"Marx was above all else a revolutionist", said Engels in his speech at Marx’s graveside. But why, and why do Marxists go on about "the revolution"?
Revolutions are dangerous affairs. People get killed in revolutions, especially working people. And they have a habit of going wrong: look what happened in the French Revolution and in Russia and China – all that sacrifice and they ended up with tyrants as bad or worse than before. Besides revolution doesn’t look very likely. Most of the working class people you actually meet don’t seem in the least revolutionary. They are more interested in TV and football than revolution.
So, surely, it is better and more realistic to try to change the system step by step – to work through trade unions and parliament to raise living standards and win reforms that benefit working people. Maybe that way we will eventually arrive at socialism but even if we don’t at least things will get better for us and our children.
On the face of it these are powerful arguments and my guess is that many millions of working people have reasoned like this and as a result supported ‘moderate’ politicians and trade union leaders who have promised them reforms without the risks of revolutionary struggle.
The history of what really happened in the French, Russian and other revolutions is obviously very important in this debate but space does not allow me to deal with it here. Instead I want to focus on Marx’s own answer to this question which was summed up in a single sentence written in 1845.
"This revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but because only in a revolution can the class overthrowing it rid itself of all the muck of ages and fit itself to found society anew."
Like so many of Marx’s sentences this one combines a number of profound ideas and repays detailed examination and explanation. Let us start by noting that Marx is a revolutionary not out impatience or bitterness or love of violence or excitement, but out of necessity, because there is no other way of fundamentally changing society. The reasons for this are both economic and political.
The dynamic of capitalism is the relentless drive to accumulate capital, made compulsory for each individual business and nation by competition from other businesses and nations, on the basis of exploitation. When accumulation is going well, i.e. the economy is growing and profits are high, increased living standards and reforms ( under pressure from below) are possible but only on condition that they do not threaten the central mechanism of accumulation. Thus, even in this most favourable scenario, reforms result only in more crumbs for the workers from the rich man’s table, while the gap between the workers and the rich grows wider and the power of the capitalists in society increases.
When accumulation is going badly and profits are falling the ruling class attacks workers’ living standards and fights to claw back reforms granted in the past. The struggle for reforms, though it has to be waged, is like the labour of Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology condemned to push a ball up a hill only for it to roll back down again.
But if step by step reform cannot change society what about electing a socialist government committed to the overall transformation of society? Surely that at least would be peaceful? Unfortunately not. Faced with such a threat the capitalist class, as it has shown many times in the past, would use all its economic and political power to undermine, frustrate and destroy the government.
It would attack the currency through speculation, go on investment strike, close down factories, lock out workers and thus provoke an intense economic crisis. It would use the state apparatus, which is not neutral but tied by a thousand threads to the interests of the ruling class, to block legislation and government action, and in the final analysis it would use force, in the shape of a military or fascist coup.
The working class would only be able to resist this offensive by using its power, by occupying the factories and workplaces, by breaking up the existing state machine and taking control of society itself. In other words, far from avoiding the need for revolution, the election of a socialist government would either be a prelude to revolution or it would fail. And unless there existed within the movement an organized body of workers with a revolutionary perspective – a revolutionary party – the chances of success in this confrontation would be slim.
But this is all fantasy, our skeptic might object. The working class is never going to opt for revolution, it’s too brainwashed by the system. This is where the second part of the quote from Marx comes in, for it is true that the system , through the media, education etc. stuffs workers’ heads with reactionary ideas – nationalism, racism, sexism, deference, belief in capitalism and so on – the ‘muck of ages’ as Marx calls it.
It is often assumed that for there to be a revolution the majority of people have first to be convinced of revolutionary ideas. This is not how it happens says Marx. Revolutions begin spontaneously when large masses of workers engage in struggle, usually over a particular issue or against a particular regime. It is in the process of revolutionary struggle, above all because of the sense they get of their collective power, that the mass of workers rid themselves of their prejudices and illusions and develop revolutionary consciousness.
This is why revolution is both necessary and possible.
This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in June 2006.