In the context of this discussion I shall rule out focussing on the types of radical changes, often superficially designated as revolutions, which involve only a challenge and change in the personnel ruling or governing an existing mode of production. I shall also start from the revolutionary-humanist position of Karl Marx, who concluded that the capitalist mode of production had outlived its historic usefulness. That is to say, its once revolutionary mode of production, now threatens not only the majority of the population, through extreme economic and social disparity and crisis, but increasingly undermines the welfare of the planet and all its living inhabitants.
Revolutions which challenge an existing mode of production, are invariably extremely destructive events. They entail untold hardship, massive loss of lives and severe dislocations of the entire fabric of life. For this reason, no one with any sense would actually want one if there were alternatives available. Even modern challenges to political governance as in the middle-east, entail huge loss of life and destruction. When anti-capitalists speak or write about revolution, therefore, it is in recognition that such events are serious, epoch-making events and do not unfold either according to the wishes of naïve enthusiastic activists nor in ways that are predictable or certain. Nevertheless, they do occur and it is possible to sketch out what developments prefigure uprisings and revolutions.
a) The essential economic and social context.
Three broad initial generalisations can be derived from the mass of detail involved in studying the context and developments of revolutionary events. They can be summarised as follows.
A) Revolutions only become possible when newly developed or developing economic circumstances conflict with the old methods and modes or production to such a degree that this conflict is reflected as serious antagonisms within and between the classes making up the composition of society.
B) A revolution becomes necessary in the above circumstances because the ruling classes – based as they are – upon the existing mode of production, will not step aside voluntarily, and allow a transition to a different mode of production. It therefore becomes necessary to overthrow their political, military and economic control of the mode of production by revolutionary means.
C) A recognition, at least to some degree, of the two above circumstances needs to begin to permeate the understanding of sections of the classes making up the strata of the society. A feeling or understanding that things cannot go on as they have and that changes in who governs the ’system’ are insufficient to solve the problems currently faced and those of the future.
Of course it is relatively easy to state this in theory, but quite a different problem to consider what the implications are in practice. Points A and B have long been proposed and C has occasionally been achieved for sections of society. But recognition of these requirements does not exhaust the question. Other social and organisational developments become necessary if a revolutionary transition is to eventually take place.
b) The necessary social and organisational developments.
Popular uprisings are a collective – No! Popular revolutions, on the other hand, are a collective – Yes! From a study of past uprisings, rebellions and revolutions it is possible to discern the following broad developments which I suggest are a useful framework for considering these questions. Of course in complex and unfolding reality these stages and phases do not evolve in separation or in linear progression, but merge into each other, ebb and flow back and forth within stages and between stages. However, each stage at some point or other can be identified.
1. Sufficient widespread anger/dissatisfaction among significant sections of the population, eventually manifested in rolling strikes, widespread civil disobedience, public and private propaganda questioning the legitimacy of the system.
2. The potential for collective action against the causes of dissatisfaction, facilitated by close proximity, good communications and existing or new organisations capable of orchestrating and sustaining these actions.
3. The actual development of collective action organised against the cause of dissatisfaction, together with the establishment of co-ordinating centres for co-operative organisation/action.
The above developments have been frequently fulfilled in many rebellions and uprisings. This much is revealed by the well known Spartacus slave rebellion in the ancient world, and the almost countless peasant uprisings in Europe during the middle ages. The numerous later ones in Russia, prior to the 1905 – 1917 period display essentially the same pattern. Whilst initially successful in mobilising masses of people, most of these did not achieve their ultimate goals. For a successful uprising there are at least two additional requirements;
4. The dissatisfaction against specific issues needs to be expanded and permeate sections of the ruling stratum. A platform of demands or unifying slogan needs to arise or be created – a context and ‘content’ to the uprising which widens its appeal and focuses this discontent and rebellion. And crucially:
5. Sufficient armed/military strength needs to go over to the side of the oppressed and/or the oppressing groups military forces become sufficiently weakened to allow the uprising or rebellion to press home the demands of the uprising.
At this stage the ruling strata can either back-down and introduce some concessions or they can dig in. In which case a civil-war may unfold. This latter development occurred during, the bourgeois revolutions of England and France. Pitched battles took place between the contending forces, who had recruited the masses on each side. In these cases, the new capitalistic mode of production (abbreviated in A above) had created the conditions for a political challenge to Royal power to emerge. In these cases the complete political revolution was preceded by civil wars. In North America, the colonists disagreed with British rule and eventually fought the British and won, but the uprising took the form of a popular war of liberation against foreign rule.
c) The necessary political developments.
In the case of an armed defeat of the ruling classes then a sixth stage has been reached in which the forces for change must accomplish certain tasks for there to be further development.
6. The armed and unarmed revolutionaries have taken on the ruling oppressors and taken over or demolished their positions and organisations of power to establish a new governing power.
Here we need to briefly consider the case of the Russian revolution. The Russian Revolution of 1905 only managed the first three stages and a partial achievement of the fourth – sufficient dissatisfaction among the ruling elite. The fifth point (sufficient military strength) never occurred. Despite many insurrections and revolts, the feudal Aristocracy remained sufficiently strong and united to continue in control. However, by 1917, ‘peace, bread and land’ the general unifying slogan, was promoted in a very different situation. The February events took place, the April and July days and onto the October 1917 revolution – in which point 5 materialised along with point 6. The new governing power became the politics and organisation of Leninist Bolshevism represented by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The economic governance of this power was directed by the org-bureau and political governance was directed by the politburo.
Elsewhere [In ‘The Revolutionary Party: help or hindrance’; and ‘Marxists against Marx’] I have argued that Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the senior Bolsheviks did not follow the post-capitalist ideas of Karl Marx. The new governing power suggested by Marx and other revolutionary anti-capitalists of his era, was to be the working population and citizens organised in economic and social communities and that all political power of parties and classes would cease. The Bolsheviks and their supporters clearly did not advocate that or attempt to implement it. So for a successful post-capitalist revolution on the basis of workers and oppressed self-governance would need considerable modification of 6th development and transformed into what I now suggest can be classed as point 7.
7. The existing capitalist state (its armed bodies of men, its bureaucracy, its power structures etc.) needs to be dissolved and dismantled completely and existing political forms of organisation disbanded along with them. And;
8. The new socio-economic system would comprise of co-operative or socially run production and decision-making by communities. Existing means of production would be taken over and run by the workers – not the state – on the basis of production for need. Local services would be similarly run. Further;
9. Decisions on production and the amount and type of surplus production need to remain with the producers organised in their local, regional and international collectives. Armed defence of the new system would need to be by the workers and communities themselves – not by a separate (or separable) specialised armed force.
10. Planning and co-ordination of production and exchange should be based upon a negotiated community-across model, rather than a centralised top-down model. Bottom-up and across planning may appear more chaotic than centralised top-down planning, but it would be ‘owned’ by those who implement it rather than owned by an hierarchical elite, who would need to enforce it.
d) Using this framework to make sense of modern turmoil.
We can see from our own direct experience that most of the world is as yet in and around various developments within points 1 to 3. Apart from the externally manipulated disasters in Libya and Syria, no part of the world has moved into point 4 and onto 5. And these latter uprisings/civil wars have not challenged the existing mode of production. There is, as yet, no sustained appearance of unified economic or social struggles or slogans among the workers and oppressed. Even Egypt, which witnessed the most impressive 21st century Arab Awakening uprisings which swept rapidly through developments 1 to 3 is currently bogged down in the stage described in point 4 and perhaps increasingly anticipating point 5. But there as in Tunisia, there is as yet no generalised criticism of the capitalist mode of production.
Importantly, none of the above stages, no matter how they may unfold, interlace, progress, or fail to progress, can be created or accelerated by those who are currently organised, or unorganised, in the anti-capitalist milieu. If the current anti-capitalist left were organised in a non-sectarian broad international movement, it might be in a position to effect an easier transition through such stages and facilitate a positive outcome in such developments. In doing so, it would need to convincingly explain to wider sections of the working community, in and out of trade unions, along with unemployed, students, pensioners and other oppressed sections of the population, why capitalism is moribund. It would also have to convincingly explain how post-capitalist monstrosities like the soviet union and china etc., can be avoided in the future. [See ‘Crisis! So what else can we do?’]
But we are as yet nowhere near such a collective and knowledgeable body. The dead weight of the history bears upon the anti-capitalist movement in the shape of past failures of our tradition, past and present fixed sectarian forms and dogmatic assertions. Only a few in this milieu are as yet seriously and genuinely committed to working in a non-sectarian, non-elitist manner. As the current economic and political crisis continues to unfold we either solve this problem or suffer the consequences of not doing so. Either way the deepening crisis will push events toward some kind of resolution, whether this turns out to be positive or negative. For the stages of 4 and 5 outlined above are the ones from which in 1930’s Europe emerged the spectre of Fascism. [See ‘Finance, Fat Cats, and Fascism.’]
Roy Ratcliffe (December 2012.)