In a 1931 article, Leon Trotsky discussed what exactly defines a revolutionary situation - a situation where a working-class revolution is possible in the short term - from a general situation of capitalist disarray and mass discontent. Appendix: Lenin on what makes a revolutionary situation, from Left Wing Communism.
1. For an analysis of a situation from a revolutionary point of view, it is necessary to distinguish between the economic and social prerequisites for a revolutionary situation and the revolutionary situation itself.
2. The economic and social prerequisites for a revolutionary situation take hold, generally speaking, when the productive powers of the country are declining; when the specific weight of a capitalist country on the world market is systematically lessened and the incomes of the classes are likewise systematically reduced; when unemployment is not merely the result of a conjunctural fluctuation but a permanent social evil with a tendency to increase This characterizes the situation in England completely, and we can say that the economic and social prerequisites for a revolutionary situation exist and are daily becoming more and more acute. But we must not forget that we define a revolutionary situation politically, not only sociologically, and this includes the subjective factor. And the subjective factor is not only the question of the party of the proletariat. It is a question of the consciousness of all the classes, mainly of course of the proletariat and its party.
3. A revolutionary situation, however, begins only when the economic and social prerequisites for a revolution produce abrupt changes in the consciousness of society and its different classes. What changes?
(a) For our analysis we must distinguish the three social classes: the capitalist, the middle class or petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat. The required changes in mentality of these classes are very different for each of them.
(b) The British proletariat, far better than all the theoreticians, knows very well that the economic situation is very acute. But the revolutionary situation unfolds only when the proletariat begins to search for a way out, not on the basis of the old society, but along the path of a revolutionary insurrection against the existing order. This is the most important subjective condition for a revolutionary situation. The intensity of the revolutionary feelings of the masses is one of the most important indications of the maturity of the revolutionary situation.
(c) But a revolutionary situation is one which must in the next period permit the proletariat to become the ruling power of society, and that depends to some extent, although less in England than in other countries, on the political thinking and mood of the middle class: its loss of confidence in all the traditional parties (including the Labour Party, a reformist, that is, a conservative party), and its hope in a radical, revolutionary change in society (and not a counterrevolutionary change, namely, a fascist).
(d) The changes in the mood both of the proletariat and the middle class correspond and develop parallel to the changes in mood of the ruling class when it sees that it is unable to save its system, loses confidence in itself, begins to disintegrate, splits into factions and cliques.
4. At what point in these processes the revolutionary situation is totally ripe cannot be known in advance or indicated mathematically. The revolutionary party can establish that fact only through struggle; through the growth of its forces and influence on the masses, on the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie of the cities, etc.; and by the weakening of the resistance of the ruling classes.
5. If we apply these criteria to the situation in Britain we see:
(a) That the economic and social prerequisites exist and are becoming more compelling and acute.
(b) That the bridge, however, from these economic prerequisites to a psychological response has not yet been crossed. It is not a change in the economic conditions, already unbearable, that is required but changes in the attitude of the different classes to this unbearable catastrophic situation in England.
6. Economic development of society is a very gradual process, measured by centuries and decades. But when economic conditions are radically altered, the delayed psychological response can quickly appear. Whether quickly or slowly, such changes must inevitably affect the mood of the classes. Only then do we have a revolutionary situation.
7. In political terms this means:
(a) That the proletariat must lose confidence not only in the Conservatives and Liberals, but also in the Labour Party. It must concentrate its will and its courage on revolutionary aims and methods.
(b) That the middle class must lose confidence in the big bourgeoisie, the lords, and turn its eyes to the revolutionary proletariat.
(c) That the propertied classes, the ruling cliques, rejected by the masses, lose confidence in themselves.
8. These attitudes will inevitably develop; but they do not exist today. They may develop in a short period of time, because of the acute crisis. They may develop in two or three years, even in a year. But today this remains a perspective, not a fact. We must base our policy on the facts of today, not those of tomorrow.
9. The political prerequisites for a revolutionary situation are developing simultaneously and more or less parallel, but this does not mean that they will all mature at the same moment-this is the danger that lies ahead. In the ripening political conditions, the most immature is the revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is not excluded that the general revolutionary transformation of the proletariat and the middle class and the political disintegration of the ruling class will develop more quickly than the maturing of the Communist Party. This means that a genuine revolutionary situation could develop without an adequate revolutionary party. It would be a repetition to some degree of the situation in Germany in 1923. But to say that this is the situation in England today is absolutely wrong.
10. We say that it is not excluded that the development of the party can lag behind the other elements of the revolutionary situation - but this is not inevitable. We cannot make an exact prediction, but it is not merely a question of a prediction. It is a question of our own activity.
11. How much time will the British proletariat need at this conjuncture of capitalist society to break its connections with the three bourgeois parties? It is entirely possible that the Communist Party with a correct policy will grow in proportion to the bankruptcy and disintegration of the other parties. It is our aim and duty to realize this possibility.
Conclusions: This explains sufficiently why it is totally wrong to say that the political conflict in England is between democracy and fascism. The era of fascism begins seriously after an important and, for a period of time, decisive victory of the bourgeoisie over the working class. The great struggles in England, however, lie ahead. As we have discussed in another connection, the next political chapter in England, after the fall of the national government and the Conservative government which will probably succeed it, will very likely be a Liberal-Labour one, which can become in the near future more dangerous than the specter of fascism. We called that, conditionally, the period of British Kerenskyism.
But it must be added that Kerenskyism will not in every situation and in every country necessarily be as weak: as Russian Kerenskyism, which was weak because the Bolshevik Party was strong. For example, in Spain Kerenskyism - the coalition of the liberals and the "socialists" - is by no means as weak as it was in Russia and this is due to the weakness of the Communist Party. Kerenskyism is a great danger to the Spanish revolution. Kerenskyism combines a policy of reformist, "revolutionary," "democratic," "socialist" phrases and secondary democratic social reforms with a policy of repression against the left wing of the working class.
This is contrary to the method of fascism, but it serves the same end. The defeat of the future Lloyd Georgeism is possible only if we foresee its approach, only if we are not hypnotized by the specter of fascism, which today is a danger further removed than Lloyd George and his tool of tomorrow - the Labour Party. The danger tomorrow may he the reformist party, the bloc of liberals and socialists; the fascist danger is still three or four stages away. Our struggle to eliminate the fascist stage and to eliminate or reduce the reformist stage is a struggle to win over the working class to the Communist Party.
“What Is a Revolutionary Situation?” The Militant, December 19, 1931. These summary notes were prepared by Trotsky after a discussion with Albert Glotzer about the draft theses by F. A. Ridley and Chandu Ram that he had criticized in “Tasks of the Left Opposition in Britain and India.”
Writings of Leon Trotsky (1930-31), pp 352-5
Lenin on what makes a revolutionary situation, from Left Wing Communism
For a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the "lower classes" do not want to live in the old way and the "upper classes" cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters). It follows that, for a revolution to take place, it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, and politically active workers) should fully realise that revolution is necessary, and that they should be prepared to die for it; second, that the ruling classes should be going through a governmental crisis, which draws even the most backward masses into politics (symptomatic of any genuine revolution is a rapid, tenfold and even hundredfold increase in the size of the working and oppressed masses—hitherto apathetic—who are capable of waging the political struggle), weakens the government, and makes it possible for the revolutionaries to rapidly overthrow it.