The Rising Tide of Revolution
There is now a rising tide of struggle internationally. This kind of generalisation is not easy to make because the struggle is always at different levels and taking different forms in different countries. At any one point in time there can be a general strike in Spain or Greece but, at least on the surface, nothing much happening in Germany or France, or vice versa. Our side, the working class and the people, can be winning victories in Bolivia or India but suffering setbacks in Argentina or Indonesia and so on.
Nevertheless it is clear that in the last year the overall trajectory has been massively upwards. In 2010 the leading role was played by Greece where there were eight general strikes plus many major demonstrations and street battles. But there were also general strikes in Spain, and in Portugal (where the government was also brought down) and a huge struggle over pensions in France involving mass strikes and huge street mobilisations of up to 3.5 million people. In Iceland the government was forced into a referendum over their IMF bail-out and lost it, and then into a second referendum over ‘improved’ terms and lost that too. And in Britain in December there was the explosive student revolt over fees.
Then, starting on 17 December in Tunisia, came the ‘Arab Spring’ which lifted the struggle to a whole new level. The Tunisian Revolution which succeeded in bringing down a dictator, Zine Ben Ali, of twenty three years standing, in less than a month led directly to the 25 January Revolution in Egypt which on 11 February ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak, an even more long- established and powerful dictator.
What made the Egyptian Revolution an event of such importance for the region and the world was: a) the sheer scale of the mass mobilisation- up to 15 million people on the streets; b)the size of the Egyptian working class, the biggest in the Middle East, and its decisive role in getting rid of Mubarak; c) the massive importance of Egypt to US imperialism and its policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to Israel/Palestine. As a result the Egyptian Revolution served as a beacon internationally.
It led immediately to uprisings in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. In Libya Gaddafi was able to hold on to Tripoli and crush the revolt there, even though he lost Benghazi and the East. This enabled the imperialist powers – France, UK and US – to intervene in such a way as to gain control of the revolt in Libya, establish a western foothold in the region and try to stem the revolutionary tide. At the same time the Imperialists gave the nod to the Saudis to suppress the Revolution in Bahrain which had defeated the local police, like in Egypt.
Despite this, and despite vicious repression, the Arab struggle continues, thanks to the awesome courage and resilience of the people, in both Syria and Yemen. But the inspiration radiating out of Tahrir Square was by no means limited to the Arab world. Even as it was happening the Egyptian Revolution connected to the workers of Wisconsin and it had dictators worried as far afield as Mugabe in Zimbabwe , where socialist were arrested just for watching a film about Egypt, and Kim jong-il in North Korea, where the first ever public protests were recorded.
There have also been revolts of some size in the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean and in Burkino Faso in Sub - Saharan Africa, in Prague and in Chile. Meanwhile in Britain there was the biggest trade union demonstration in our history, on March 26 – accompanied by sit-ins in Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz, and in Ireland there was a riot at the ballot box, with the devastation of the ruling Fianna Fail party and the election of five hard left TDs.
Then came the 15 May in Spain, and the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid. This spread with enormous speed to other cities, Barcelona, Seville etc and to Spanish communities in other countries. There were solidarity protests in Dublin, London, Bristol, Brussels, Paris and no doubt elsewhere that I don’t know. Greece has also come back into the equation with 25,000 in Athens and maybe 5,000 in Thessaloniki and there is a prospect of a mass strike on 30 June in Britain. As I write there is news of 50-100,000 on the streets of Milan greeting the defeat of Berlusconi in that city and the revolution continues in Egypt with hundreds of thousands out on 27 May, including perhaps 500,000 in Alexandria(!!), calling for a ‘second revolution’ – shades of Petrograd in June 1917.
In short, people are generalising. And it’s not difficult to generalise because everywhere working people are having to deal with attacks on their living standards to make them pay for the international crisis of capitalism that broke out in the US in autumn 2008 and which is far from having run its course.
It is useful to put this in historical perspective. The revolutionary struggle is always international and it goes in waves. Since the emergence of the modern working class there have been three major international waves. The first was 1848. It was the time of the great Chartist movement in Britain and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. The uprisings began in Palermo in Sicily and ricocheted round Europe through France, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and even reached Brazil in Latin America. But tens of thousands were killed, everywhere the reaction triumphed, especially with the coming to power of Louis Bonaparte in France, and the movement receded when capitalism embarked on massive economic expansion. At this point the working class was too small and capitalism too strong for there to be a real chance of socialist victory.
The next and greatest wave began before the 1st World War with the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the ‘great unrest’ in Britain, the IWW in America the Dublin Lock-Out in 1913 and the Easter Rising in 1916 and reached its high point with the Russian Revolution of 1917. This was followed by six years in which the fate of capitalism as a system hung in the balance. Revolutions or revolutionary situations broke out in Finland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, accompanied by near revolutionary situations in Britain, France, Ireland, Spain and elsewhere.
Tragically the Russian Revolution failed to spread. The worst defeats were in Italy where Mussolini’s Fascists destroyed the powerful workers movement, and in Germany where a great opportunity for workers revolution was allowed to go begging in 1923. Humanity paid the price with Hitler and Stalin.
The third wave which Chris Harman called ‘the fire last time’ began in the late sixties There was a slow build up which exploded in 1968 when the black struggle in the States, the student revolt, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, all came together with the struggle of the working class. Most spectacular was May’68 in France with its strike of 10 million workers, but there were also riots across America, the Prague Spring, the Civil Rights movement in Ireland, and smaller battles too numerous to mention. This in turn led to major workers struggles in Britain, including two successful Miners’ strikes which brought down the government, the hot autumn in 1969 in Italy, Popular Unity in Chile, the overthrow of the Greek junta and the Portuguese Revolution in 1974.
The upturn ran out of steam in the mid-seventies after the terrible defeat in Chile in 1973, the neutralising of the Portuguese Revolution in 1975, and the deals struck by the leaders of the labour movement with governments in various countries- the Social Contract in Britain, the Historic Compromise in Italy, the Pact of Moncloa in Spain etc. – which weakened the workers’ movement and paved the way for Thatcherism, neo-liberalism and the defeats of the eighties.
History never repeats exactly but the present situation is closer to the third wave than to the first two. It is beyond 1848 in that the working class is far stronger internationally and there is no prospect of capitalist expansion like in the 1850s. It has not reached the level of 1917 and after - the working class has not yet taken power anywhere. But there is a huge momentum and we are just at the beginning.
Also the economic situation is much more severe. The explosion of 1968 came on back of the first faltering of the long post war boom and ran aground as the system moved into recession in the mid- seventies. This time the movement is rising in response to the economic crisis which shows every sign of continuing for many years.
Moreover there is a new, extremely serious factor in the situation – climate change. The threat of climate change is widely recognised in the abstract but it tends to be seen as a disaster that may or will strike in the future and as a separate issue. In reality climate change is already happening, already having a serious impact in many parts of the world, for example the severe tornados in the USA, and has the effect of sharpening social conflicts and the class struggle. Along with inflation resulting from the economic crisis, climate change is a factor in the rise in basic food prices which in turn has been a major driver in the Arab revolts.
What are the implications of this? Certainly not that our side will advance smoothly from victory to victory. There is a powerful enemy involved here – the international ruling class – and it will fight back, and it will win some battles. But defeat in one place (say Libya) will not prevent somewhere else, say Greece, picking up the baton. So we should view coming events with a deep optimism and excitement.
We should expect the unexpected. Not only will there be new eruptions of struggle, there will be new forms of struggle emerging, like occupying public squares. Remember mass strikes, workers’ councils. flying pickets, and student sit-ins were all ‘new’ in their day. Very often, precisely because of their newness and spontaneity, these struggles will be characterised by anti-political, anti-party moods. People entering into struggle for the first time, enthused by the justness of their cause, frequently think that all that is required is for everyone to get together and keep ‘politics out of it’.
Socialists need to be on the alert and ready to respond, quickly and positively, to these developments, without losing sight of basic principles and strategic objectives. In the end it will be the struggle of the mass of the working class, especially the struggle at the point of production, which will be crucial. ‘Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken,’ as the great Rosa Luxemburg put it.
We also need a great sense of urgency. At the moment in Britain the racist and fascist right has suffered serious setbacks, due to anti-fascist campaigning and the rise of the anti-cuts movement, but this is by no means the case everywhere and even if the left currently has the initiative, if we squander our opportunities the fascists will be there to take advantage of the unresolved crisis.
History shows that as well as mass struggle ultimate victory depends on the working class developing strong political organisation. It is not an accident that in all the past struggles listed above the only one where the working class took power, albeit only for a few years, was the Russian Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party.
At present the forces of revolutionary socialism are small, nationally and internationally, so it is right that socialists in many countries are involved in political initiatives designed to draw more workers into political activity – initiatives like the Democratic Workers Party in Egypt, the Left Block in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany and the United Left Alliance in Ireland. But this does not change the need, in this process, to build fully revolutionary parties. This is not easy, and some activists will balk at it, but it has to be done.
Build the struggle! Build the party!
1 June 2011