One of the basic positions held by the radical left is the need to radically transform the society we live in, more precisely from a capitalist society into a socialist society. The generally accepted proposition is that this transition should be enacted through a seizure of political power through which a change in the material base of society is accomplished, in other words a revolution.
This idea has been part of the radical left since its origins in the 19th century, with each new generation of self styled revolutionaries inspiring themselves by the previous examples of revolutions their particular sect points to as being a genuine example of a transition towards socialism.
But is this long held notion that transition needs to happen through a revolution a valid way of changing society? Or simply a tradition that has been passed down throughout the radical left without much basing in reality? In this article I will try to argue that our long cherished view of the glorious socialist revolution is in reality a very problematic position to hold, and that we should move towards a more historically founded way of achieving change.
The first thought I had when I started working around this question is that it is in a sense superfluous, as the weight of evidence is supposed to lie with the unsupported statement. The statement that socialism is supposed to be accomplished through revolution is a statement that is at best unsupported and at worst an utter failure. Every revolution that tried to achieve socialism failed in its task, because even when you view revolutions as Russia’s 1917 as genuinely having accomplished socialism on a stable basis and not as some bloody dictatorship that was often worse than its capitalist counterparts you are still left with the observation that every single one of these regimes has either collapsed, is in the process of collapse or has lapsed back into capitalism. Not to mention none of these revolutions successfully managing to instigate a world revolution and engineer a successful end to capitalism. And even then for everyone of these “successful” (which honestly is stretching the term very hard) revolutions you are confronted with dozens of bloody failures that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Of course discussing how revolutions attempting to achieve socialism have always failed is pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if they had achieved socialism we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Nevertheless when we look at previous kinds of revolutions that encompassed the scale and depth of reforms that the radical left wants to achieve, under the international situation (with little allies) that the current international situation forces the radical left in, I don’t think I can hardly find a single example of a successful revolution. Even when looking at liberal revolutions that encompassed wide ranging reforms under a hostile international situations, you find that pretty much all of them were horrible failures from the perspective of the revolutionaries. Take for example the French revolution of 1789, yes it did a very important job at ending feudalism in France and the rest of Europe and its importance in dragging Western-Europe into modernity is undoubted. Yet when you look at it from the perspective of the revolutionaries you can see that this revolution was a massive failure, until Napoleon took over dictatorial power the revolutionary regime was hardly able to guarantee stable rule and this while engaging in a bloody series of wars which it eventually lost, leading to a restoration of the pre-revolutionary powers. To put it bluntly the biggest success of the French revolution was the fact that the reactionary powers chose to keep some of the French reforms instead of reverting back to pre-revolutionary times. Furthermore most liberal revolutions that might be qualified as succesfull were largely limited to changes in the political structure of the country in question, not the deep ranging reforms of the French revolution or the ones the radical left wants to achieve. Thus based on historical examples you can observe that the proposition of a revolution of the size and scope the radical left wants to achieve is an unsupported statement that isn’t grounded in actual successes but more likely is based on the passing down of a revolutionary spirit within the radical left whose origins can be observed in the French revolution and the political climate in which the respective denominations of the radical left originated.
Besides the obvious historical problems with the notion of a socialist revolution there are also more theoretical problems associated with it. Simply put, it is the materialist conception of history that the superstructure within societies (ideas, governing structures…etc.) is derived from the material base of the society in question. So in a capitalist society the dominant ideas will be based around capitalist ideas, primarily liberalism, seeing that the material base of society is capitalist. In radical leftist discourse it is thus of key importance for the revolutionaries to establish so called “consciousness” (the adherence to socialist ideas) among the people. Although materialist determinism is not a position the radical left should hold as it should still be able to instill some form of mentality that the flow of history can be influenced by groups of people, it is still a massive task to be able to instill “consciousness” among the people while the material base of society is geared towards capitalism. Seeing this even the old social democratic parties or the revolutionary syndicalist unions, some of the biggest radical leftist organizations the world has ever seen in pre-revolutionary times, had a very hard time in getting even 50% of the population to either vote for them or incorporating this percentage of the population in their organization. And even then the size of these organizations needs to be strongly nuanced by noting how not voting is very prevalent among huge parts of the population under representative democracy or how people often joined these organizations solely for the material benefits it entailed without actually identifying with any of the ideological positions of these organizations. So even when it is possible to include significant parts of the population within the revolutionary organization it is still not certain that even half of the total population will even have adopted the “consciousness” of choice of these organizations, and that the really conscious part of the organization is probably only going to encompass a small minority of the entire population. Thereby making any revolution primarily the task of a small “conscious” part of the population, and looking past the usual examples of revolutionary enthusiasm that the radical left adores, you see that this is confirmed throughout history as during revolutionary times a significant part of the population often still adheres to its pre-revolutionary political passivity. Thus often leading to a whole range of complaints by revolutionaries about how the population is passive and not inclined to sacrifice themselves for the revolution of the revolutionaries, with the massive coercive measures instituted by revolutionary socialist regimes or the hypocritical institution of certain disciplinary measures in the workplace like taylorism and piece-work, measures the revolutionaries often fought before the revolution, as prime examples.
And although many more arguments can be made I think that based on these two arguments it is a decent conclusion to observe that the concept of a socialist revolution is at best problematic. And that our praxis should be more informed about previous processes of transition which had the material base of society transition before the superstructure, and although it should be conceded that revolutions still were and will be a major factor in transitions, the importance of revolutions in transitions is often overrated. In contrast the economic transition of a society that occurs before the political transition is a more historically founded approach towards societal transition. A subject I will hopefully be able to explore more extensively in a next article.