Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Two-way street

(July 1998)

From Socialist Review, No.221, July 1998.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘What is the connection between crisis and revolution?’ This question is raised again and again at socialist meetings. It has been pushed to the fore again by the way the east Asian crisis contributed to the sudden fall of Suharto in Indonesia.

There have long been two opposed, and equally wrong, views on the question.

The first holds that crises automatically lead to revolution. So, for instance, the early British Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation believed in 1886 that rising unemployment was going to lead to a revolution in Britain arising out of street protests similar to those that had played such an important role in the great French Revolution of 1789-94. Similarly, many revolutionaries believed that rising unemployment in 1920-21 would finish off a western capitalism already shaken by the wave of struggle that followed the Russian Revolution.

The view persisted into the 1950s, when at the height of the postwar boom you would hear some socialists say workers needed a recession to end their ‘apathy’.

But revolution was not the automatic result of the crises of the 1880s, of 1920-21 or of the end of the long boom in 1973-75. And the eventual outcome of the great slump of the 1930s was fascism across most of Europe, not revolutionary socialism.

The second view concludes from these experiences that economic crisis can never increase the chances of revolution. But experience does not justify that either.

The crisis of 1920-21 did not lead to immediate revolution, but it was followed by social convulsions in Germany and Bulgaria in 1921 and by the General Strike in Britain in 1926. The 1930s saw the victory of Hitler in Germany, but also revolutionary upsurges in Spain, the occupation of the factories in France in the summer of 1936 and the sit-ins which led to a huge upsurge in union membership in the US.

In fact, there is a connection between economic crisis and social revolution – and there has been ever since the first rise of class society 5,000 years ago.

But it is not a mechanical, automatic connection.

To see why, you have to see how any class society keeps going in ‘normal times’. The ruling class holds on to its power by a mixture of force and ideological dominance. But neither of these things would be effective if it were not for something else – the feeling among the mass of the population that the present way of doing things is the only way, and that, with luck, things might turn out all right for them.

This does not mean that people are generally happy. Life for many is still, as the bible puts it, ‘a vale of tears’, and even those who manage to maintain a tolerable existence hardly spend their whole time smiling. Nor does it mean there is no class struggle. There has always been one form of resistance or another – of slave against master, peasant against lord, or workers against bosses – but the forms of resistance do not normally come together in a movement which gives people the feeling things can be different. The ruling class can therefore isolate and beat down those individuals who try to organise a more widespread struggle.

Economic crisis can suddenly change things in two ways. Overnight it takes away from the mass of people even the small things that have made life seem tolerable in the past, driving vast numbers to the point of desperation. It also creates deep splits inside the ruling class. As they find that their old methods of running things no longer seem to work, they turn on each other in anger.

The instruments they have used to control the masses ideologically – the churches, temples and mosques in the past and the mass media today – begin to scream abuse at each other. Politicians, business chiefs and generals manoeuvre against each other. Even the secret police are no longer sure of the enemy. In extreme instances, members of the ruling class try to bolster their own position by mobilising a section of these masses behind them.

A dialectical interaction takes place between the quarrels within the ruling class at the top of society and the bitterness of the masses at the base of society. The splits in the ruling class give the masses the feeling that for the first time they have an opening for expressing their own bitterness. And this in turn deepens the confusion within the ruling class as to the way forward.

It is precisely this pattern which we saw at work in Indonesia – just as we saw in France in 1848, in Russia in 1917, in Germany in 1918-19 and 1923, in France in the mid-1930s, or, more recently, in Eastern Europe in 1956, 1968, 1980-81 and 1989. Lenin summed up the process by listing as two of his conditions for a revolution that neither the ruling class nor the mass of people feel that society can continue in its old way.

That, however, is not the end of the matter. As the crisis devastates people’s lives it can lead to anger turning to despair, as the sheer problem of keeping themselves alive drains people’s confidence of ever changing things by collective action. Once this has happened, sections of the ruling class with the most drastic and barbaric approach can see the chance of implementing a solution to the crisis for their class at the expense of everybody else.

This, of course, was what happened eventually in the 1930s, but it is not an inevitable outcome of every great crisis.

There is an alternative. It depends upon building the momentum of struggle to the point where the crisis throws the ruling class into confusion and unleashes the bitterness of the masses. But political forces always emerge that preach the opposite, fatal, message. They tell people to calm down, to rely upon established politicians to solve their problems for them and not to increase ‘chaos’ by further struggle. They justify themselves with talk of ‘realism’. Yet it is a path that can only lead to demoralisation and defeat.

That was why Lenin insisted on another condition for a successful revolution – the existence of a revolutionary party prepared to fight against all talk of conciliation with the section of the class enemy which puts a ‘liberal’ gloss on its policies.

Last updated on 21 December 2009