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What does it take to make a socialist revolution?

Sep 29, 2022
Graphic with photos from Russian Revolution and text "What is Socialist Revolution?"

The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term” [1].

Introduction

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and other imperialist countries have repeatedly declared that history is over, meaning that humanity cannot transcend the capitalist system, which is elevated as the pinnacle of human development. As Margaret Thatcher claimed “there is no alternative” to capitalism, and the best we can hope for is a kinder, gentler, and more “humane” form of it. According to the capitalist class, the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrated that “socialism doesn’t work” and socialist revolution is foolhardy, so we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with fighting for it.

Despite this prognosis, socialist revolution is very much on the table in the U.S. and all over the world. As we are facing multiple existential crises for humanity and the planet, socialist revolution is not just possible, but an absolute necessity to ensure our collective future.

Wherever there’s exploitation and oppression, there’s resistance, and the capitalist system generates the conditions for this continued resistance. However, while resistance ebbs and flows, there are particular moments when, as Marx and Engels put it, the broad masses are “sprung into the air” [2]. Today, resistance to capitalism, imperialism, and all systems of oppression is increasing. However, to make a socialist revolution, resistance is not enough. Socialist revolution requires the class-conscious intervention of the working and oppressed classes to dislodge the political power of the bourgeoisie, collectivize and plan production, and create a new state in which the masses of people are in control.

This article introduces what a socialist revolution is—in contrast to anti-communist and bourgeois mythologies that caricature it as an impossible and hopeless project. Socialist revolution anywhere cannot be prescribed and certainly is not an automatic development of any single or foundational contradiction; it requires explicit mass socialist consciousness and organizing.

Further, a socialist revolution cannot take place without society entering into a profound crisis. The Russian leader V.I. Lenin, whose Bolshevik Party led the first successful socialist revolution in 1917, put it this way:

“A revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes’, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses” [3].

Revolutionary opportunities arise neither as a result of the objective conditions of society nor the class consciousness of the masses alone. Instead, revolutionary situations open when the cascading contradictions of capitalism, imperialism, and oppression force the current order to a standstill. Such objective conditions can emerge from economic, political, social, military, or ecological crises: such as the cascading crises of automation and the resulting job losses, the delegitimation of basic institutions of U.S. bourgeois democracy like presidential elections, the climate catastrophe, and the U.S. war drive against Russia and China. But by themselves the contradictions of capitalism, which inevitably lead to crisis, do not make a revolution.

There are many revolutionary situations but fewer revolutions. This is because revolutions require the combination of the above-mentioned objective conditions as well as the subjective forces capable of seizing on the revolutionary opening. The Party for Socialism and Liberation is dedicated to building a party that can seize these revolutionary openings when they appear in the United States.

When society enters into a revolutionary crisis, it presents the opportunity for socialist revolution but, as Lenin points out, there have been many revolutionary crises that did not become successful socialist revolutions. What was missing in virtually all those cases was “the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break or dislocate the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls’, if it is not toppled over” [4]. This for example, is what happened in Egypt in the wake of the popular uprising that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. The revolution was led by working and poor people—especially young people—who created new organizational forms during the course of the uprising. Because of the systematic repression of the Left, however, there was no working-class party capable of transforming the revolutionary opportunity into a revolution. In the absence of such a party, the most well-organized forces assumed leadership.

Political and social revolutions

When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders first declared his run for presidency in 2014-15, he announced that his campaign would spark a “political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally” [5]. His campaign resonated with a broad progressive base of the working class and some elements of the middle class.

Sanders was calling for major changes in society, many of which would have benefited the working masses, but was this really calling for a “revolution”? From a Marxist point of view, what Sanders proposed was actually a series of major reforms. Reform movements are often large and powerful, pulling vast numbers of people into struggle against the ruling class for basic democratic rights. The movements for health care, affirmative action, better wages, union representation, expanded marriage rights, and abortion rights are examples of powerful reform movements that have won important victories. All of these movements led to progressive changes to the political and legal superstructure of society; while progressive reform movements can change how society is run and operated, they do not fundamentally alter the economic system as a whole and are always resisted by the ruling class.

In order for us to realize such popular and necessary democratic and progressive reforms we need an entirely new social system, a socialist system, in which the working class has political, social, and economic power. To do this, a social revolution must dislodge the bourgeois ruling class from power.

Marxists use the term “social revolution” in a very precise way. Whereas political revolutions change the form of social rule and can bring important gains for the oppressed, they leave the fabric of the capitalist mode of production intact: private ownership of the means of production and capitalist control over the state apparatus. Political revolutions are significant shifts in political leadership, such as those that took place during the Reconstruction Era and the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements of the 1950s-70s. Each brought about substantial changes in the political and social order but stopped short of changing the underlying structure of the economy [6].

Distinguishing between political and social revolutions doesn’t mean that we view them as separate and unrelated. In fact, historically, socialist revolutions have combined struggles for political and social transformation. Think, for example, of how central the struggle for a legally-regulated working day was to the Bolshevik’s line of march toward socialist revolution.

A socialist revolution in the U.S. would end the private ownership of the means of production, factories and mines, transportation systems and communication networks, banks and agriculture, etc., by a tiny clique of capitalists. Such a change in the mode of production would also have far-reaching consequences for the social hierarchies of exploitation, altering—and providing the material basis for eliminating—the social subjugation of all oppressed groups.

A socialist revolution, a radical rupture with the capitalist system, would mean many things, but principally it would mean that working class and oppressed peoples would, among other tasks:

  1. Dismantle the old bourgeois state machinery and replace it with a new type of state, a workers’ state where working class people would govern society at every level.
  2. Collectivize the means of producing and sustaining life. These would be controlled by the working class and its organizations, making them public property to be administered in the interests of the many and not just a tiny clique of unelected capitalists.
  3. Implement a planned economy where production would be geared towards meeting people’s needs and sustaining the planet’s ecosystem, not for maximizing profit.

Socialist revolution and the question of violence

Capitalist politicians, media, and educational institutions portray socialist revolutionaries as bloodthirsty idealists, and revolutions are popularly described as incidents of mass violence. The capitalist ruling class, which itself came to power through violent revolutions and state-sanctioned and individual acts of conquest and dispossession, aims to foreclose the revolutionary path of the proletariat by presenting it as blood-soaked and misguided.

It is true that figures like Marx, Engels, and Lenin sometimes foregrounded the inevitability of violence in social revolutions. However, this is not because socialist revolutions necessitate violence in an abstract way.

In fact, Marx once suggested that, compared to the immense violence that brought the capitalist class to power, the socialist revolution would be relatively peaceful. The reason is that the capitalist revolution entailed “the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers,” whereas the socialist revolution entails “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” [7].

If violence is often a feature of social revolutions it is not due to the preference of the workers. On the contrary, it is because the capitalist ruling class will resort—and, in fact, already does resort—to the most extreme forms of violence as a means of protecting its property interests.

Lessons from history

No successful socialist revolution occurred during Marx and Engels’ lifetimes. However, they did witness and support the Paris Commune of 1871, when workers seized control of Paris and established, for a limited time, a revolutionary government based on workers’ self-rule. The bourgeoisie allied with the aristocracy against the rising revolutionary class—the proletariat—in order to brutally crush the Commune, killing tens of thousands of workers. This led Marx and Engels to reconsider the revolutionary proposals included in The Communist Manifesto. In the preface to the 1872 German edition, they wrote that they would formulate these differently because of “the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months.” “One thing especially was proved by the Commune,” they continue, which is “that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’” [8]. This lesson would be vital in the success of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent socialist revolutions across the colonial world.

The inter-imperialist rivalry of WWI created a unique opportunity for the Bolsheviks to break the weakest link in the imperial chain, seizing state power in Russia and establishing the world’s first sustained workers’ state. “Revolution,” Lenin put it in 1917, “consists in the proletariat destroying the ‘administrative apparatus’ and the whole state machine, replacing it by a new one consisting of the armed workers” [9]. In order to do so, the working and toiling masses need to be organized to successfully combat the highly disciplined armies of the ruling class. A vanguard party of revolutionary cadres provides the leadership necessary to guide the organized workers to a successful revolution.

The Russian Revolution was a social revolution in the sense that it changed the social relations of production and the overall class order of society. It is essential to recognize, however, that this project was not simply economic, in a reductive sense, as some of its uninformed detractors have proclaimed. In order to begin building an egalitarian society, the Bolsheviks pursued the project of socializing the means of production and redistributing land, slowly but surely building up a society in which everyone had the right to housing, education, healthcare, and employment, and more. At the same time, they directly confronted the legacies of social chauvinism, nationalism and racism by introducing a substantive democracy in which all nations had the right to self-determination and the plethora of cultures and languages within the USSR was celebrated [10].

In addition to directly combating dehumanizing practices, which are so integral to capitalism, the Soviet leadership undertook to dismantle the system of domestic slavery that subjugated women. “Under Alexandra Kollantai, people’s commissar for social welfare,” Valentine Moghadam explains, women were granted “an eight-hour day, social insurance, pregnancy leave for two months before and after childbirth, and time at work to breast-feed,” in addition to the legal codification of marital equality, the right to divorce, and more [11].

A socialist revolution is a total transformation that reorganizes, in the name of equality, the entire socioeconomic system, which includes—among other elements—its class, racial, gender, and national orders. It is significant, in this regard, that the successful socialist revolutions that occurred in the wake of the Russian Revolution took place in the colonial world rather than in the capitalist core.

Lenin himself had anticipated that the revolutionary storm would move eastward as colonized peoples rose up against imperialist domination. Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh was among them. He described how he yelled out with joy as he read aloud and slowly came to understand Lenin’s message to the colonies. “Lenin,” he wrote, “was the first to realize and assess the full importance of drawing the colonial peoples into the revolutionary movement. He was the first to point out that, without the participation of the colonial peoples, the socialist revolution could not come about” [12].

Making a socialist revolution in the U.S.

We should take inspiration from the history of the struggles for socialist revolution, knowing that our party is situated squarely within this lineage. The tradition that we are part of is the one that has practically demonstrated its ability to make real, substantive gains for the working class, and notably for the most oppressed and exploited members of the international proletariat. In spite of what the capitalist ruling class would like us to believe, decay in the advanced capitalist countries is daily on display, and the socialist movement continues to grow around the world.

We find ourselves, however, in a unique situation since we in the belly of the beast, the U.S. Empire, which has over time built up a political system and broader culture that is profoundly reactionary. All of our creativity, insight, and revolutionary enthusiasm will be necessary to find effective ways of bringing the working class into the struggle for socialism. While there is no road map to revolution, there is a deep, international tradition of revolutionary organizing from which we need to learn, while also adapting it to our unique circumstances. In doing so, we can take hope and inspiration from the fact that, as we each do our own part, we are contributing to a collective struggle for the future of humanity and planet Earth.

“The socialist revolution is not one single act, not one single battle on a single front,” Lenin wrote, “but a whole epoch of intensified class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., battles around all the problems of economics and politics, which can culminate only in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie” [13]. As we contribute to these battles, developing new tactics to edge out our opponents, let us never lose sight of the global class war that will decide the future of us all. For this is what is ultimately at stake in the question of revolution: shall we continue to live under an exploitative and oppressive system that is destroying humanity and the biosphere, or should we reorganize society to satisfy the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority?

Building mass socialist consciousness

There is no formula, blueprint, or silver bullet to get us to socialism. We know that the class struggle is a school for the working class in organizing itself to do battle with the bourgeoisie and win social gains here or there, but the class struggle in and of itself does not automatically lead to socialism. We can study and learn from socialist revolutions in history, but the conditions under which those revolutions were won are fundamentally different from the conditions that face us today in the U.S. No serious Marxist would argue that the socialist revolution develops the same way in every country. Lenin reminds us that “in different countries, the revolution develops differently. It always proceeds over a long time and with difficulty. Bad is the Socialist who thinks that the capitalists will abdicate their rights at once” [14].

So how do we get from here to there? From capitalist society to socialist society? For starters, economic, political, and social struggles are schools through which we can build the subjective forces necessary for revolution. Socialism can only develop out of the class struggle against the capitalists; it will not fall from the sky or come from the minds of some “ingenious” individuals. But, as we stated before, just recognition of and even appreciation for the class struggle does not end up with socialism or even socialist consciousness. The ruling class owns and operates an immense state apparatus and has access to tremendous resources to crush the resistance of the working class and hold back revolutionary consciousness. In order to overcome this, the working class and oppressed need their own political instrument(s) to fight the bourgeoisie. This means mass organizations of our class, in various forms from labor unions tenant associations to broad-based coalitions and single-issue organizations. Ultimately, the key instrument in socialist revolutions is a revolutionary Marxist party that’s able to unite the different mass organizations together under a coherent political program and strategic outlook.

The historical task of the working class is not just to emancipate itself, but all of humanity, from the shackles of capitalist exploitation and oppression. However, the path to victory inevitably goes through setbacks, defeats, and retreats, materially and ideologically. Conceiving of revolution today requires acknowledging this reality, but also proposing an organizational form that can readily assist the class and guide the struggle towards victory: the capture of state power by the working class. It is here where Leninism provides a battle-tested theory and practice to help revolutionaries battle with the capitalist class and build the revolutionary power and unity vital for defeating the capitalists and building socialism. For revolutionaries in the Leninist tradition, history has demonstrated with numerous examples that it is not the task of the revolutionary party to “make” the revolution with independent action divorced from the masses. In order to overcome the political and ideological indoctrination by the capitalist class, which has only strengthened over time with the rise of mass media and communications, it is necessary for revolutionaries today to embed themselves within workers’ struggles so as to help workers connect the concrete and specific contradictions of capitalism (police brutality, housing struggles, workplace fights) to its general functioning and motion.

As capitalism continues generating compounding crises affecting both the ruling class and the ruled, as spontaneous rebellions and revolts emerge, it is vitally necessary to continue building class consciousness of workers’ struggles. The organizational independence of the working class, through its own political party, is indispensable. For after all, a revolutionary crisis, while invoking chaos and confusion among the ruling class and oppressed classes, does not automatically lead to socialism. Reactionary elements, for example, may seize the time during a crisis; the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election results, the first phase of a coup attempt, are an indication of this possibility [15].

To make a socialist revolution requires more than spontaneous rebellions, more than idly waiting for the objective conditions to ripen; it requires working-class mass organization, discipline, unity of the oppressed, and a political party that can provide theoretical, strategic, and tactical clarity throughout the course of our various struggles. Socialism does not arrive ready-made: it is a result of the class struggle for state power, and thus requires socialists, but most importantly of all a revolutionary socialist party to guide, learn from, and organize the working class and its allies on the path to victory.

The time to build the revolutionary party is now. There is no time to waste. The extreme problems and contradictions of U.S. society mean that a deep crisis is inevitable, though neither revolutionaries nor the ruling class can determine when a revolutionary situation will develop. As many historical experiences have shown, it is difficult but not impossible to create the party needed to turn a revolutionary opportunity into a revolutionary victory once the crisis is underway. For all those who hope for revolution and a new socialist society, building the party is the key task.

References

[1] V.I. Lenin, “Letters on Tactics,” in V.I. Lenin, Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 24): April-June 1917, ed. B. Isaacs (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1918/1980), 44.
[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, trans. S. Moore (New York: Penguin Books, 1888/1967), 232.
[3] V.I. Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” in V.I Lenin, Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 21): August 1914-1915, trans. J. Katzer (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1915/1980), 213-214.
[4] Ibid., 214.
[5] Andrew Prokop, “Bernie Sanders’s Political Revolution, Explained,” Vox, 28 January 2016. Available here.
[6] Social revolutions make a sharp break from one social system to another, although not all social revolutions are socialist revolutions. The 1979 Iranian Revolution, for example, overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah, installed in a 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Mossadegh government. In the period before the revolution, millions of people took to the streets and eventually won much of the armed forces to their side. Again, however, because of the intense repression of trade unions and the communists under the Shah’s brutal rule, socialist forces were unable to turn the revolutionary opportunity into a socialist revolution. At the same time, by overthrowing the U.S.’s primary colonial outpost in the region and establishing an independent and anti-colonial government, the Iranian Revolution did significantly change the makeup of the social system.
[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1): The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 715.
[8] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Preface to the German Edition of 1872,” in Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 194.
[9] V.I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” in V.I. Lenin, Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 25): June-September 1917, ed. S. Presyan and J. Riordan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1917/1980), 491.
[10] See Eugene Puryear, “Nations and Soviets: The National Question in the USSR,” Liberation News, 06 June 2022. Available here.
[11] Valentine Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993), 78-79.
[12] Ho Chi Minh, Selected Writings (1920-1969) (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2001), 37.
[13] V.I. Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” in V.I. Lenin, Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 22): December 1915-July 1916), ed. G. Hanna, trans. Y. Sdobnikov (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1916/1977), 144.
[14] V.I. Lenin, “Speech at a Presnya District Workers’ Conference,” in Lenin, Lenin Collected Works (Vol. 28), 361.
[15] See Party for Socialism and Liberation, “The Paralysis Ends: Trump, Fascism, and the Capitalist State,” Liberation News, 13 January 2021. Available here.