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Reflections on revolution

What are the lessons of recent events in North Africa?

Revolution is in the air, or at least the word is. The media talked of a “Tunisian Revolution” in January and of an “Egyptian Revolution” in February. In a weak, narrow sense of the word this could be said to be true. In both countries a long-established dictator was overthrown as a first step towards establishing political democracy, the only kind of democracy that capitalism can offer.

Already some changes have been made, even though many of the personnel of the old regime are still in place. There is less arbitrary police repression. There is freedom of speech and to organise into trade unions independent of employers and the government. If this is consolidated it will represent an advantage from a working-class and socialist viewpoint. Workers will have more elbow-room to fight the class struggle and it will be much easier for socialists to express their views.

But it is still only a political change, at most a political revolution, that leaves unchanged the capitalist basis of society. Any more representative government that emerges will be no more able to make capitalism work in the interests of all than can the elected governments of countries where political democracy has long existed.

Political revolution

In his 1970 book on Revolution in the “Key Concepts in Political Science” series Peter Calvert defined ‘revolution’ as “referring to events in which physical force (or the convincing threat of it) has actually been used successfully to overthrow a government or regime”. He concluded by advising political science to retain the word “as a political term covering all forms of violent change of government or regime originating internally”.

This fits in with the popular concept of revolution as a violent act. But it rules out calling a revolution the sort of non-violent overthrow of a government that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. And not just the changes there but also those in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s where it was also determined but peaceful mass demonstrations that brought about a change of political system.

Calvert’s definition of political revolution would seem to need refining, to take into account such non-violent changes of political system. Not of course any non-violent change of government as the leader of the Fine Gael party in Ireland (now the Prime Minister) absurdly claimed when he described his party’s electoral victory in February as a “democratic revolution at the ballot box” in which “people didn’t take to the streets, they took to the ballot boxes”. The change of government in Ireland was not a revolution in any sense of the term, merely a change of capitalist government brought about through the normal constitutional procedures in a capitalist political democracy.

But even if the concept of political revolution is extended to include a change of government brought about by essentially peaceful but non-constitutional means this still limits the definition of revolution to a political change only.

Social revolution

Socialists too want a revolution but one involving much more than a change of political control. We want a social revolution, a revolution in the basis of society. In that sense our conception of revolution is nearer to that accepted by Martin Oppenheimer (as formulated by Chalmers Johnson) in his 1969 book Urban Guerrilla:

“A sweeping, fundamental change in political organization, social structure, economic property control, and the predominant myth of social order, thus indicating a major break in the continuity of development.”

On this definition there was no revolution in Tunisia or Egypt, nor in Eastern Europe. But events there are still relevant to the concept of socialist revolution as we see the first step in this revolution as being a political revolution in the sense of a change in who controls the state. We also think that, in established political democracies, this could be done non-violently through the ballot box.

This has been challenged by others, who have argued that the entrenched ruling class would never allow this to happen and that the only way they can be dislodged is through civil war and violent insurrection. Faced with an impending socialist election victory, their argument goes, the capitalist ruling class would abolish political democracy and, even if they let things go so far as an actual socialist election victory, would not respect it and would carry on ruling regardless.

The overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile by a military coup in 1973 always used to be cited as confirmation of this. Quite apart from the fact that Allende and his government were not socialist, they never had the electoral, let alone the active, support of a majority of the population – which in our view is an essential condition for the establishment and functioning of socialism.

This is a view our critics do not share. They are not thinking, as we are, in terms of a majoritarian revolution, one involving the active and democratic participation of a majority of the population. They envisage only a minority-led revolution, with an active minority leading a mass of merely discontented but not socialist-minded workers. It is quite true that, faced with such an attempted revolution, the ruling class is likely to resist violently, with a reasonable chance of success.

Even if such a revolution were to succeed it would not, and could not, lead to socialism. As Martin Oppenheimer pointed out, with regard to the majority class of industrial and white collar workers:

“The revolution rules in their name, but they do not rule. In their absence from effective participation in the revolution, the same thing happens that happens in a peasant-based revolution: gradually the leaders of a minority-led revolution become a new bureaucracy, a new class of rulers… Modern society is ripe for the domination of bureaucracy, in the absence of a revolutionary working class. Perhaps the leader of a minority revolution is not himself irrevocably lost, but his revolution is.”

Unless a majority of industrial and white collar workers want socialism and organise themselves without leaders to get it then socialism is impossible. On the other hand, if they do want it, nothing can stop them getting it, not even a hypothetical abolition of political democracy by a recalcitrant capitalist government. It is this that the recent events in North Africa confirm. Capitalist political dictatorships there couldn’t even stop a determined majority that wanted limited, political democracy. How much less would a capitalist political dictatorship be able to stop the more determined and more organised majority that one wanting socialism would be?

Pro-capitalist coup?

No government can continue to govern in the face of active opposition from those they govern. Answering a question from a correspondent who asked what we would do if, faced with a socialist election victory, the pro-capitalist government suspended the constitution and attempted to rule by decree, the Socialist Standard of November 1933 reformulated the question as “Can a capitalist minority which happens to have control of the machinery of Government continue indefinitely to govern and make capitalism function, in the face of the organised opposition of a majority of Socialists?” and answered:

“It is not possible for a minority to maintain its hold in those circumstances. Faced with the hostility of a majority of workers (including, of course, workers in the civil and armed forces, as well as workers in productive and distributive occupations), the capitalist minority would be unable, in the long run, to enforce its commands and the workers would be able to dislocate production and transport. In such circumstances the capitalists would themselves be divided. Not all of them would be disposed to provoke chaotic conditions in an heroic last-ditch struggle.”

The reply went on to make the point that “a look at the way in which governments do behave in face of a hostile majority under existing conditions will show how impossible it is for any minority to retain cohesion and to act decisively when it is conscious of being actively opposed by the majority”. And invited the correspondent “to name a single instance of a capitalist minority managing to maintain its hold on the machinery of government for any length of time in face of the organised and united opposition of a majority of the population”, adding “We know of no such instance.”

The recent events in North Africa, like those in Eastern Europe twenty or so years ago, confirm this. Faced with the active opposition of the population of their countries the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators quit. The governments there were divided and did at first try violent repression (hundreds were killed) but, faced with the continued courageous determination of the demonstrators, they were not prepared to provoke the chaos that violent repression would have entailed,  especially not mutinies in the armed forces as their members refused to shoot down unarmed demonstrators. Ceausescu in Rumania and Gaddafi in Libya were exceptions that proved the rule. They did stage a last-ditch stand and duly provoked the mutinies and defections and chaos.

We take comfort from these events as they show that, once there is a socialist majority, socialism will be inevitable. Even if a pro-capitalist minority somewhere were to try to prevent a change of political control via the ballot box, the socialist majority will still be able to impose its will by other means, such as street demonstrations and strikes. But we doubt that it will come to that. But if it did, it wouldn’t stop socialism being eventually established, one way or another.


“The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people's ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment. Even when we explain that we use the word revolution in its etymological sense, and mean by it a change in the basis of society, people are scared at the idea of such a vast change, and beg that you will speak of reform and not revolution. As, however, we Socialists do not at all mean by our word revolution what these worthy people mean by their word reform, I can't help thinking that it would be a mistake to use it, whatever projects we might conceal beneath its harmless envelope. So we will stick to our word, which means a change of the basis of society…”

William Morris, How We Live and How We Might Live (1887).