Do revolutions always fail?

The counter-revolution in Egypt, together with the confused outcome of the upheavals in Ukraine, has revived the old argument that real popular power is impossible. John Molyneux explains why this is wrong.

The state of the world—with climate change, poverty, wars, racism and much else—is such that it is not easy for our rulers to persuade people that everything is alright. But they don’t need to. All they need to do is persuade people that there is nothing they can do about it.

This is why, when it comes to justifying capitalism, inequality and war, the mantra of: “But you can’t change human nature” has always been popular with the powerful and drummed into the heads of ordinary people.

Linked to the human nature argument is the idea that revolutions always end in failure. They are tied together by the conviction that they fail because ordinary people are incapable of running society. Popular power is always going to be an illusion.

Thus, although George Orwell was a socialist, his book Animal Farm has always been popular with the establishment because it suggests that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into dictatorship was inevitable owing to the lack of intelligence of the animals who represent the working class.

Every time a revolution is defeated the doom merchants put forward this argument.

The current situation, with the difficult circumstances that have developed in Egypt and the right wing nature of the forces that drove the overthrow of the regime in Ukraine, lends itself to this kind of thinking. Thus Simon Jenkins in the Guardian recently argued, “Maidan, Ukraine…, Tahrir, Egypt…, the square symbolises failure not hope.”

It is easy to produce a list of revolutions and uprisings that failed—the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Peasant War in Germany of 1525, the Paris Commune in 1871, the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and so on. However, as a historical generalisation the idea that all revolutions fail is false.

Many of today’s main democratic capitalist regimes are the product of successful revolutions. The most obvious examples are the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Empire in the 16th century which laid the foundations for the Netherlands; the English Revolution of 1642-49 which broke the power of monarchy and the feudal aristocracy and opened the door to parliamentary rule; the French Revolution of 1789-94, which removed the head of Louis XVI, broke the power of the French aristocracy and ended feudalism in France; and the American Revolution of 1775, which paved the way for the development of the United States as the world’s leading capitalist nation.

The contemporary bourgeoisie, that is the capitalist classes who dominate today, are embarrassed about their revolutionary origins and try as much as possible to conceal them. The English Revolution becomes the English Civil War and not a revolution at all. Moreover, the conservative English bourgeoisie more or less sympathise with the “gay cavaliers” of deposed Charles I against the grim “puritans” of Oliver Cromwell who in fact laid the basis for their rule.

Similarly, the tendency of historians has been to denigrate the French Revolution and depict it as descending into an orgy of violence, with the guillotine and “the Terror” of 1793-4.

But none of these efforts at revisionism can conceal the fact that these were real revolutions involving the mobilisation of large masses of ordinary people, the forcible overthrow of the existing regime and, crucially, the transfer of power from one social class (the feudal aristocracy) to another (the bourgeoisie) in such a way as to lead to the creation of a whole new social and economic order.

Moreover, all of these revolutions were, in their own terms, spectacularly successful. The Dutch Revolution made the Dutch Republic the most successful economy in Europe between 1600 and 1660. It also made it outstandingly democratic, liberal and progressive by the standards of the day—a haven for rebels, thinkers and artists such as the Leveller John Lilburne, the philosophers Descartes and Spinoza, and the painter Rembrandt.

In England the Stuart monarchy was restored with Charles II in 1660 but he came back on quite different terms from those his father tried to maintain. Parliament had defeated the king and never again was Britain ruled by an absolute monarchy. The consolidation of parliamentary and bourgeois rule was easily achieved in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89 and Britain became the country of the Industrial Revolution and the dominant capitalist power in the 19th century.

The French Revolution not only turned France into a modern capitalist country and made Paris the political and cultural “capital of the 19th century” but, more than any other event, gave rise to modern democracy and political philosophy with its concepts of liberty and human rights and then socialism.

The 20th century saw a multitude of national revolutions which destroyed colonial rule and established national independence.

These range from the Irish Revolution which began in 1916 and culminated in 1920-21, to the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Algerian Revolution against the French in 1954-62, the revolutions against Portuguese rule in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique and many others.

So how is it, after this abundant experience of successful revolutions, that the claim that they always fail has the resonance it does? The answer is that none of these revolutions have yet produced a society of equality and freedom as almost all of them claimed they would.

Bourgeois revolution

We need to be clear about the difference between the bourgeois revolutions of the past and the workers’ revolution we are talking about today. The bourgeois revolutions were both progressive and successful but they could not introduce economic equality or a classless society.

They adopted the rhetoric of “equal rights” to mobilise popular support but in reality were led by, and transferred state power to, a class—the capitalists—which was by its nature an exploiting class and which could not exist without a working class beneath it.

They could not go beyond achieving formal, constitutional democracy with, at the very best, equal legal rights for all (in practice, of course, they generally didn’t even achieve that).

The same applies to the various anti-colonial and nationalist revolutions. For historical reasons these revolutions often adopted more radical language than the bourgeois revolutions, frequently calling themselves communist or Marxist—the Chinese and the Cuban Revolutions being the most important examples.

But in so far as these revolutions remained under middle class and not working class leadership, they could do no more than establish independent state capitalist regimes which would not only be class societies but would also be subject to all the distorting pressures of the world market.

Here a word needs to be said about the peasantry. Ever since the development from hunting and gathering to agriculture 5000 or more years ago, the large majority of the world’s population have been peasants.

Inevitably, many and, in some cases, most of “the people” participating in revolutions have been peasants.

This was the case with Pancho Villa’s and Emiliano Zapata’s armies in the Mexican Revolution, with Mao’s Red Army in the Chinese Revolution and Fidel Castro’s guerrilla band in Cuba.

But there is a huge difficulty with the peasantry as a revolutionary force: they can fight ferociously against the old order, against the landlords and the colonialists, but they cannot take control of the new society that emerges if the revolution succeeds. This is nothing to do with lack of ability or intelligence and everything to do with their conditions of life.

Power in any society depends, ultimately, on control of the forces of production, and in modern society the decisive forces of production are located in cities.

Peasants are based in the countryside. After taking part in any revolution the peasants eventually have to return home to the countryside leaving someone else to run the cities and therefore the society.

The working class, those who live by the sale of their labour power, are different. Unlike peasants they are concentrated in large workplaces—whether it’s factories or call centres, shipyards or council offices—and large towns, where the real power in society is located.

As capitalism has spread around the globe the working class has dramatically increased in size to where it makes up a majority of the world’s populations.

Without the working class not a car or computer is assembled, not a shop or supermarket is staffed, not an office or school opens and no bus, train or plane moves.

This gives the working class immense potential power—power not only to defeat capitalism but also to construct and rule the society that comes after and to do so democratically.

The working class is the first oppressed class in history that has the ability to run society without exploiting or oppressing others.

But can the working class maintain democratic control over its own leaders—won’t a new set of privileged oppressors inevitably rise from its ranks to take over?

Posing this question raises the issue of human nature and also brings up the fate of the Russian Revolution and its transformation into dictatorship.

It is commonly said that human nature, being greedy and self-interested, makes real equality impossible. But this is false because human nature is not fixed. It changes and develops as circumstances change.

We know from the fact that hunters and gatherers lived in democratic and egalitarian societies for tens of thousands of years before classes emerged that there is not some innate obstacle to equality lodged in human nature.

Russian Revolution

We have to recognise that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into tyranny is one of the main reasons why many people think revolutions are destined to fail. It was, after all, the greatest revolution of the 20th century and the only one in which the working class succeeded in taking power. It is inevitably seen as a test case.

However, the material conditions in which the revolution found itself in the years following 1917 were so grievous that its degeneration was almost inevitable.

Before the revolution Russia was the most economically backward major power in Europe—the overwhelming majority of its population were peasants, with the working class making up less than 10 per cent. Its economy was damaged by the First World War and then utterly devastated by the Civil War. By 1921 industrial production had fallen to 31 per cent of its 1913 level and large-scale production to only 21 per cent. This economic collapse was compounded by serious outbreaks of famine, typhus and cholera.

The social effect of this was to destroy the urban working class who had made the revolution and established workers’ power in 1917. The working class had, as Lenin said at the time, “become declassed, ie dislodged from its class groove, and ceased to exist as a proletariat”. Physically and politically exhausted it lost the ability to control its own government and the officials of its own state.

In these circumstances it was unavoidable that the officials of the state and the party, sincere Communists or not, would develop into an unaccountable and privileged bureaucracy and that their consciousness would change accordingly. The dictatorship of (or by) the proletariat that Marx and Lenin had envisaged would become, and did become, a dictatorship over the proletariat.

Was there any way out of this impasse? Yes, but only if the revolution could be spread to other more economically developed countries which would have enabled aid to be sent to the enfeebled Russian workers.

This nearly happened: the revolution did spread to Germany and Italy (as well as elsewhere) and it came very close to being victorious. But their defeat, mainly for lack of revolutionary leadership, left the Russian Revolution isolated and sealed its fate.

Once we grasp the material conditions that caused the failure of the Russian Revolution it is clear that these send a message of hope, not despair, for revolution today.

There is now no major country where the productive forces are not more developed, and the working class far stronger, than it was in Russia in 1917.

The world is far more internationally integrated than it was at that time, so once a breakthrough is made in one country spreading the revolution internationally will be much easier than it was in 1917-23.

Failure of the squares?

Having answered the general historical argument against revolution we can return to the specific argument about the failure of the squares (Tiananmen, Tahrir, Puerto del Sol, Taksim, Maidan, etc) to produce new and better societies—which is the argument put by Simon Jenkins and others.

Jenkins says that crowds in squares have become “icons of modern revolutionary politics” and recognises their inspirational power. But he claims that “crowds destroy but seldom build”.

He writes, “A crowd can blow the fuse of a weakened regime and plunge the state into darkness. It seldom turns on the light of democracy. Any upheaval can offer the hope of better times. But history is always a sceptic.”

But Jenkins makes two basic mistakes. First he treats all crowds in squares as the same phenomenon, rather than looking at the specific class composition, political aims and dominant ideology of each. He doesn’t attempt to distinguish between a middle class crowd and a working class crowd, a reactionary crowd and a radical crowd and so on.

Second, because crowds in certain squares have come to symbolise revolutionary movements Jenkins identifies the square with the revolution as a whole, failing to consider its other elements or the wider social forces involved.

It is like reducing the French Revolution to the storming of the Bastille or the Russian Revolution to the march on the Winter Palace.

This is wrong in relation to all the recent upheavals but especially so in the case of the Egyptian Revolution because although the media focused almost exclusively on Tahrir, there were major struggles and mobilisations across the country, particularly in Alexandria and Suez, and because it was the combination of the masses on the streets with rapidly spreading strikes and workplace occupations that was decisive in forcing the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Consequently Jenkins, and others who would write of revolutions as doomed to fail are drawing the wrong conclusion from the struggles. While it is true that a movement that does not go beyond simply occupying public spaces is unlikely to succeed, it is quite false to imagine that such mass mobilisations cannot go beyond such limitations.

Indeed the correct conclusion is that mass mobilisation on the streets is an absolutely necessary step in any revolutionary process but we also need mass strikes and occupations of workplaces, because it is at the point of production that capital is most vulnerable and working class power is concentrated.

In addition we need revolutionary socialist leadership, because without revolutionary politics any mass movement can be misled, misdirected and betrayed.

If these elements can be brought together the potential of the global working class to defeat capitalism and build an international socialist society is now greater than it has ever been in history.

Socialist Review UK


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Workers and the alternative to capitalism

The history of workers’ struggles shows the possibility of a socialism based on mass democratic control of society, writes Judy Cox

How colonial war led to revolution in Portugal

The revolution in Portugal beginning 50 years ago in 1974 with a revolt in the army, saw workers take control of hundreds of factories, writes Luke Ottavi

How resistance can turn into revolution

Ending the domination of Israel in the Middle East and the Western imperialism behind it will require revolution, writes James Supple.