soon--a small minority, though including a large number of journalists and television experts who assure us that 'public opinion' will not tolerate it.

The reaction is rapid. Remember how the Countryside Alliance responded when one of their leisure activities was threatened? Now that their money is at stake the privileged classes move quickly. There are huge demonstrations of the rich and their hangers-on. High court judges threaten to rule the tax rises illegal (like the GLC cheap fares policy in the 1980s). Army leaders spread rumours of a possible coup. After some carefully provoked violence, Nato announces that it is considering sending in a 'peacekeeping' force.

The new government has two choices. It can cave in and surrender, or seek to mobilise its supporters. A call for strike action shows where the real power lies. Factories close, trains and lorries come to a halt, short power cuts reveal the workers' ability to plunge the country into darkness. You can order your shopping through the internet, but it takes human labour to get the food to you. To organise their action workers set up committees, with area and regional councils coordinating activity. Since workers need food and fuel, work resumes, but under the control of the committees, not the old bosses. Attempts are made to use the army to break the strike, as the generals act independently of the parliament they despise, but rank and file soldiers are persuaded not to act against their own friends and families.

Parliament is now irrelevant. The Socialist Alliance MPs have abandoned Westminster and gone back to their localities to assist the workers' committees. A national assembly of committee representatives is held which decides to dissolve parliament altogether.

Now even my lurid imagination is exhausted. It will take the combined imaginations of millions of workers to complete the process. Hopefully I've made the point that real change requires action that goes quite outside the normal parliamentary channels.

One more common objection must be dealt with. All revolutions, it is claimed, lead to dictatorship. However democratic they appear in the short term, the ultimate winners are Napoleon, Stalin or Franco. There is a widespread logical contradiction here, which students in particular should watch out for. Anti-Marxist lecturers will tell them Marxism is fraudulent because it sees human history in terms of scientific laws. No such laws of history are possible, they proclaim. A few minutes later, by some strange sleight of hand, it emerges that after all there is one absolute law--all revolutions lead to tyranny.

Actually, there have only been a few major revolutions in modern history, far too few to deduce any unchanging principles from. No self respecting scientist would base a scientific law on so few experiments. I can spin a coin and get 'tails' five times in a row--but that scarcely proves all coins will come down tails.

Human history is far more complex than such easy recipes. Each revolution must be studied in detail to understand why it ended as it did. In the French Revolution the most radical elements, the Jacobins, were overthrown (and ruthlessly executed) by so called 'moderates' who then paved the way for Napoleon, who developed some gains of the revolution while destroying all its democratic and radical content.

In Russia the Bolsheviks never expected that the revolution could survive without spreading to Germany and the rest of Western Europe. But the German Communist Party had been founded too late and was too politically unstable to lead a revolution. As a result of this isolation Stalin was able to take over and sacrifice the achievements of the revolution to the task of industrialising Russia. In Spain the Communist Party argued that the civil war should be purely anti-fascist, with any question of socialism being left till later. The Communists devoted more energy to smashing socialist elements on their own side than to winning the war.

A range of outcomes


Three revolutions, three scenarios, each different and highly complex. But if any general lesson can be drawn, it is not that revolution leads to tyranny, but rather that failure to complete a revolution opens the way to tyranny. As the French revolutionary Saint-Just put it, 'Those who make revolutions halfway have only dug their own graves.'

In fact, when a wave of revolutions overthrew the old Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989, there were a range of outcomes, from barbaric civil war in Yugoslavia and rampant corruption in Russia to apparently more stable parliamentary democracy elsewhere. But in all cases the initial promise of the revolutions was not fulfilled. It is hard to make any detailed predictions about what future revolutions will look like, as history certainly holds many surprises. But we can lay down a few general principles.

(1) Society cannot be changed within the framework of the existing institutions such as parliament. The whole apparatus of the modern state, the army, police and the vast administrative machine, have been developed to defend and perpetuate the existing ownership of property and distribution of wealth. They must be smashed and replaced by completely new institutions.

(2) Revolutionaries do not welcome violence and seek to avoid it. But we know that our enemies will be completely ruthless if their privileges are threatened. We know how they bombed Vietnam and Iraq. We see how they let millions of children starve rather than risk their profits. Only if we are absolutely determined to confront them is it possible they will give in without much of a fight--as in fact happened in Petrograd in 1917.

(3) Revolution must be based on the widest possible democracy. There must be directly elected workers' councils with all representatives subject to immediate recall by those who elect them. Every issue affecting the future of the revolution must be debated in full. Even among the most militant workers many prejudices may survive--for example, about paedophiles or asylum seekers. There are no short cuts. Only the fullest discussion can resolve these questions.

(4) The key role will be played by workers organised in workplaces. This is not to say that there is no part for the unemployed, pensioners or students. There will be plenty for them to do. But in the last resort the power of those who provide the goods and services on which society depends will determine success or failure.

(5) Revolutions are about consciousness. They are about people taking conscious collective control of their own work, their own society and their own environment. So the role of conscious socialists is crucial. They will have to argue in every strike meeting, in every workers' council, for a fully socialist outcome to the situation. The whole fate of the revolution will depend on whether they win the day.

The more conscious revolutionaries there are, the more likely we are to succeed. We cannot predict when and how a revolutionary process will begin, but the more conscious, organised revolutionaries there are from today onwards, the better placed we shall be to take advantage of whatever history has in store for us.

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