“Revolution” has an exciting ring. It is an advertiser’s word, a punchy politician’s word. Like all such words it is over-used, and losing a lot of its force. Every new model of car has its half-dozen or so revolutionary innovations, and every new model of politician calls for a revolution in our approach to this, that and the other.
Clearly at least one meaning of the word is a very big change. That is why the adman and the MP use it so often. They spend their days trying to pretend to us that little things are big.
When socialists say that we need a revolution, we too are calling for a very big change. But we are not using the word as a sales gimmick. In the sort of world we want there will be no private or government ownership, no money, no state and no armies. You must agree that this kind of sweeping change would indeed deserve the name “revolution.”
We need a revolution because the world’s most terrible problems, such as war, poverty and loneliness, cannot be solved any other way. Reformers, social workers, charitable individuals, priests and other well-meaning folk, have all failed. By now most of them realise they will never actually solve the problems they are tackling. They are like nurses on a battlefield: all they can do is to keep slapping on the bandages and hope that somehow the slaughter will stop. And to many of them occurs the agonising thought that they are helping to keep it going.
If revolution is the only answer, why can’t people see that this is so? Because they are trained not to see it. The brainwashing we get at school, on television and in the news, papers tells us that things are getting better all the time, that it is good to be patriotic, that everything hinges on “our” balance of payments, that we have a duty to work harder, that the sweet life is within our reach.
But the most effective indoctrination does not come through the mass media. It comes from our family, friends and workmates. We all desperately need the acceptance and approval of other people, at 1east someother people. In the homes, factories, offices, pubs, bingo halls and shops these words are uttered thousands of times a day: “You can’t change human nature.” “Just look after number one.” “Why don’t they go back where they came from?” “We fought for these youngsters and look how they repay us.” “Britain’s going to the dogs.”
These are ritual statements. The people who make them don’t want to discuss them, have probably never speculated that they might be wrong. Every society has its stabilising platitudes, along with more or less universally accepted codes of conduct and belief, but that does not mean they cannot be changed if they are called into question strongly enough. For the moment, however, the workers continue to accept the “rules of the game”. It is quite all right to put on a uniform and kill thousands of little boys and girls with bombs and napalm, but perfectly hateful to kill one little girl on Cannock Chase . . . that’s just one of the rules, no more open to question than "Fiddle the company but don’t fiddle your mates." In the same way, most people will readily condemn those who live off the Social Security when they could be working, but will vigorously defend the rights of the much larger number of people who live in luxury yet never work because they own capital.
It must also be admitted that the routine of life under capitalism does not always tend to arouse a questioning or critical attitude. Our work is miserable so we live for our "free" time. But our jobs so mould our outlooks and sap away our exhilaration that even during our leisure we cannot live life to the full. So we seek to tickle our tired selves with ever-hotter, ever-faster, ever-shallower experiences, or we are frightened into a frantic drive to get more personal possessions, since these seem to give a measure of security. We are so involved in the daily struggle to make a living that we have no time for living. Nor, in most cases, for thinking. People prefer to be lulled.
Many workers can clearly see the vast gulf between the pampered minority who own the world, and the rest of us, the propertyless wage-slaves. But they think the way out is merely their own individual advancement, not a social revolution. Obviously there is nothing wrong with a person’s wishing to move up within capitalism: it is inevitable that workers will want to do so. But rags to riches stories are rare: that is why they make headlines. Under feudalism the ambition of the capitalists was first of all only to become feudal lords, and some did. But eventually the interests of the capitalists became so much opposed to feudalism that they had to destroy it. In the same way the modern working class is learning that any progress within the confines of capitalism leaves the roots of the problems untouched, and often creates new problems.
Despite all the ideological cul-de-sacs and mass-produced soporifics, capitalism goes on sowing the seeds of its own-destruction. It demands healthy, educated slaves, workers trained to think clearly and critically. In the West, it promises an age of automated abundance and maximised happiness (after we’ve all tightened our belts for a few years, just to get us over these annoying little economic upsets). Soviet capitalism is lumbered with an even more onerous prospectus: it promises its workers the withering away of the state and free access to wealth – socialism, in fact. But in Russia, as everywhere else, the state is constantly extending its sophistication and scope, and cash becomes an ever more hallowed icon.
The present upheaval in China is but part of capitalism’s growing pains. However we should not discount the effect of capitalist revolutions on working class thinking. Marx’s researches were part of the welter of thought aroused by the French Revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Fiasco, though much of it is sublime idiocy, directly affects the lives of a fifth of the world’s population. It is helping to sweep away archaic family structures and other traditional “dead weights”. Capitalist revolutions have always appealed in their propaganda to the “broad masses”, and represented their aims as being the welfare of the majority, but ultimately this makes trouble for capitalism, because there are always some workers ungrateful enough to take their masters at their word, and to wonder why, after all, we never seem to reach the Promised Land.
In Europe and America we have seen the rapid growth of “peace movements” like CND, followed by their collapse as they came up against the stone wall of capitalism’s essential need for competition backed by violence. We have also seen a great deal of disillusionment, despair, and escapism – and the growing realisation that problems like war cannot be amputated, or treated in isolation, but are bound up with the whole organisation of society. The satire wave, Bob Dylan, the Provos, Hippies and Diggers are all signs that many thoughtful people – especially young people, not yet brought to heel by war or slump – are casting around for an answer.
The workers will increasingly see how deeply entrenched are the causes of their misery. Patches, tinkering and minor adjustments will in the years ahead seem more and more futile. The crying need for root and branch change will be obvious to ever greater numbers. The membership of the Socialist Party, and its six companion parties, will grow at a faster rate, and new parties will be established in more and more countries. As the socialist movement’s size grows, its ability to spread its ideas will also grow.
Faced with the spread of this determined, uncompromising movement, with its withering contempt for stock idols like “the national interest,” the promises of our rulers will become even wilder. To stem the socialist tide the capitalist parties will sink their differences and draw closer together, much as religions do today in the face of the world avalanche of atheism. Reforms now derided as Utopian will be two a penny - in an attempt to fob off the workers. Perhaps, for example, capitalism will provide a batch of free services, on the understanding that this is “the beginning” of a free society, but socialists will not be taken in.
Finally the time will come when a majority of workers, in the majority of countries, will send their delegates into the parliaments of the world, thus taking control of the state. From then on production will cease to be organised at the dictate of profits. Instead, the (now rather eccentric-sounding) principle will prevail that things will be produced to satisfy needs.
Immediately there will be a rapid growth in the amount and quality of useful goods produced. There will no longer be any patents, so all productive units will have access to the most advanced technical processes. There will no longer be any banks, stock exchanges, wages offices, advertising agencies, and although some of the workers previously in these fields will continue to be concerned with statistics relating to production and distribution, hundreds of millions will be released for housebuilding, food production and other rapidly-expanding sectors. It is reasonable to suppose that, since the revolution will not take anyone by surprise, many workers will have been, within capitalism, training themselves for their new occupations in socialism. Resources and manpower invested in armaments and the space race will be switched to the satisfying of human needs.
Onslaughts will be made upon centres of backwardness and destitution: these will not be given the ludicrous cinderella priority now awarded to “community development,” but instead the top priority now given to “Defence”. In fact, since socialism will grow directly out of capitalism, the present organisational machinery of the armed forces could be used for this end, since they are the best thing capitalism has developed for moving men and materials fast.
Socialism will be a planned society, not in the present-day sense of an authoritarian state empowered to sort out the conflicting interests of hundreds of profit-grabbing corporations, but as Engels put it nearly a century ago: “The seizure of the means of production by society puts an end to commodity production, and therewith to the domination of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by conscious organisation on a planned basis . . . The conditions of existence forming man’s environment, Which up to now have dominated man, at this point pass under the dominion and control of man, who now for the first time becomes the real conscious master of nature, because and in so far as he has become master of his own social organisation . . . It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.”