Revolution: How the Working Class Can Change Society

Paul Hubbard writes on the revolutionary power of the working class.

Revolution is the motive force of history. All the great epoch-changing progress of human society has been accomplished by revolutionary upheavals that transform not only human relations, but economic relations, and society as a whole. This was true during the great French Revolution of 1789-1793, the English a century earlier around the Protestant Reformation and the Cromwell rebellion, and the 1776-1789 American War of Independence against the British crown. The revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries laid the basis for the development of modern capitalist society. That is, they elevated that class of merchants, bankers, landlords, and factory owners into the rulers of society. Starting with the events in Paris in 1871 known as the Paris Commune, the character of revolutions changed, a change that has continued into the 21st century. The assault by the Paris workers on the French bourgeoisie that resulted in the formation of the Paris Commune became a living historical laboratory for Karl Marx and his close collaborator, Frederick Engels. It confirmed all of the ideas they had laid out 24 years earlier in the Communist Manifesto. Key among these was the realization that:

1: Capitalism, the economic system dominating Europe and increasingly the world had divided society into two great competing classes with opposing economic and political interests – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the capitalist class and the working class – or in the modern language of the Occupy movement, the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent.

2: The capitalists owned all the property in the form of the banks, the factories, and the land, whereas the workers owned only their labor power to sell to the capitalists for wages.

3: These owners of property were an increasingly tiny minority in society who engaged in vicious competition in the single pursuit of profits. The vast majority in society were the workers whose interests lay in collective action to overthrow the bourgeoisie and reconstruct society on the basis of true equality and democracy. The revolutionary action of the communards also confirmed for Marx his ideas of self-emancipation – that is: “the emancipation of the working class from capitalist slavery had to be the conscious act of the working class itself.”

It’s worth noting that Marx first engaged with the ideas of self-emancipation, socialism from below, by reading the writings of Flora Tristan, a feminist leader of the French Utopian Socialist movement who was influenced by the Chartist movement in England. Her book The Workers Union argued for the self-organization of the workers in non-discriminatory unions to fight the bosses. She also engaged in polemics with the utopian socialist Étienne Cabet which, it seems well established, Marx had read. It is in the period 1843-1847 when Marx was evolving out of philosophy and becoming a Communist that the self-emancipation concept became a key ingredient in Marx’s evolution to Communism.

The Paris Commune existed for about two months and was drowned in a sea of blood by the counter-revolutionary French bourgeoisie in alliance with its former military enemy, Germany. The great lesson Marx learned through the experience of the Commune was on the nature of the capitalist state and the workers’ tasks in defeating it. The only changes he and Engels made to the Communist Manifesto when it was republished in 1872 and again in 1883 was that the workers in revolution had to smash and abolish the old capitalist state to win the battle of democracy. That is: disarm the police, put on trial and execute if necessary the enemies of the people, war criminals, and such, and replace the army with a people’s or workers’ militia.

To quote from Frederick Engels’s preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto:
“However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time  existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this program has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (See  The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’ s Association, 1871, where this point is further developed.)”

Proletarian revolution is at the core of Marxism.  Its politics are the theory and practice of working class revolution.

At this point, I want to touch on some key ideas about proletarian revolution, revolutionary process, working class consciousness, and working class organization.

Society’s consensus – that is, the common sense that exists in the media, in education and the academy, and in ideas of the masses themselves of course – is that workers, the proletariat, the great masses of the people, are too stupid, too bought off, too racist, homophobic, sexist, uneducated, apolitical and backwards to ever make a revolutionary overthrow of society. And as far as the working class actually running society? That’s truly anathema to the one percent and, I might add, to every good liberal as well.  They spend enormous resources convincing us that society should be run by technocrats, bureaucrats, and the “smart people.” They say revolutions would be worse than what we have now and anyway the unwashed, ignorant masses will just fuck everything up much worse. But in that respect, I have to ask you: could anything be worse than the class of reprobates and flat-earthers running this country’s state legislatures and the US Congress today? I mean, seriously. In addition, to make doubly sure people are not thinking about revolutionary change, the capitalist rulers deny revolution itself, even their own revolutions, obliterating them from history. So part of what I’m presenting here will be kind of an alternative history from below compared to what we’re taught in school or read about in the media. So my starting point is simply this: the working class, what Marx called the proletariat, is the most revolutionary class in history. It is the class that can end capitalism and with it, all oppression. In short, it is the Socialist class.

Quote from Engels – 1883 German preface to the Communist Manifesto:
“The basic thought running through the Manifesto — that economic production, and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising there from, constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently (ever since the dissolution of the primeval communal ownership of land) all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social evolution; that this struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, class struggles — this basic thought belongs solely and exclusively to [Karl] Marx.”

The period starting with the 1905 Russian Revolution, and including both 1917 Russian Revolutions (February and October), the 1918-1923 German revolution, 1931-1939 Spanish, the post war Chinese and Cuban Revolutions that ends with the defeats of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 and the Thermidor following the Iranian Revolution that same year, was the most revolutionary period in human history.

Think about that for a second, because I think it’s worth repeating. During that brief 75 year time span, revolution, working class social revolution, was on the agenda more often and in more places than ever before or since in human history – over two dozen instances, closer to three dozen if one includes events like the prelude to revolution in France in May 1968 and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia that same year. That’s an average of one revolution somewhere in the world every two and a half years for 75 years – an amazing record of rebellion, revolts, and the aspirations by the great masses of people on this planet for a better world. And the wiping out of that history is what 35 years of the neoliberal “end of history” has taken us to – the almost complete erasure and revision of one of the most significant periods in human history.

So with that said, can anyone think of any places where revolutions are happening today – in 2013? Of course – Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Greece. The proletarian revolution Marx and Engels envisioned and outlined 165 years ago in the Communist Manifesto is back on the world stage. It’s on the agenda in multiple countries today as we speak and it’s this dynamic process of revolution that I want to address in the next section.

I think we can safely say that in the modern epoch, revolutions will be working class revolutions – that is, proletarian revolutions – or there will be no revolutions. Marx’s concept of revolution is that at a certain stage in the development of the material productive forces – that is, of the economy – those economic forces come into conflict with the existing social relations of production, with the class relations of society, and that the framework for the development of the economy and human development becomes a fetter on production itself and on human progress in general. It is that fundamental conflict which opens up a period of social revolution. To see this all one has to do is look at how the capitalist system is causing climate change which threatens not only economic stability, but life on this planet. Put another way, Marx stated that the insoluble contradictions present in society lay the groundwork for social crises, and it is out of these crises that political revolutions break out. So a pattern develops: economic contradictions that can’t be solved within the current framework of society’s class relations produce social crises, which then lead to revolutionary upheaval, first and most often breaking out as political revolutions, but through the dynamic process of revolution transform into social revolutions. Marx wrote about these revolutionary processes in 1849 and I think it’s a pretty good description of what’s happening today in Egypt and beginning to happen in other countries like Greece. As I’ve stated before, Marx’s specific concept was of a proletarian revolution – that is, an uprising of the oppressed masses against capital, a specifically anti-capitalist revolt. Furthermore, it is the nature of this proletariat, the workers who constitute the great majority in society, that they cannot, under capitalism, own property – the means of production – as individuals. The workers can only own property collectively and democratically. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual [private] property.  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.”

And this is important because Marx wasn’t talking about just formal, parliamentary democracy – voting for two capitalist candidates every four years – but democracy in the economy, in the work places, in the factories  – workers control over production.

For example: If the workers in the energy sector – the coal miners, oil workers, in the electric plants and the auto factories – were asked if they wanted to continue producing dirty, planet destroying fossil fuels and cars, or instead convert those factories into production of mass transit, clean wind and solar, and away from fossil fuels, I think we can get a glimpse of the transformation that would result. I would trust the workers to make the right decisions to save the planet over the CEOs of Exxon/Mobil and General Motors who deny that climate change even exists. Fundamentally, socialism means democracy from below, not only politically, but most importantly in the economy. Proletarian democracy is not just a nice afterthought either, but the only way the working class can rule society, which means through collective ownership of the economy and by organizing the economy democratically, unlike capitalism which can exist just as well under formal parliamentary democracy, military dictatorship, or fascism.

Marx says in the Communist Manifesto that the first step in a social revolution is to raise the working class to position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. It uses its political supremacy to wrest economic power from the capitalist class and centralizes production in the hands of the state, i.e. of the proletariat organized as the ruling class. It takes political power, then it transfers economic power to the state as itself. It is not the state taking over property that is necessarily progressive, but the progressive class itself, the workers organized as the ruling class and exercising state power, that transforms society and opens the epoch of democracy – that is, the transition to socialism. And it is these ideas of proletarian revolution that will shape the ideas of revolutionary process, consciousness, and organization.

The Process of Revolution

Revolutions are a dynamic process, not a single event or series of discrete events. It is a period of intense revolutionary class struggle. How long does a period of revolutionary upheaval last? There’s no set limit. In Russia it took 8 months between February and October, in Germany five years (1918-1923), in Italy one year (1920), in Spain, it was 8 years – 1931-1939. Vietnam was in some form of revolutionary upheaval for several decades – first against French colonialism, then against the Japanese invasion, again against the French, with the final victory over US imperialism coming in 1975.  During revolutionary times, everything is in flux. There are fits and starts, advances and retreats. When revolution is on the upswing, each stage is more radical than the last. When counter-revolution gains the upper hand, vicious violence, treachery, exhaustion of the masses, and mass demoralization become the order of the day. The real question is whether the revolutionary masses are able to withstand the false starts and defeats and come back to fight another day. There is no pre-determined block of time for how long a revolution will continue, but one thing is certain, it will not go on forever.

In his preface to his monumental work on the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky puts it this way:  “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime….. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

But contradictions exist in the revolutionary process itself. In Egypt today there are 15 million people who actively participated in the overthrow of Mubarak, and a month ago some 22 million who overthrew Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they all consider themselves to be revolutionists. Before the January 25th, 2011 uprising against Mubarak, the vast majority had never before participated in a protest, a demonstration, a political meeting, or anything remotely revolutionary. It was the overthrow of Mubarak that opened the period of the revolutionary process in Egypt. So far it has consisted of a series of battles, small and large, in which all discontented classes, groups and elements of the population have participated. At first, everyone is for the revolution. Even the counter-revolution in the body of the SCAF, the Egyptian military, advances its program for how to improve the country. And a great section of the population celebrated the military ouster of Mubarak and then Morsi. In other words, the revolution and counter-revolution are one in hand and united.

To quote the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin:  “The social revolution cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it — without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible — and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will he able to unite and direct it.”

Leon Trotsky again: “The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis [and] the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses…”

But now a section of the population in Egypt, particularly the workers, are starting to lose those illusions in the military, because during the two and a half years since the overthrow of Mubarak, all they’ve been met with is severe repression whenever they go on strike for higher wages or social programs to alleviate poverty. And make no mistake, there have been literally thousands of strikes in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster. So underneath the mask of unity within the revolution, a social differentiation is taking place along class lines – that is, between the workers on the one hand and capital and its servants – the liberals, Muslim Brotherhood, feloul, and petit bourgeois – on the other.

Trotsky continues: “In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

“The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.

”The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions …..”

So what began as a democratic revolution in Egypt is transforming itself into a social revolution – a permanent revolution. It is the social and economic crisis and discontent that is fueling resistance, not only in countries like Egypt and Greece, but globally as well. The workers in Egypt didn’t overthrow Mubarak only to have the same conditions, wages, misery, and poverty imposed on them under the old regime. And it is this process that we are seeing unfold in Egypt today.

Key to this unfolding process involves the working class overcoming the divisions within the itself, divisions along occupational lines, between Muslims and Coptic Christians, overcoming sexism, homophobia, and the racism against foreign workers. Through its struggles on the picket line, and in the squares, the Egyptian working class is learning to reject the bourgeois ideology of the liberals and the military. It’s pretty clear that it has already rejected the Muslim Brotherhood. So we’re seeing a deepening of the process of revolution in Egypt, not without problems, setbacks, and contradictions but it is inexorably heading towards a confrontation between the contending classes – the question of which class will rule Egypt. The biggest problem the workers will have to navigate in the immediate period is the sectarian violence being unleashed by the military, not only against the now ejected Muslim Brotherhood, but the Coptic Christians, who are an oppressed minority. The task is to turn a sectarian conflict into class war.

Another key to the process of social revolution, proletarian revolution, is the appearance of organizations of direct democracy from below, instruments of workers power – that is factory councils, generalized organs of workers self rule that appear in all proletarian revolutions. We know that we’re not in a truly proletarian revolution until those organizations appear. There was the Commune in Paris in 1871, what were called soviets in Russia, the workers councils in Germany, the Cordones in Chile, the Comissões de Trabalhadores in Portugal, workers councils in the factories which ushers in a period of what is called dual power. This is where the workers start to control the various functions of society through their organs of direct democracy, such as: if and when the trains will run, or communication networks, electrical power, the mass media, TV, and so on, and the running of schools and hospitals, etc.. And it is this stage of dual power that leads to the confrontation between the two classes – which one will rule society – the workers (democracy) or the bourgeois (usually in the form of a military dictatorship or fascism). The culmination of proletarian revolution is when the workers stage an insurrection, under the leadership of their councils and a revolutionary workers political party, that takes state power and starts the transition to socialism. It is the appearance of these organs of workers power that lets one know that we’re in a period of permanent revolution. It raises to its height the dialectical contradictions of the revolution and the counter revolution. The progress of the revolution is met simultaneously by the rise of the counter-revolution and it is often the advance of the counter-revolution, with its attendant violence, that further radicalizes the masses, preparing them for the advanced struggle for power. It becomes a question of one class or the other. As Saint Joust put it in the Jacobin period of the French Revolution “Those who only make revolution half way, dig their own graves.” That’s the general pattern of proletarian revolution, although it’s different in every country, depending upon the balance of class forces and most importantly, the consciousness of the workers, their level of organization, its history and formation, and how the movement responds to crises, etc.

Consciousness Changes During Struggle

The main aspect of revolutionary process is revealed to be, in the final analysis, the development of mass revolutionary consciousness and organization on the part of the workers. This is when ideas, that is, the advanced consciousness of masses of workers, becomes a material force in history. Marx taught us that the economic structure, that is, the material basis of society forms the foundation for people’s ideas, and in a historical context that is certainly true. But during revolutionary upheavals, it is those revolutionary ideas, that changed consciousness in the minds of millions of workers, that propel events forward. The stages that the revolutionary process goes through is essentially revealed to be the maturation of class consciousness on the part of the working class and its corresponding organizations. Marx said that revolution is absolutely necessary not only because the old ruling classes cannot be disposed of in any other way, but because the class overthrowing it can only rid itself of all of the old muck (he actually said “shit” (Sheisse) – “all the old shit”) and be fit to rule and found society anew only through the process of revolution. And it’s only through struggle that this revolutionary consciousness develops.

The revolution in Egypt in 1952 was a revolution from above, carried out by a small officer corps in the army – the Free Officers Movement lead by Gamal Nasser. It instituted immense social changes in society in the form of a large welfare state. What we’ve seen in Egypt today, however, is a huge social movement from below, millions in the streets, but without any social change – no reforms, no improvement in people’s living standards. But there are 15, now 22 million people who have participated in the revolution who, because of that experience, are completely changed people. It is this aspect of self-emancipation, struggle from below, that makes the working class able to rule.

Revolutionary Working Class Organization

The development of working class consciousness is also tied to the development of working class organization. The working class creates the revolutionary party which represents the highest form of consciousness our class develops before and during a revolution. But it is the most difficult project to create, in time, a revolutionary party capable of leading the masses in revolutionary struggle.

Trotsky again: “Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

Lifelong Marxist and revolutionary socialist Ernest Mandel put it this way in his introduction to Paul LeBlanc’s book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party: “The building of a revolutionary party does not correspond in the first place to an organizational need, to the problem of centralizing local, regional, national, and workplace activities, and grouping them around political objects, although, of course, that need is very real. Behind the need for organizational centralization there looms a formidable historical problem, both theoretical and practical, to which the adversaries of Lenin’s party concept have never been able to give an alternative answer, although 90 years have elapsed since the beginning of the debate. This is the problem of the centralization of living, struggling experience as the basis of the emergence and development of class consciousness. In other words, the need for the vanguard party results from the de facto, day-to-day fragmentation of the working class as regards its living conditions, its conditions of work, its levels of militancy, its political past, the historical roots and stages of its formation, and other such factors. The need corresponds to a necessary process of unification and homogenization of self consciousness of the class. Given the discontinuous character of class mass activity, it is illusory to expect unification to occur continuously in mass trade unions or in political parties, encompassing a large minority of the class. Only a vanguard will be able to achieve such a unification on the basis of a qualitatively higher level of continuous activity.

“On the other hand, the possibility of making a real proletarian revolution and of building a classless society depends on the capacity of the mass of workers periodically to reach extraordinary levels of continuous political activity. It follows that the dialectical interrelationship between the revolutionary vanguard party and the capacity for massive self-activity and self organization of the mass of wage workers reflects, in the final analysis, precisely that dynamic ‘tension’ between continuous vanguard militancy and discontinuous, but no less real mass activity.”

During the midst of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik party went from 25,000 members to a quarter of a million workers who were convinced of the need to overthrow capitalism, for workers power, for workers ruling society. It accomplished this by being finely tuned to the moods of the masses and having a program capable of pointing the way forward. The slogan Lenin advanced at the time was “all Power to the Soviets”, not all power to the Bolshevik party, but all power to the institutions of direct democracy of the workers – the Soviets.

We have to admit that the system has no answers to its current crises – there is no light at the end of the tunnel of capitalism. Every day we see new centers of struggle against austerity developing – Brazil and a second uprising in Tunisia are the latest examples.

The contradictions and crises of the system are driving a new generation into struggle against it and we have to build, educate and train and constitute those cadres in a revolutionary party capable of leading the great masses of the world out of its destruction. We’re in a race against time to grow and develop revolutionary parties across the globe.

Leon Trotsky bluntly wrote in his 1924 essay The Lessons of October: “….events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible. The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising… One propertied class is able to seize the power that has been wrested from another propertied class because it is able to base itself upon its riches, its cultural level, and its innumerable connections with the old state apparatus. But there is nothing else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party. The proletarian revolution is precisely distinguished by the fact that the proletariat – in the person of its vanguard – acts in it not only as the main offensive force but also as the guiding force. The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat. Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade [100 years].”

As Marx famously wrote at the end of the Communist Manifesto, let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries [the world], Unite!