Is international revolution possible?

Eliot Hoving continues our series on socialism, arguing that international revolution is both possible and necessary

The aim of an international socialist revolution has always been at the heart of Marxist politics. Karl Marx argued that the emergence of capitalism as an international system made this a necessity.

The goal of international revolution is often dismissed as a fantasy. Yet all of the major revolutionary opportunities of the last 100 years have been part of international revolutionary waves.

In the period of the Russian Revolution of 1917, workers across Europe were sick of the destruction and crisis of the First World War. In 1918 the German Empire was overthrown; workers and soldiers councils emerged, styled on the Russian soviets. From the period 1918 to 1923, there was the very real prospect of socialist revolution. In 1918 Spanish strikes renamed streets “Lenin” and “October Revolution”. Hungary and Bavaria had short-lived socialist republics.

In Italy the period 1919-1920 became known as “the two red years”. A three day general strike was held in solidarity with the Russian revolution. Following a lockout, 400,000 metal workers led a mass factory occupation, shutting down industry and inspiring others to do the same.

There was another wave of struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Again the prospect of socialist revolution was very real in a number of countries. In 1968 French student protests sparked a general strike of over ten million workers. The ruling class was paralysed for two months, factories occupied and bosses turfed out.

US students protested against “knowledge factories”, the horrors of the Vietnam War, and in solidarity with black struggles. Australia had the highest number of strike days in its history as thousands joined strikes against the war in Vietnam and fought for women’s rights, Aboriginal rights and gay rights. Many saw the fight against oppression as tied to overthrowing capitalism.

Anti-austerity movements have emerged internationally as the global financial crisis has deepened. The Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, starting in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011, fighting inequality and corrupt dictatorships. Signs at a strike in Wisconsin, USA, read: “Strike like an Egyptian”. The Occupy movement spread to over 82 countries including Australia. In November 2012 co-ordinated strikes against austerity were called in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.

World system

The working class movement has a natural tendency towards internationalism because the material conditions of global capitalism tie the global working class together. In 1848, Karl Marx wrote that the working class “truly have no country”.

Capitalism has never been more international than it is now. A tiny number of corporations control huge swathes of global production, tying workers together in a global chain of production.

As Marxist theorist Colin Barker has written, “For the first time in history capitalism has created a genuinely world society, where all our lives are entwined together in a common history and a common fate.”

Each movement faces the same global capitalist crisis and the same market system producing inequality. The same fundamental conflict between a ruling class running the system in the interests of profit, and workers trying to eke out an existence, brings workers into conflict with the profit motive of their bosses and state daily.

This creates the possibility of global cooperation and collaboration between movements. And it’s a possibility that must be realised if socialism is ever to be achieved.

Socialism must spread internationally if it is to survive. Facing the threat of revolution or workers’ power in any one country, domestic ruling classes inevitably engage in acts of sabotage and “capital flight” to make survival as difficult as possible. Other capitalist nations can military intervene to prevent the revolution spreading. Only globalising the revolution can overcome these challenges.

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks who led the 1917 revolution in Russia were always clear that the fate of the revolution rested in spreading revolutionary ferment internationally. This was an immediate practical concern given Russia’s low level of economic development.

Following in Karl Marx’s footsteps they established the Communist International, the Comintern, a body for linking together communists around the world. Its aim was to unite socialists around clear revolutionary principles and strategies to bring the revolutions to victory.

World capitalist powers mobilised massive resources to defeat the Russian revolution in a civil war that raged from 1918 to 1920. Terrified of the spread of workers’ power, they engaged in terror to try and defeat it.

The Russian revolution hung in the balance, but tragically the young revolutionary parties were not prepared to seize the opportunities across the rest of Europe. The international movement could not come to Russia’s rescue.

It was in the process of the Russian revolution’s decay that Stalin developed his concept of “socialism in one country”. This marked a clear break from the aim of international revolution.

Exiled Russian socialist Leon Trotsky continued to champion the goal of international revolution, keeping the genuine Marxist tradition alive in the face of Stalin’s dictatorship in Russia.

In Permanent Revolution, Trotsky wrote: “The world division of labour, the dependence of Soviet industry upon foreign technology, the dependence of the productive forces of the advanced countries of Europe upon Asiatic raw materials, etc., etc., make the construction of an independent socialist society in any single country in the world impossible.”

Global socialist revolution is not only possible, but necessary. Worldwide, we face an economic crisis and a ruling class determined to make workers pay the price. Climate change threatens our very existence.

As the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918, “The fight for socialism is the mightiest civil war in world history, and the proletarian revolution must procure the necessary tools for this civil war; it must learn to use them—to struggle and to win.”


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