Why We Need Revolution

Revolution is a necessary part of social change. During the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the European revolutions of 1848 rising capitalist classes wrested power from the feudal aristocracies that had dominated Europe for a thousand years. Elsewhere in the globe, as in Latin America, China and Africa, revolution has been necessary to remove the yoke of empire and establish independent, modern nations. 2019 saw global major revolts in almost every continent. For socialists, revolution has a double necessity. Just as in past eras, no modern ruling class, however supposedly democratic, will ever voluntarily give up power. But just as in past eras also, revolution is a necessary part of the social transformation that replaces old social structures with new ones.

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

In western-style democracies such as New Zealand’s, where we have a measure of democracy, it’s tempting to regard revolution as something of an anachronism – applicable only to past ages, or to countries under the yoke of dictatorial or authoritarian regimes. But the truth is that the space for genuine democracy in capitalist society is very limited. Capitalism is a system whereby the productive resources of society: the factories, offices and mines, are privately owned and operated in the pursuit of private profit. For exchange of goods on the free market a certain equality before the law is necessary, and so democracy in the public realm is tolerable to capitalists – at least to a point.

But the flip side is that capitalists must be free to dispose of their property and appropriate profits as they wish. This puts limits on the democracy under capitalism: we may elect MPs to parliament every three years, or even our own local councillors, but we’re not allowed any say in who will be our boss, how the company we work for is run or where the profits go. This is because allowing workers and ordinary people too great a say in the distribution of resources undermines the basic premises of private property and market exchange on which the system is built.

Even within the capitalist state, democracy penetrates only so far. Whole sections of the state – the police, the judiciary, the army and the civil service – exist outside of any democratic processes at all. The rich and powerful can exert far more influence over government than workers and the poor in capitalist society. Businesspeople make large donations to political parties and right-wing lobby groups, control the media and, most importantly, the vast bulk of economic resources in society. Within the structure of government the Treasury and Reserve Bank, the two agencies with by far the closest relationship with business, exert far more influence over government policy-making than other departments and ministries. Even if a left-wing government were to try and implement policies that business doesn’t like, the capitalists have ample means at their disposal with which to undermine them, such as using their influence over the media to discredit the government or by sending money offshore, precipitating an exchange rate crisis.

Using these methods, the capitalist class is effectively able to transform anyone seeking only to reform capitalism into managers of the system. A recent example is the radical left government of Alexis Tsipras in Greece. Elected in 2015 to put an end to years of austerity, Tsipras’ SYRIZA party naively thought that Greece’s creditors would respect the will of the Greek people and negotiate a reduction in government debt. When their attempts at negotiation were met with a flat “no” from the European Union – even following a landslide referendum against austerity – Tsipras was left with no option but to sign another, even harsher austerity “memorandum.”  In a matter of days, Tsipras and SYRIZA’s commitment to working within the framework of capitalism transformed the radical leftists into proponents of austerity.

If all else fails and the working class does begin to challenge their system, the capitalist class is quite willing to drop even the pretence of democracy and resort to open force. As German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg stated, “It is sheer insanity to believe that capitalists would good humouredly obey the socialist verdict of a parliament or national assembly, that they would calmly renounce property, profit, the right to exploit.”

Thus in Australia, when a mildly reforming Labor government led by Gough Whitlam failed to quell growing unrest rightwingers conspired with the unelected Governor-General Sir John Kerr. Whitlam was dismissed by Kerr in 1975, and the rightwing Liberal Party was brought to power and put the military on standby to crush any potential opposition.

In Chile the repression was a thousand times worse during the 1970s. There, the radical reformer Salvador Allende became the first ever Marxist to be elected leader of a democratic country in 1970. The capitalist class responded with lethal force, and with the backing of the United States and Great Britain launched a military coup in 1973, abolishing the elected government and establishing a dictatorship that tortured and killed tens of thousands.

The removal of reforming governments in both Chile and Australia during the 1970s show that capitalist commitments to democracy are only skin-deep. When reform movements go so far as to challenge their right to property and profit, the capitalist class is perfectly happy to junk even the pretence of democracy rather than relinquish their rule.

Raising Up the Working Class

The second reason revolution is necessary is not only to remove the old ruling class, but to create the institutions and traditions within the working class that will enable it to effectively establish a socialist society: to raise the working class to the position of the ruling class.

Perhaps the most powerful force keeping capitalist society together isn’t military force or even the coercive power of the market, but the “lived reality” of capitalism. Every day we’re faced with the reality of going to work, paying bills, the rent, competing with other workers for jobs etc. Every day we’re forced to submit to the authority of the boss, the law, even parents and teachers – or face the consequences. During normal times an equal, egalitarian society is something we can only dream of.

Capitalist society, however, is inherently unstable and periodically plunges into crisis. Crisis births struggle and interrupts the normal functioning of capitalist life. In the competitive dog-eat-dog world of capitalism, firms seek to limit their input costs by limiting wages. Eventually this leads to a struggle between the interests of capitalist owners and managers and the workers that serve them.

Collective struggle forces a new set of priorities on workers. Instead of the competitive struggle against each other to ‘climb the greasy pole,’ or the monotonous discipline of the factory life, workers are faced with the urgent priority of how to organize together against the boss. Space opens up in which dreams of a new society can be transformed into reality.

Even under capitalism many, if not all, of the democratic rights and institutions we have were born this way. Universal suffrage, democratic unions, labour laws can all be traced back to workers’ struggle. However, without a revolution that removes the capitalist class from power the transformative potential of even the best reforms are lost and they wind up being watered down and incorporated into capitalist society. It takes a revolution to complete the process, and make the new society permanent.

The history of the past century provides many examples of how revolution has opened the way for democratic and egalitarian working-class movements. Contrary to what is taught in most history books, the communist revolutionaries of the Russian Revolution provided a genuinely democratic alternative to capitalism. While pro-capitalist politicians and moderate socialists argued over the composition of the Provisional Government, constantly putting off elections to some future date, radicals grouped around Lenin and the Bolshevik Party looked to the mass democracy of factory councils, or soviets as they were called in Russian. It was these, not a parliament dominated by the interests of the landed gentry and factory owners, that Lenin argued should form the basis for a new state. For a brief period democracy flourished throughout Russia and the former Tsarist empire, before it was extinguished by the pressures of civil war, invasion and isolation.

Not just in Russia, but all over the world throughout the 20th century, workers in revolt have sought to expand the democratic space allocated to them. Many times, workers have created new institutions in the process. Whether it be the workers’ councils in the German revolution that overthrew autocracy and ended the First World War in 1918, workers’ Shoras created during the Iranian revolution, or self-management committees during factory occupations across Europe in the 1970s, or in Argentina during the 2004 debt crisis; revolution, working class struggle and democracy go hand in hand.

Abolishing capitalism requires this sort of revolution – a democratic revolution that seizes power and wealth from the hands of the capitalists and passes it to the working class. Without a revolution this can’t happen. If the efforts of socialists to achieve change are limited to working within the capitalist system, it is likely that the capitalists will crush them, as happened in Chile 1974. To create a new society, to overcome old patterns of oppression and submission, to create new institutions and new realities, a revolution is necessary.