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What’s the meaning of ‘revolution’?

Beyond a riot, revolt or rebellion lies a revolution – a fundamental change in who runs society for what purpose, explains the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

REVOLUTION means the transfer of state power from one class to another.

Apart from the earliest “primitive” pre-feudal communities, all class societies, everywhere, throughout recorded history, have a state, defined as the structures and institutions of governance, law and administration.

The state is often presented as the “honest broker” of society, the guarantor of social stability and “freedom,” working in the interests of “the many.”

Ultimately however, the state represents the interest of the ruling class — “the few” who own and control the means of production and subsistence.

Two centuries after the Peterloo massacre, the state continues to be the focus of struggle.

What distinguishes Marxism from social democracy is the recognition that Parliament is not the same as the state; that only through sustained struggle can the working class and its allies win political and state power; and that building the more just and equal society of socialism will involve a transformation of the state as the prelude to the ultimate construction of its classless (and stateless) successor — communism.

Revolution is not the same as revolt or rebellion (which are usually focused on a single issue or institution) but it can emerge from them. The environment is a case in point.

Many young people, through engagement with movements like Extinction Rebellion, have come to realise that capitalism cannot be reformed or the planet saved by simple tinkering: there is something fundamentally wrong with the economic system which caused the problems (and which makes even more profit by pretending to try to solve them).

Quite a few of them have made the link between capitalism’s exploitation of people and its exploitation of nature and have come to realise that it needs to be replaced by something else.

And more and more people are determined to challenge a society where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority (under 4 per cent) of the British population.

Doing that will mean wholesale changes in society — and particularly in the state.

Marx and Engels distinguished between two aspects of the state: “the government of persons” or “state power in social relations” (the repressive bit) and “the administration of things and the conduct of processes of production” (which would continue within socialism but under popular, democratic control).

Today the state, broadly defined, is more complex than it was 150 years ago.

Working-class struggles have secured important concessions, including thee National Health Service, free education, pensions and welfare services, housing, water and energy supply, and transport.

All are imperfect, all have been milked by capital as a source of profit, and all today, where not already privatised, are under sustained attack.

“State power in social relations” permeates the lot. We still have an imperfect and unrepresentative parliamentary system and the core of the state, including the permanent Civil Service (with its close ties with economic elites), security services, the military, the legal system, banks and the media, still exercise a dominant coercive and ideological role and thus continue in its function to maintain class rule in the interest of capital.

The form that a revolutionary transformation of the state takes will vary according to circumstances.

In Britain, our parliamentary institutions, which were secured through struggle and sacrifice, can have a potentially vital role in the advance to socialism.

We’re unlikely to make any significant progress towards socialism without a committed left government in power, determined to resist efforts to undermine it.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represents a return to Labour’s class roots — and a perceived threat to the entrenched power of capital, which why he is so feared and reviled by those in power and the media that represents them, but also why he has received such widespread support, particularly among young people.

So the election of a Labour government will be critical in helping achieve socialism. But a socialist majority in Parliament will need to be accompanied by mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation.

Trade unions and other institutions of the organised working class will be an essential part of the process of building a fairer, more just and more sustainable society which has the support of the majority of the population.

We should never forget that when the “democratic process” has proved a challenge to ruling-class power, that class (domestic or external) has always sought to undermine it in any way they can — including force.

The past century is littered with examples of the way that socialist administrations throughout the world have been undermined or destroyed by economic sanctions, subversion and direct military intervention.

That’s happening today across the world today, led of course by the United States. Donald Trump is again stepping up his efforts to secure “regime change” in Cuba — and Venezuela is merely the latest example of a democratically elected socialist government under concerted attack by international capital.

You can bet that once a left-wing Labour government is elected, dedicated to furthering the interests of the many, that “the few” — let’s give them a more accurate name; capitalists, exploiters with control over the livelihoods of working-class people and their families — will fight back with all the means, fair and foul (mainly foul) at their disposal.

In fact (of course) they’re already doing so, as the increasingly vitriolic attacks on Corbyn and other left Labour leaders demonstrate.

The television adaptation of MP Chris Mullins’s A Very British Coup presents a compelling fictional scenario of the likely ruling-class response to an elected socialist government in Britain.

The use of Corbyn’s image as target practice by members of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment is a chilling foretaste of what might happen should a truly left-wing Labour government attempt, in the immortal words of Mat Coward — journalist, crime writer, children’s novelist and the Morning Star’s very own gardening correspondent — to “chop off their capital.”

A genuine people’s state will be needed to secure an irreversible shift of power in favour of working people, the majority. The form that such a state might take and how it may be achieved needs to be the focus of debate within the left.

It will be necessary to learn from the successes, mistakes and failures of existing and former socialist societies. New forms of popular participation, including a democratised parliamentary system based on proportional representation and direct democracy in local communities and in the workplace will be essential to avoid the dangers of over-centralisation, elitism, careerism and bureaucratic control.

Full accountability of state power to the people will need to be accompanied by free and wide-ranging debate facilitated by accessible and diverse mass media and with democratic rights and freedoms deeply entrenched in every aspect of economic and political life free from the restrictions and distortions imposed by monopoly capital.

As a more recent, British, “communist manifesto” declares: “Holding state power will enable the working class and its allies to complete the process of removing all economic and political power from the monopoly capitalist class. As capitalism is dismantled, so the construction of a new type of society — socialism — can proceed.”

That would indeed be a revolution.

This answer was collectively edited by participants in the Introduction to Marxism course at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School. Details of the forthcoming autumn series of courses and events can be found by visiting


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