From the October 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the socialist tradition a socialist revolution is one that results in a change in the basis of society carried out by and in the interest of the immense majority.
“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” (Marx and Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, 1848)
“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. Even when we explain that we use the word revolution in its etymological sense, and mean by it a change in the basis of society, people are scared at the idea of such a vast change, and beg that you will speak of reform and not revolution. (….) [W]e will stick to our word, which means a change of the basis of society.” (William Morris, ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’, 1888).
There have been revolutions that have resulted in a change in the basis of society, but they have been carried out either by a minority or in the interest of a minority. The French Revolution would be a case in point. The 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan would be another. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 a third.
The revolution in Japan was an example of a revolution carried out just by a minority. A section of the old feudal ruling class seized power with a view to removing obstacles to the development of capitalism in Japan, so as to change the basis of society there from feudalism to capitalism.
The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, on the other hand, involved a fair degree of popular mobilisation and so fall into the category of a revolution in the interest of a minority, not simply as in Japan one carried out exclusively by the minority itself. The result, however, was the same – the removal of obstacles to the further development of capitalism as a system of production for profit by wage-workers, and the accumulation of capital out of profits.
This, of course, was not how the leaders or the popular participants saw it. In France they thought they were establishing the rule of ‘the people’; in Russia it was to be the rule of ‘the workers’. But, as Marx pointed out, in his summary of the materialist conception of history in the Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ‘just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness’. Judging by their actual results, both these revolutions paved the way for the further development of a society based on wage-labour and production for profit.
So, we can leave aside both these revolutions as an example of what a socialist revolution might be like. In fact they could even be used as counter-examples, as examples of what a socialist revolution would not be like – a minority leading a discontented mass of people.
One of the big differences between them and a real socialist revolution is that the change in the basis of society is different. These previous revolutions changed the basis of society from feudalism to capitalism, from a society based on the exploitation of land-workers by a landowning aristocracy to a society based on the minority ownership and control of industrial means of production. The change in the basis of society that a socialist revolution brings about is one from minority ownership to the common ownership and democratic control of natural and industrial resources by the whole community. A society based on ‘the possession of the land and of the means of production in common,’ a ‘community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common,’ as Marx put it in Volume I of Capital. This is not the same as state ownership, which is still a form of minority ownership by those who control the state.
The socialist revolution is a change, not from one form of minority ownership to another, as in France and Russia, but the end of all minority ownership and so the establishment of a classless society. A society no longer divided into owners and non-owners, capitalists and workers, bourgeoisie and proletariat, the 1 percent and the rest, or however you want to describe it, but a community of equals. Every member of society stands in the same relationship to the means of production as every other member – as co-owners having an equal say in how and for what purpose they are to be used. We are talking about a fully democratic society.
We are also talking about a non-coercive society as, with the abolition of class-divided society, there will be no need for the state as an instrument for maintaining the domination of a ruling class or of the government as its executive committee. Instead, there will be an unarmed administration – or, rather, administrations, world, regional, and local – subject to democratic control.
Nor will there be any economic coercion. People will not be forced to work by individual economic necessity. The wages system, under which one section of society is forced to sell its ability to work to get the means to live, will have been abolished. Some essential work will be necessary of course, otherwise society would collapse, but this would have to be undertaken freely by people who understood this.
So, we are talking about a society involving not just democratic control and participation but also freely-decided cooperation and work.
Production would be organised to directly satisfy people’s needs, not for profit; not for sale either. Since the means of production will be owned in common so will the products. The question will then not be how to sell these (which wouldn’t make sense since selling is a change of ownership but everybody is already a co-owner). It will be how to distribute them, how to share them out amongst the co-owners. Today, given the tremendous capacity to produce what people need, products can be made available for people to freely take and use, the implementation of the old socialist slogan of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.
The new society based on the common ownership of natural and industrial resources will be a classless, stateless, wageless, moneyless society of democratic control and free cooperation. That’s the change in the basis of society that a real socialist revolution would bring about.
This being the aim – the end – the means to achieve it must be compatible. In other words, it has to be achieved democratically by a majority who want and understand it. The socialist revolution as Marx and Engels put it must be ‘the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority’. Not a movement, not even a majority movement, led by leaders who alone understand (‘the conscious minority’) at the head of masses who are merely discontented (as in the model of those influenced by the French and Russian Revolutions), but one in which the majority too understand, and organise themselves without unaccountable leaders who pretend to know better than them.
This shapes the strategy and tactics to achieve the opening stage of any revolution – the winning of political control, the capture of political power. This implies organisation into a political party, but one quite unlike the reformist and vanguard parties we know today, all of which are based on the leadership principle, in the one case by MPs and in the other by professional revolutionaries. The socialist political party must be a mass, open, democratic party controlled by its members – the class of wage and salary workers democratically self-organised to take political action for socialism.
When once the socialist movement has become ‘the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority’ the question arises what it has to do to win political control. In developed capitalist countries the means are to hand – the vote. The socialist majority can use the power of numbers to send to parliament, congress, chamber of deputies or whatever, delegates mandated to further the cause of socialism, not support a government or vote through capitalist legislation.
In fact, the socialist movement can begin to send such delegates to parliaments even before it has majority support. The socialist MPs would still be mandated delegates subject to the democratic control of those outside parliament who wanted socialism. While in a minority, they could use parliament as a megaphone, a tribune from which to denounce capitalism and advocate socialism.
When a majority, they could use political power to end capitalism by dispossessing the owning class through declaring all stocks and shares, bills and bonds, and other capitalist property titles null and void and that from then on all the means of production belong to the people as a classless community of equals, to be used to turn out what they need both as individuals and as communities. The basis of society will have been changed. The socialist revolution will have been carried out.
Naturally, this assumes that people in their workplaces outside parliament are already organised, ready to take over the means of production and keep production going.
The socialist majority would also use its political control to make other changes, in particular thoroughly democratising the central administration body by lopping off its coercive and bureaucratic features, preparing the way for its transformation from an instrument of rule over people into an unarmed organ of participatory democracy. In effect, the abolition of the state as state.
The revolutionary process just described has been about one country but, capitalism being an international system spanning the world with a network of interlinked production units, ‘socialism in one country’ is not possible.
So, we are talking about a world-wide socialist revolution with the same process taking place in country after country over a relatively short period of time, rather like, for instance, the overthrow of the state-capitalist regimes in East Europe in the 1990s or the so-called Arab Spring.
This is not an unreasonable supposition as, already, economic and social conditions are basically the same in whatever geographical or political areas capitalism dominates. Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that, when the socialist idea catches on, it will spread in all countries. It is the opposite supposition that is unreasonable: that this will be confined to one country or that one country would be way ahead of all the others. This is not how ideas spread today.
Everywhere, production is for profit, people have to work for wages and have to buy what they need. Everywhere they face the same problems that result from this, problems which can only be lastingly solved within the framework of a borderless world society based on the Earth’s natural and industrial resources having become the common heritage of all humanity.