The nature of revolution

The following is a lecture delivered by Duncan Hallas at a socialist conference in London in 1998. Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke.

REVOLUTION, IN the sense that we’re using the word, is—I’m quoting Marx—a more or less rapid transformation of the political, and/or social and economic system. Now, we ought to add, it needs to take place in a fairly short time on this definition, relevant to the things I’m going to talk about. People talk about the Neolithic revolution, you know, the discovery of agriculture, etc. Well, yes it was a revolution in the sense that the method by which you sustained life, the mode of production, was transformed. Fine. But it took several centuries. It was a relatively slow process. We’re talking about revolutions in terms of things that happen relatively rapidly.

Now there are five talks on twentieth century social revolutions, and another five on the Russian revolution alone [at this conference]. Revolutions are not that uncommon. I mean living in Britain you might think, “My god, 1640, that’s back to the Ark.” No, no, on the world scale, the revolutions in the twentieth century are comparatively common.

The South African instance is a very important recent example. Because it was a revolution—make no mistake about it. The destruction of the apartheid system meant a fundamental transformation in the political superstructure of society. It wasn’t a social revolution, though—a matter which I’ll come to in a moment. What matters to us really is the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. That’s what really matters to us today.

Are there any common factors that we can generalize about revolutions? This applies to both kinds, political and social. Well, Lenin wrote, there were three conditions. The first was, the old ruling class cannot go on in the old way. In other words, revolutions, or at least the immediate crack-up of the old order, starts at the top. It starts because of a crisis in the ruling class itself. Secondly, the mass of the population won’t go on in the old way. That is to say, there is a radicalization, which occurs quite quickly, quite rapidly. And thirdly, that there is a coherent and adequate leadership of the oppressed classes.

Three conditions. But wait a minute, we have to go back to Marx. You see, that’s absolutely right politically, but as Marx said, changes in the economic foundations of society, the entire immense superstructure, political ideological and so on, is more or less rapidly transformed. Again back to South Africa. You see, why didn’t [prime minister from 1978-1984] P.W. Botha go on in the good ole tradition of [prime minister from 1958-1966 Hendrik] Verwoerd? Why didn’t [prime minister from 1948-1954 D.F.] Malan, and so on, hold the thing?

Answer: Because the economic conditions, which were fundamental to the regime, or any regime, were changing. The comparatively rapid industrialization, the development of factory industry, and so on, meant that the old bonds, again, in Marxist terms, turned into fetters: They got in the way of capitalist accumulation. They were a bloody nuisance to big business. Hence the ruling class itself starts to split. They attempt a series of reforms, and, in doing so, precipitate the actual revolution.

Now I thought I’d talk about changes in the economic structure and so on and so forth, but there is a very important component to any real revolution, that is, a revolution in ideas. Let’s characterize it: first of all, there are rapid shifts in ideas. Secondly there’s an expansion of the range of ideas that are considered by ordinary people, and thirdly, most important of all, people who you might say, if you were a bit contemptuous, didn’t have two ideas to rub together in their pocket, suddenly take up aspects of fundamental social changes. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

The great French Revolution—that’s the 1789-96 one, didn’t happen in Britain—nevertheless it had a profound effect on both [British] artisans—I won’t call them workers because most of them weren’t wage workers—and intellectuals. The poet Wordsworth wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Now Wordsworth was not a revolutionary. Far from it. In later life he became a popular establishment voice, he was conservative, and even reactionary. Nevertheless, the impact of the event transformed consciousness, or sections of consciousness and so on, in every case.

Do you remember the three women—I’m not going so far back this time—the three Portuguese women who wrote what we could describe as a feminist pamphlet, booklet [during the 1974-76 Portuguese Revolution]. I referred to the Catholic Church in Ireland and its stultifying effect, particularly on the position of women, in a previous discussion. But actually I should have ignored Ireland—I should have taken Portugal. Because though the Irish church 20 years ago was still half in the Middle Ages, it was positively progressive compared to the Portuguese hierarchy. This pamphlet’s essential contents were: (1) Women ought to have equal rights with men. Revolutionary idea! It was a revolutionary idea in Portugal in the early 70s; (2) Contraception ought to be legal; (3) There ought to be a system of child benefits.

This sort of thing, written in London, Paris, Berlin, or whenever, would have created no sensation whatever. Such ideas were commonplace. Some of the objectives had been achieved, or partly achieved. But in Portugal it had a sensational success. The print run sold out in a very short time. There were many, many editions produced, some pirated. Why? Because the actual conditions in the opening stages of the Portuguese revolution were such that people who had previously accepted, even if they didn’t like, the ideas of the old order, thought, “My God, something different is possible. Anything is possible.”

There’s a story—I don’t know if it’s true or not—that one or two of the more energetic of these middle class ladies who introduced this subversive work, spent a little time going round in northern Portugal, talking to illiterate or barely literate peasant women, gathering round listening. In other words, the ideological transformations are integral to any real revolution and they are of fundamental importance.

Mind you, there’s the other side of the coin. If the revolution is aborted, or partially aborted, people slide back. The new ideas are marginalized. The old ideas revive in various forms. The process of the general ideology of the population shifts, changes with revolutionary ups and downs. It shifts and changes without revolutions, but in revolutionary situations it shifts and changes at enormous speed.

Second generalization. This again applies to both political and social revolutions. Phase 1, everyone’s united, except the reactionaries of course. We’re all united around a certain set of demands. Different classes are united. The springtime. But after the initial phases, within a comparatively short time, you get a rapid differentiation amongst the very people who supported the revolution in the first instance. “Ah you’ve gone far enough, that’s enough. Let’s keep what we’ve got now.” Or “we’ve got to go further to preserve what we have.”

This reflects, of course, a class differentiation. Broadly speaking, there’s never been a revolution, certainly not a proletarian revolution, or a political one either for that matter, in which the mass of the petit bourgeoisie, sections of the middle classes, did not initially support it.

In 1789, once the Bastille has been stormed, everyone is for the revolution, except the aristocracy. And even some of them, as a matter of fact. Very shortly after however, the revolutionaries divide—you get divisions between the [more moderate] Girondists and [more radical] Jacobins and they conflict with one another. And in the third phase, the conflict becomes open, often becomes violent, often is decided by force. 

In Portugal of course, everyone was against the old regime (except the reactionaries, the secret police, and so on). But within weeks, not months, we have a clear division between those that wanted to go forward and those supported by the CIA, the Social Democratic Party—financially and otherwise—who wanted to stop, who wanted to stabilize the situation; who thought it was getting out of hand, because workers were occupying the factories, not just passively occupying, but operating the factories. And finally of course, this conflict was resolved by force.

Now, let’s go back to Lenin’s three conditions. The first two are fairly simple. It’s important to remember the first one: There’s never been a revolution without a crisis in the ruling class itself and that is usually the precipitating factor. That the mass of the population rapidly changes its ideas, that’s fairly simple. But the third thing—again, let’s look at South Africa.

The ruling class was in crisis. The mass of the population was increasingly difficult to hold down in spite of the really massive coercive apparatus of police, soldiers, secret police, and so on and so forth, that was there. 

What wasn’t there though was the leadership. Not that there wasn’t a leadership. There was—the African National Congress (ANC). And the ANC’s objective was not a workers’ revolution, but rather a stabilization of the capitalist system to fit the changed conditions. And, no question at all, they successfully did that. I’m not saying it’s going to go on forever, but for a period anyway.

When we talk about leadership, in modern terms anyway (we can forget about Cromwell and Robespierre and so on), we’re talking about parties. Leadership must require a political organization or party. Why? There are three reasons. One is the question of ideas. I said ideas shift rapidly, that people are transformed during any revolutionary process. But ideas don’t fall from the sky. There must be people arguing them, propagandizing for them in advance. That’s simple enough.

But then tactics. We know from experience, unfortunately, though under certain circumstances purely spontaneous movements can have considerable effect.Nevertheless they are ephemeral. They don’t last very long, unless there is some kind of leadership.

Look at Poland in 1981, Solidarity. The ideas of Solidarity, suppressed by the regime, nevertheless didn’t come from nowhere. Lech Walesa and all the rest of them had a set of ideas, which you can loosely call “social Catholicism.” And those ideas, were the ideas that spread rapidly once the regime started to crack, and continued to spread after the initial repression under Wojciech Jaruzelski. Consequently the outcome, the ultimate outcome—all the preconditions, the first two preconditions of revolution, were there—it stopped. It was aborted at the political stage.

Finally, there is the question of numbers. We sitting in this room, with the most correct ideas in the world in our heads—we supposedly have them—and with a mastery of tactics and so on, nevertheless, cannot make a revolution in Britain, even if the conditions are right. There aren’t enough of us. A party that is to have any serious effect, does require numbers. Now that’s a complicated question. It doesn’t mean that at all stages it has to have numbers, but come the crisis, without numbers, no, you are marginalized.

What sort of party? First of all, the workers’ party, the revolutionary party, cannot be a passive reflection of the ideas current in the working class. That sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? It won’t do to go around to your local pub, if it’s in a working class area and reflect the ideas that you hear discussed over the bar. That’s not our function. No. In that sense, the party, throughout most of its life, is not representative. It is not true that the party represents the class. Actually, that’s another passive concept and it means in reality that it doesn’t lead. It’s a question of a conscious striving to achieve leadership in all those situations where it is possible—and not simply a propagandist one, but an interventionist one.

The Russian Marxist Plekhanov coined a useful distinction between “propaganda” and “agitation.” (Plekhanov is a bad man in the Leninist tradition—the later Leninist tradition I mean. Lenin thought he was good.) He said, the distinction is this: Propaganda means many ideas are put across to a few people. Agitation means that a few ideas are put across to many people (or as many as you can reach, anyway). Both are necessary. But it is a question not only of winning this or that cause, but also of building the organization itself.

A couple of years ago when [National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur] Scargill was starting up the [Socialist Labor Party], there was a meeting called in Hackney [in London], not indeed by Scargill’s own people—I don’t think he had any people, though no doubt he had a lot of sympathizers—but by a combination of sects. One called itself the Provisional Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. “Provisional,” you see, of a party which doesn’t exist—we’re talking here of only a dozen or so people.

What’s lacking is interaction with the working class, of the members of the Provisional Committee, with the working class. They lack the intermediate thing, they lack the party. 

But the party itself needs leadership, and this is a more contentious thing—I hope we get some criticism on it. Why is this so? Well, different people, different layers of people in the party at any given time, have different experiences, different levels of knowledge (not that knowledge is always necessary for militancy), and different experiences (and experience can be a bad guide as well as a good one). Above all, there has to be a continual interaction between the party members and the class they are aspiring to lead.

Inside the organization there has to be a constant interaction, which quite often leads to friction, between the people who happen to be on the leading committees of the party at any given time and the membership. But even that won’t do, because there are members and members. We have a layer of members—quite a significant layer in numbers, some call them sympathizers—who are enthusiastic about this or that, will now and again do something, now and again engage in activity, but they’re not really interested in dialectical materialism, or you name it.

These members are essential. Under conditions where a party grows rapidly, they will be a majority. No question about it. You deceive yourself if you think otherwise. There has to be an intermediate layer, a “cadre.” It is a term of military origin. It referred originally to non-commissioned officers in the French Army. A cadre, meaning, not super theoreticians, or people who were experts on economics or whatever, but people who were seriously committed to building the organization and who have this dual relationship: a relationship with workers outside the organization, and an interactive relationship with the leadership. Now that’s the hardest thing of all to achieve. I don’t want to sound rude—I spent a quarter of a century as one of them—but if the Central Committee [of the British Socialist Workers Party] were to drop dead tomorrow, we would be able to replace it—not at random, but precisely because we do have a cadre in the sense I’m talking about.

Let me illustrate that with a few examples. In April 1917, Lenin arrives at the Finland Station and makes a speech that horrifies the dignitaries—not Tsarist anymore of course, but various shades of alleged socialists, including a number of Bolshevik leaders—and he in effect tears up the party program and says, “We must work toward taking power.” Now this was completely contrary to the Bolshevik doctrine as it had been up to that time: the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Sorry about these jargon phrases. What it means is fighting to achieve a democratic republic in place of the Tsar. Why? Because the economic development, the transformation of the productive forces, which is totally inadequate for socialism in Russia, will be accelerated [under a bourgeois republic]; meanwhile, we are in opposition, trying to build a working class movement.

Therefore, talk about taking power now? The man must have lost his marbles! No! That was the position. Lenin was in a small minority in April, but in the course of a very fierce, sharp, internal conflict that immediately followed, he was able to win over decisive sections of the cadre—people who had never been on a central committee, people who weren’t even on district committees in many cases—actually were won to him. And so in a comparatively short time he was able to achieve a majority. The magnitude of the change is enormous. The interesting thing is, without the Bolshevik cadre—not just the membership as a whole—this could not have been achieved.

Contrast that experience with Rosa Luxemburg’s. In January 1919, a newly formed German Communist Party—growing quite fast, but tiny in relation to the Social Democrats—have a conference, and decide enthusiastically they must take power now by means of an insurrection in Berlin. She argued that this was nonsense, that this was impossible, patiently explaining that you have to win a significant proportion of the delegates to the then-existing workers councils. At the moment, she argued, we haven’t got any worth talking about. We’ve got to get a majority in the workers’ councils before you can think of attempting to seize power, exactly as the Bolsheviks had to work between February and October to win a majority of the Russian workers’ councils.

They wouldn’t listen. They were enthusiastic. They had seen the Kaiser flee to Holland; they had seen the generals put away their uniforms and pretend “we’re not really them, you know.” All these changes occur very rapidly in a revolutionary situation and, well, it’s been done once, we can do it again by an act of will.

Well, they tried. The result was a catastrophe. The insurrection was defeated. Some people supported it—I don’t mean to say they were without support. But it was defeated by the forces of reaction who were then under the direction of the Social Democratic Party, who had a great majority in the workers’ councils, and who denounced the German Communist party as “putschist,” “Blanquist,” and who received the support, passively, but received the support, from a great majority of the working class.

Now what was the difference? The lack of a cadre. Rosa Luxemburg was preaching in the wilderness. There were not a sufficient number, there were only a handful as a matter of fact, of people who had gone through the lengthy process of learning, developing, and had some sense of tactics, of what is possible, what’s necessarily possible. The party had only existed a few months. So cadres can’t be improvised. Central committees normally can be improvised. At least if you’ve got a Lenin or a Luxemburg around, or perhaps even a Tony Cliff [one of the founders of the International Socialist Tradition and a member of the Socialist Workers Party]. Cadres can’t be improvised.

There are a few other things that I really should talk about, but instead I will summarize. First of all, a revolutionary party cannot make a revolution until the conditions are ripe. Marx used the analogy of midwifery. He described the revolutionary force as the midwife of the new society struggling to be born. Striking analogy. Trouble is, if the fetus isn’t viable, the best committee of midwives can’t possibly produce the infant. The conditions must be ripe.

Secondly, of course, who decides? It’s not difficult in Britain to judge that we’re not ripe for revolution at this minute; but in changing circumstances, you have got to change all the time your emphasis, your orientation. To judge successfully requires experience. It requires that all members of the party, although they do it in different degrees, through their activity, learning from workers, as well as trying to teach them, acquire the knack. What did Lenin call it? He didn’t use the work knack. I don’t think he knew English slang. But anyway, he had an impassioned passage about this: cadre can’t be improvised. 

It does depend on a considerable degree of experience—both working with people outside the party, and participating in the direction of the party, at the same time so that the leadership itself, which typically is not working on the buses [i.e. organizing in workplaces] or what have you, does not directly therefore relate to workers in their workplaces, has to be all the time under the pressure, under the influence if you like, as well as influencing, the people who are.

And finally, unless the party is substantial…I’ve touched on this before—you need numbers. The process of getting numbers is a very uneven one. For the first fifteen years—more than fifteen, eighteen years—the founders of our organization, and the few people who joined them, never exceeded 100 people. Tremendous events took place during these years, tremendous struggles in Britain. Nevertheless, we had in 1950 or 1951 some thirty-odd members, and come 1967 we might have gone up to—I doubt it, personally—but nevertheless, we were claiming about one hundred. And then in the course of nine, months, we were over a thousand, and it was real. That’s an explosive growth rate. Suppose we’d gone on growing at that rate. We’d be a mass party now! Marvelous! But of course, not marvelous, because changing conditions meant, inevitably, that the rate of expansion slowed, and not only that, actually in the 1970s, in the first half of the 1970s, the rate of expansion was negative—i.e., on balance we were losing members.

In connection with that of course, is the question of the need we talked about before, to change your tactical orientation. We changed it fairly rapidly. We would not have considered such an operation in 1970. Wouldn’t have considered it. “Come on, the central thing’s the industrial struggle”—and it was at the time, it was marvelous. Then the industrial struggle goes down, and fascist organizations are growing—it was the National Front at that time. Therefore, we needed a fundamental shift in orientation, which we managed to achieve without too much trouble. The trouble came later. When the fascists were no longer the main problem, the difficulty was to convince some enthusiastic comrades that we have to shift the emphasis again. To take advantage of situations where rapid growth is possible, we need the largest possible number of members in the here and now.

This is our task. This is basically what we have to do in Britain, and socialists have to do internationally. There are certainly going to be many struggles, many shifts in the tactical line. I don’t know what they are, actually nobody knows what they are because you don’t know what the situation, the exact situation, is going to be in, let us say, 2000. There will be many struggles, and a good deal of learning, because we don’t know everything. There are problems we haven’t even thought of yet. I can’t think what they are, but I’m sure they’re there.

So we come to the question of the world situation today. Crisis in capitalism, wars internationally, upheavals of all kinds, basic instability which is reflected in the sphere of ideas. Large numbers of people are no longer confident that, actually, in Britain, as somebody put it, “My children will be better off than I am.” They believed that in the 1960s, and to some extent the 1970s and with some justification. In these circumstances, yes, it’s in the cards. I’m not putting a time scale on it—you can’t. But yes, it’s in the cards.

The final question therefore is, “But are we up to it?” Can we actually build the necessary coherent, flexible revolutionary party? Well, by our very existence we affirm that we believe we can.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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