System Series – Part Four – A history of revolutions
This is a draft for the fourth part of our system series – it will be published in our local workers’ paper WorkersWildWest. We want to write something basic about the system we live in and the possibility of social revolution – for our colleagues. We don’t want to compromise on the complexity of the issue and we try to avoid lefty jargon. Let us know what you think and we can re-work the draft:
In the first part of this series we wrote about how the current system emerged. We saw that the struggle of serfs and peasants was strong enough to break the personal oppression by the landlords – but they were not strong enough to keep their land and get hold of the means to produce what they needed to survive. A new system emerged where they had to sell their life time and energy to those who had grabbed the land and means of production.
In the second part we looked at how the current system basically functions. Wages for the poor and profits for the rich replaced the personal form of exploitation – money seems to make the world go round. Workers don’t own the things they produce. We not only produce what we need to survive (and have to buy back with our wages). We also produce everything the bosses need to exploit us further: factory halls, machines, computers, weapons of mass destruction etc. Our work keeps them in power.
In the third part we wrote that the current system produces frequent situations of crisis. Unlike earlier crises this does not happen because not enough is produced (bad harvests etc.), but because too much is produced that either cannot be bought or cannot be sold profitably. An increase in productivity (better machines or cleverer ways to produce) does not lead to better lives and less work for everyone, but to more unemployment, stress at work, tension in society and destruction of nature. While everyone can see that the current system is in crisis, we all ask ourselves what an alternative could be.
In this part we want to look at the questions of alternatives. We start by looking into history: at which points in history did the struggle against exploitation and oppression change society? And where did the struggle show alternatives to the current system: a society where we can live more freely and where we can decide together how we run things?
Since there has been oppression, there was resistance against it. Since the class of the rich exploit the masses who work, there have been revolutions for an equal society. Why did revolutions fail? History tells us that revolutions against oppression and exploitation failed because they remained isolated, which allowed the enemy to crush the uprisings or to starve them. Some revolutions were also betrayed from within. Sometimes the poor formed alliances with the middle-classes against the rulers – and the middle-classes then used the revolution to put themselves in power. Sometimes the so-called leaders of the revolution created a strong state – they said it was necessary to defend the revolution – which ended up as a new form of exploitation and oppression…
But even failed revolutions had results: they scared the ruling class and forced them to make concessions. Without violent struggles of the working poor in the past there would be no ‘welfare state’, no ‘health and safety regulations’, no ‘freedom of speech’, no ‘equal opportunities’. The struggle of our class forces the state and the bosses to permanently ‘revolutionise’ the way they exploit us. Here are only a few short examples of historic struggles of our class…
Peasant wars and communities – The problem of isolation
During medieval times it was relatively easy for poor peasants to imagine an end of exploitation and oppression: a lot of the land was still owned in common and most of the things necessary to live were produced locally. The lords were only parasites, who owned most of the land and asked for taxes – it would have been easy to just redistribute the land amongst all. No wonder that there were numerous efforts of poor peasant folks to create such liberated communities – from the Taborites in what is now Czech Republic to the Levellers and Diggers in England, to peasant communes in medieval China. Their main problem was that they remained isolated locally – there was no fast transport or social media. They also had only limited access to arms to defend themselves. Most communities were defeated militarily. The revolutionary peasants tried to prove that their communities were ‘following the will of god’ to create an equal society on earth – but instead of supporting them the official church treated them as heretics (disbelievers).
First urban revolutions and slave uprisings – The problem of alliances with the middle class
By the 17th and 18th century many peasants had lost their land and either worked for wages or as slaves on plantations. More and more poor people lived in towns and cities and the global market started to connect the northern and southern continents of the world. The middle-classes (traders, industrialists) became more important economically, but had little political power, which was still held by aristocrats. Under these conditions the struggle of the poor against exploitation changed: unlike the peasants they were less isolated, living in towns and cities. This made them more difficult to defeat. This also meant that their vision of an equal society changed: while the peasants mainly wanted to be able to live off their land, the poor in the cities and on the plantations could not just go back to a countryside idyll. But overall their numbers in the cities was still relatively small and their power as workers limited, as industries were not developed yet. This forced them into alliances with the middle-classes, who wanted more political influence.
For example, the French Revolution of 1789 and the revolution in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) in 1791 were fought by the poor workers and slaves, but they were won by the middle classes – who turned against the poor and repressed them as soon as they had got closer to state power. Both revolutions influenced each other. The slaves in Haiti drew hope from the revolution in France, and the slave rebellions in Haiti shook the entire world: slaves who liberate themselves! In 1789, slaves in Haiti produced 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the world’s sugar imported by France and Britain. The livelihood of 1 million of the 25 million people who lived in France depended directly upon the imports from Haiti. In 1789, slaves out-numbered white settlers by 10 to 1, there were in total 450,000 slaves. In order to be able to divide-and-rule the state introduced divisions between the slaves: some were given lighter work, some were declared ‘free blacks’ or ‘mulattoes’. A slave rebellion spread across the island, taking on the French army. The Spanish state and the US state first pretended to side with the slave army and its leader Toussaint Louverture – they hoped that they could take over the world’s sugar bowl from the French state. In 1804 Haiti’s new leader Dessalines declared independence – the slave army had beaten the world powers! The problem was that the new leaders mainly came from the more privileged ‘free blacks’ and unlike the slaves from Africa they had education, economic and military connections etc.. They used these connections to put themselves in power and although slavery was abolished, the new rulers could decide on which plantations the former slaves had to work. The whip was forbidden, but the new plantation owners used ropes instead.
This ‘betrayal’ of the middle classes would repeat itself in various revolutions and uprisings, from 1848 in European countries to 1857 in India. The poor sections of these revolutions developed ideas of a free society worth fighting for – but without the power as industrial workers they were forced to take on the enemy militarily, which often failed. The first time that the poor artisans and workers declared their independence from the middle-class politicians, bosses and traders was in 1871 during the uprising of the Paris Commune – they were defeated by the French and German army, but they had shown to the world that working people can run their own lives.
The council revolutions 1918 – The problem of international isolation and state power
Society and work changed rapidly between the mid-19th and early 20th century: more and more workers were employed in big industries. Whole towns were organised around large factories. The system works like this: the only way to keep the poor mob calm is to build bigger bakeries to give them a few more crumbs!
Factory workers knew that society in general depended on their work. They also saw what the current system used their work for: World War I was an industrial massacre of more than 16 million worker-soldiers and civilians for the interest of the rich and powerful. Workers and working-class soldiers ended the war by mass disobedience and strikes: in 1918 revolutions and rebellions broke out in nearly every European country.
Particularly in industrial areas workers and soldiers formed new organisations to organise work and social life: councils. The idea of the councils were that we don’t need professional politicians and a far away parliament to run our lives and no bosses to run the factories. Councils of different factories, industries and areas could coordinate and allow everyone to take part in making the main decisions of society: how do we produce our lives? Through these councils and other examples of organisation and resistance (factory militias, neighbourhood assemblies etc.) by 1918 many working class people all over Europe experinced that a different society is possible. This experience was defeated from inside the revolution and from outside – as we can best see in Russia.
In the 19th century millions of people in Russia were serfs: their owners could exploit them without mercy. By the time of World War I few industrial areas had developed. The revolution against war and oppression started from industrial towns like St. Petersburg and the promise of land and peace made many peasants join in. Wealth was distributed amongst all, manual workers took part in planning of production. Poor people could enter theatres which had previously been only for the rich, workers sent cinemas and reading groups to the peasant villages. The news that workers had formed councils and beaten the Tsar (king) spread around the world. The rulers of all European countries were afraid that the revolution would spread and they forgot the fact that they had just all been enemies: they sent arms and soldiers to defeat the revolution in Russia.
The attack from outside made problems inside the revolution worse:
* The revolution was started by workers, peasants and soldiers themselves, but the connection between councils in the towns and councils in the countryside was weak. Most of the land that was taken from the big landlords did not enter into common ownership, but was taken by middle-class peasants. Supply from the agricultural areas and from abroad failed – the towns starved. Lenin’s party, which had influence in the councils, said that in this situation the councils have to give up power towards a new ‘workers’ state’.
* The outside attack led the new ruling party to form the Red Army – they disarmed the workers and forced them to join the army. A standing army needs massive resources (food, clothing etc.), so everyone who was not in the army had to work even harder. The new rulers decided to bring back the old generals and the old managers to help squeeze more out of the workforce.
The measures by Lenin’s party took away power from normal workers. They became disillusioned and there were rebellions against the new rulers, for example in Kronstadt in 1921, which demanded: ‘all power to the councils’. The new ‘workers’ state’ reacted by turning the guns on workers.
Could it have been different? Perhaps if the connections between councils in towns and in the vast countryside had formed quicker? If the revolution in more developed countries like Germany had won and sent supplies to Russia? This is speculation, the result of the 1918 revolutions is fact:
* Workers and poor people have proven that even under difficult conditions they can run society themselves. That there is no need to have rich and poor, rulers and ruled. This hope is still alive today.
* Also because of the isolation and backwardness of Russia at the time, the new rulers established a ‘workers state’ which turned into a police state. This has given ‘communism’ a bad name: instead of freedom it meant yet another form of oppression.
* The rulers in the rest of the world were shaken: to prevent revolutions in their countries they gave concessions to trade unions and ‘workers’ parties’ (Labour etc.) and gave money to the welfare state to calm things down; they gave concessions to the local middle-men in the colonies, because if a police state like in Russia can be overthrown, why not British or French colonial rule in India or Vietnam?
The global uprisings in 1968 – The problem of taking over modern industries
The defeat of the revolutions of 1918 had tragic consequences. During the global economic crisis of 1929 many workers felt that we cannot take on the rich and their system and we cannot unite with fellow workers abroad – didn’t the failure of 1918 just prove this? Instead the nationalist and racist politicians could mobilise many workers towards a new massacre: World War II killed between 50 and 85 million people across the globe.
But the hope for a different society did not die. By the 1960s a wave of rebellions swept the world – or more precisely, two revolutionary waves that influenced each other.
* In the global north (eastern Soviet Block, Europe, US) the post-war boom and demand for labour had brought many Black and migrant workers and women into the factories. This allowed them to attack racism and women’s oppression in society – e.g. in the US, Black workers questioned segregation; in Europe, women workers questioned unequal wages, being criminalised for abortions and having to put up with the bossiness of their husbands at home. The general development of industries allowed workers to question work: why do we still work like mad and for long hours on assembly lines, producing often useless goods? Is there not more to life than just work-work-work? Millions of young kids and workers questioned the authorities of factory and university management. They took more freedom to be with each other and to be creative. The same happened in the so-called ‘workers’ states’ – the 1968 rebellion reached from the general strike in France, the occupied FIAT factories in Italy, to student-worker assemblies in Mexico, Prague or Yugoslavia.
* In the global south the 1960s saw a massive attack on colonial rule in Africa and Asia. In Vietnam the US sent working class soldiers (many of them Black and victims of racism at home) to drop more bombs on a peasant army than they did during the whole of World War II. Many of the anti-colonial revolts were ‘successful’ in the sense that many countries declared independence. The problem was that in many of the countries there was only a small working class and many people were still peasants – this made it easier for middle-class leaders to establish themselves as the new leaders. Workers and peasants in Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Algeria etc. quickly had to realise that ‘independence’ mainly meant that only the name and nationality of their exploiters had changed.
The north and south waves influenced each other, but they had different conditions and goals – which explains one of the weaknesses of 1968. The other main weakness was that the changes in production made it much more difficult to imagine how to run society in general:
* The revolution in 1918 was led by skilled workers in concentrated industries and by women workers in urban areas in close proximity to the industrial zones. On the level of a factory town it is easy to imagine how workers’ councils can run the show. That’s why we see from the 1920s onwards how more and more skilled workers were replaced by assembly line work – the most famous example is Ford. By the 1960s the role of traditionally skilled workers was weakened and many factories were built further away from where workers actually lived. There was a mass of lower-skilled workers on one side and ‘white-collar’ technicians who had a university education on the other. The productivity of society allowed workers to think more clearly about a world where work is not the main thing in life – BUT while workers in 1918 formulated clear plans and took actions to take over production for the common good, in 1968 this happened in a much more diffuse way. To take over production would have meant overcoming the separation between manual workers and technicians and to coordinate actions across a much larger geographical area.
The rebellions of 1968 created more freedom and equality amongst workers – before 1968 a foreman could beat an apprentice on construction sites in London or Berlin, Black workers in the US or ‘lower-caste’ workers in India could be excluded from skilled factory jobs and women workers could be paid less for the same work. All this was questioned. In the long run 1968 also led to the revolution of 1989, when the so-called ‘workers’ states’ of the Eastern Block finally collapsed.
We often forget all this and we hear a lot of colleagues say that ‘struggle doesn’t change anything’. Yes, the situation in Romania or Poland today is not much better than before 1989. Yes, pretty soon after the ANC in South Africa took power and ended racist Apartheid Black policemen started shooting Black slum-dwellers and workers. Yes, we don’t die of coal-dust in the mines, but we die of stress in Amazon warehouses…
But, the world is changing and today the big divide that separated the two waves north and south in 1968 has largely disappeared: today most poor folks in the so-called ’Third World’ are not peasants anymore, but modern workers. Today, in order to produce most modern goods workers around the globe have to cooperate. Today, the knowledge of how to produce things is more evenly distributed amongst workers worldwide – which was a weak point of previous struggles. Since the global crisis in 2008 we all face a new revolutionary challenge on a global scale: where will this system go? More nationalism and divide-and-rule? More empty talk of ‘liberal values’ and multi-culturalism on zero-hour contracts? Climate chaos? Or another round of struggles to end exploitation and meaningless jobs?
In the next part of the series we ask ourselves about the conditions for a different society today…