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.)


  1. If a potential revolutionary situation arises in any country then some account must be taken of the form of government. An elected government has a form of legitimacy in the eyes of most people and serves as a test of public opinion, yet you have generalized about social change and left out this important point.

    • Hi Leslie!

      Yes of course there is much left out, but the purpose of this article is not to continue the pretence that there is an exact blue-print for others to follow in the future. The article was offered as my own means of understanding the past experiences of uprisings and revolutions and of making sense of complex changes involved in social movements for change. Whether it succeeds in this (or not) for other anti-capitalists and activists is a matter for them to decide.

  2. Annos says:

    “I have argued that Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the senior Bolsheviks did not follow the post-capitalist ideas of Karl Marx.”


    “Trotsky lapsed into silence for a while, then said wistfully: “Those were good days.”


    “Goldman and Berkman, who had already been appalled by the way that Lenin and Trotsky had dealt with the Kronstadt Uprising decided to leave Russia. Berkman wrote: “Grey are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are forsworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under foot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness…. I have decided to leave Russia.” After a brief stay in Stockholm, he lived in Berlin, where he published several pamphlets and books on the Bolshevik government, including The Bolshevik Myth (1925).”


  3. SteveH says:

    “Revolutions only become possible when newly developed or developing economic circumstances conflict with the old methods and modes or production”

    I think revolutions can occur within an existing mode of production, so capitalism can see revolutionary changes but still be capitalism. I think Marx, for example, saw history as the history of changing modes of production but revolutions as something else.

    I think another thing has to happen before the historical revolution itself can take place; the alternative mode of production must have spread far enough and proved itself. Only when this has happened do the interests of old and new collide. In other words, the revolution must have already taken place before the revolution can become possible! Without this alternative all you get is what we have now, a lingering sense of impending doom, rioting instead of revolution.

    Because of this crucial omission I think your theory of revolution is fatally flawed and requires more study.

  4. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the real revolutions of the past did not come about through conspiracy or pre-planning, no one predicted or invented capitalism, in fact it was only named after it had come into existence.
    There was a long period of turmoil in England corresponding with the transition from a feudal to a capitalist form of economy but it is to be doubted whether the people involved had any concept of where their striving was leading them, this is obvious when we consider that many were motivated mainly as religious dissenters or that in the early manufacturing centers bosses and workers tended to be on the same side at least in the civil war period.
    Perhaps this is what SteveH is referring to, capitalist institutions existed in a rudimentary and developing form long before feudalism could be challenged by the newly emergent social classes.
    Oliver Cromwell was quoted as saying something like “Non fly so high as those who know not whither they are bound” (They really used to say whither) this suggests just a glimmering of understanding that they were doing something really important but did not know exactly what it was.
    The one thing which is obvious to me in our present situation is that there are powerful vested interests which have to be overcome, I hope that the conflict, if it comes to that, will not be particularly violent, though to be realistic it might well be just that, if we somehow overcome them then the result is going to look a bit like most peoples idea of a revolution.

    • Thanks Leslie for your response and the added information. Yes you are correct in this. Of course capitalist forms were in existence before the term was used and before the capitalist mode of production came to dominate. Production for exchange, rather than for use has existed since the ancient world. Marx in Volume 3 of Capital has a chapter which includes an outline of how such commerce and usury helped to further develop production for exchange as well as concentrating and centralising money whilst impoverishing the aristocratic elite and the poor also. Thus creating the pre-conditions for the capitalist mode to develop and eventually challenge the feudal mode.

      The religious dissenters such as the Diggers and Levellers during the lead up to the revolutionary events in England were for re-distribution of wealth, rather than introducing a mode of production.As Winstanley asserted; “..the earth with all her fruits of corn and cattle and such like was made to be a common storehouse of livlihood, to all mankind, friend and foe, without exception.”

      I am not sure what motivates SteveH for in response to my attempts to share knowledge and understanding with other anti-capitalists, he is invariably negative and seems to misread what I actually write. In this particular case he has chopped a sentence up to criticise it and left a crucial part of it out. Also what I have expressed as a ‘framework’ of stages for understanding uprisings and revolutions he has re-characterisied as a ‘theory’ of revolutions – which it is not.’ This method seems to me to be disrespectfully polemical rather than collaborative, which I consider is moribund. So I have stopped engaging with his responses other than respecting his right to express his opinion and just leave it at that.



  5. SteveH says:

    Leslie, pretty much but you put it so much better than me. Can I hire you out as my personal scibe!


    What motivates me is to move socialists away from the top down ‘big event’ revolutions, taking over the state and nationalising everything in sight socialism and to a socialism based on co-operative worker ownership, workers taking ownership of their neighbourhoods, creating their own organisations, using their combined wealth (pension funds etc) to start challenging capitalist ownership. All this must take place first *before* the political revolution occurs. I think you are putting the cart before the horse. In many way the ‘big event’ revolutions are simply society coming to terms with the revolutionary reality on the ground.

    On being negative, that is up to you how you take what I say but I have said in the past I fundamentally disagree with your profit falling view of the capitalist crisis, which to my mind makes a mockery of being anti Austerity. I think our differences are fundamental, and make working in a united way very difficult. We agree on the end goal but don’t agree how we get there and we don’t agree where we are now. Look at the left and you see these bitter disagreements everywhere, this is why you see disunity. I am trying to honestly debate how unity can be achieved, but your last comment shows why it won’t. You won’t engage with those you disagree with. Dress it up how you want, this is what it boils down to.

    On my part, I can take the differences but still engage with you, but I won’t pretend the differences don’t exist and I waon’t be frightened in criticising your stuff, where I think it appropriate. After all it is through criticism that knowledge advances. If I have a criticism of yours and you come back with an answer, then I may be the one to learn something. Alternatively you may have left something out of your analysis that someone else thinks of.


    • Hi SteveH!

      I don’t have a problem with criticism or with differences, but I do have a problem with misrepresentation, which is evident in previous comments you have made – including your last comment. First of all in the above you can’t even get my name right. Its Roy, not Ray. A small point and I don’t really care in one sense, but to me it shows your lack of concentration on what you are reading. Also you attribute to me a falling rate of profit cause of the current crisis, when in fact I hold to no such singular causation of crisis. I have argued in another article, ‘the five-fold crisis of capitalism’there are numerous strands. In another ‘capital and crisis’ I attempt to make sense of the complexity of the current problems using the framework provided by Karl Marx. For those of us who accept Marx’s development of classical economics, then there is a phenomena of falling rate of profit, due to the changing organic composition of capital but that in of itself does not directly trigger a crisis and is compensated by an increase in the mass of profit. This process of increasing fixed and constant-capital and relatively reducing variable-capital merely creates the conditions in which a crisis can be triggered. All such processes are tendencies which can be offset to some degree, but in the end break out somewhere or other at a weak link.

      My reference to your negativity is that you seem not to add anything really positive to any discussions but only take bits out of context and pick away at those with short generalisations. No apologies when you get it wrong, just more of the same. And of course something is always left out of any article, long or short. It is the easiest thing in the world to read anything and find things that are left out and then make a big issue of this. It is the sort of polemical tradition that should have died with the stalinist movement who perfected this tradition. Leaving something out is an inevitable product of any form of writing, let alone short articles dealing with complex issues.

      All of which in my opinion is a process, that bogs things down in endless polemics and does not advance understandings – it just turns people off.



  6. To many people revolution has meant hope, to many others it has only meant trouble and fear, surely the difference here is how much trouble you feel that you are in right now, if you and your community are left by events feeling that you are in lots of trouble without a revolution then the fear factor is much diminished.
    I feel like that right now, I perceive that my children and grandchildren have worse prospects and fewer opportunities than my generation had. There are worries about many things like wars of aggression and environmental ruin, so if extreme forms of working class militancy and revolution are perceived as justified they are also perceived as not to scary, I don’t want trouble but we are in trouble anyway.
    The trouble in Euro Land is getting to look like the troubles which the prewar generation faced,Frau Mirkle is ready to jettison whole lands like Greece but keep them I am sure within the ambit of capitalism to serve like Bantustans and provide labour to undercut wages in her own country.
    There has to be some kind of serious challenge to this and in all probability serious conflict can not be avoided.

  7. SteveH says:


    at the moment though the challenge can only come from either:

    A capitalist ‘solution’ – extreme Keynesianism or
    A top down Chinese style ‘workers’ state
    Chavez style populism

    This is because, on the ground, there is no or little working class self organisation that can create a revolution in it’s own image.

  8. Steve
    I would be in favor of attempting both of the “challenges” mentioned by you and using them in combination as a stop gap measure, the trouble is they can only be attempted by government and no one I can think of in Britain, least of all Labour is going to have the nerve to try it.
    It would only be a stop gap measure but if it got people back to work it would get them talking to one another.
    If Roy did not do a lot of work on his website we would not have the chance to write in and bitch about things, give some credit.

  9. SteveH says:


    I am not bitchin, just providing feedback. If you have a website and allow comments, you should expect it. I only bother commenting when I see something I fundamentally disagree with. But i recognise the service that activists like Ray provide, and am glad they are doing it.

  10. SteveH says:

    PS there were three “challemges” above, Chavez style populism being the third!

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