You Say You Want a Revolution?
Rosa Luxemburg was right: “work for reforms” is not “a long-drawn-out revolution” and revolution is not “a condensed series of reforms.” People who only want to win changes that improve people’s lives within capitalism “do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.”
We celebrate revolutions because they involve “the direct interference of the masses in historical events,” “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” as Leon Trotsky once wrote.
In the 20th century revolutions in China, Cuba and other “Third World” countries overthrew the brutal rule of landlords and capitalists and broke with Western imperialism. These revolutions put in place “Communist” one-party states modelled on the USSR. These bureaucratic dictatorships were socialist in name only. Ordinary people saw some improvements in their lives but were saddled with the repressive tyranny of new bureaucratic rulers.
But there were also revolutions that put the majority in power through their own mass democratic organizations. That’s what happened in Paris in 1871, Russia in 1917 (how socialist democracy there degenerated into bureaucratic dictatorship is an important question we’re not addressing here) and parts of Spain in 1936-37. New forms of popular democracy with the potential to put the majority of people in control of their lives have also emerged out of revolutionary or near-revolutionary struggles at various times. These include Germany in 1918-19, Bolivia in 1952 and 2000, Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1972-73, Portugal in 1974 and Poland in 1981.
Such revolutions are “explosions of life,” as Portugese socialist Fransisco Louçã put it. People rise up and challenge domination in many forms. What happened in Portugal in 1974 is typical: “Women who did not resign themselves to obedience. Workers who wanted what was due to them: dignity, rights, and the products of their labour. And everyone wanted freedom, the right to information, to create, to know what was going on, to discuss, to decide.”
When such a revolution goes all the way and puts the majority in power, it opens the door to launching a transition from capitalism towards a truly self-governing society geared to meeting people’s needs — socialism (this is what Karl Marx called communism, which has nothing in common with the “Communist” states past and present).
Could this ever happen in an advanced capitalist country like Canada? Capitalism’s built-in tendency to produce crises make it rash to say no — especially when we face “the no-future of capital’s futuristic accumulation of job loss, debt, eviction, foreclosure, storm-evacuation, acidified oceans and civilizational heat-death” (Nick Dyer-Witheford).
Sometimes a social crisis leads masses of people to rise up in ways that prevent rulers from ruling in the way they have. This — not the actions of revolutionaries — touches off a process of widespread mobilization that draws people into political activity who’ve never before thought about changing society.
We believe that a revolution that puts the majority in democratic control of society is possible, even if the odds aren’t good. “It is irrational to hope for the impossible, but not for the vastly improbable”; “there may be no hope, but unless we act as though there is, that possibility is likely to become a certainty” (Terry Eagleton). In other words, we believe that the only hope that humanity has in solving the serious environmental and social problems caused by capitalism is in a democratic revolution. If humanity gives up on this goal because the situation is bleak, or because the obstacles are enormous, or because there is a high likelihood of failing, then any potential that exists to succeed will be lost. We believe that humanity must try.
If the “establishment of a new society” is a possibility, then what should those of us who yearn for such a future do now to work toward that goal? We don’t pretend to have a specific strategy for revolution. In fact, we think that the claim to have one should set off an alarm for people who are serious about transforming society. A viable revolutionary strategy (a program) can’t be cooked up by a small group of radicals. It also can’t be created by drawing supposedly universal conclusions from past revolutions elsewhere and applying them to Canada because those revolutions happened in societies that were vastly different from Canada today.
Coming up with anything close to a credible strategy would take collective theoretical work that learned from social upheavals with revolutionary potential in advanced capitalist countries (for example, those in austerity-stricken Greece in recent years) and was informed by the experiences of many radical workplace and community organizers in this society. No such strategy exists today. All we’ve got are a few pointers.
We need to be honest: there are no signs that the rulers of Canadian society face a crisis of their rule (if you want a sense of what such a crisis looks like, study Greece in 2011). Protest and resistance, whether in the workplace, on the streets or on campuses, is at a low ebb, except among indigenous people. The mass “Red Square” movement in Quebec in 2012 was very important and forced the government of the day to call an election, but that was a crisis for one government, not for the ruling class. Indigenous resistance has caused real problems for governments and capitalists and will continue to do so. Yet it would take more than indigenous resistance alone to threaten the ruling class’s command of society.
In these conditions, people who yearn for a profoundly democratic “explosion of life” should make it our priority to work with others to advance struggles for reforms (“$15 and Fairness,” drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, affordable housing, unionization…) and against things that are harming people and the planet (carbon emissions, cutbacks, racist policing, tuition hikes…). We should do this with an organizing strategy that aims to build social movements. This involves patient long-term work to bring a broad range of people together around common interests to exert power.
Such work is not reformism! Fighting for reforms is only reformism when it limits struggles to “surface modification of the old society.” As Luxemburg put it, “the daily struggle for reforms” is a “means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal — the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labour… The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
People who yearn for revolution should organize for reforms in ways that foster democratic self-organization among growing numbers of exploited and oppressed people, building power and deepening understanding. Doing this inevitably involves challenging people who argue for limiting struggles and relying on politicians and union officials to solve our problems.
We should also engage people who are open to talking about radical politics in discussions about capitalism, oppression and the need to transform society. But because we’re in a very non-revolutionary situation and the left in Canada has never been weaker than it is today, the key dividing line on the left isn’t between revolutionary socialists and everyone else. It’s between people who are committed to fighting for social transformation no matter what party is in office or what NDP and union leaders say and people who aren’t. That’s why it makes sense to try to unite the constructive (non-sectarian) radical left in new political organizations that can help us advance struggles and build support for radical politics. It’s for this reason that since late 2015 our collective has put most of its political energy into building Solidarity Winnipeg.
If you like what you’ve read, please get in touch! (by email: email@example.com or on Facebook.) Let’s work together for the kind of future that human beings deserve.
Winnipeg New Socialists