The road to genuine social change and peoples power



Today I want to follow up on last week’s blog which discussed whether it is correct for a party or movement that is seeking a radical change in society in the interests of working people (and all those subject to the various forms of discrimination, marginalisation and dispossession that occurs in capitalist society) to participate as a minority partner in a coalition government.

My conclusion was no because it would mean abandoning the radical critique and vision of the movement and therefore making it harder to achieve even the more modest concessions that may be possible under social democratic/green type governments.

But the question that presented itself, then, is will it ever be possible for a truly anti-capitalist political movement to come to power in the 21st century?

This question is being posed in Greece today with the radical left SYRIZA party close to becoming the largest party in the country. It could well win the next election. If the party tried to implement the programme adopted at its the recent national congress, it would involve a ferocious fight with the Greek and European ruling classes, including their allies within the existing state bureaucracy and military who have overthrown democratically elected governments before. To defeat those attacks would require a gigantic mobilisation of the Greek working people to take power more directly into their own hands through new forms of popular power.

These questions are being posed in Greece because it’s the country that has had the deepest crisis of capitalism over the past decade. Millions of workers have lost their jobs and living standards have been devastated. Fascist groups have grown and more and more of them use physical violence against immigrants and the left.

Some left wingers argue that because the existing state (especially the police and military) is structured to always be hostile to progressive social change it is a waste of time trying to win governmental power under capitalism. All we can do is ‘wait for the revolution’. The revolution in their minds is a form of spontaneous popular organisation and power that emerges as a consequence of struggles by working people under capitalism. They usually point to the example of the Russian revolution in 1917 where workers, peasants and soldiers councils (called Soviets in Russian) emerged in that year and proclaimed their authority over the country at their national congress in November.

There is a lot of truth in that argument. The subsequent degeneration of the revolution into a police dictatorship has obscured what a profoundly revolutionary and democratic process was involved. The leaders of the New Zealand Labour Party at the time declared their solidarity with the revolution that ended the czarist autocracy and Russia’s participation in World War 1.

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Russia’s revolution happened after socialists had won the leadership of the working class and even the peasants had a party that called itself socialist and favoured the nationalisation of the land. The military was collapsing as an instrument of the monarchist autocracy because of war defeats and socialist agitation among the rank and file. The “revolution” when it came in November was a relatively peaceful affair when the two main parties of the workers and peasants won a majority in the Soviets and there was no power in the land that could resist them.

But the old rulers launched a vicious war against the new “Soviet” power, obliging the revolutionaries to throw all of the country’s very meagre resources into the military defence of its survival. The capitalist powers in Europe and North America sent tens of thousands of soldiers to fight alongside the ‘White’ armies of the czarist counter-revolution. The capitalist countries also blockaded Russia economically in an effort to starve it into submission. The result was catastrophic—the civil war lasted until 1921, millions died, much of the country’s rail and industrial infrastructure was destroyed and peasant agricultural production was disrupted. The combination of economic want and the low political and cultural level of the population (most Russian peasants were illiterate) created extremely harsh conditions for building a new society. The revolutionary democracy eroded and withered over the course of the 1920s. A new privileged bureaucracy emerged that monopolised power in its own hands and, by the late 1930s,  murdered most of the leaders who had actually made the revolution.

Most of the revolutions of a socialist character since then (Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Korea) were ultimately a consequence of World War Two and were disfigured at birth by the influence of the by then entrenched Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. An exception to the rule was Cuba, which I believe has retained a democratic revolutionary character despite some authoritarian tendencies that are largely a result of the unrelenting economic, political and military war that has been waged on them for half a century by the US empire (but that is another story).

Very promising revolutionary developments in Grenada, Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s were ultimately unsuccessful, in large measure due to military intervention by the US empire.

The Russian “model” of an alternative revolutionary democratic power emerging under capitalism and then replacing the old regime has never actually been repeated.

There have been many examples of progressive democratic governments being overthrown by fascist, military or police actions whenever they were deemed to be a threat to the existing ruling class and their Western allies. We can point to virtually every country in Latin America – and most of Africa and Asia for examples. We also had fascist regimes established in Italy, Spain, and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s that crushed the socialist workers movements. There was a military coup in Greece from 1967 to 1974, a long-standing fascist regime in Portugal until 1975, and Spain’s fascist rule lasted until 1976.

But that experience should not in my view preclude the job of socialists of winning a majority in the country and trying to win elected office. And if we can win a majority and form a left government, we can use that democratic legitimacy to advance a deeper more radical transformation of society.

A socialist government that wants to actually transform the system rather than just tinker with it has to do so in the knowledge that the ruling class and its state will try to undermine and overthrow you. They cannot be appeased. Their economic power has to be broken. New popular forms of direct democracy have to be promoted. The existing state institutions have to be transformed or replaced. The authority and resources of governmental power is an indispensable aid in that process.

That, I believe, is one of the lessons of the revolutionary processes unleashed by the electoral victories of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. There have been repeated attempts to overthrow these governments by military coup, economic sabotage and right wing terrorism. But at each stage, the revolution has emerged victorious.  Rather than retreat, the revolution has deepened and radicalised. These two countries teach us that developing alternative forms of popular revolutionary democracy is actually an extraordinarily difficult task.

In Russia, there was a huge advantage in the fact that the country’s political and economic and cultural life was concentrated in two large cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite the backwardness of Russia, these two centres had some of the most advanced industrial centres with huge working class concentrations. This helped the Russian socialists win the leadership of the strong unions and broader working class movement. Their representatives were elected from the big working class districts to councils and the Duma (parliament) during those selective moments when the czarist regime permitted elections. From there, they could give leadership to the country as a whole.

In much of the so-called Third World (with the notable exception of China) the traditional working class has been devastated by the constant shifts in the flow of capital and the intensification of competition on a world scale. The big cities have been dubbed a “Planet of Slums” and one consequence is that the big majority of working people live lives in the informal economy. This poses huge challenges of developing a collective consciousness amongst the poor and dispossessed and forming a political instrument that can bring about real change.

The Bolivian MAS (Movement for Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples) led by Evo Morales was initially formed by tens of thousands of coca growers resisting the so-called war on drugs being waged on them by the US and it’s Bolivian allies. They formed a “union” to fight because many of them had previously been miners and members of a militant miners union. The mines were privatised and most of the workers sacked. They only way to eke out a living was to grow coca. They went on to form an alliance with the urban social movements that grew out of the fight against water privatisation. And last but not least, they allied with the indigenousness peoples who had been excluded from social and political life by the “white” elites.

The revolutionary processes in Bolivia and Venezuela have been profoundly democratic. There have been dozens of elections. Both countries established new radically democratic constitutions through a constituent assembly. These constitutions included social, economic and political rights – they were not focussed solely on how the government was to be elected. The major economic sectors have been nationalised and their huge income streams directed to the poor. They have both proclaimed “socialism for the 21st century” as their goal.

In some ways the process is just beginning. The challenges and difficulties are enormous. We have much to learn.

NB: The above blog has been slightly edited by the author for clarity since its original publication (MT).

(One place to start learning more is in the writings of Marta Harnecker. She is Chilean by origin and participated in the revolutionary process there during 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuban Revolution and on the nature of socialist democracy. She became a participant in the Venezuelan revolution. A selection of her writings can be found here. The following is an extract from one of her articles: “And I envisage this political instrument as an organisation capable of raising a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism. As a space that directs itself towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of the social movements instead of manipulating them, and whose militants and leaders are true popular pedagogues, capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people — derived from their cultural traditions, as well as acquired in their daily struggles for survival — through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organisation can offer. An orientating and cohering instrument at the service of the social movements.”)


  1. It has kind of happened in Venezuela but at considerable cost and as a result Venezuelans live with spiralling crime rates, rampant kidnapping and one of the highest murder rates in the world simply because the former ruling elite have withdrawn their support for the country.

    It would be a breath of fresh air here for the working class, but I don’t think big brother would allow it or we’d end up going down the same road as Venezuela.

  2. I think perhaps what you’ve missed is the need for internationalism and -economic- as well as political control; a socialist elected government can do a lot, but at the end of the day is still at the mercy of the ruling class. While you’ve got a really good focus on places like Venezuela, they’ve been hampered by the emphasis on the wealth of the nation flowing to the poor through the hands of the state – a situation that has encouraged corruption to blossom wildly. In addition, the threat of world capital has hindered efforts to develop infrastructure. While the state can do some things, it needs to be an instrument of a much, much wider movement that takes control of the economy as well as the politics.

  3. Mike:
    I’m reading and re-reading, however …
    “But the question that is then posed is will it ever be possible for a truly anti-capitalist political movement to come to power in the 21st century”

    I reckon we need to take a step back further because we don’t actually have capitalism for a start. As Max Keiser, Steve Keens and others would have it – we have ‘crony capitalism’ – the likes of which John Key and ilk are its disciples.
    And if you go along with that idea, then yes – there’ll be an anti-CRONY-capitalism if only because its utterly self-defeating. There’s a tipping point already being reached in Europe, after which we’ll all be expected to show a sympathy for its proponents when they meet a violent end.
    Not this fella.
    Everything in moderation ( as my father used to say).
    Unfortunately at the mo – it’s all various levels of extremeism.
    When I consider the world’s demographics, the economic position of the US and Europe . versus . the BRICS – I don;t actually like crony capitalists’ future. And my biggest fear is that the NZ Sheeple will end up on the wrong side of history. Ah well …. so be it

  4. Do we have a ‘ruling class’? Or even a ‘working class’?

    In South America the encounters between employees and employers seem to fit better into the late 19th/early 20th centuries and their responses are following the revolution recipes formed in Europe and Britain in the 19th century.

    I’m thinking it’s not revolution we need here though. The wheel of fortune is predictable and you spelled it out in your piece ATL. It doesn’t take long for the agents of change to be replaced by the opportunist bureaucrat people. Every time. Regardless of ‘class’.

    If there is to be a Next Time, soon, could we aim for evolution instead?

    There’s nothing wrong with capitalism, as such. Four ‘people’ come together – the money, the idea, the means whereby and the labour to create products for people willing to pay for the products.

    The problem starts when one or two of the contributors start to see themselves as more important than the others – and actively work to make them obsolete/redundant (robotics and 3D printers and other obsoleting tools) without considering the likely consequences.

    Which is about where we, the people, have arrived at.

    Not revolution. There is nothing in the past to go back to (apart from full employment).

    Make it evolution, and transition from the days of ‘workforce’ and ‘cannon fodder’ to something needing neither use of people power. It’s about time, surely?

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