Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

1: The actuality of revolution

Revolution is neither possible nor desirable, we are told, except maybe to remove governments which interfere with the running of market capitalism. Yet the 21st century has already seen a succession of near-revolutionary upheavals – the rising that forced the president of Ecuador to flee the country in January 2000, the uprising that drove out the Argentine president in December 2001, the spontaneous insurgency that brought Hugo Chavez of Venezuela back to power after a right-wing coup in April 2002, the uprising that drove out the president of Bolivia in October 2003, the risings that drove out presidents in Ecuador and Bolivia in 2005, and the mass movement that overthrew the government in Nepal in the spring of 2006.

In fact, revolution is so characteristic a feature of the modern capitalist world that the 20th century can be described as a century of revolution. In Europe, alone, there was a revolution in what is now Turkey in 1908; revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917; the Irish rebellion of 1916–21; the German and Austrian revolutions that overthrew their respective emperors in 1918–19; and the Spanish revolutions of 1931 and 1936. There were the uprisings that freed Paris, the cities of Northern Italy and Athens from Nazi occupation in 1944; the East German uprising of 1953; the Hungarian revolution of 1956; the events of May 1968 in France; the Portuguese revolution of 1974–75; the Solidarnosc movement in Poland in 1980–81; and the Eastern European revolutions of 1989–90. Britain is virtually alone among European states in not having fairly recent memories of revolutionary change, and most of the non-western governments represented at the United Nations would not have a seat without the revolutionary movements that ended colonial domination.

The prevalence of revolution should not really surprise anyone. The modern world is shaped by the most rapidly-changing economic system ever known. Its motive force is blind competition to accumulate profit. To this end capitalism continually reshapes agriculture and industry, transforming the conditions under which people make a living, and in doing so continually changes the way in which they live.

At the beginning of the last century 85 per cent of the world’s population lived in the countryside, working the land and following patterns of life similar to those of their ancestors. By 2000, half the world’s population was concentrated in towns and cities, and it is forecast this will rise to 60 per cent by 2030. This involves a transformation in people’s lives greater than any since the development of agriculture during the Stone Age.

Revolution and the Rise of Capitalism

Changes in the ways people worked and lived occurred slowly in the societies that existed prior to the rise of industrial capitalism in parts of north-west Europe 250 years ago. Most of the world was dominated by agrarian ruling classes whose wealth came from seizing through rents and taxes one-third to a half of the produce of those who tilled the soil. These ruling classes used various religious ideas to mould the lives of those they ruled into a rigid pattern, encouraging conservative clerics who preached that life would never alter. In the words of a Christian hymn: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.’

The rise of capitalism shook these old ways of acting and thinking. A new wealthy class emerged that became rich not through owning land, but through profits from the exploitation of wage labour. This class of manufacturers, bankers and capitalist farmers had different interests and saw the world in different ways to the old landed classes. As the wealth of this class increased, its members tried to impose their vision of how society should be run.

Societies were turned upside down in the centuries that followed. The capitalists challenged the old landowning class economically, ideologically and politically. This process changed the way everyone made a living as well as the institutions that shaped their lives. It was the real reason for the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries – from the American War of Independence and French Revolution of the 1790s to the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and February 1917.

The new ruling groups consecrated their victories by embracing conservative ideologies of their own, imprisoning people’s minds once again with the notion that society is fixed and unchangeable. They encouraged a new array of intellectuals – economists, writers, editors, academics – who declared capitalist values to be part of an unchanging human nature. At the same time, they made peace with the remnants of the classes they had replaced – landowners, lords, royal families, tribal chiefs and religious dignitaries, who were well rewarded for blessing capitalism with the same enthusiasm they had blessed the preceding system of exploitation.

So today we are told from all sides that society cannot be changed. The message comes from popes and pornographers, Christian fundamentalists and sociobiologists, gutter journalists and university vice-chancellors, economists and New Labour politicians. ‘Compromise, compromise, that is the way for you to rise’ is the underlying message to intellectuals – in other words, help put mental shackles on the minds of the majority whose labour keeps society going.

This has its effects. New generations grow up in societies shaped by capitalism. People have never known anything else and take for granted the pattern of life imposed on them, accepting voluntary incarceration at work five or six days a week, 48 weeks a year for 40 years, or languishing on less than $1 a day in a third-world slum. People are rarely very happy under capitalism – you hardly see people laughing with joy on the bus to work or while stuck in a traffic jam. But for periods of time, most people tolerate what the system has to offer. Under such conditions, capitalist notions colonise people’s minds – the rat-race mentality, competitiveness, the tendency to blame those of a different ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation for society’s ills. In this way conservative moods can grip not only those at the top of society, but many at the bottom.

The Restless System

Such periods never last indefinitely. The rapidity of economic change produces recurrent social dislocation, to which ideas must adjust. The capitalist system is built on competition between owners of the means of production – small firms in the mid-19th century, giant monopolies and state firms in the mid-20th century, and multinationals today. This competition forces every company to transform production methods continually, closing old workplaces and opening new ones. Towns and cities that grew up around certain industries are decimated. People who live in them find everything they have taken for granted disappears. They have to change the very rhythm of their lives, learning new skills, accepting new conditions, moving to new areas, while never knowing if the changes they make won’t also soon be obsolete.

Writing in the Communist Manifesto, when industrial capitalism was still in its infancy, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels observed the:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.

This applies more than ever to the present phase of capitalism, usually known as globalisation. Free markets and neoliberalism mean unleashing capitalism from every constraint – including social institutions and attitudes that served it well in the past. Just as people get used to certain ways of working and living, the system throws these into chaos. People naturally expect things to continue in a similar way, but globalised capitalism cannot fulfil such expectations. Every phase of stagnation or contraction throws tens of millions on the scrap heap, and any sober appraisal of the future must see these convulsions only growing as competing units of capital expand to monstrous size.

Half a century ago the defenders of capitalism boasted they had found a way of preventing economic crises and ensuring full employment, rising living standards and expanding welfare services through state intervention. They claimed the economist John Maynard Keynes had shown how to achieve these things in the advanced industrial countries and it was only a matter of time before such developments would spread to the rest of the world. Labour Party politicians in Britain, their social democrat counterparts in mainland Europe and the Democratic Party in the US argued revolution was outmoded because their reforms would create a world of growing prosperity and expanding leisure time.

Today their talk is very different. They declare Keynes out of date and argue problems cannot be cured by state intervention. Now governments react to the ups and downs of the capitalist system by abandoning the methods they once claimed could control the cycle of booms and slumps. Instead of promising a secure future, they say the system depends on the creative destruction of established ways of working. There is no alternative to reforms that expand the scope of the market. Even the most tedious jobs are no longer secure. They tell us jobs for life have no place in the modern world. We must abandon demands for shorter working hours and decent retirement in old age.

Capitalism, War and Social Upheaval

Warfare dominated the first half of the 20th century, with clashes on an immense scale. The period began with Britain at war in South Africa and a struggle between Russia and Japan in the Far East. It concluded with the Korean War involving the US, North Korea and China. The two world wars in between culminated in the Holocaust and nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Through much of the second half of the century it seemed things had changed for the better. The great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, avoided war with one another and their major allies out of fear of mutual annihilation. However, they were no less barbaric than before. The US waged a war in Vietnam that killed millions and backed death squads and torturers across Latin America. Russia crushed an uprising in Hungary and in Afghanistan tried to replicate what the US had done in Vietnam.

The approach of the 21st century brought back old nightmares in a new form. The weapons at the disposal of smaller states were now terrible enough to cause huge death tolls in the wars between Iraq and Iran, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serbia and Croatia, and on the eastern borders of the Congo. A single superpower, the US, seized opportunities to show it could out-bomb and out-shoot the rest – against Iraq in 1990–91, Serbia in 1998 and Iraq again in 2003. Other powers, especially Britain, tagged along behind, while France exacerbated the mayhem in parts of its former empire by sending troops to the Ivory Coast in 2006.

This new imperialism is no passing phase. The right to exploit is connected to military might. In the most devastated parts of the world, those seeking increased wealth seize it by force, operating as military entrepreneurs, knowing the accumulation of arms permits the accumulation of capital. At the top of the system, the neo-con group in the US government have set about using the world’s most powerful military machine to impose a ‘new American century’. In between, a range of middle-ranking and regional powers see armaments – and above all nuclear weapons – as key to making their voices heard: Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. Other states threaten to travel the same path in order to rise in the global pecking order.

Without an alternative to capitalism, wars can only recur and nuclear weapons proliferate. However, war does not only bring suffering. It can shake society to its roots, breaking people from the routine of the past. This can lead to the most reactionary ideas and monstrous behaviour taking hold, but can also result in a questioning of the system that leads to war and to confrontation with the politicians, generals and tycoons who rejoice in it. War cracked seemingly impregnable regimes in the 20th century, bringing the fall of tsars, emperors and presidents. It can do the same in the 21st century.

Conflict and Climate Change

This ‘best of all possible systems’ is destroying the environment we depend on for existence. Capitalism has always functioned by grabbing the cheapest raw materials and pouring out waste products. What this meant in the early days of industrial capitalism in Europe and North America can be seen today in the derelict coal-mining and iron-making areas – the gashes torn in the earth, the stagnant ponds, slag heaps and poisoned soil. Now the system is global, the devastation is global too.

However, the impact is unlikely to be limited to the physical conditions of peoples’ lives. There will also be a social impact. People are hardly going to watch their livelihoods disappear without seeking in some way to defend themselves.

Studies of previous societies that appear to have collapsed amid environmental crisis – such as the Mayan civilisations of southern Mexico and Guatemala, and the society on Easter Island in the Pacific – suggest ecological catastrophe was the catalyst for social revolt by the mass of people. Those whose labour had created the wealth to produce palaces and monuments turned on their kings and priests and tore down the symbols of the social system that was destroying them.

Changes in the world’s climate in the coming decades are sure to have an equally profound social impact. Our rulers will attempt to compensate themselves for environmental losses at the expense of rivals in neighbouring states and by increasing the burden on the rest of us. A report for the US Defense Department forecast some possible consequences:

Riots and internal conflict tear apart India, South Africa and Indonesia ... Access to water becomes a major battleground. The Nile, Danube and Amazon are all mentioned as high risk ... Rich areas like the US and Europe would become ‘virtual fortresses’ to prevent millions of migrants from entering after being forced from land drowned by sea-level rise or no longer able to grow crops. Waves of boat people pose significant problems. Nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable. Japan, South Korea, and Germany develop nuclear-weapons capabilities, as do Iran, Egypt and North Korea. Israel, China, India and Pakistan are poised to use the bomb. [The Observer, 22 February 2004]

No-one can know precisely the impact of climate change, let alone how this will translate into social and political pressures. What is certain is that there will be pressures. As resources dry up, rival capitalists and states will fight for access to them and ordinary people will try to prevent themselves suffering. All the political and social tensions that characterise the world today will be intensified.

The question is not whether conditions can develop that lead to potential revolutionary upheavals. These are inevitable in a world in turmoil – as economic crises deepen, wars intensify, weapons proliferate and global warming creates havoc. However, there is nothing predetermined about the outcome of such upheavals. The turmoil in the years after the First World War led not to a better society, but to fascism and renewed war.

Apathy and Disaffection

There is only a minority of people worldwide who accept the need for total social change, despite the growth of anti-capitalist ideas. But the signs of passive disaffection with the present system are visible everywhere.

In virtually every major country, the proportion of people voting in elections has in general fallen over the last two decades. The turn-out in British elections was more than 80 per cent in the early 1950s. In 2001 it was 57.5 per cent, and in 2005 61 per cent – two people out of five could not see a reason to choose between parties offering the same neo-liberal policies. In the US, two-thirds of people did not vote in 2000, and even in the tense election of 2004 more than half stayed at home. In parliamentary elections in France turn-out fell from more than 70 per cent in the 1940s and early 1950s to under 60 per cent in the late 1990s. In Poland, in 2005, the election turn-out was 30 per cent. Only when something appears to be vitally at stake has this downwards trend been bucked – so both the last two French presidential elections have seen high turnouts. In the first the fascist Le Pen had got through to the run-off round for the first time, while in 2007 Sarkozy’s hard right-wing platform polarised French politics and voters turned out in large numbers.

Such cynicism about politicians and electoral institutions is not, of course, the same as a desire to overthrow them. But it is an expression of the increasing feeling that the system has little to offer the mass of people. What is characterised as apathy involves a loss of faith in the capacity of existing political structures to do anything for people.

The same passive detachment is demonstrated by the popularity of drugs or the growth of religious cults, particularly in the US. A more dangerous expression of the same thing is the growth in the minority who listen to the rants of neo-Nazis. The 10, 15 or even 20 per cent of people who sometimes vote for such parties are turning away from the monotone message of the mainstream parties and directing their bitterness at people who suffer from the system at least as much as themselves. It is a frightful illustration of how disaffection can turn poisonous if no positive alternative to the rampage of global capitalism emerges.

The key question is whether apathy can give way to consciousness of the need for change among masses of people and the anti-capitalist minority become a majority. Experience suggests such a transformation is possible. Apathy results from a feeling of impotence in the face of overwhelming pressures and a bewildering world. Yet it can switch to its opposite, a commitment to change the world, when individuals become aware that their concerns are shared by many others. It is this which explains the growth of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, the wave of uprisings in Latin America and the emergence of new left forces in Europe.

Last updated on 5 October 2016