Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

7: The Role of Revolutionaries

Revolutions never break out just because of the efforts of groups of socialists, however dedicated. They occur, as we saw, when great social crises create a situation in which ‘the lower classes do not want to live in the old way’ and ‘the upper classes’ are ‘cannot carry on in the old way’. The current stage of capitalism, globalisation, has led to greater unpredictability and uncertainty for the ruling classes, and greater suffering for the oppressed in whole regions of the world – making it inevitable there will be great social crises in the century ahead of us. The dynamic of capitalism ensures that upheavals will take place.

But not every situation of this kind ends in a socialist revolution, far from it. Most of those we have referred to in the last century did not. More recently, the uprisings in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia have so far replaced openly neo-liberal governments with those promising progressive reforms. This is because the contradictions in people’s consciousness do not simply disappear even during periods of upheaval. People have it hammered into their heads that they can’t run things. So, even after overthrowing a government, most people are likely at first to place their hopes in a new government, apparently less hostile to their demands.

Even as millions of people discuss how to change society, the influence of ideas and institutions that argue for only limited reforms persist. While whole groups of workers with past experience of struggle move beyond notions of reform to see the need to confront the system, other groups making their first moves towards class consciousness tend to follow the trade unions and reformist parties which tell their supporters to hold back from a revolutionary confrontation. This reformist approach – sometimes coated in radical, even revolutionary language – always finds a mass audience in the period after a first popular upsurge.

In fact, solutions that avoid confrontation are not possible during social crises on this scale. But that does not prevent many people seeing the reformists at first as more practical and less violent than those pushing for revolution. After the uprising that overthrew the Tsar in Russia in February 1917, people put their faith in governments headed first by a war profiteer, Prince Lvov, and then by a lawyer, Kerensky, committed to maintaining capitalism intact. In Argentina in 2001–2 people who threw out four presidents from the old political establishment, one after the other in less than a month, eventually came to tolerate two others from a similar background – Duhalde and Kirchner.

What seems like a single, spontaneous movement on the day of the first upsurge, always develops into different currents – in effect, three parties, whether they use this name or not; a revolutionary party, a reactionary party and, attempting to bridge the gap between them, a reformist party.

There are sincere revolutionaries who oppose the existence of parties at all arguing that they undermine the spontaneous self-activity of workers. But any genuine mass movement involves a wide array of people with differing views on what needs to be done. Many argue for the line of action they think correct. Someone suggests a demonstration or strike. Someone else thinks such action is premature and there should be further negotiations. A third person wants no action at all. A movement may appear spontaneous to an outside observer but viewed from the inside it invariably involves attempts by myriad individuals to lead in different directions.

Parties would come to exist even if the divergences between people were simply random, but they never are. The divergences are structured by the pressure of existing society on the protests that arise – above all by the assumptions engrained in the people’s consciousness that things cannot be fundamentally different to the past. Conservative currents argue society cannot be changed at all and reformist currents that it can only be changed in part. These currents form spontaneously through the impact of existing society, and are encouraged by the media and by those with careers tied to the existing political institutions. So when people say there is no need for parties, they are saying that there is no need for revolutionaries to get together to oppose these currents.

However, the outcome of a revolutionary situation depends on the outcome of the battle by these different currents to give direction to peoples’ bitterness. In conditions of great crisis, where the reformist option can provide no solutions, the battle increasingly becomes a straight fight for influence between revolutionaries and reactionaries. The future comes to depend on whether those who have abandoned hopes for reform turn to revolution or reaction.

The battle is both one of ideas and a practical struggle. The ruling class relies for its supremacy on the working class being fragmented and lacking in confidence. Workers can only overcome such impediments through the experience of struggling for control in the workplace and on the streets. The momentum of struggle at such times can give even the most unpolitical workers a sense that they are part of a movement that can create a new society. Reformist attempts to slow the movement then can prove disastrous, breaking the feeling of strength and allowing fragmentation to return along with the reactionary ideas of the ruling class.

This was shown tragically in the case of Chile. The attempt of the ruling class to smash the reforms of the Allende government in 1972–73 provoked a counter-offensive by workers. But there was a powerful reformist current in the workers’ movement, centred on the Socialist and Communist parties and in control of the national union federation. Its leaders argued the army generals would respect the constitutional powers of the president and that the most important thing was not the struggle in the factories but winning elections and the support of the supposedly more moderate of two pro-capitalist parities, the Christian Democrats. When workers took to the streets against an attempted coup in June 1973, fraternising with soldiers, a minister in the Allende government told them to go home and rely on the loyalty of the generals to the constitution. This gave the generals time to re-establish their hold over the rank and file of the armed forces and to prepare the barbarously successful coup of September 1973. The generals then murdered the minister.

Revolutions invariably reach a point at which they must either move forward, or begin to slip back. Going back can mean a return of the old order in a worse form even than before. The only way to prevent this is for revolutionaries to be organised to present their ideas and suggest a different way forward. A revolutionary party is not necessary to start a revolution, but it is essential to ensure its victory when the choice is between socialism and barbarism.

Last updated on 5 October 2016