You can find the word “revolution” in nearly every section of the newspaper. Innovative movies are declared “revolutions” in filmmaking. Great advances in science are deemed “revolutionary.” Meanwhile, manufacturers declare their newest products—whether high-definition televisions, shaving creams or shoe soles—all to be “revolutions” in their respective fields.
Of course, when most activists talk about revolution, they are talking about social change. Some use the word loosely. “We need a revolution” becomes a phrase that basically means, “We need a big progressive change.”
In society, changes can come about through new technology and innovation. Other changes come about through human struggle. The movements for health care, affirmative action, better wages, same-sex marriage rights and abortion rights are examples that have won some reforms. Reform movements are often large and powerful, pulling vast numbers of people into struggle against the ruling class for basic democratic rights.
Marxists use the term “social revolution” in a very precise way. Whereas reforms are changes within an existing social and economic system, social revolutions make a sharp break from one social system to another. A socialist revolution would end the private ownership of the factories, mines, transportation and offices by a tiny clique of capitalists.
Social revolutions in history
The French Revolution of 1789 was a social revolution that replaced feudalism with capitalism. It did not just do away with the monarchy—although thousands of aristocrats were killed at the hands of the people they had exploited for centuries. It uprooted feudal relations between the peasants, who were the vast majority of the people, and the landowners. It cleared the way for capitalist relations of production and commerce.
The 1917 Russian Revolution ousted the czar and the aristocracy. But it did more than that. It overturned the newly developing capitalist property relations, throwing out the owners of factories and banks and putting the property into the hands of workers’ councils—soviets. For the first time in history, the working class held state power.
Russia had been a vast and oppressive empire. Many people of different nationalities were held under the thumb of the brutal czarist regime. Russia was previously called the “prison house of nations.” The new revolutionary government charted a course of working class internationalism, both with respect to the many nations inside Russia as well as in foreign affairs.
The Russian Revolution provided a beacon for working-class organizers for decades. Korean, Chinese and Yugoslavian communists learned important lessons from the Russian Revolution that set the stage for new revolutions in their respective countries.
The socialist revolution in Cuba in 1959 seized power from the ruling elite and their U.S. corporate backers, eliminating landlords and bosses. In Cuba, the changed conditions won in revolutionary struggle produced free health care, free education and millions of dedicated revolutionaries. Today, tens of thousands of Cuban doctors are working in Latin America and Africa, providing free health care in the poorest neighborhoods.
U.S. opposes revolutionary movements
The U.S. government represents the interests of the world’s most powerful banks and corporations. It has opposed all of the revolutions listed above. Nothing has changed today. The U.S. government still acts to destroy revolutionary movements worldwide on behalf of the tiny minority of property owners.
The Bush administration is threatening revolutionary movements in Colombia and Venezuela. In Venezuela, the United States backed a 2002 right-wing coup against the government of President Hugo ChÃ¡vez that presides over a revolutionary process in the oil-rich Latin American country.
In Colombia, the United States has spent billions of dollars in a war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other organizations fighting the reactionary U.S.-backed death squad government of President Ãlvaro Uribe.
The Bush administration is also threatening Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Like Cuba, North Korea had a revolution and embarked on a path of socialist construction. The United States wants to overturn the tremendous social gains of both countries.
The potential U.S. revolution
Empires fall. Societies change. Capitalism replaced feudalism. Socialism will replace capitalism.
In the United States, a socialist revolution would expropriate the wealth of society and use it for the benefit of the vast majority. In the early stage of capitalism, the bourgeoisie were the organizers of production. Today they have become superfluous. At the current high level of technological development, workers do not need the capitalist class. On the contrary, private ownership of the means of production is holding back society’s vast potential.
Socialist construction in the United States will give the working class the ability to organize the vast and highly interconnected economy to produce for human need instead of for profit. With all the machinery and technology of society in its hands, the U.S. working class can make vast improvements for humanity.
One of the biggest contradictions of the capitalist market is overproduction. Because production is based on private profit, corporations compete for markets. Without a plan, they produce more than the market can sustain. Workers cannot buy all the products produced. Unemployment and poverty exist side by side with vast wealth.
The iron law of capitalism, the profit motive, forces less profitable corporations to shut down production, abandon their machinery and lay off workers. So much potential is wasted. The homeless sleep in front of abandoned houses. People go hungry as farmers bury their crops. These contradictions characterize daily life under capitalism.
Periodically, the chaotic nature of capitalism leads to crisis, whether in the form of economic depression, imperialist war or both. In such a crisis, the stage is set for the working class to directly confront the bosses in a general struggle for power. During these inevitable periods of heightened struggle, the ruling class’s inability to meet basic demands can lead to a surge in political activity, a seizure of state power and the overthrow of the entire system.
A new crisis will arise. It always does. The only question is whether the working class will have a leadership developed enough to go beyond the struggle for reform and carry out a workers’ revolution.