What is a Revolution?

What is a Revolution?

When asked to define revolution, socialists often quote a famous statement by Leon Trotsky: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events.” That was certainly true of the Russian Revolution which Trotsky was discussing and it would also be true for any future socialist revolutions; but as a general description it is far too restrictive. It would, for example, exclude most of the great bourgeois revolutions with the exception of the English, the French and a handful of others.

A contemporary of Trotsky’s, the Scottish socialist John Maclean, when asked what he meant by revolution at his 1916 trial for sedition, answered by placing one hand on top of the other and then turning them upside down, indicating that the exploiter and exploited classes would change positions. In some ways this is a more complete definition than Trotsky’s as it points to an outcome as well as an agency, but it is similarly restricted to socialist revolutions, since the bourgeoisie were certainly revolutionary during their rise to power, but-as we shall see-were never an exploited class.

In fact there is no general theory of revolution. We have to distinguish between different kinds of revolutions, above all between political and social revolutions and then between different varieties of the latter.  What all have in common, in different ways, is the state as an objective.

Political and Social Revolutions 

Political revolutions take place within a socioeconomic structure. They are struggles for control of the state, involving factions of the existing ruling class, which leave fundamental social and economic structures intact.

These revolutions have been relatively frequent in history and include: the Roman Civil Wars, which led to the abandonment of Republican rule for the Principate in 27 BCE; the victory of the Abbasid over the Umayyad dynasty in 750, which led to the opening up to all Muslims the elite offices of the Caliphate, formerly held exclusively by Arabs; and the Eastern European Revolutions of 1989-91, which swept away the Stalinist regimes and began the transformation of Eastern state capitalism into an approximation of the Western trans-state model.

Political revolutions may involve more or less popular participation, may result in more or less improvement in the condition of the majority and can introduce democracy where it has previously been absent. But ultimately the ruling class that was in control of the means of production at the beginning will remain so at the end (although individuals and political organizations may have been replaced on the way) and the classes that were exploited within the productive process at the beginning will also remain so at the end (although concessions may have been made by the winning faction to secure their acquiescence or participation). The absence of fundamental social change associated with political revolutions means that there is far less distinction between them and processes of accelerated reform.

Take, for example, the Great Reform Act of 1832 in Britain. The bourgeois revolutions in Britain had been completed by 1688-1689 in England and by 1745-1746 in Scotland: the Great Reform Act was a successful attempt by the industrial bourgeoisie to achieve the franchise for itself and thereby gain more direct access to an already-capitalist British state.

If a revolution had actually taken place, as historian Edward Thompson believed was possible between February 1831 and May 1832, then British society might have been more thoroughly democratized than it in fact was, but given that socialism was not on the agenda at this early date such a revolutions would still have remained within the realm of the political.

Social revolutions, however, are not merely struggles for control of the state, but struggles to transform it, either in response to changes that have already taken place in the mode of production (the early bourgeois revolutions), or in order to bring such changes about (the late bourgeois revolutions and the socialist revolution): they involve a change from one socioeconomic structure to another.

Only three epochal processes fall into the category of social revolution. At one extreme is the transition from slavery to feudalism. At the other extreme is the socialist revolution, to date a possibility rather than a reality, but which, if achieved, will begin the transition from capitalism to socialism. Between these two extremes lie the bourgeois revolutions.

The relationship between political and social revolutions is complex. Some political revolutions have social implications and all social revolutions have political implications. Some revolutions, which taken by themselves, appear to be merely political revolutions, are in fact the opening or concluding episodes of a more extended social revolution. In relation to the bourgeois revolution, the English Revolution of 1688 has this relationship to the revolution of 1640. Reversing the chronological order of importance, the American Revolution of 1776 has this in relation to the Civil War of 1861-1865.

More importantly in the context of this discussion, some revolutions conclude as political revolutions because they fail as social revolutions. In relation to the socialist revolution, this is clearly the case with the German Revolution of 1918. A similar case could also be made for the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-1975 and indeed most of the so-called democratic revolutions to have taken place since, most recently in Indonesia (1998), Serbia (2000), Tunisia (2011-2012) and Ukraine (2013-2014). Finally, it is only after a revolutionary process has concluded that it is possible to say whether it has involved political or social revolution: until that point the possibilities are still open.

The Specificity of Socialist Revolutions 

Clearly we are at a disadvantage in discussing the details of the transition to socialism since, unlike the transitions to feudalism or capitalism, we are discussing a process that has still to occur: the precise characteristics of socialist society are still obscure to us and, although some interesting work has now been done on what a genuine socialist economy would involve, they necessarily have a speculative character.

The only socialist revolution to have sustained itself for years rather than months, the Russian Revolution of October 1917, was thrown into reverse by the triumph of the Stalinist counterrevolution by 1928 and the transition it initiated has still to be successfully resumed. Nevertheless, from that experience and those of the brief but illuminating moments in failed socialist revolutions both before (the Paris Commune) and after (Germany 1918-1923, Spain 1936-1937, Hungary 1956, Portugal 1974-1975, Iran 1978-1979, Poland 1980-1981, Egypt 2011-2012), it is possible to see how the working class can establish new democratic institutions that have taken over the running of the economy, society, and the state. Extrapolating from these experiences, it is possible to identify four characteristics of socialist revolution:

(i) Perhaps the most important characteristic of the socialist revolution is the nature of agency required to achieve it. The exploited class under capitalism, the working class, will have to achieve the socialist revolution, or it will not be achieved at all. As I have already observed, the working class is the first exploited (as opposed to oppressed) class in history capable of making a revolution on its own behalf.

Unlike the peasantry, the working class is structured collectively and is therefore the basis of a new form of social organization in a way that the former can never be. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the working class itself has the numeric size and structural capacity to rebuild society without using another class as an instrument to destroy the existing system. The working class is not an alternative exploiting class to the bourgeoisie and it will not be transformed into one by victory.

Consequently, the “everyday” class struggles between exploiters and exploited, and the “transformative” struggles for social revolution are linked by the fact that the same classes are involved: the former always contains the possibility of the latter. To this conception of working-class agency we need to add two qualifications.

First, not all workers will participate on the revolutionary side. Antonio Gramsci rightly argued that most members of the subordinate classes have highly contradictory forms of consciousness, the most characteristic being a reformist inability to conceive of anything beyond capitalism while opposing specific effects of the system. The alternatives are not, however, restricted to active rejection at one extreme and passive acceptance at the other: there can also be active support, the internalization of capitalist values associated with the system to the point where they can lead to action.

Second, the central role of the working class does not mean that it will be the only force involved in the socialist revolution. The potential allies of the working class have changed in the course of the last hundred years. If the Russian Revolution had successfully spread after 1917, then the peasantry would have played a far greater role, even in Europe, than they will now. Today sections of the “informal” sector in the developing world will play a far greater role now than they would have in 1917.

Similarly there are oppressed groups of which in the West today the most significant are Muslim communities whose situation makes them open to argument about the root cause of their oppression. Lenin’s notion that socialists must be “tribunes of the oppressed” is as relevant as it ever was. At any rate, any socialism worthy of the name will not succeed without that spirit.

(ii) The struggle for power by the working class requires organization to awaken, consolidate, and maintain class consciousness, but organization is also required as the basis for an alternative form of highly democratic public authority after a social revolution. In short, what the working class has to match is not the organizational structures within which the bourgeoisie conducted their struggle for power (in the minority of examples where they did in fact did so), but the centralizing role of the state and ideological forms established by the bourgeoisie after its ascendancy. The role of organization in consolidating and maintaining class consciousness is of crucial importance here, from the most basic forms of trade unionism through to revolutionary organization.

Democracy is not merely a desirable feature but a necessity for socialism. Indeed, it will be defined by the way in which democracy becomes the basis for those aspects of human existence from which either the market or the bureaucratic state currently exclude it. It is only through the transformative process of taking power that workers can throw off the legacy of years of enforced servility or misdirected anger that capitalism inculcates.

(iii) The socialist revolution will be a socio-political struggle for power whose completion will allow a new economic order to be constructed. The precondition for socialism is the development of the productive forces by capitalism but, because the working class is non-exploitative, there is no prior development of an alternative socialist or communist mode of production.

The process of transition therefore begins with the destruction of capitalist states and the substitution of transitional forms of highly democratic public authority ( “states that are not states”) but only as the prelude to their ultimate self-dissolution, as capitalist (and in some cases residual pre-capitalist) productive relations are replaced by socialist ones. In that sense the transition to socialism involves the withering away of both the market and the state.

(iv) The experience of the Russian Revolution highlights the final distinguishing characteristic of socialist revolution: it is necessarily a global event. The longer any individual breakthrough  remains isolated, the more susceptible it is to counterrevolution, either from without, as in most cases from the Paris Commune onward, or from within, as was the case in Russia.

The latter point perhaps bears some elaboration. The threat to the Russian Revolution, which was eventually realized, was not simply the backwardness of the economy, but the fact that in the capitalist world system, the pressures of competitive accumulation would ultimately make themselves felt, to the point of determining what happened in Russian factories.

Greater levels of economic development might enable a state to hold out from internal degeneration longer than Russia was able, but cannot ultimately protect against this process. That is why the international nature of the socialist revolution is a necessity, not a desirable but optional extra. Space has implications for time: the territorial extent of the socialist revolution exercises severe restraints over its temporality.

The Future of the Socialist Revolution 

What are the prospects for socialist revolution in the twenty-first century? A longer-term perspective might be helpful at this point. We can, for example, usefully compare the length of time during which socialism has been materially possible with that which was necessary for capitalism to become the dominant economic system. It took capitalism nearly four hundred years, from the arrival of the Black Death in Europe to the establishment of British supremacy over France in the Seven Years’ War, to be irreversibly secure.

Any beneficiary of the feudal mode of production, magically granted a Marxist understanding of the consequences of capitalist development for them, could have looked back with satisfaction from the year 1660 at a succession of aborted transitions, failed revolutions and external conquests which had suppressed capitalism where it had existed, in the Italian city-republics, Bohemia and Catalonia.

And they would have noted too, that even those states where capitalism remained the dominant mode of production were either in decline, like the Netherlands, or had experienced the restoration of absolutist monarchy, like England. They would surely have complacently concluded that capitalism had been seen off as a viable alternative system; yet within less than a hundred years the question was not whether capitalism would survive, but how feudal societies would make the now inevitable transition towards it.

The analogy is obviously not exact. Socialism will not develop within feudalism in the same way that capitalism developed within feudalism, nor do we have an infinite amount of time before human-made climate change threatens environmental collapse and, in any case, there is no reason why anyone should continue to suffer from capitalist exploitation for a minute longer when it could be ended. Nevertheless, in a longer-term historical perspective there is no reason to assume the defeat of socialism to date is necessarily permanent, any more than that of capitalism was, over a much longer period. Defeat is not the same as disappearance.

Nor have new working class institutions ceased to emerge. The most important recent developments in this respect have indeed occurred in Latin America, not the activities of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa or any other elected leader, but rather in the new forms of collective organisation which emerged first in Argentina between 2000-2001 in the form of the piqueteros (“picketers”) and asambleas (“assemblies”), and then in Bolivia between 2003-2005 in the form of the neighbourhood assemblies and worker’s regional committees, which organised from the vast slum city of El Alto to blockade La Paz.

The emergence of new organisational forms “from below” in Argentina and Bolivia is of crucial importance for revolutionaries, since they present, if only in embryo, the possibility of an alternative to the bourgeois state. It is in the replacement of that state that we can see the early indications of what socialism might look like in practice.

The Egyptian revolution was the most dramatic of these recent examples, showing both the potential for socialist revolutions to take place and the real obstacles in their way. In aspiration at least, it was strikingly similar to earlier attempts at revolution. Yet clearly there was a problem in terms of what might called the “self-limiting” nature of the revolution. The aspiration, under what was effectively a military dictatorship (and now is again), is for democracy.

Some Marxists have seen this as a revolutionary demand in itself, uniting the oppressed and exploited in a goal which has the possibility of going beyond bourgeois forms of democracy a political revolution, in other words to socialist ones. This certainly is a possibility, particularly since representative democracy is now in retreat. A key characteristic of the Global South is relative and in some cases absolute poverty and it is this that leads to the absence or precariousness of democracy; under conditions of economic crisis this is unlikely to change. Moreover, the tendency has been for the crisis to lead to technocratic restrictions on democracy within the weaker areas of Europe, above all in Greece.

But any assessment also has to take account of the fact that in every occasion where revolutions have begun as struggles for capitalist  democracy have been attempted and been successful from Portugal and Greece in 1974 to Tunisia in 2011 they have also ended there, let alone occasions such as Egypt in 2012 where there was mass popular pressure to set aside the result of democratic elections. We have at least to consider the possibility that, in the short-term at least, the achievement of democracy itself acts as an obstacle to revolution, in the absence of any credible vision of achieving the latter.

In order to conclude that social revolution is impossible in the 21st century, however, it is not enough to demonstrate that a majority of working class people currently have doubts about the feasibility of a systemic alternative to capitalism. When has this not been the case? Revolutions always appear impossible to the majority of people until they actually begin.

A persuasive case against revolution would have to demonstrate that capitalism had structurally changed to such a degree that it was capable of either atomising the working class to the point where mass collective action was no longer possible or creating mass prosperity to the point where mass collective action was no longer necessary.

Neither of these is plausible. The first might be sustained if we were to base our analysis solely on current situations in the UK or USA, but it is scarcely credible in, for example, India, where over 100 million workers struck for, amongst other things, a living wage and universal food security as recently as February 2013. It is the impossibility of the second which casts the biggest doubt on the ability of democracy to contain revolution. In an era of growing inequality and falling working-class incomes the first is, to say the least, somewhat implausible: no one expects a return to the Golden Age of the post-World War II boom, least of all in those areas of the Global South which have recently experienced political revolutions.

Because neoliberalism has moved “official” politics so far to the right, many issues which in the era of the post-war boom would have been considered “reformist” demands, or even elementary issues of human decency, are now resisted by the dominant institutions of capitalist society, of which the attitude of the Troika to the Greek arguments for the end of austerity has provided a striking demonstration.

It is not merely that reforms increasingly must be fought for in a revolutionary way it is that the reforms themselves have the potential to constitute revolutionary demands in a context where the system is unable to allow them, for fear of interrupting the restoration of profitability. The experiences of the twentieth century have surely put paid to any notion of the inevitability of socialism. Consequently, we do not and cannot know that the working class will ultimately be triumphant. But we still have good reasons to believe that it is possible.

Neil Davidson belongs to Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21) and is a founding member of RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance. His most recent book is We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).

Image source: Celebrations at Tahrir Square following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, 2011: telegraph.co