Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 14
Is world revolution possible?

The industrial working class in South Korea today is larger than the world working class at the time Marx died in 1883. Workers at pre sent are more numerous than peasants. The social and political weight of the working class is incomparably larger than that of the mass of peasants. Workers work in big units of production. Sometimes tens of thousands of them are employed by the same corporation, while the peasantry is atomised, fragmented. Every peasant family works on its own on a little plot of land.

Marx argued that a revolution becomes necessary when the productive forces come into conflict with the old relations of production, the old economic structure.

The capitalists at the dawn of their system were not only progressive, but revolutionary, as they fought against the fetters of feudalism. The English bourgeoisie made a revolution in the 17th century, establishing its economic, social and political supremacy. The same was done in the 18th century by the French bourgeoisie. A few years after the French revolution the capitalists in Britain’s American colonies declared their independence and established supreme power. The United States was born.

It is obvious that today capitalist relations of production are an impediment to the development of the productive forces. The fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of building workers are unemployed, while hundreds of millions lack decent housing, demonstrates this. Millions of people are starving, not because there is not enough food around, but because they can’t afford to buy the food. One anecdote, told to me years ago, illustrates the situation. A child says to his father in the midst of winter, “It is so cold. Why don’t you make a fire?” The father answers, “I can’t afford to buy coal. I have no money.” The child: “Why haven’t you any money?” “Because I am unemployed.” “Why are you unemployed?” “Silly boy, don’t you know? I used to be a miner, and there is too much coal in the world.”

The victory of the bourgeoisie over the feudal lords was absolutely inevitable. They coexisted. The capitalists could turn to the feudal lord and say, “We are richer than you, and our wealth increases all the time, while your wealth is dwindling. The best proof of our superiority is the fact that quite often, when members of the nobility find themselves in economic difficulties, they try to marry my daughters, to mix gold with their blue blood. Intellectually we are far superior to you. You have the Bible; we have the Encyclopedia. You have the Church, we have the universities. You have the priests; we have professors. We influence far more members of your class than you influence members of our class.” This was demonstrated clearly on the eve of the French Revolution, when the Etats généraux met. This body was divided into three Estates: the top one was the nobility, the second the priesthood, the third the capitalists-the middle class. When it came to voting, members of the first two estates broke ranks and joined the Third Estate.

The working class relation to the capitalists is fundamentally different from that of the capitalists to the feudal lords. The worker cannot come to the capitalist and say: “You own the factories, the banks, the shipyards, while we own ... When you are in financial trouble, you don’t rush to find a worker to marry your daughter.” While the Sun sells four million copies a day, mainly to working people, I doubt if there are any capitalists who buy socialist papers. Because of that, it is not inevitable that workers will win in every revolution. As Marx said, “The prevailing ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class.” He also wrote that communists generalise the international and historical experience of the working class. Nobody has personal experience of those events. No one alive today was active in the Paris Commune, in the Russian Revolution of 1905, 1917, etc. The revolutionary party is the memory of the class; it is the university of the working class. Therefore there is no inevitability that workers will be victorious in every revolution.

On the question, is world revolution possible? The answer is, not only is it possible, but it is inevitable. The world capitalist system is like a chain composed of a number of links of national states. When the pressure reaches extremes, one of the links is bound to break. When this happens it affects other links. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the beginning of a world revolution. It was followed by the German Revolution of 1918, by the revolution in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919, by the mass occupations of factories in Italy in 1920-21, by the continuation of the German Revolution culminating at the end of 1923. The Communist parties mushroomed. In 1916, at the International conference in Zimmerwald of socialists opposing the war, Rosa Luxemburg made the ironic comment, “We have reached a situation that the whole international anti-war movement can travel in a few carriages pulled by horses.” In 1920 the Communist Party of Germany had half a million members, the French 200,000 the Italian a similar number.

To say that the world revolution is inevitable does not mean that it is bound to be victorious.

The 1930s in slow motion

Some ten years ago I argued that we are entering a period that is like a film of the 1930s in slow motion. We sank into a world recession, but much shallower than the one of 1929-33. At that time in Germany there were 8 million unemployed, and no unemployment benefit. Today there are 4 million unemployed with unemployment benefit that is above the average wage in Britain. It is true that Le Pen imitates Hitler, but his support is incomparably softer than Hitler’s. Besides the 13 million votes Hitler won in 1933, he had tens of thousands of armed Nazis, Storm troops, aimed at smashing workers’ organisation. The National Front in France has nothing like that. Its support is much softer. When the mass strikes took place in France in November-December 1995 it shattered the support of the National Front. With the collapse of its support the National Front split, and Le Pen remained with a rump of the organisation.

Again, it would be a mistake to look at the 1930s simply as days of darkness, and that is all. The defeat of the German working class by Hitler was a catastrophe that cannot be overestimated. But at the same time we had the mass occupation of factories in France in June 1936 that raised the spectre of revolution. Alas, the leadership of the strike, the Communist Party and Socialist Party, joined forces with the Liberals to contain the struggle. This coalition, under the name Popular Front, three years later voted to support Marshal Pétain s collaboration with the Nazis.

The 1930s were a decade of extremes. Anyone sitting on the fence was only helping the reactionary forces. The fact that the film of the 1930s returns, but in slow motion, means there is much greater opportunity to stop the film and direct it in the way we want. The key is building the revolutionary party. As Trotsky wrote, the mass struggle is like steam, and the revolutionary party is the piston that directs the machine. A piston without steam is a dead piece of metal; steam without a piston is diffuse and leads you nowhere.

Coming back to the title of this article, we can sum up our answer with the following words: world revolution is not only possible, but inevitable, but its victory is not inevitable.

P.S. Rereading this article, I became aware that it is possible the reader might take Marxism to be a dogmatic collection of iron laws of history. As a matter of fact Marx always knew that accidents play a significant role in history. Had Lenin died just before returning to Russia in 1917 the impact on the Bolshevik Party would have been massive and hence on the history of the revolution.

Other accidents can accelerate historical development. I shall give one example. The earthquake in north west Turkey last year led to the collapse of slum houses where Turkish workers live, and also Kurdish workers who were recent refugees from south east Turkey. At the same time the well-built houses of the rich hardly suffered from the earthquake. This accident could have been used by revolutionary socialists to argue that class is the main divide in society, that Turkish and Kurdish workers are brothers.


Last updated on 12.12.2002