Why people become revolutionaries

Submitted by Newcastle on 30 July, 2009 - 6:09 Author: Elaine Jones discusses what it means to be an active revolutionary socialist.

Over the last year I’ve been able to get back to political activity. I’ve been reading a lot of books and asking myself why people become revolutionaries and what keeps you being a revolutionary.

To start off with, it’s quite obvious why. You look at the world around you and see the horrors of capitalism.

You see how capitalism leads to recession and slumps which result in working-class people being thrown out of their jobs and out of their homes — not because it makes any logical sense about how society should produce things, but because the ruling class and the market says so.

We see the hypocrisy in the way the working class are treated. While the MPs can fiddle their expenses and decide to give billions to the banks so that they can keep their million pound bonuses, a working-class woman on the Wirral with three children who is in a low paid job is put in prison for six months for defrauding the Child Tax Credit system.

We see how capitalism creates poverty, inequality, destroys the environment and creates wars.

Its workings also shape the way people treat each other. It distorts relationships between people — it causes violence and it lets down children, meaning many children are left in violent families with no way out. It affects the roles we take and our ability to develop as individuals.

We can also see internationally the horrors that capitalism causes. For instance in Africa we are seeing mortality rates rise — in some places, the average age of death dropping below 40. Yet at the same time we see the Chinese, Saudi and other states buying up huge tracts of arable land to grow food for world markets rather than feed the hungry in Africa

We see that capitalism is a horrific, cruel and illogical system.

But we need more than that to become a revolutionary. We need to come across active revolutionary politics.

For me as a student in Kent 20 years ago, that meant being hassled by one of our comrades to read obscure books on the French Revolution and English Civil War when all I wanted was another pint of cider. It meant going to an anti-apartheid meeting at Kent University and seeing an AWL member getting up to criticise the ANC and expose the actions of the South African Communist Party.

I thought: “What did he do that for? No-one agrees with him, and he’s made himself very unpopular”. But afterwards I realised that it’s necessary to stand up and speak the truth even if you’re in a minority of one.

I realised that even if you are a working class woman with not much self confidence, you have to make yourself get up and speak at meetings and conferences, because that’s the only way to convince people to get involved in political action.

Then I got involved in our national campaigns and particularly our intervention in the National Union of Students. That meant was going to NUS conferences, where AWL organisers demanded superhuman feats of endurance – writing speeches, organising debates and fringe meetings, intervening in other groups’ meetings, and fighting witch-hunts, all on a packet of pro-plus, diet coke and lots of cigarettes.

We learnt to organise and build campaigns for left unity and around demands that mobilised broader layers of people. We learnt that a group of revolutionaries can be a small cog that turns a bigger wheel.

But we also learnt how to fight. We learnt how the right wing in Labour Students, people like Derek Draper and Jim Murphy, cheated, bullied, threatened and lied in order to suppress their opponents. As well as putting forward the correct arguments, you had to expose them for what they really were — as people who supported the massacre in Tiananmen Square, who allowed asylum seekers to be used as scapegoats, who supported the violence of the police being used against strikes and protests. We fought them and exposed their hypocrisy.

Then I learnt about history and about the working class struggles that have taken place across the world.

Recently I have read a book called The Female Incendiaries about the women of the Paris Commune and Paul Mason’s book Live Working Die Fighting. In those books you learn how the working class has fought from the early days of capitalism – the Peterloo massacre in 1819, the Paris Commune in 1871, the early trade union organising in the USA, the Spanish Civil War, May 1968, the Iranian revolution and counter-revolution.

You learn that in the short history of capitalism there have been many battles. That often seemingly spontaneous movements have really come about as a result of long term political activism. That where the political activists organise, the working class fight for longer, are better organised, and know what to do next.

Despite being told that people won’t fight — they have mortgages and are too selfish — you learn that the working class will fight, and they will fight when they’ve got more to lose than just a mortgage.

People who are barely earning enough money to feed themselves will take strike action, will organise rebellion, and will stand up against tyranny and violence as the students and workers in Tiananmen Square did 20 years ago.

They will risk their lives in the knowledge that they aren’t just fighting for themselves. They are fighting for their children, families and future generations.

But knowing all that still doesn’t make you a revolutionary, either — because what you get from Paul Mason’s book is that all these deeds are very heroic and militant, but what’s the point? They all end in massacre.

You need more than that. What you need is the ideas of Marxism and a revolutionary party that can put those ideas into practice. It is that that will make the difference between whether future militant class struggles are victorious or whether they are defeated.

The only time in history when the working class won and held on to political power was the Russian Revolution — and that only happened because of the existence of the Bolshevik party.

The Bolshevik party had fused the ideas of revolutionary Marxism with a democratic organisation that could put those ideas into practice. They built an organisation that agitated, educated itself, discussed ideas democratically, and then fought for those ideas in the working class.

In the here and now the only organisation on the British left with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism is AWL. AWL upholds the ideas of Bolshevism and Third Camp independent working-class politics.

Over this weekend AWL has developed its ideas further. We will continue to argue about orientation. But we have to make more revolutionaries, find more people, and build an organisation that is able to put our ideas into practice.

With our ideas the struggles to come can lead to the overthrow of capitalism and the start of a new era of human history. Without them the struggles will become just another chapter of heroic, militant action in a history book.

I will end with a quote from Louise Michel, one of the women revolutionaries of the Paris Commune.

“We revolutionaries aren’t just chasing a scarlet flag. What we pursue is an awakening liberty, old or new. It is the ancient communes of France, it is 1793; it is June 1848; it is 1871. Most especially it is the next revolution that is advancing under this dawn”.

She died in 1905. A few days later revolution broke out in Russia.

We follow in the tradition of revolutionaries who have fought against capitalism since its inception. By building the movement we can attempt to ensure the next revolution is victorious.

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