Prospects for a Third Revolution

A red moon rising

Is it likely that the cycle of insurrectionary revolutions that began in seventeenth-century England will continue into the future? Could a revolution of the kind [I discussed in The Third Revolution] still conceivably take place in the Euro-American world?

A conclusive answer is difficult to provide. Whether the revolutionary era is over can only be determined by time. But the important role of the idiosyncratic, the accidental, and the individual in shaping the course of historical events makes it difficult to provide a “handbook” for achieving a successful revolution. No schematic formulas or laws can apply to all revolutionary developments, although parallel events are strikingly present. Attempts to produce them are invariably misleading, as witness attempts by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s to impose the events peculiar to their own October Revolution (or coup) upon attempted revolutions elsewhere in the world.

One lesson that history teaches, however, is that a revolutionary movement must not permit its principles to degenerate into a hardened dogma that enmeshes action in a skein of restrictions. In Russia in 1917-18 the Left SRs were unmatched ideologically by any other revolutionary party in Europe. More than any other Russian socialist group’s program, theirs expressed what a majority of the Russian workers and peasants desired and would have enthusiastically supported. But they also held an unswerving belief in the spontaneous élan of the workers. A mere gesture from a revolutionary party, they hoped, would inspire the proletariat and peasantry to rise spontaneously and create a seemingly new social order. When they staged their quasi-insurrection—even holding hostage Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka—they refused to take power in the Kremlin when it was all but lying in their hands. Instead, they naively waited for the masses to rise up on their own. That is, at a historically crucial moment they were shackled by dogma. They thus allowed their own movement to be destroyed at a time when it had reached the very height of its power.

Lenin, by contrast, exhibited great tactical flexibility throughout his career. A shrewd revolutionary, he knew when to yield and when to stand firm as circumstances required. When the Left SRs made their revolutionary gesture, he decisively parried their every half-hearted thrust and quickly removed them from the political scene. He handled other opponents just as expeditiously. Far from being paralyzed by dogma, the Bolshevik leader pragmatically placed his chessmen in all the key positions that made it possible for his party to prevail in October 1917 and afterward.

The Spanish anarchosyndicalists shared with the Left SRs a basic belief that a true revolution must be organic and spontaneous—its success must be “natural” rather than based on a meticulously planned strategy. Hence in their “revolutionary gymnastics” they tried to turn every early-1930s strike into an uprising, every uprising into an insurrection, and every insurrection into a revolution. These ultrarevolutionary principles hardened into dogma. “Running the streets!” as this reckless practice was called, became so commonplace that even the ultrarevolutionary Asturian miners refused to provide arms to CNT-FAI members during their October 1934 insurrection for fear that the cenetistas would carry the revolt beyond tolerable limits and doom it to failure.

Another lesson that history teaches is that militancy is not the same thing as revolutionism and should not be confused with it. The German workers in 1918-23 were among the most militant in central Europe and to all appearances wanted a council republic. In reality, however, the Social Democratic leaders had little difficulty in misleading them, by representing conventional democratic reforms as socialistic or at least as steps toward the achievement of a socialist society. Ebert and his collaborators on the Council of People’s Commissars easily steered the German workers toward acceptance of a basic democratic republic clothed in socialist rhetoric.

Still another lesson that this history teaches is that contenders for power are normally not generous to each other, let alone comradely. In the revolutionary era organized military units had an extraordinary ability to quell massive popular insurgencies. Some three thousand Freikorps troops were all that was needed to disperse about ten times as many fairly well-armed Bremen workers in 1919, once word got around that the paramilitary forces were marching against the German city. General Yudenich, the White Russian commander, might well have taken Petrograd with a small number of troops had Trotsky not rallied the fleeing Red troops in the outskirts of city in an act of remarkable personal courage.

Counterrevolution, in turn, has usually had at its disposal well-trained, well-equipped, and relatively disciplined armies. In the past revolutionary success often depended not only upon the formation of a similarly organized and trained insurgent force but also upon the willingness of the rank-and-file military forces to shift their loyalties and support to the revolutionaries. The most striking instance occurred in February 1917, when the Cossacks refused to fire on rebellious crowds, leading to a citywide mutiny and the fall of the tsar. Trotsky knew the importance of winning over the loyalty of soldiers when, at Brest-Litovsk, he openly mounted a major campaign calling upon the German workers to rebel against their military and political leadership.

Today, however, armies are increasingly spearheaded by volunteer and even elite troops in contrast to the conscripted forces that once linked soldiers to the people. It is immensely difficult today to believe that highly disciplined, let alone elite, troops will cross over the nearly mystical line that separates them from the insurgents. Ironically today’s antimilitarist radicals, by opposing conscription, have made such a shift in loyalties almost impossible. Moreover, modern weapons have rendered military-style insurrections ever more irrelevant. The ruling classes have all the advantages of a technically sophisticated and politically disinterested military force, supported by an incredibly effective war machine. Laser- and satellite-guided weapons systems have an accuracy and killing power that would have been unimaginable only a generation or two ago. Mortal flesh cannot stand up against cold steel and powerful explosives, despite the powerful psychological effects of moral persuasion and political ideology. Against such forces a poorly trained, decentralized, and egalitarian force will most likely succumb to defeat.

Thus the most crucial task for a revolutionary movement today is to win over to its views the great majority of the population. The great uprisings of the revolutionary era that we have examined in The Third Revolutiontried to make just such appeals, albeit in different ways. The leaders of the English, American, and French revolutions--the democratic revolutions, which defined their goals in terms of changes in governmental institutions--believed themselves to be acting on behalf of a broad social base: white male owners of small amounts of property. Social theorists like the eighteenth-century Encyclopedists addressed their writings to this population as “the people,” advocating the restoration of freedoms usurped by the nobility.

To Marxist historians, however, these democratic revolutions were “bourgeois,” since the “inalienable natural rights” they touted for the people as a whole were really meant to be enjoyed by only a fraction of the population: the bourgeoisie.* The Marxists, however, advanced revolutionary ideas on behalf of what they considered to be a much larger portion of the population: the working class. Even if the proletariat was not yet the majority of the population, in their view the workers would eventually become the vast majority. Destined to acquire demographically the principal role in society, the proletariat would be historically hegemonic and the authentic agent for achieving sweeping economic as well as political change.

In the decade preceding the outbreak of the First World War, it seemed highly plausible that the steady growth of modern industry and of civil rights would make the proletariat the absolute majority and the most decisive political element in the population as a whole. But however large the proletariat was in England, Germany, and the United States, it nowhere became the absolute majority of the population. Every self-styled socialist revolution in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century was, in fact a minority revolution. In 1914 the Russian industrial proletariat numbered less than eight percent of the population, while the peasantry encompassed most of what remained. Had Lenin not adopted the Left SR agrarian policy of redistributing the land through the village commune, the Bolsheviks would have had no significant base in the countryside. Duplicitous in their dealings with the Russian peasants, the Bolsheviks professed to adhere to an agrarian program that among themselves they regarded as “petty-bourgeois” and that they probably had no intention of implementing. They also claimed to support workers’ control of industry, a position Lenin discarded only a few months after the October insurrection in favor of one-man management and nationalized industry. Once the Communists abandoned these essentially Left SR policies, they had no popular base at all, and their regime had to rely on brute coercion in order to exist. Thus they established a party dictatorship, not even a minority dictatorship, imposed a domestic terror, and fought a civil war within the civil war to effectuate policies that the great majority of the Russian workers and peasants opposed. This soon left them isolated within the country at large and degenerated into a crass one-man despotism.

The Social Democrats in western and central Europe believed that a revolution made by a demographic minority must inevitably result in civil war, as proved to be the case in Russia, and that if their coup succeeded, it could maintain itself only by establishing the dictatorship of a civil (not even a class) minority over a demographic majority. This prospect induced Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, to declare in 1918 that he detested revolution like “sin.” Nor was the majority of the German working class revolutionary. Nothing testifies to the isolation of revolutionary Marxism more decisively than the fact that between 1914 and 1939 not a single Socialist or Communist party ever achieved even an electoral majority in any major European country. Within the working class revolutionaries were always a minority, except, perhaps in Russia and if so only in the years 1917 and 1918.

In fact, the proletariat as a whole has generally feared insurrections--and has acted in an insurrectionary manner only under the most exceptional circumstances. The three-day armed demonstration of the Berlin workers in early January 1919 does not invalidate this conclusion. As Luxemburg and Lenin both predicted, delay in carrying out an insurrection—at times even for hours—could lead to abysmal failure. The German proletariat was perhaps the working class most socially integrated into the existing capitalist system of any in western Europe, and in caution and moderation it differed from other European working classes in degree, not in kind. Perhaps the two great exceptions were Spain and Russia. Although armed workers were usually not eager to use weapons and create a violent upheaval, in these two countries many worker-peasants were inspired by traditions of direct action, nurtured by their rural background. In Spain and Russia, direct action pure and simple, not social revolution, was a routine response to overt abuses.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, for a variety of reasons, industrial workers remain a small and dwindling portion of the population. But any revolution that hopes for success must be based on the support of a majority of the population; hence the kinds of programs that “workers’ parties” advance will have to be changed radically. Their program will have to be a civilized statement in every sense of the word: humanistic, ecological, and moral as well as economic. They will need to carefully sort out the complexities of different forms of governmental institutions and find ways to use them to approximate an expansively free society and count not simply on a blow of the sword but on step-by-step advances.

Revolutions are unlikely to occur unless a powerful imperative drives people to undertake personally dangerous and socially destabilizing measures: that is, to expand democratic institutions that the people themselves have built up over centuries. For Marxists, the classical imperatives (described by Marx in the third volume of Capital) were entirely economic in nature, intended to round out the political imperatives that emerged out of the French Revolution. A “decline in the rate of profit” would produce a “general crisis in capitalist accumulation,” so the Marxists held, which would cause the working class such misery (“immiseration”) that the proletariat as a majority of the population would rise up against all bourgeois institutions and replace them with a socialist society. Thus would capitalism “necessarily” or “inevitably” be replaced by socialism—to many Marxists, even without human agency.

The past half-century has shown that the old Marxist economic imperatives are no longer tenable. No “general crisis” has emerged since the 1930s, and capitalism is more robust today than any revolutionary socialist could have foretold. Socialist theory has yet to decide whether capitalism has even reached its full development. Exactly at what stage we may be in capitalism’s “life cycle”—youth, adolescence, or maturity—we frankly do not know. Moreover, the proletariat has steadily lost its identity as a class and its traditions of struggle against the bourgeoisie as a class. It has even developed a great attitudinal affinity with the middle class. Capitalism is still a robust social order whose demise lies somewhere in the future. Certainly it is not moribund, declining, or an impediment to technological development, as many Marxists of the interwar period maintained.

A new imperative has emerged, however, that may well call capitalism’s future into question. This imperative is not strictly economic but ecological. Capitalism’s economic law of life consists of growing competition in the marketplace and indefinite capital expansion. The capitalist social order is based on the technological imperative of “grow or die.” Given this imperative, capitalist society must eventually come into conflict with the natural world and lead to its simplification by reducing soil into sand and the organic to the inorganic. It is inexorably driven to replace the rich flora and fauna of the biosphere with glass, steel, cement, and brick, turning oceans into uninhabitable sewers and forested land into deserts of sand and cement. So too must it foul the atmosphere with toxic substances and pollute waterways with chemical agents that are incompatible with the maintenance of complex life-forms. This problem is no abstract theory but can be measured quite objectively by the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; by the degree of soil erosion that destroying arable land; by the industrialization of agriculture that is producing crops of dubious nutritional value; by rising cancer rates; and the like.

Ecological breakdown does not confront a single class alone. Rather, as it involves a market mechanism that inheres in society itself, it menaces all classes of society. In short, revolution may no longer be a class-limited concept; it affects humanity as a whole. The “constituency” of ecological breakdown consists of the vast majority of the population. Ecological breakdown can be avoided only by abolishing the competitive market system and fostering the fecundity of the natural world.

Such a revolution need not be conceived as a violent transformation of society. With the support of the great majority of the population, institutions can become the primary means for changing society. The convocation of humanly scaled town meetings and the expansion of existing democratic institutions, given a free press and new communications technology, can go very far to transform consciousness and revive a civic ethics that will replace bourgeois self-interest with a new conception of the public good. In a rational ecological society traditional political institutions can be sophisticated to maximize democracy among large populations notwithstanding the diversity of vocational activities and interests.

Nor need a rational ecological society abandon all the valuable technological features that earlier societies have produced over thousands of years; on the contrary, given the expansion of automated production, a new society could provide the leisure time for self-development and political involvement. Indeed, an increasing sufficiency of goods should make it possible to replace scarcity and toil with usufruct and leisure, developing human potentialities aesthetically, psychologically, and politically to replace the one-dimensional worker with the multidimensional citizen as the agent for social administration and change.

Only time can tell whether achieving the great social ideals that have been formulated during the revolutionary era demand too much of humanity’s potentialities. In my view, the great social project opened by socialism two centuries ago may seem fragile today, but by no means is it dead. As authentically democratic institutions are transformed and become more expansive over time, the very notion of revolution too should be open to modification. But that prospect must await the judgment of time: the task of creating a new social reality remains a problem for future generations to resolve.

* To denote the English, American, and French revolutions “bourgeois” is absurd, since with the possible exception of the American Civil War, no bourgeoisie has ever tried to “lead” a popular uprising. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie has good reason to fear revolution. Revolutionary “disorder” has a way of threatening not only specific possessing classes but the fact of possession itself. The so-called “revolutionary” bourgeoisie has always feared mass action of any kind or for any cause.


Editorial Comment

This article is the conclusion of Murray Bookchin's massive account of popular movements for revolutionary social change, The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era, Vol. 1-4 (London: Cassell and Continuum, 1996–2005); these pages are from Volume IV, pp. 261-67.