Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

2: What makes a revolution?

People often talk as if revolutions are made solely by groups of revolutionaries. Che Guevara famously declared shortly before the CIA murdered him in Bolivia in 1967: ‘If you are a revolutionary, make a revolution.’ But revolution never occurs just through the behaviour of a particular group, however big or small. It happens because masses of people, many of whom have never considered the matter before, demand change and put themselves at the centre of political events.

The French Revolution of 1789 began not because of the activity of a handful of republicans, but because thousands of people from the poorest areas of Paris marched on the royal palace at Versailles. The February 1917 revolution in Russia started when women textile workers, sick of working long hours for starvation wages, went on strike and threw snowballs at the windows of factories where their men worked to get them out too. Such events occur spontaneously when vast numbers of working people feel they can only get what they need by taking things into their own hands. Usually, those who have campaigned for revolutionary change are as surprised as anyone by the turn of events.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin, writing in 1915, pointed to two elements necessary for this transformation in behaviour to occur. First, the lower classes must reach a point where they feel the conditions of life are increasingly intolerable. But in itself this is rarely enough to bring about rebellion. People can react to living standards worsening by becoming demoralised and turning against one another. The amount of grumbling may increase, but not the amount of action.

The second element is that the ruling class gets into such a mess that it cannot easily find a way out. Great economic or political crises do not simply cause increased bitterness at the base of society; they can also provoke the most powerful capitalists to panic – as can a protracted war that cannot easily be settled. Members of the ruling class start blaming each other for what is happening and each capitalist tries to escape the crisis at the expense of rivals.

In extreme circumstances, the propaganda machines and repressive apparatus of rulers can be paralysed. Each section of the ruling class tries to use the media or secret police against its rivals, and each tries to stir sections of the masses to support its plans against its rivals. But even short of such a crisis, fighting within a ruling class can make the mass of people feel they no longer face a wall of resistance to their demands. People who were apathetic suddenly discover they can act.

A revolutionary situation opens up when these splits inside a ruling class combine with rising discontent among the mass of people – when, in Lenin’s words, ‘the lower classes do not want to live in the old way’ and ‘the upper classes cannot carry on in the old way’.

Revolutionary Situations

Capitalism repeatedly created revolutionary situations in the first half of the 20th century with its wars and economic crises. At the beginning of the 21st century the system is doing so again. Whole countries, even whole regions of the world, can suddenly be hit by economic crises or military conflicts that make life intolerable for the mass of people and put ruling classes at each other’s throats.

Events in Argentina at the end of 2001 offer a prime example of what we can expect in the decades ahead. Through most of the 1990s the country had been a prototype of the globalised national economy. Its president and economics minister were the toast of establishment economists for the speed with which they had deregulated and privatised the economy and welcomed foreign capital. Then Argentina was hit by the backwash from a financial crisis that began on the opposite side of the world. Its foreign debt mushroomed out of control. The domestic market for goods collapsed, unemployment rocketed and the state froze everyone’s bank accounts. The ruling class split over what to do. One section wanted to preserve its ability to invest profitably elsewhere in the world by maintaining the exchange rate of the currency against the US dollar. Another section, made up of locally based industrialists and big landowners, wanted the currency devalued so they could sell products more easily on world markets. Their quarrels broke the stranglehold they exercised over the media. An attempt by the dominant section in the government to clamp down by imposing a state of siege, following riots by the unemployed, backfired in the face of general bitterness. People who had never taken to the streets before – government employees, sections of the middle classes – joined manual workers and the unemployed in marching on the presidential palace, fought the police for 24 hours and drove the government from office. The division within the ruling class meant TV channels and newspapers gave expression to some of the bitterness. It also meant the repressive apparatus of the state was virtually paralysed in the face of recurrent mass demonstrations and as workers took over some of the closed factories.

Argentina has not been an isolated case. We have seen some of the same elements at work in uprisings in Albania, Indonesia, Serbia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nepal. We can expect many more examples in the years ahead. A country can appear stable and peaceful for years, only to discover it has been like a raft on a calm patch of water between two tidal waves. Under such circumstances, the mass of people can enter political life in a way no-one could foresee.

The dynamic of capitalism itself ensures there will be such uprisings. However, not every uprising results in revolutionary change. The countries mentioned above remain largely as they were before the risings. Governments have changed, but the same capitalists run industry and finance, and dominate agriculture. The same hierarchies run the armed forces and police, even if a few individuals have stood down. Obscene levels of inequality persist and the lives of the mass of people remain dominated by the insane logic of capitalist markets, even when governments concede small reforms. Such societies have gone through convulsions – what are sometimes called pre-revolutionary situations – but these have not culminated in successful revolution.

Uprisings, States and Revolutions

Revolution involves not just a change of government, but the turning upside-down of social hierarchies so that a class previously excluded from power takes over at the top. In the revolutions during the rise of capitalism this involved the bourgeoisie – the class with interests tied to capitalist forms of exploitation – who seized control of the state from the old landed aristocracy and imposed policies to suit themselves.

The state does not merely comprise parliament and similar institutions. On the contrary, at its core are the armed forces, police, prisons and secret police that constitute the means of repression. These are always organised on a hierarchical basis, so that whatever the social origins of rank and file soldiers, police or jailers, those who give the orders belong to a highly privileged group linked to the dominant economic class.

The end of feudalism culminated in supporters of the bourgeoisie defeating the armies of the old order. The success of the English Revolution of the 1640s depended on Oliver Cromwell creating an army of his own (the New Model Army) and using it to purge Parliament, close down the House of Lords and cut off the head of the king. The French Revolution of 1789–94 involved clashes with troops defending the monarchy (the Swiss Guards), wars against foreign-based armies, the execution of the king, and the use of the guillotine against the aristocracy and its supporters. Industrial capitalism was only established as the dominant force in the US by a bitter war to destroy the armies of the slave-owning plantocracy in the South. In Germany and Italy, wars were required to force disparate local monarchs and princes to accept integration into modern capitalist states.

However, these revolutions involved more than just the conquest of the state. Society could only be overturned in its entirety if there was also a transformation of economic relations and of the values which shaped people’s lives. There had to be economic and ideological revolution as well as political revolution. These changes took place over a much longer time than the political revolutions. But the new class could not consolidate its rule without seizing state power.

The origins of capitalism go back to the 13th and 14th centuries, with groups in parts of Europe slowly increasing their economic power through capitalist forms of exploitation. As their economic power grew, so did their capacity to influence ideas – through the development of printing and bookselling, the sponsorship of churches, the endowment of universities. However, this did not rule out the need for a culminating moment of conquest by armed force.

Where such a conquest did not occur, there was the likelihood of the old ruling class using its armed might to destroy the economic power of the emerging capitalists and to terrorise people into accepting the old ideology. This happened at the end of religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries in Germany, France, Austria and the Czech lands, during which the bourgeoisie fought under the banner of various versions of Protestantism and the old ruling classes under that of Catholic counter-reformation. The bourgeoisie lost the military battles to change the state and was forced to submit to the old order for a century or more. This happened again after France’s defeat by the other European powers in 1814–15, although the setback was more short-lived. It would have happened in England in the 1640s, France in the 1790s and the US in the 1860s if Cromwell, Robespierre or Lincoln had held back from a full-blooded assault on the forces of the old order. In each case, revolution was a drawn out process, but one which reached a point when sudden and decisive action was necessary.

There is a difference between the situation of workers under capitalism and that which faced the bourgeoisie under feudalism. Those exploited under the present system cannot gradually accumulate economic control. There are those who dream of establishing workers’ or peasants’ cooperatives to challenge capitalism, but these have no chance of long-term success. The capitalists control all the accumulated fruits of the exploitation of previous generations. While workers’ cooperatives may, on occasion, demonstrate that production can take place without capitalists, they do not provide a means of countering the enormous resources in the hands of billionaires and multinational corporations.

This means the question of who controls the state is even more important today than during the bourgeoisie’s ascent to power. If the bourgeoisie were defeated by the armies of the old order, they could still exercise influence through their continuing ownership of property. But when the capitalists succeed in smashing the struggles of the classes they exploit – by breaking strikes, imprisoning trade unionists, driving peasants from the land – these classes are left with nothing to resist further attacks. They face economic subjugation as well as political subjugation, and inevitable demoralisation. People lose faith in the possibility of replacing capitalism and succumb to the idea that there is no alternative. Worse, the defeated can turn on one another and scapegoat members of ethnic and religious minorities.

Last updated on 5 October 2016