Is socialist revolution possible? Is it desirable?

Submitted by martin on 24 July, 2021 - 8:39 Author: Ruth Cashman and John Strawson

At the Workers' Liberty summer school, Ideas for Freedom, on 10-11 July, Ruth Cashman debated John Strawson on "Is socialist revolution possible? Is it desirable?"

Ruth Cashman

We live in a murderous system of inequality and exploitation. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in every 13 children dies before their fifth birthday, the vast majority due to health conditions linked to malnutrition. The number of child labourers stood at one hundred and sixty million at the start of 2020, which is an increase of 8.4 million child labourers in four years.

From January to June 2021, it was estimated that 827 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, although most people assume it's much more. Climate change is already estimated to have caused about 150,000 deaths annually.

And we now live in a world where there are 2,755 billionaires, a world record, a 30 percent increase on last year, and 86 percent of those billionaires are richer than they were a year ago.

Capitalism is a system of war, of racism, of preventable death and inequality. And this all stems from one exchange, one that many of us take part in, the exchange between worker and employer.

On the surface of it, it looks like any other exchange, a free exchange in a free market like ordering a pizza, or bicycle, or a super yacht if you happen to be a billionaire. But the difference being, you don't just have that moment of exchange and get on with the rest of your life.

If you're a worker, the exchange gives over the control over much of your life, gives over power to decide how you use your skills, your strengths, your energy and your time. And not just that: many jobs chip away at your health and some risk your life completely.

It's a fundamentally unequal exchange. A small group of people own the means of production, meaning they can get richer off somebody else's work. And, not content with getting rich off the work of others, the system compels them to squeeze more and more out of their workers with no regard for the lives, the happiness of those producing their wealth.

To those endlessly toiling together to make somebody else rich, the capitalist ideology says we're the lucky ones, because built into the system there's a layer of unemployment and underemployment, and that means uncertainty and poverty. Depending on where you are and who you are, that poverty takes different forms.

In an imperialist country like ours, class struggle has won a number of safeguards of benefits and of rights, and those stand against the harshest logics of the free market system. But even here, poverty might mean living in a room in a hostel with your entire family, or choosing whether you turn the heating on or have three meals a day.

In the US, where collective struggle has won considerable benefits, but working-class political representation is behind that of Europe, it means if you lose your job. You may well lose your health care. There, last year, a freelance photographer died after deciding not to go to hospital when he was vomiting buckets, buckets of blood because the crowdfunder that he set up the treatment had not yet made enough money for him to afford it.

The unemployed of richer nations are told to be grateful because we are not amongst the hundreds of millions of people who don't get enough food to live an active life. We're not in countries where millions of children a year die of malnutrition.

This is an inhumane system where human need without money means nothing. It's a system that rejects the social for the individual, as it's only concerned with what you can commodify, what you can buy and sell. You can buy a car or reusable shopping bag, but you can't buy a healthy environment.

And that is why capitalism continues to destroy the planet, decades after we've understood why it's happening, the primacy of exchange value over use value.

The primary goal for capitalists is profit, and to do anything but chase profit falls outside the rules of the game. So planning for the good of all, even the capitalists and their children, must be shunned and instead we are offered small actions like green profits or consumer habit change. They've tried carbon credits, which didn't actually reduce carbon emissions, but did make a lot of people really quite rich.

We can have these small things. But what we need is an entire overhaul of energy production and use, and capitalism cannot provide that. We need socialism, a system that places humanity above its economy.

I don't think anyone would say that the right of billionaires to get richer is more important than climate disaster. The question is, can we have something better? And if that something better is "a socialist revolution", then we have to define socialism. "Socialism" cannot be the politics of 9/11, Trotsky, Kautsky, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Rosa Luxemburg all at once.

What is our socialism? Our socialism is the social ownership of the means of production. It's the cooperative and democratic management of the economy, the end of oppression and class exploitation, and the theory and practice of working class revolution.

Socialism is possible because of the changes brought about by capitalism. Yes, we have children dying of malnutrition, but we also have the productive capacity to end world hunger. Ruling classes have been necessary throughout history because of scarcity. One class became rich and built a civilisation out of the work of others. Poverty came from the inability to provide the basics for the entire population.

That scarcity no longer blights humanity in the same way. We have the chance to build a more equal system through democratic planning. But democratic planning requires more than just production capacity. It requires a habit of cooperation. It requires literacy and education and culture. It requires information and connectivity. And it requires the will to bring it about. And those two are provided by capitalism.

Planning already exists in some form across the economy. We have a phenomenal productive capacity, although not always put to best use. Cooperation happens every day at work and to an even greater extent on the picket line and extended into the class struggle. We have a massive increase in literacy and culture and globalisation has linked the world together. The creation of the working class means the existence of a revolutionary agent.

As the exploited class locked into a systemic clash with capital as the main producing class, the working class has the power to halt and redirect the economic apparatus of capital. And as the collective producer, it has the capacity to create a non-exploitative mode of production.

This combination of interest, power and creative capacity distinguishes the working class from every political force in previous history.

That is the central contradiction in capitalism, and it is the reason the socialist revolution is possible. That possibility exists even with the class struggle now at such a low point. We have the building blocks right now for a world and a system which could end world hunger and insecurity, do away with both unemployment and achingly long hours. A world where we have time to think, to be with our friends, to read, to play, where human culture and endeavours to flourish are no longer directed towards profit.

When I exchanged emails with John before this debate, and I asked what angle he would take, he said something like: I'm going to give an argument to be careful what you wish for.

Well, we're not just wishing for it. We're fighting to to make it come about. I hope I outlined what we are wishing for. I guess the point in be careful what you wish for is that things can get worse as well as better. And that is certainly true.

As with any struggle for a better world, you can have the risks of defeat. One of the less jolly aspects of being a Trotskyist is that most of our heroes were murdered. You have to be a bit brave to be a socialist revolutionary, as Eugene Debs said.

The minorities who have made the history of this world are the few who have the courage to take their place in the front, who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them, who have dared to oppose the established order of things, who have espoused the cause of the struggling poor, who have upheld without regard to personal consequences, the causes of freedom and righteousness.

Losing directly is not the only all risk. Obviously, the most damaging argument against socialism is that we've already had "it", and it led to state terror, the loss of freedom and starvation. It's very important that we answer that.

It is absolutely true that all of those things have occurred under the name of socialism and communism. So we must be clear with ourselves and with others that Stalinism was not socialism. It was a system of extreme exploitation of workers and peasants, a class society run by a vicious and backward ruling class with a monopoly on power.

Stalinism is separate from socialism by a river of blood. We don't say that because it failed. People in our historic political tradition did not come to that realisation in 1991. For decades, our sort of socialists had been saying that it was not socialism.

We championed and we champion underground workers' and democracy movements in Stalinist states. We cheer when people rise against them.

The criteria laid out by Marxists had discredited the claims of a formation like Stalinism to be socialism before Stalinism even existed. Since the 19th century, Marxists had argued against statist socialism, bureaucratic control of the economy by the state.

Socialism is democratic planning by the rule of the working class. Bureaucratic planning is an anti-socialist and contrary to the interests of the working class.

The revolution in 1917 was socialist and it was the beginning of an international working class revolution. Socialism in isolation in a backward country like Russia was not possible. Socialism grows out of the possibilities of advanced capitalism. Stalinist economies developed in competition and imitation of the West. They were motivated by economic growth, not the reduction of the control of the economy over human life.

A small example. Pretty much a basic expectation under socialism is that you would have a shorter working week. In the Stalinist Soviet Union, workers worked longer than in most comparable Western countries. In 1929, Russia introduced the continuous working week, a seven day shift system, not just where it was socially necessary, and effectively abolished the weekend. The bureaucracy did not care about the lives of the working-class people it held and controlled.

So is social revolution possible? And, indeed, is it what you want? There will always be theories that tyranny is inevitable and that true human freedom is impossible. To try is naive, and we will only end up with the loss of the limited freedoms we have. That is the ideal ideology for the ruling class. It makes us weak and it makes us afraid to fight.

I've tried to explain today what socialism is and why it's possible. But as Hal Draper says, in the last analysis, the only way of proving the arguments is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by theories from above, and it has changed the world time and time again. We stand in this tradition, and so we reject this tyrannous idea that the world can only get worse if we fight for something better.

So, I hope you will join me in the struggle. And I hope that this weekend will inspire you through education and through stories about the things that Workers' Liberty activists and other working class activists do, to join that struggle and transform the world.

John Strawson

It was very interesting to hear what you had to say, and I have to say that actually I agree with particularly the first part of it very much. I have no qualms about saying that we live in a world which is systemically unjust, in which there is oppression on the basis of class, race, sex, sexuality, ethnicities of all kinds, and religion, and that we live in a world which is imprinted with inequality. I'm absolutely with you on really trying to radically transform the world in which we live. I think that's that's something which I'm sure we are all on the same page.

But what I didn't hear from Ruth, really, was anything really about revolution. She did something which is, of course, also done by by Marx in Capital, where he gives the most brilliant description of of capitalism. Of course, his main reason that he thinks will be a crisis is not because of the conflict of classes, but because of the internal contradictions of capitalism and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. That's what he thinks will create crises.

And that it is absolutely right. The rate of profit does tend to fall in individual firms and sectors of the economy, though not in the economy as a whole. And that has been one of the reasons why that we have not had quite the same pace of class struggles which he and Engels undoubtedly assumed would take place.

Of course, he was writing in the 19th century. And what we've actually seen is a revolution within capital itself, which has in fact transformed the tasks that we have.

Ruth didn't mention how you actually get to what she wants and what I think we all want. And the question of revolution, which is the theme of today's discussion, is very critical. And the problem is for Ruth and for those who support her tradition is that in the 104 years since the Russian Revolution, you cannot point to any revolution which has been successful and which has delivered, not one.

I have to say one of the reasons why I am opposed to the idea of revolutions is because I know full well the people who are the first to suffer in a revolution are the revolutionaries. I know this from personal experience. I was very close to the people who were successful in overthrowing the colonial capitalist regime in Grenada, the New Jewel Movement. I was very friendly with these people, who were the best of us and who set out to create socialism in a small Caribbean island.

It was a very important year, 1979, a year of revolutions, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the revolution in Grenada, the revolution in Nicaragua. It was a very exciting time.

I have to tell you that that revolution ended in Grenada not because of a capitalist or imperialist intervention by the United States, which did, in fact happen four years later. It ended because of internecine warfare between the revolutionaries in which Maurice Bishop, the prime minister, his partner, cabinet ministers, and the leaders of the trade union movements were massacred, over 100 people out of a population of one hundred thousand massacred in an internal coup.

Fidel Castro, when asked why he had not gone to aid the revolution, said that when the Americans invaded, he said the revolution was already dead. And indeed, friends and people that I knew and very much respected died in that bloodbath. And the situation in Grenada today, I have to say, today is rather worse than it was before 1979. The other revolution, more recently, which I was very privileged to to witness, was the revolution in Egypt on 25 January 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.

I lived in Cairo in the early 1990s. I've been back to Egypt a few times. Egypt is a very important part of my family. My parents met in Cairo and I have an absolute love for the country.

I had a hatred for the Mubarak regime. When Mubarak fell, I was excited and I rushed to Cairo and I was so buoyed up by going to Tahrir Square and the fact that there was a blossoming of political pluralism in a country where they had not been free speech. There were meetings everywhere, meetings outside and squares, meetings in rooms.

My favourite cafeteria near Tahrir Square one evening was filled with revolutionaries from around the world, from Iraq, from Portugal and Spain, from Argentina, all singing revolutionary songs. It was like being in the Russian Revolution. I had a wonderful feeling that this was a tremendous moment of transformation.

What is so tragic is if you look at Egypt today. Yes, Mubarak fell. There was a moment at which even in the mass media everyone was discussing the revolution. But within months that revolution had failed.

After a democratic election which produced Mohammed Morsi, who was very, very reactionary and Islamist, he was then replaced after mass demonstrations. Even bigger demonstrations that it overthrew Mubarak, overthrew Morsi.

And we got Sisi, and now friends of mine are now in jail. The situation in Egypt is absolutely dire. Anything that you can do to raise the question of what's taking place in terms of the suppression of democratic rights, to make clear what is taking place in this very reactionary regime, will be very important.

My experience of that makes me think very carefully. We know what happened in the Russian Revolution. I had at one time a Trotskyist past, and I knew exactly how I would analyse and think about that.

But we have had these great upheavals and they have actually set us backwards. I think we can't afford a revolution. If we really want to tackle climate change, we don't have time to have a revolution.

The clock is ticking. We don't have time for a world revolution in two hundred different states and territories. We don't have time to change the economy. We've got to introduce regulations now.

What is very interesting about the pandemic is that we know full well that we can introduce regulations. Even in the United States, the great challenges of the pandemic have created in the Biden administration a kind of war economy which, in terms of taking direct control and actually creating a recovery plan, creates, for the first time in the States, a real shift in terms of wealth and power. And that is without a revolution.

I don't think we have time for a revolution if we want to deal with world poverty. If you want to deal with the consequence of the pandemic, if you want to deal with the consequences of climate change, revolutions seem to me to end up with the revolutionaries either in jail if they're lucky or shot, if that unlucky.

That is that is the real experience of the revolutions that I have witnessed. Take the revolutions of 1979. Think of the Islamic Revolution. I was told by Brian Grogan, leader of the then International Marxist Group who was in Tehran, that Khomeini was the Kerensky would open the way to the Bolshevik Revolution and a Lenin would emerge. We are now how long are we after the 1979 Islamic revolution? And we are we know what has taken place in terms of the consequences of that revolution.

We can't afford revolutions, in terms of the consequences for those who participate in them, and indeed for the societies which experience them. And we don't have the time for revolution if we want to have radical social change and really address the questions that you want to address.

I believe that you can have a more influence by using the democratic means that we have within our society, which are very, very important and important to defend, to make the arguments about systematic inequality at every level, economic, social, political - make those arguments that don't think that there's going to be some easy trick, that the society can be turned by a revolutionary impulse.

Revolutions do not deliver what you want, and we don't have the time for them.

John Strawson summing-up

It's a very interesting debate, and the question about the definition of revolution was a very good question, which I hope Ruth will deal with.

In 1994 I was very privileged to participate in the South African freedom elections, which ended apartheid. There was, of course, a huge debate within the African National Congress, which is a coalition of of many forces, including the South African Communist Party, trade unions and Congress movements representing different ethnic groups within the country.

There had been a long debate in the 1980s about how to make South Africa ungovernable and how to end the racist dictatorship.

In the 1980s, of course, I did think that the end of apartheid would come with a revolutionary seizure of power in the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the proclamation of revolutionary government. I thought the regime would do everything it could to hang on, and it would it would have to be forcibly overthrown. That's what I assumed would happen in South Africa. But the African National Congress was actually much wiser than John Strawson sitting in London.

It began in the nineteen eighties to do to do two things at once: mass mobilisation of the African population, making the cities ungovernable, creating the United Democratic Front, putting great resources in the trade union movement, and at the same time beginning to negotiate with representatives of the regime.

The consequence of that was that in February 1990, Mandela was released and began the process of negotiations for transformation of South Africa. In 1994, when the freedom elections took place, I was very privileged as an exile to be standing in the queues to vote with people, the huge, massive queues. If you want to talk about people wanting democracy, you need to have stood in those queues and realised how vitally important democracy is and how easily you can dismiss it, because it's very common and you think you have it all the time.

I never forget. Someone, an 80 year old person, was interviewed on television saying, aren't you frightened about the queues being attacked? They said no. They said, if I'm shot, I will vote from heaven. That to some extent represented the absolute determination of the South African population to create a democracy.

Now, 27 years later, South Africa is not a great place. Rewinding and overcoming not just the years of apartheid, but also 350 years of of colonial history, is not going to happen in 27 years. It's a really big challenge.

But I have to say, when I saw today on this this last week, ex-President Zuma giving himself up and going to prison for contempt of court in connexion with his refusal to go to the enquiry about corruption, I realised how strong the idea of democracy and the rule of law is in South Africa, despite all the problems.

The challenges in South Africa are enormous in terms of poverty. Millions of people still don't have running water in their homes despite huge advances. There is massive corruption.

But in that moment of of ecstasy, as Thabo Mbeki made clear in his speech when the ANC won 63 percent of the vote in the beginning of May 1994, the feeling of remaking a society was very, very real and very, very true. It had come not as a consequence of a violent revolution, but as a consequence of the mass mobilisation of African people and very clever negotiations by the leadership of the liberation movement. That is a very important testimony.

Someone asked me about China. Do you really think that the Chinese revolution was a socialist revolution? In China we have one of the most vicious forms of capitalism you can find. There are virtually no trade unions.

There is super exploitation of the working class, and there are being massive human rights abuses, including the genocide against the Uyghurs and, of course, against the people of Tibet.

I am very keen to end the occupation of Palestine, but think about the occupation of Tibet. Only 25 percent of the population of Tibet are Tibetans. The rest are, in fact, Han Chinese settlers.

I do not believe that China is a very good example of a social revolution or revolution which really has delivered for the population at all. I think, in fact, it is emblematic of the kind of capitalism that we are living in at the present time, a capitalism with less trade unions, less rights, and super exploitation; and also an authoritarian regime which will crush anyone who opposes it.

I just end my comments on this. It's been a very interesting discussion and I appreciate very much the invitation. I very much appreciate the way in which the debate has been has been had.

I am absolutely committed to the ending of systemic oppression at every level. And I think that does mean radical policies, more radical policies. And that's my main criticism of the Labour Party - both under Corbyn (it's not just the antisemitism) and under Keir Starmer - is the lack of ambition which the Labour Party has, an absolute lack of ambition to begin to reconceive in the 21st century what we need.

And the problem with this discussion, with all due respect, is being dominated by things like the Russian Revolution. It was 104 years ago. 104 years ago, people were reading texts of the 19th century. And what we really have to do is to reinvent a radical democratic socialism of the 21st century that can really address the issues.

The question is not thinking about a revolution, but thinking of how we do address the questions of inequality. The big human dilemma historically is how to deal with inequality. And we have not dealt with it.

Someone said we haven't got time because people are too exhausted to mobilise. That's not true. Black Lives Matter, the Occupy movement, show full well that people can be mobilised and are mobilised. The question is to provide some policy objectives in terms of dismantling systematic racism, in terms of getting rid of economic oppression.

I would just end on this. It is not true that in the last 50 years, world poverty has increased. It has decreased. Hunger in the world has decreased. It is still at an obscene level, but it has decreased. It is not the case that you cannot fight for reforms that actually work and have an impact.

That's why it's so important to oppose the government's policy of reducing its aid budget, because that was a very important democratic gain which we achieved in Britain. We need not only to restore that, but actually to increase it. And I think that's quite possible.

It's not just people in Workers' Liberty and people on the left who think that. Theresa May, of all people, also thinks it.

That shows that the kind of politics we need to think about is mean working very widely, not thinking in ideological terms, but thinking in broad policy terms. e need to think about the policies that we need in order to transform our society. Thank you very much.

Ruth Cashman summing-up

On China. I agree with everything John said, pretty much. And people should check out the session this afternoon about China if you want to hear more about that.

On the Egyptian revolution: workers' struggle and mass strikes were very important part of the struggle, but there was very little working-class political representation. Actually much of the left supported not independent working-class political representation, but lashing up with Islamists in order to bring down the regime. The lesson of Egypt is that the working class must march under its own banners.

What is revolution? It's mass democratic working class action to abolish class society as collective self emancipation. I don't think we can say exactly what it would look like. That will depend on the historical struggles that it comes out of.

On climate change: so, we don't have time to wait for revolution? There's an element in that where I agree that we don't have time to wait for revolution and that we need to use democratic means to stop climate change. I suspect that we're talking about different democratic means, though.

I don't trust the Biden administration to go up against the energy industry and the transport industry in the way that would be necessary.

The foremost democratic means within capitalism which I think we need to put our faith in, and which we have to use in in advance of a revolution, is mass working-class democratic action.

If we want to see off climate change, the main thing we need to do now is to transform the labour movement to being a force that can force the hand of capitalists against their will to to bring in the major reforms that we require.

I think the reference to the pandemic is interesting. We've lived through this bizarre historical moment of a global killer paralysing societies across the world. Now, the production of vaccines has been very impressive. The eventual lockdowns in many countries have been very impressive. They show, actually, the capacity of capitalism to do some things.

But even now, amidst a global killer, which it is in the interests of everyone in every country in the world to push back, patents for those vaccines have not been suspended. Rich countries are buying up vaccines, so poor countries cannot get access to them. That will mean many, many new variants which could kill us anywhere. The logic of capitalism cannot just go that extra mile.

Sure, capitalism can accept that there's a crisis and something has to be done in a crisis, but it can't do the basic things that are clearly necessary of putting a load of global production into making vaccines and making those vaccines freely available, and creating health infrastructure around the world to make sure that the vaccines can be taken everywhere. It doesn't do that in the time of emergency.

So the pandemic has not given me faith that capitalist governments are going to turn around and solve climate change. It has showed me rather the limits of what they can do.

John says he's against revolution because he cares about us and he doesn't want to see us killed. That, I think, is actually very sweet. I don't always get that kind of concern for my welfare from the soft left, and I thought I was lovely, really.

It raises an important point. Challenging the power of the ruling class is dangerous. And if you fail, it is genuinely dangerous. And why is it dangerous? Because the ruling class will protect their right to exploit us and their right to dominate us with extraordinary violence.

We can say maybe it's safer just not to fight. But that's not just asking people not to be revolutionaries. It's saying that your individual moral obligation would be to go around and quell any effective challenge to the power of bosses and to the power of governments. They're not just violent to the point of revolution. They're violent at any point that they feel that their power and that domination challenged.

We could do that. We could live tiny lives where we never fight back. The old slogan is: rather die on your feet than live on your knees. It would be good if we could live on our feet. We want to change the world and for lots of us to stay alive.

For that, we need to build a movement that can win. Even if you're a revolutionary, you don't start revolutions in some kind of irresponsible manner where, say, there's 20 of us in the room, we get some guns and we go for it. We shouldn't do that.

But you have to fight and you have to struggle. How do we build a movement that can successfully win where we don't get butchered along the way?

John was saying about how we have to fight for reforms, not just revolution. I think the revolutionaries are actually better reformists than reformists. We fight we fight for reforms every day. By struggling against the oppression and the exploitation that exists in our lives every day, that is how we become a class fit to rule in our name and to liberate all of humanity from oppression and exploitation. That's what being a revolutionary is.

It's not like being somebody who loves guns and thinks that wars are really exciting. It's being part of that struggle every day. And that struggle makes us a class capable not just of starting a revolution successfully, but of abolishing class society and winning.

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