What difference can a socialist revolution make?

Feb 1, 2008

Cuban doctors’ acts of international solidarity are examples of what is possible. Photo: Bill Hackwell

Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, human societies in different parts of the world split into classes. Social classes are defined by social and economic positions in society relative to the creation of wealth in society, as well as the interrelations among these groupings.

The emergence of classes corresponded roughly to the development of agricultural and herding societies, where for the first time surplus goods were created. Prior to that, humans lived in hunter-gatherer arrangements characterized by extreme scarcity. The appropriation of the surplus by one part of the population at the expense of others laid the basis for the division of society into classes.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were among the first to see the struggle between these classes as the driving force of history. One class organizes society to subjugate the others—Marx and Engels pointed to this as the emergence of the state as an organ of repression. On the other hand, the exploited classes struggle against the ruling class, often ending up in an eruption of open violence.

For that reason, every society’s history is punctuated by revolutions—an eruption of violent class struggle that results in the overturning of the power of one class in favor of another.

Class struggle is like a tug-of-war between the corresponding forces. Either the old social, economic and political order is preserved, or the old order is eradicated and fundamental change occurs as a new society takes its place.

Slaves of antiquity, serfs under feudal rule, capitalism’s wage workers—indeed, every known oppressed class in history—instinctively rebels against its oppression. By the same token, the oppressors that hold their victims in bondage do everything possible to maintain their privileged social position and retain political power. This is so part of day-to-day life that often the participants—especially the oppressed—are not even conscious of this struggle.

Revolutionary Marxists aim to study the objective laws of class struggle throughout history in order to prepare for socialist revolution in the modern era. That involves a comprehensive understanding of the class character of revolutions in past historical periods that brought to power new forms of class domination.

Revolutions—for a few

Capitalist rule was solidified by a series of revolutions in Europe between the 16th and the 19th centuries. The merchant and property-owning classes began accumulating wealth under the political rule of the feudal lords. The bourgeoisie developed ideologically and culturally long before seizing absolute control of the state. They gained expertise in various fields like the arts and military science, ultimately indispensable for spreading influence and retaining power once in charge.

While today’s capitalist ruling class grew in wealth and social power in the cracks of feudal society, the oppressed masses did not have that advantage. In fact, under capitalism, they have grown less and less powerful.

Yet it was this class, always constituting the majority of society, which was the decisive factor in the success of the bourgeois revolutions. During the 1789 French Revolution or during Latin America’s 19th-century wars for independence, slaves, indentured servants, peasants and workers were the combatants in the battles that allowed a privileged class to obtain political power.

The bourgeois revolutions were authentically revolutionary because they elevated society to a higher level of humanity, developing society’s productive forces and tearing away the backward prejudices of feudal lords and priests. But these revolutions did not aim to eradicate exploitation and privilege. On the contrary, the bourgeois-democratic revolutions’ central objective was to expand “bourgeois right”: the freedom of the owning class to exploit and trade without restriction.

Up until the modern era, revolutions were led by representatives of property-owning classes, whose political skills are the product of social privilege. The oppressed masses did not possess the skills that come with knowledge of politics—simply because their oppression included being denied any political involvement.

In general, the oppressed masses were not aware of the ultimate aims of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions. They were drawn in by the hope of freedom, however loosely defined that was. The rising capitalist class used demagoguery from the start, using slogans of “freedom” and “equality” to appeal to the non-privileged sectors of society.

Despite the fact that the oppressed classes were not the main beneficiaries of past revolutions, they were usually the ones willing to make harsh sacrifices by taking on the burden of fighting revolutions. The soon-to-be ruling classes benefited from the instinctive rebelliousness of oppressed and exploited people.

It was poor farmers who served under George Washington in the American Revolutionary War for Independence. Many of these same forces took up arms against the newly formed U.S. government during Shay’s Rebellion of 1786-87.

African Americans fought valiantly during the Civil War. Yet after the war and despite the promise of Reconstruction, they continued to suffer from racist discrimination and terror.

The bourgeois-democratic revolution in Europe was the rising capitalist class’ response to economic developments that awakened mass resentment towards feudalism. But lacking class consciousness, an essential component for addressing their class interest, the exploited masses of peasants and small craftspeople were consumed by the events of that period and followed the lead of alien class forces.

The workers’ revolution

Unlike revolutions of past epochs, the socialist revolution aims to place the working class—a propertyless, oppressed class—in the position of ruling class. This class has not been accumulating wealth as it builds its bid for power. On the contrary, the working class as a class owns less wealth every year. Its members every day lose more benefits and access to education.

Socialist revolution presumes the consciousness and self-awareness of the oppressed masses. The socialist revolution is the first example where the most exploited class consciously fights for its own interests. The socialist revolution ultimately aims not to enhance the traditions of privilege or uphold the system of profits, but to abolish “bourgeois right” by revolutionary measures.

For this reason, revolutionaries in the United States and around the world have great confidence that the working and oppressed masses will rally to take up the cause for the socialist revolution as their own.

The oppressors would no longer be the beneficiaries of the vast wealth created by the labor of working people. Nor would they enjoy the many freedoms to exploit and oppress the majority to which they were accustomed. They would be stripped of every means to safeguard their domination over the social and economic life of society.

The accumulated wealth stored in the capitalists’ banks will be seized and converted to public ownership in the custody of the socialist state. Private ownership of the means of production, transportation, commerce, land, water and everything that under capitalism exists for the private benefit of wealthy families, would be outlawed. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on corporate subsidies, one of the most blatant forms of thievery the rulers exercise, would also be banned and added to the resources freed for the benefit of the whole.

What can be gained?

It is this socialist revolution, carried out with the conscious participation of the working class and guided by the interests of the vast majority, that opens the door to a society without exploitation.

Based on the socialist revolution’s bold measures, oppressed and working people for the first time stand to be the main beneficiaries of a fundamental reorganization of society. Especially in a rich and highly developed capitalist country like the United States, where technology has developed the means of production to the highest level ever known in history, once-hoarded resources will no longer sit idle in warehouses waiting to rot. These resources will be able to be utilized in unimaginable ways to benefit society.

Every socialist revolution from 1917 began with two priorities. One was defending the revolution from imperialist-backed armed counterrevolution. The other priority was to urgently begin addressing the human needs of the working classes and of all society.

The construction of hospitals and other types of healthcare facilities; grade schools and universities for the education of the young and for the elevation of workers’ technical levels in every field; homes and apartment complexes in order for working-class families to have decent housing; improving and expanding the infrastructure to enable rapid industrial development; improving transportation to further secure the food supply of society—all these became the priority.

By removing profit considerations as the motive for decisions, public works can be improved. Unemployment, homelessness, hunger and poverty can be systematically eliminated.

The funds and resources that under capitalism are wasted on private profits for the super-rich would then become available for training vast numbers of medical doctors, scientists, engineers, craftspeople and experts. Because all areas of social and economic life are free to develop, the role of education becomes primary—along with a new respect for learning.

All of the socialist governments were required to take emergency measures due to civil wars and problems caused by foreign threats, economic blockades and sanctions. These emergency measures, some of which included restoring elements of capitalism, were motivated by the need to survive in a hostile world. Each retreat away from socialism led to defects and deformations. Moreover, as is the case with China, the reintroduction of capitalist market mechanisms was not always a temporary and imposed retreat but a policy decision by the ruling communist party.

Although it would be foolhardy to hold up any socialist government as “the model” for the future, it would be an act of deceit and treachery to fail to understand the achievements of the socialist revolutions where they occurred. Were it not for the experiences of socialist construction in the Soviet Union, China, Korea, Cuba and many others, discussing this could be considered wild speculation. Instead, it is the record of socialist revolution.

What is more, that record has taken place in societies plagued by scarcity and underdevelopment. Imagine the possibilities with a revolution in a developed country like the United States! The scarcity of basic necessities could be replaced by abundance. No longer will people have to fight for what they need, because accessibility to needed resources becomes one of the norms of a society founded on cooperation and solidarity.

Under conditions of abundance and social equality, competition among workers—under capitalism the cause of so many crimes—could be addressed. The new material conditions of economic abundance along with a new mass education campaign rooted in class solidarity will permit a revolutionary transformation of the general culture and human relations. It would open the door to eradicating the poisons of racism, sexism and anti-LGBT hatred.

For all these reasons, the socialist revolution is like none other in history.

But none of this can happen without revolution. Making that revolution a reality requires the creation of an organization that is committed to leading the charge in uprooting capitalist exploitation and raising the level of class consciousness to meet the challenges ahead.

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