Editorial from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
The word revolution means different things to different people. There’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. It is even used by advertisers to give an impression of something new and different. This is a clue to its use in society, history and politics – to describe the complete replacement of the previously existing system. There is also the implication that this occurs fairly rapidly; otherwise it’s evolution.
Some people, influenced by the perception of the French Revolution cultivated by those who didn’t and don’t like it, associate the word with violence. A social or political revolution can involve violence and many have. A revolution certainly involves force – this has to be the lever bringing about the change – as the beneficiaries of the old system have to be forced to give up their power and privileges, but this can take other forms than outright violence. It can take the form of mass popular pressure or of the use of the ‘legitimate’ force of the state machine.
When Russell Brand called, in his interview with Jeremy Paxman, for a revolution he clearly meant it in the sense of getting completely rid of the present system of elite rule and neglect of people’s needs. Some interpreted him as calling for a repeat of the riots and looting of the summer of 2011 on a wider scale, but he himself later insisted that the revolution he envisaged should be non-violent.
The socialist of the Victorian era, William Morris, opens his pamphlet How We Live and How We Might Live with these words:
‘The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people's ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.’
Socialists, he went on, mean by it ‘a change in the basis of society’.
This is the sense in which we too have always used the word. The revolution we envisage is a change in the basis of society from the present minority class ownership of the means of production to their common ownership and democratic control by all the people in their own interest.
We wholeheartedly endorse Morris’s view that this change cannot be ‘made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize the executive power for the moment’, as some 19th and 20th century self-styled revolutionaries have maintained.
For us, the social revolution from capitalism to socialism has to be carried out democratically, both in the sense of having majority support and in the sense of employing democratic means. This latter means organising without leaders. In the developed capitalist parts of the world this democratic self-organisation can – and we say should – also involve organising to win control of political power via the ballot box and parliament. In other words, forming a political party to challenge those Brand said he has (rightly) never voted for and never would. We shouldn’t let them have a clear run or allow them to claim to be the’ legitimately elected representatives of the people’.