Poverty, war and climate change drive millions to fight back. But we need to turn resistance into a challenge to the whole system, writes James Supple
Economic crisis and the cost of living is driving a new wave of global revolt. Last year massive protests brought down Sri Lanka’s hated President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with ordinary people storming the presidential palace and taking a swim in his private pool.
Iran has seen months of protests demanding the fall of its authoritarian regime, fusing women’s demands against sexism with anger at crippling inflation and unemployment. And China saw the most widespread protests for decades in December against Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism and COVID lockdowns.
Neither of the revolts in Iran or China have gone far enough to bring down the regimes. So what turns a mass revolt into a revolution?
One answer is the scale of the protests. In Sri Lanka hundreds of thousands took to the streets for months. Those in Iran have involved at most tens of thousands, and faced ferocious repression with more than 500 killed.
A revolutionary situation develops when a social crisis is sharp enough that both the mass of the population and the ruling class at the top of society cannot continue in the same way, the Russian revolutionary Lenin explained.
The most powerful uprisings involve workers moving into action—especially when this involves strike action on a large scale.
In 2011, when revolt from below toppled regimes across the Arab world, strike action played a key role in the successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
The emergence of mass strikes in Egypt, after weeks of protests that occupied Tahrir Square, were decisive in forcing the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia a general strike amid a growing wave of protest caused dictator Ben Ali to flee the country.
Similarly, a revolution in Sudan in 2019 toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir after four months of protests and strikes, with unions organised in the Sudanese Professionals Association playing a leading role.
The power of strike action comes from its ability to bring the whole economy to a halt—paralysing factories, transport, offices and schools. This not only disrupts society on a massive scale but halts the profits on which a capitalist economy and the rich and powerful depend.
But the revolutions in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Sudan all share an important weakness. Although they brought down dictators or presidents, the underlying regime remained the same. Simply replacing the figurehead at the top of the government delivered little real change.
So the man appointed Sri Lankan President by Gotabaya Rajapaksa as he fled has remained in charge, with the support of the Rajapaksa faction in parliament. Ranil Wickremesinghe is now imposing savage austerity measures including privatisation, power price rises, income tax hikes and cuts to government spending in order to quality for an IMF bailout loan.
In Egypt an even more brutal dictatorship took power, after a military coup swept aside limited democratic reforms in 2013 in order to preserve the power of the old regime.
Poverty has worsened further since 2011, as the new dictator General El-Sisi raised energy prices, cut fuel subsidies and let inflation spike to 30 per cent in exchange for his own IMF loan.
In Sudan too after the revolution’s initial success the military staged a coup to take full control in October 2021, brushing aside a transitional process that was supposed to eventually lead to democratic elections.
The lesson from this is not that revolutions inevitably end in failure. It is that the process of change cannot stop halfway.
The fight for civilian rule and democratic change has been at the centre of the uprisings in Egypt, Sudan and Iran. But replacing a dictatorship with parliamentary democracy does not change who controls the wider capitalist economy and leaves the basic relations of exploitation between workers and capitalists in place.
To fundamentally transform society, the capitalist system and the state and ruling class behind it have to be swept aside.
The police and the army, the core of the state apparatus, have remained basically unchanged through the recent revolutions in places like Egypt and Sudan.
These state institutions exist to serve capitalism and the rich. They are frequently used against major protests and strikes that threaten the powers that be.
In both Egypt and Sudan the military have carried out brutal massacres against protests and played a key role in preventing revolutionary movements from winning deeper change.
Capitalism is a system based on exploitation. Working class people produce all the wealth through running the factories, mines, software companies, ports and the transport system. But the profits workers produce go to a small elite who run the companies, not to the workers themselves.
Lower wages and poor working conditions produce higher profits for the company bosses.
This means the interests of workers and bosses are fundamentally in conflict.
This has resulted in vast global inequality. On a global scale human society is wealthier than ever before, yet this wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. Just 81 billionaires control more wealth than half the world’s people.
This class divide exists inside every country too. In Egypt the richest 1 per cent control half the country’s wealth, and there are 17,000 US dollar millionaires, as well as six billionaires from just two families. Yet around 30 per cent of the population live in poverty.
Yet the revolution in 2011 in Egypt left the wealth of the millionaires and billionaires untouched—most of them linked to the old regime and the military.
The economic power of the capitalist class, who own the productive resources and major companies, is greater than that of any democratically elected government.
Any government within capitalism has to work to ensure their profits—and ensure working class people accept continuing exploitation.
Winning real change requires not just a political revolution that changes the figures in government, but a socialist revolution that challenges the rule of the capitalist class, through seizing control of their wealth and putting it under democratic control.
As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, this means becoming not simply a revolution within capitalism, but a revolution against capitalism.
The possibility of such a revolution has been demonstrated in many of the great revolts of recent decades. In Egypt after the revolution of 2011, workers began taking action in their workplaces to remove the “little Mubaraks”, the workplace managers and bosses who had supported the old Mubarak dictatorship and oppressed them in the workplace. There were even some efforts by workers to elect new bosses to replace them.
In other revolutions this process has gone further. On a number of occasions during revolutionary upheavals, workers have taken control of their workplaces and set up democratic councils to run them themselves. These first emerged in the Russian revolution of 1905 and again in 1917, but similar bodies were created in Germany in 1919, Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1973, Portugal in 1974-75, Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1980.
In their most developed form these councils involved workers’ delegates elected from across workplaces on a city-wide and national basis, and operated as an alternative government. In contrast to parliamentary governments, they sought to put workplaces and the whole economy under democratic control.
In Sudan, hundreds of local resistance committees are continuing to play a key role in calling large demonstrations onto the streets to oppose the military’s control of government. They have also set out to ensure the supply of flour to bakeries and distribute basic supplies like bread and cooking gas.
This echoes the way that workers’ councils thrown up in the course of previous revolutionary struggles have begun to take control of running society, through organising the production and distribution of food and other essential goods.
Sudan’s resistance committees are another example of the way that revolutionary struggles can throw up new more democratic ways of running society that challenge capitalism and the existing regime—especially if they can spread into the workplaces and begin to exercise control of production.
But so far in history it has only been in Russia in 1917 that workers’ councils were able to overthrow capitalism and take power. This was due to the existence of a revolutionary socialist party, the Bolsheviks, with tens of thousands of members rooted in the most dynamic sections of the working class.
This meant there was a large and organised current within the working class that was clear about the need for workers’ councils to take power in their own right in order to get rid of capitalism and end the poverty and inequality in Russia.
Such a mass revolutionary party was missing in the recent revolutions in Egypt, Sudan and Sri Lanka.
In developed countries like Australia we have not yet seen anything on the scale of these upheavals in recent years. But the way workers have suffered increased hours of work, demands to work harder and more casualisation has created bitterness.
In recent months rising prices and a severe drop in real wages have produced the biggest increase in strikes in 30 years in Britain. Two million workers in France have joined ongoing strikes and demonstrations against the government’s attempt to raise the retirement age.
Revolutionary socialist groups have a key role to play within these struggles in developing workers’ confidence to fight and understanding of the need to get rid of capitalism as a whole.
This is also necessary in the smaller struggles going on here in individual strikes and movements for climate action or against racism and war. We need to build socialist organisation in the here and now to prepare for the bigger battles of the future—and the ultimate necessity of revolutionary change.