What makes a revolution?

May 12, 2015

The word "revolution" is often misused to describe events or historical developments that are far from revolutionary. Paul D’Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, explains what Marxists mean--and don't mean--when they talk about revolution. This article is the introduction to an occasional series on revolutions through history.

REVOLUTION HAS always been at the heart of Marxism.

At a speech at the funeral of Karl Marx in 1883, Marx's closest lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels explained that, "Marx was before all else a revolutionist" whose "real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being."

Marx sought, said Engels, "to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation."

On those rare occurrences when Marx receives mainstream praise, it is reserved for his insightful analysis of capitalism--while his revolutionary views are artificially separated off and condemned as unrealistic, dangerous or both.

As for Marx himself, he once wrote to a colleague that he thought his most important contribution was not discovering that society was class-divided, or that those classes engaged in struggle against one another--others had already done this, he said.

Images from the Egyptian Revolution (above) and Russian Revolution
Images from the Egyptian Revolution (above) and Russian Revolution

Rather, Marx said his contribution was the recognition that "the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production," and that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class (the "proletariat" of Engels' speech) and the establishment of workers' democratic rule over society would lead a transition to a "classless society."


THE TERM "revolution" can be rather elastic. It is often used metaphorically to sell products or refer to a drawn-out process of social or economic change (as in the Industrial Revolution).

Revolution is more accurately described as the forcible replacement of one government by another. But this definition is quite broad, and could also include a military coup, which is often a means to prevent or defeat a revolution (think of Gen. el-Sisi's coup in Egypt).

The movement that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's hated dictatorship in Egypt a few years previously can be accurately described as a political revolution. It brought down a dictatorship and replaced it with a form of representative democracy.

But it was not a social revolution--that is, a revolution that leads not only to the altering of political power, but to the reordering of society's social and economic relations. The political revolution--exemplified by the move from dictatorship to democracy, as has happened in many countries, from South Korea to Turkey to Tunisia--is the more common form of revolution.

A social revolution is one that moves beyond the political. It is a more or less concentrated period of transformation where a clash of social forces results in the overthrow of the dominant class and its state by a rising social class--which then uses newly acquired state power to accelerate the transformation of society's social and economic relations.

As Engels succinctly put it, "Every real revolution is a social one, in that it brings a new class to power and allows it to remodel society in its own image."

A political revolution can have social impulses. The Egyptian revolution involved masses of people who wanted more far-reaching changes than just the end of Mubarak's rule. But these aspirations of workers, students and poor people who came out into the streets were not organized or coherent enough to push the revolution beyond this phase.

A social revolution combines both the political and the social, with political power being the precondition for making bigger social transformations possible.

The ruling class of each nation looks upon revolution with horror--with the exception of the ones that are far enough in the past that they can be safely enshrined as part of a national myth. The same band of rulers in the U.S. whose political system was established by armed revolutionary violence--and who routinely use the utmost violence to defend the social order at home and promote their interests abroad--like to preach about peaceful, gradual change to the rest of us.

In an acerbic critique about how the British ruling class's attempt to depict "gradualism" as a law of historical development was flatly contradicted by its brutal colonial record, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote:

One can, of course...say that violence in international relations is permissible and even inevitable, but that in relations between social classes it is reprehensible. But then there is no point in speaking of a "natural law" of gradualness which supposedly governs the whole development of nature and society. Then one must simply say: an oppressed class is obliged to support the oppressor class of its own nation when the latter adopts violence for its own ends; but that the oppressed class has no right to use violence to ensure a better position for itself in a society based upon oppression. But this will be no longer a "law of nature" but the law of the bourgeois criminal code.

The closer we get to the present, the more revolution is presented in the mainstream as either the ravings of a violent mob, the work of a tiny band of violent conspirators or both. These are convenient conceptions that reflect, in the words of the U.S. socialist Hal Draper, the ruling class's "dread of revolutionary violence," as well as its "unwillingness and inability to conceive of revolution as social upheaval from below."

Revolution is neither a sheer act of will nor an inevitable process of transformation that happens behind people's backs. It is a process that requires the ripening of certain material and social conditions as a result of previous human activity, as well as the more or less conscious immediate intervention of social groups and classes who have been made aware in some way of these deepening social contradictions and seek to reshape society along new lines.

In short, revolution is, in Marx's words, "the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one."


MARX SUMMARIZED his conception of this historical process in his famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

His first premise is materialism--that "[t]he mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life."

Human beings, Marx argues, enter into definite "relations of production" based on the "given stage in the development of their material forces of production"--that is, the level of productive powers attained with given methods of production leads to a corresponding social relations.

The "totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society," Marx writes. And upon this foundation is erected a legal and political "superstructure."

For Marx, the development of human history can be understood as a series of transformations based upon the development of human productive powers from one "mode of production" to another--from egalitarian foraging societies, through slave and feudal societies, to capitalism, and eventually beyond.

But Marx did not believe that a purely technological change would automatically bring about a change in the mode of production. The process of social transformation would take place because of the contradiction that developed and matured within the framework of a given set of production relations.

"At a certain stage of development," Marx argued, "the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production...From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters."

Gradual changes within a given mode of production would give rise to burgeoning contradictions. The development of society's productive forces within a given framework puts strains on that framework and threatens to burst its bounds, leading to social revolution. "Then begins an era of social revolution," Marx concluded. "The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure."

But who carried out this revolution?


FOR ALL of history since the lengthy period when our ancestors lived in egalitarian foraging bands, each mode of production has been characterized by the division of society into an exploiting and exploited class: a tiny class that appropriated society's surplus wealth and a much larger exploited class whose labor produced that wealth.

The mode of production was defined by the particular way that the surplus was obtained, or, as Marx writes, "specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers." Marx argued that the means by which one mode of production transformed into another was the result of class struggle--the clash of force between major contending classes in society.

All previous revolutions before the rise of capitalism--no matter how popular, no matter how involved the masses were in propelling it forward--placed a new exploiting class in power and cleared the path for the full fruition of a new system of exploitation. Such were the English and French Revolutions--they broke the political power of the old landowning classes and replaced them with the power of the rising bourgeoisie--the capitalist class.

That class had already attained a great deal of economic clout before it gained political power. As Hal Draper writes, it was "able to build up its social relations gradually within the womb of feudal society." As a result, it achieved economic dominance first before it was able to take political power. The capitalist class could "use this position of strength as a fortress from which to press...toward the acquisition of decisive political power."

In Trotsky's words, "The bourgeoisie may win the power in a revolution not because it is revolutionary, but because it is bourgeois. It has in its possession property, education, the press, a network of strategic positions, a hierarchy of institutions.

"Quite otherwise with the proletariat. Deprived in the nature of things of all social advantages, an insurrectionary proletariat can count only on its numbers, its solidarity, its cadres, its official staff."

The working class does not have the option of building up its economic power in the womb of capitalism for the simple fact that it is not a property-owning, exploiting class. To implement its program, it must first set itself in motion "from below."

But as Trotsky notes, possessing none of the advantages of the capitalists in their struggle for power over feudalism, it must develop its own leaders and its own organizations capable of uniting and leading the class in an assault on capitalism. The order of things is reversed: the working class must take political power first in order implement a program leading to the abolition of private property, class exploitation and inequality.

Some socialists after Marx tried to present this revolution as a purely parliamentary one. All that was necessary to achieve socialism was for the working class to elect enough of its own representatives to form a socialist government. The state, however, is not a neutral body standing over class society, but the state of the most dominant class--an apparatus of laws, bureaucratic institutions and armed forces whose purpose is to ensure the dominant class remains dominant.

It was for this reason that Marx argued, as he did in a letter to a colleague after the failed European revolutions of 1848, that "the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it."

To achieve political power, the working class must destroy this bureaucratic-military machine designed to serve capitalism, and instead create its own institutions of democratic power--local assemblies, workplace councils (or "soviet," to use the Russian word for councils).

These kind of institutions have been created in many revolutionary situations, typically arising first as organs of mass struggle that gather and mobilize the forces of the working class and oppressed against the existing state and class power, but always having the potential to convert themselves into organs of popular rule.

But for this to come to fruition--for popular mobilization that take on a revolutionary character that succeeds not only in overthrowing a hated regime, but in replacing it with workers' power--there must exist organizations of revolutionaries embedded in the struggle who are capable of moving the process forward.

Hence the emphasis placed by all Marxists, from Marx and Engels on forward, on the necessity of the working class creating its own political party.


IN SUMMARY, what, for Marxists, are the key elements for understanding the revolutionary process?

The first premise of revolution today is that the development of the productive powers of labor engendered by capitalism has long since created the conditions of abundance necessary to abolish class distinctions. Capitalism has outlived itself. The second premise of revolution is the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. As Marx wrote, the latter have become a fetter on the former.

The most glaring manifestation of this contradiction is the periodic descent of world capitalism into economic crisis. As Marx and Engels wrote as far back as the Communist Manifesto, these crises show that "[t]he productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property."

A crisis can create conditions for a revolution because it reveals the limits of the system, its bankruptcy, to the mass of the population who suffer from mass unemployment, hunger and social degradation--also because it can throw the ruling class into a confusion that puts its continued rule into question.

But crisis by itself cannot itself usher in a new society. As Trotsky wrote, "There is no crisis that can be, by itself, fatal to capitalism." That requires a revolution, and a revolution "presupposes the activity of living people who are the makers of their own history."

While it is true that people don't make history "by accident, or according to their caprice, but under the influence of objectively determined causes," as Trotsky wrote, nevertheless, "their own actions--their initiative, audacity, devotion, and likewise their stupidity and cowardice--are necessary links in the chain of historical development."

It is only in and through the mass action of workers--in the streets and at the point of production--that they develop the consciousness, the organization and the belief in their own capacity to rule society. A subordinate class that is constantly told it amounts to nothing has first to fight collectively and feel its own strength and solidarity in order to become a class capable of building a new society.

As Marx and Engels famously wrote, "[T]his 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."

This understanding made Marx critical of the paternalism of moderates who thought that workers were incapable of liberating themselves. He also rejected the political methods of the revolutionary conspirators who would at worst substitute small-group actions for the masses and at best use the masses as a battering ram.

As Trotsky wrote in his History of the Russian Revolution:

The fundamental premise of a revolution is that the existing social structure has become incapable of solving the urgent problems of development of the nation. A revolution becomes possible, however, only in case the society contains a new class capable of taking the lead in solving the problems presented by history. The process of preparing a revolution consists of making the objective problems involved in the contradictions of industry and of classes find their way into the consciousness of living human masses, change this consciousness and create new correlation of human forces.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives