The revolution: a cherished failure.

Lenin at the all-Russian subbotnik, the Kremlin, 1st May 1920

Lenin at the all-Russian subbotnik, the Kremlin, 1st May 1920

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.

About yeksmesh

Yeksmesh has quite an eclectic range of political influences, it is therefore pretty much certain that he will be put against the wall for petty-bourgeoisie infantile deviationist intransigence after the revolution has come.
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6 Responses to The revolution: a cherished failure.

  1. Maximilien Robespierre says:

    I would like to make a few critical comments on your article, but first I would like to commend you on engaging in critical thinking and challenging long-cherished beliefs, something the socialist camp doesn’t seem to do enough of unfortunately. It is true that socialism has never been established by a revolution. Even more true is that the proletarian revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries all failed or degenerated in terrible ways. (Edit: a minor point about the liberal revolutions: it was not that the reactionaries chose to keep some reforms, it was that these reforms were necessary and the revolutions were themselves signs of their historical necessity, which could not be denied without having another revolution). However, I think in this case you are incorrect on your main point in this article.

    First of all there is the question of what a revolution is. A revolution is a process, whereby the old order, in particular its property forms, is reorganized (“revolutionized,” in a sense) by a class. An insurrection, however, is the forcible overthrow of a government or a ruling class by another. Therefore, we cannot even speak of a transition from capitalism to socialism in its Marxian, scientific sense without referring to it as a revolution.

    Second of all, about your points in the “material base”: in his introduction to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives his (in)famous “base and superstructure” analogy. Here, however, the base is not one but two “things”: the material base of society is the productive forces of society and their relations of production, although more properly we can refer to them as a totality as the way in which man works on nature to produce things. The different relations to this process determine a social consciousness, i.e. ones class determines ones consciousness. However, given the prevailing nature of the bourgeoisie, the dominant ideas are definitely those of the bourgeoisie, which establishes an ideological “hegemony” and a “false consciousness.” This is the justification for your statement that the material base of society tends towards bourgeois ideas. However, this does not mean that these ideas will always be dominant. On the contrary, as the proletariat matures and recognizes its own class position (its own existence within the productive process), it forms itself as a political party and is able to break from bourgeois consciousness. (This is, of course, ignoring the various situations which lend themselves to such developments, i.e. objective factors, which I suppose is a bit of “materialist determinism”). The point I am making here, of course, is that the “material base” is ready for the development of a socialist consciousness, insofar as this consciousness exists potentially within the proletariat. The real question is that of the balance of class forces to determine which class is the ideologically dominant one. The prerequisite for insurrection and also for revolution in general is class-consciousness — if, given the nature of capitalism, class-consciousness is impossible, it seems we will be doomed to barbarism as capitalism stagnates and descends into even more naked exploitation, brutality, and destruction. So the talk of building up a “material base” is therefore, in my opinion, not one that is particularly important: the material base for socialist consciousness already exists in the form of the capitalist base itself, the key is its development by revolutionaries.

    Your related point about the popularity of past socialist movements is also not as nuanced as it could be. It is true that the social-democratic movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries found it hard to get majorities of the population. The SPD in Germany, which essentially was the German workers’ movement, certainly never got an absolute majority in the Reichstag. However, we have to look at several factors there: (1) at this period in time, there were still substantial peasant populations in continental Europe. As late as the 1890s Engels speaks of the peasants as being a majority of the nation in France and Germany. France in particular was slower to industrialize than the other nations in Europe, and this is in fact where we get so many charming French traditions. (2) In Germany, where the SPD was getting large numbers of votes and plenty of seats in the government, we see an archaic and skewed electoral system that didn’t take into account the rapid growth of various cities and also had a much more limited franchise than today. While this is a specific example, it does show that there were some problems regarding being able to gauge the popularity of a movement through the number of votes it gets. (3) While it is perfectly possible that a great many people simply joined or voted for these organizations for the material benefits, it is not entirely certain: Germany especially developed a proto-welfare state quite early, and there existed various charity organizations which probably provided far better material aid than, say, the SPD or the SFIO.

    This is not to say that all is good and well. The working class has, since the end of the second World War, experienced a crisis of consciousness so to speak. However, this is, in my opinion, not because the old methods “failed” or because they had no “material base” for the transition to socialism. The old “orthodox” Marxian conception of class-consciousness and revolution is, to me at least, valid. This does not preclude improvement, however. Your article’s real value lies in the fact that it actually makes an attempt to challenge old musty conceptions and puts forward a positive suggestion: this has more value than my comment or any other purely negative or critical article on this site.

    As much as I hate digging up old quotes to make points (this is a lie), a relevant quote from The German Ideology is needed here, I think: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

  2. yeksmesh says:

    First of all there is the question of what a revolution is. A revolution is a process, whereby the old order, in particular its property forms, is reorganized (“revolutionized,” in a sense) by a class. An insurrection, however, is the forcible overthrow of a government or a ruling class by another. Therefore, we cannot even speak of a transition from capitalism to socialism in its Marxian, scientific sense without referring to it as a revolution.

    Yeah I meant it in the way I have seen most radical leftists use it not necesarily in the correct terminological sense.

    the material base of society is the productive forces of society and their relations of production, although more properly we can refer to them as …

    I am familiar with the concepts that the material base in capitalism makes mass socialist consciousness possible, and I think they are fairly problematic but I saved it for a next article as it is quite lengthy subject (although I probably should have mentioned that in the text). What I am pointing to is the already mentioned dominance of liberal ideas under capitalism (which in contrast to alot of other things DO trickle down into the rest of society) and that this puts socialist ideas at a disadvantage. Another point I might not have emphasised enough is the prevalence of passivity in both the workplace and political space under capitalism, something that I think is tied to the material conditions of capitalism and would thus be hard to fight under the material conditions of capitalism (to the great detriment of many generations of revolutionaries).

    Your related point about the popularity of past socialist movements is also not as nuanced as it could be. It is true that the social-democratic movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries found it hard to get majorities of the population. The SPD in Germany, which essentially was the German workers’ movement, certainly never got an absolu…

    1) Peasant would be a bit of incorrect term for the late 19th century situation(although I am not really familiar with the specific German situation), peasant generally means a small holding farmer that is largely self-sufficient (aka the petty bourgeoisie of the farmers), in the late 19th century the countryside was way more complex than that with alot of seasonal labourers, wage labouring farmers, farmers that worked in the city seasonally…etc. Making the situation much more complex than the usually cited inherent conservatism of the rural population. Also alot of socialist groups and parties did reach out to the rural population and organized them so I dont think thats a real excuse.

    2) Sure, but there are also examples of socialist parties holding back on extending voting rights to certain groups (for example the socialist party in Belgium towards women as they feared the women would be voting for the Christian democrats in contrast to their factory going husbands), so this would not necesarily in all countries mean that the popularity of the socialist parties would increase.

    3) iirc the German situation was quite unique in this and alot of countries still had to wait on welfare until quite late in the 20th century and were reliant on their respective parties in the meantime, also welfare isnt the only reason why an oppurtunist would join a party, union membership is something that springs to mind. Also you can also see this oppurtunism in revolutionary times where membership of revolutionary organizations suddenly explodes (which is music to the ears of the current representatives of certain modern day sects), but which is largely driven by need rather than ideological commitment.

  3. Maximilien Robespierre says:

    I’m glad you took the time to actually read my comment, so I’ll do the same and try and address some of the points in your reply. I’m also glad to hear you’re writing another article.

    (1) Regarding the material base and mass socialist/proletarian consciousness: the dominance of liberal ideas does indeed make it hard for a socialist consciousness to develop. However, the very development of this consciousness is uneven: some groups develop a radical opposition to capitalism earlier than others, and for the most part, in the absence of certain conditions which tend towards the acceptance of this consciousness by the mass of the class, a mass socialist consciousness doesn’t look like it’s on the table. As I said, the question is not whether a socialist consciousness can develop given the base, but how it develops and how it truly becomes a mass consciousness. I can say this briefly: the rise and fall of mass socialist consciousness (and passivity at work and in civil society, which are part and parcel) depends on the objective forces which shape the possibility of its acceptance and also on the agitation and work of the subjective forces, like revolutionaries themselves, in attempting to spread it and group the masses around a socialist program. As far as I am concerned, everything else is tactics.

    (2) I said and I meant peasant: although by this time there had developed a sort of rural proletariat, there were still a lot of “petty bourgeois” independent farmers who owned the land they worked on and sold the surplus. They labored with the help of family members and maybe a handful of hired farmhands. This social strata was still a fairly large portion of the population, especially in contrast to today. I think it was only in England that this form of agriculture had largely been overcome with a more familiar model which paralleled the factory organization. This peasant strata was the subject of considerable debate among the socialists of the day, and Engels even wrote a book about how the socialists should go about interacting with them, which can be found here.

    Did the socialists of the time attempt to reach out to them and organize them? To an extent. They weren’t terribly successful in getting their loyalty, however: the class position of the peasants didn’t help them much in that regard, as the peasantry was (and is, where it still exists in the form of the petty family farmer) a proprietary class with a more or less individualist outlook.

    (3) There are examples of socialist parties attempting to restrict the vote. The SPGB is famous for, among other things, having attempted to restrict women’s suffrage in Britain because they felt that giving women the vote wasn’t necessary to advance the cause of socialism. But this does not address the point that the restricted suffrage and poor electoral laws meant that using election numbers to gauge popularity for that time is flawed. It does not take into account the variety of people who didn’t or couldn’t vote, for various; what was their opinion? Indeed, using it to gauge popularity now is still fairly flawed, although admittedly less so. Incidentally, I know that at least in Italy there was a fairly significant abstentionist faction: what about elsewhere?

    (4) The German situation was pretty unique, although it is important to note that it was in fact a result of Bismarck’s attempt to draw popularity away from the SPD (it didn’t work). In Europe, there were in fact unaffiliated trade unions, sometimes linked to less-than-savory politics, although it is true that in Germany the SPD dominated the trade unions. Although, the English experience may shed some light on this matter: in England, it was the trade unions who essentially established the socialist party! (Doubts about the Labour Party aside, of course).

    I’ll eventually get around to writing the proletarian class party part III, which will deal with concrete issues of how to build links between the party and the class, which will address some of the issues regarding mass socialist consciousness.

  4. modulus says:

    As a point of curiosity, where do you see Cuba? Collapsed, in process of collapse, or capitalist?

  5. yeksmesh says:


    1) I agree with most of that, and my point in all this is that the objective conditions for the development of mass socialist consciousness although made possible thanks to the particular class composition of capitalism, are still quite problematic and rely very strongly on the efforts of activists and the subjective forces, but as I said I will probably adress this issue in a further article.

    2) Yeah the German case (certainly the more Eastern areas of Germany) is a bit unknown territory for me. I do know that by the end of the 19th century a rural proletariat had a significant existance in Western Europe (although the exact numbers will require quite some looking up), thus not only in England. Also I forgot to mention this in my previous comment, it was also common for peasants to conduct seasonal wage labour even while having their own farm so that again complicates things. My point here is that rural societies often have a much more complicated class structure (although class might not be the right word here) than urban (capitalist) societies, making your argument that socialist parties were limited by the rural structure of a country decent but it needs alot of nuance to be added to it.

    3) Indeed you do have a point about the use of purely electoral results to gauge popularity, yet they can give a general outlook on how much popularity of the party in question, which combined with for example membership numbers can provide some indication of popularity.

    Also you dont really need an absentionist group for people not to vote, for example looking at the 2008 US presidential elections you had like a turnout of 60% which was apparently a very high turnout.

    4) Yeah well trade unions are only still a part of the issue, my point is that there are numerous ways people can join your organization for the practical benefits instead of based on ideological identification.


    I dont really know as my familiarity with Cuba is quite limited, probably somwhere in the process of transition to capitalism. Although it might be usefull to think about how the still existing peoples control over the means of production could still be used as way to build and expand a potential socialist economic base.

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