The social and political aspects of revolution

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It seems that everyone is talking about revolution. The recent social upheavals in North Africa have been described as ‘revolutions’. In Ireland, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has proclaimed a “democratic revolution” because now it’s his turn to impose the austerity measures previously administered by his Fianna Fail and Green Party predecessors. In the US celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is fighting a “Food Revolution” against obesity.

In the mass media we don’t expect to see any serious attempt at examining the idea of revolution as understood by marxists in the workers’ movement. It would be like expecting fashion magazines to be referring to ‘images created as a focus for religious veneration’ or ‘small pictures on a computer screen’ when they write of ‘icons’.

The commune is a publication that makes claims to a marxist heritage. On its website in mid-February there appeared an article “on Egypt, and revolution”. It starts:

“Revolutions are actually quite common. It’s only February and there have been two already this year in Tunisia and Egypt. Other recent revolutions include Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Kyrgyzstan (2005) and Ukraine (2005). Recent failed endeavours include Thailand (2009), Burma (2007), and Iran (2009).

All of these revolutions were, to use the Marxist term, political rather than social revolutions. That is, they overthrew the faction which ruled the state and replaced it with another one”. The distinction made by the author between political and social revolutions is that “a social revolution is one which transforms not just the ruling clique, but the way in which all society is organised”.

Trotsky’s view, in a period of defeat

This is not a unique approach to the question by someone claiming to be a marxist. In Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, he looks at the Russian state and indicates a perspective for the working class. Because he saw nationalised property as a gain the changes he thought necessary specifically precluded any action against the state. Anticipating a more democratic regime he wrote “...so far as concerns property relations, the new power would not have to resort to revolutionary measures. It would retain and further develop the experiment of planned economy. After the political revolution - that is, the deposing of the bureaucracy - the proletariat would have to introduce in the economy a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution.” In this passage the “political revolution” means not having “to resort to revolutionary measures” - it is not a “social revolution.”

Elsewhere in the same work Trotsky says “The overthrow of the Bonapartist caste will, of course have deep social consequences, but in itself it will be confined within the limits of political revolution.”

This concept of the ‘limits of political revolution’ is also found in Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism, a work collecting material written in 1939 and 1940. Here he sees the Russian state “as a complex of social institutions which continues to persist in spite of the fact that the ideas of the bureaucracy are now almost the opposite of the ideas of the October Revolution. That is why we did not renounce the possibility of regenerating the Soviet state by political revolution”.Despite the fact that the state in Russia had become the overwhelmingly dominant means for the exploitation and suppression of the working class Trotsky thought that it could be regenerated by the process of ‘political revolution’.

The history of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution is, within certain parameters, open for discussion. Trotsky’s distinction between ‘political’ and ‘social’ revolution is unambiguous.

Marx, the founder of marxism

To find the basis for the marxist understanding of what a revolution is, it is necessary to start with Marx.

In his 1844 article “Critical Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’” Marx examines the phrase A social revolution without a political soul” and concludes that “every revolution dissolves the old order of society; to that extent it is social. Every revolution brings down the old ruling power; to that extent it is political”.

He goes on: “But whether the idea of a social revolution with a political soul is paraphrase or nonsense there is no doubt about the rationality of a political revolution with a social soul. All revolution - the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old order - is a political act. But without revolution, socialism cannot be made possible. It stands in need of this political act just as it stands in need of destruction and dissolution. But as soon as its organising functions begin and its goal, its soul emerges, socialism throws its political mask aside”.

It is clear that, while still continuing to base himself in the same framework, Marx was alive to historical developments throughout his life. The preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto says that events have made some details of the its political programme “antiquated”. In particular one thing proved by the Paris Commune (quoting The Civil War in France) was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. The state has to be destroyed for the working class to take its transformation of society onto a higher level. The Paris Commune “was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour. ... The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule” (The Civil War in France).

There have been further subsequent developments in the marxist view of the process of revolution, most notably Lenin’s State and Revolution. What the clearest have in common is an understanding that a working class revolution is ‘political’ in that it has to destroy the state of its exploiters, and ‘social’ in that its goal is the transformation of society. The ‘political’ and the ‘social’ are not two separate phenomena but two aspects of one struggle.

When one capitalist faction replaces another in government following parliamentary elections, when a capitalist faction seizes power in a military coup, or when material reality forces the bourgeoisie to re-organise the way it functions as a ruling class, none of these are ‘revolutions’ as the capitalist state remains intact.

The ‘revolutions’ on the commune’s list are not social revolutions, but neither are they political revolutions. The replacement of one faction by another is not, from the point of view of the working class, a revolution of any sort. For the working class the destruction of the capitalist state is an essential political moment in a social revolution, part of the process that can lead to the liberation of all humanity.  

Barrow 4/3/11