What makes a revolution?

By Allen Myers

Marxists believe that a revolution is necessary to open the road to socialism. But what does a revolution actually consist of? Advertisers and capitalist politicians would have us think a revolution is a pretty ordinary event, with their talk of “a revolutionary new soap powder” or an “education revolution”. The reality is quite different. A revolution is the overthrow of the existing ruling structures through the political actions of great masses of people and the replacement of those structures by new bodies. If the revolution is a socialist one, rather than the capitalist revolutions that took place in past centuries, then these new bodies will seek to institutionalise mass involvement in political affairs.

In developed capitalist countries like Australia, the great majority of the population are not involved in politics except episodically. For most, “political activity” doesn’t extend any further than placing a voting paper in a ballot box. The idea that great numbers of people should be involved on a frequent and regular basis in deciding social and economic policies and how they are implemented — that idea is completely foreign to most people, in ordinary circumstances.

Mass involvement

But revolutions don’t occur in ordinary circumstances. In a general sense, they become possible in a period when the structures of political and economic relations have become a growing obstacle to the further development of humanity’s productive forces. This is the kind of period we live in: one in which the continued operation of capitalist economies produces mass unemployment of productive resources (human labour and machinery) and is bringing about catastrophic climate change.

But for the general possibility of a revolution in economic and political relations to develop into an actual revolution in any particular country, something more is required. Large numbers of people have to decide that their current situation is intolerable and that it is both necessary and possible for them to change it. What causes massive numbers of people to reach such a decision is likely to vary at different times and places. Economic hardship, resulting from war or a capitalist economic slump, can become intolerable for large numbers, which is a reason that socialist revolutions have occurred more often in countries that are poor. But capitalism fosters a host of social evils — sexism, racial or national oppression, environmental destruction — that also have the potential to drive people into political action.

Whatever social condition it is that has become intolerable for a large number of people, they will not make a revolution unless they conclude that it is they themselves who have to change the situation, that it cannot be done for them by some hero or saviour. Coming to that conclusion can be a matter of experience and/or learning to see through the lies of politicians who claim, “We’ll take care of that for you”. One of the central roles of a revolutionary party is to spread an understanding that working people themselves have to take control of society.

Revolutionary structures

Because socialist revolutions involve great numbers of working people acting together in their own class interest, the most powerful revolutions tend to create structures based on mass involvement: the soviets in the Russian Revolution, the Committees in Defence of the Revolution in the Cuban Revolution. One of the questions being confronted in the Venezuelan revolution today is what kind of mass structures are most suitable in a situation where a large part of the population is involved in the “informal economy” rather than employed in factories. Whatever the form, the aim is the same — to unite in political action the greatest possible number of the revolution’s beneficiaries.

So a change in government policies is not a revolution, even if the change happens to be a desirable one. Revolution means changing not just policies, but more importantly the people who make the policies. In capitalist society, the people who make the policies may be capitalists themselves or their politicians or the government bureaucracy (the privileged officials at the head of government departments); it doesn’t matter, because they are all looking after the same interests. In a revolution, there is a radical change in the people who make the policies, and then ensure that they are implemented. In a socialist revolution, these people constitute the great majority, the working people themselves. It makes a world of difference.