L to R: French revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, Karl Marx, Babeuf, Ho Chi Minh, Rosa Luxemburg, FARC fighter

The Possibility of Revolution and the Question of Political Organization              

By Sebastian Lamb  

In the early 20th century,  prominent capitalists, politicians and intellectuals in many countries warned that workers’ revolution threatened Western civilization.  In 1919, many of Canada’s rulers saw the Winnipeg General Strike as verging on revolution (unfortunately, this overestimated the power of  the great unity of the working people of Winnipeg and the solidarity actions of militant workers in other cities!).   

In the Canadian state today, to talk of revolution seems utterly unreal.  The revolutions of the past are  buried by historians, who usually depict them as eruptions of irrational violence that led straight to tyrannies far worse than the problems they sought to remedy.  Today marketers use the term "revolutionary" to sell everything from anti‑wrinkle cream to computers. 

Anyone who wants to see capitalism replaced by a profoundly democratic society geared to meeting people’s needs in an ecologically sustainable manner has to cut through the confusion surrounding the idea of revolution.


"Revolution" has been used to refer to different things. In ancient times, it was the word used to express poor and oppressed people's hopes for liberation. In the 1800s, revolution came to mean a radical change of society that would replace the capitalist priorities of profit, private property, and narrow individualism with different priorities such as human needs and the common good.  

The 20th century saw many revolutions - perhaps most famously the Russian Revolution of 1917 -  and other upheavals. Yet the fate of the Russian Revolution sowed enormous confusion and numerous misconceptions about revolution and socialism. Few people understood how a genuine popular revolution had taken place but that the isolated and fragile rule of the working class supported by the peasantry had been destroyed from within by a counter‑revolution that created a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship. This monstrous regime called itself "Communist" and used the language of revolution to justify exploitation of workers and peasants at home and counter‑revolutionary policies abroad. After the Second World War, similar "Communist" bureaucratic dictatorships were created by the Russian state in Eastern Europe and by revolutions in the "Third World."  

To sort all this out, our starting point should be to distinguish between two quite different kinds of revolution, which we can call political revolutions and social revolutions.  

Political revolutions change the government or sweep away one set of state institutions (for example, those of a one-party tyranny or the personal rule of a dictator) and replace them with another (such as liberal democracy). Such revolutions may bring about real reforms, but they do not carry out a fundamental transformation of society.

An example of political revolution was the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979. It involved considerable popular mobilization and an insurrection that toppled the brutal US-backed regime of Somoza. A radical nationalist government was formed by the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (Sandinista Front for National Liberation). It proceeded to carry out social reforms that improved the lives of rural and urban people. But the revolution never broke the power of the whole ruling class or replaced it with the direct democratic rule of the country's workers and farmers. Nicaraguan capitalists continued to control much of the economy and the US government armed and funded vicious right‑wing "contra" armies to fight the new government. In 1989 the Sandinistas lost the parliamentary election, and the right again had a government of their liking. 

Social revolutions are more radical than political revolutions. They transfer ruling power in society from one class to another. There has been more than one kind of social revolution in the past four centuries.  

One kind of social revolution promotes the development of capitalism. Such revolutions can be called bourgeois revolutions, although we shouldn't think that bankers and factoryn owners seized power themselves. The English Revolution of the 1640s and the French Revolution of the 1790s were this kind of revolution.  Both involved struggles among ruling class factions and "middling" elements, who mobilized the poor to serve their own interests, as well as radical movements of the poor themselves. These revolutions eliminated pre-capitalist social arrangements that stood in the way of the development of capitalism, which itself was a drawn-out process that took place over many decades.  

Another kind of social revolution took place in the "Third World" in the 20th century. The main fighters in these revolutions were peasants, but these revolutions were led by militarized anti‑imperialist parties that were not democratically run by peasants themselves. Where they were victorious, these revolutions of national liberation broke the power of much-hated rulers backed by imperialism.  Unfortunately, they transferred power from one class of exploiters - landlords and capitalists - to a new ruling class of "Communist" bureaucrats who established one-party states on the model of the USSR.  The Chinese Revolution of 1949 is an example. If the kind of society that was created by these revolutions is understood as state capitalism, then these revolutions can be seen as a version of bourgeois revolution. If this kind of society is seen as non-capitalist in nature, then these revolutions can be seen as a distinct kind of social revolution.  

Socialist revolution  

Revolutions that demonstrate the potential to create the direct administration of social affairs by the democratically organised masses are a kind of social revolution unlike the ones just discussed. These are socialist revolutions.  Such revolutions are not started by revolutionary activists. They break out when deep‑rooted social crisis prompts the ruled to resist in ways that make it impossible for the rulers to continue to rule as they have.

Whether they grow out of anti-imperialist struggle or other kinds of social crises, this type of revolution is distinguished from all others by working people creating new democratic mass institutions through which they begin to run society themselves.  These are organizations of socialist democracy (also known as workers' democracy).  They take a variety of forms:   workplace committees, councils of workplace delegates, neighbourhood assemblies...   These are mass organizations, institutions in which broad layers of people participate, not organizations of radicals and militants alone.  Whether the people who create such fantastic new institutions understand it or not, the existence of these democratic institutions of the exploited and oppressed alongside the established state institutions is a situation of dual power.  This poses the most revolutionary question:  which class will run society?  For this reason, the ruling class and its state will do all it can to co‑opt or crush the new organs of democracy.  Only when the situation of dual power is resolved by the institutions of socialist democracy becoming supreme and suppressing the power of the old ruling class can the long process begin of building a self-managed, ecologically-sustainable society that is free of the sway of capital. 

Today, some anarchists talk about cooperatives, democratically‑run community centres and the like as seeds of dual power, and believe that developing more of them is a revolutionary strategy. Unfortunately, dual power has never emerged this way, bit by bit.  It is only in times of social crisis that wide layers of people create new institutions of democratic control to address practical problems.  In the past, dual power has arisen when people have organized themselves in response to challenges like the democratic coordination of a general strike, preparing to fight an impending coup, or to organize the distribution of food and the provision of public services when bosses withhold goods and services.  Whatever the merits and drawbacks of setting up co-ops and self-managed spaces, creating them is not a strategy for revolution. 

Socialist revolutions are "festivals of the oppressed,” because they involve exploited and oppressed people rising up, taking control of their lives, and turning society upside‑down.  In doing this, masses of people begin to change, discovering that they are capable of doing things they never considered possible.  This involves an incredible ferment of ideas and all sorts of experimenting with new ways of organizing society as people unlearn what’s been drummed into us by centuries of oppression and alienation. 

This underlines how socialist revolutions differ from bourgeois revolutions. The development of capitalism begins before capitalists have become the dominant class in society.  Bourgeois revolutions further the development of capitalism, which involves capitalists replacing pre‑capitalist exploiters (such as landed nobles) as the dominant class in society.  Even if risings of the poor take place, the end result is that one small minority class of exploiters replaces another.  

In contrast, socialist revolutions put the exploited majority in power for the first time in human history.  This democratic control of all aspects of society cannot be achieved by any party or armed minority acting as a substitute for the masses; it can only be established by the exploited and oppressed themselves.  Unlike the development of capitalism, a transition to socialism can only begin after workers have come to power. Only then can the capitalist logic of production and distribution on a for-profit basis be replaced with the democratically-planned production and distribution of goods and services.

The first experience of socialist democracy was the short-lived Commune of 1871, in which the working people of Paris ran the city before being crushed.  Since then, dual power has arisen on a number of occasions.  In Russia in 1905 and again on a larger scale in 1917, workers and peasants set up new democratic institutions including councils (called soviets), factory committees, and soldiers' committees. These formed the basis of the workers’ and peasants’ power that was established in 1917 but eventually succumbed to bureaucratic counter-revolution from within.  The revolution in Germany in 1918‑1919 also saw councils of workers and soldiers established.  There the reformist Social Democrats and union officials remained the leadership of most of the workers' movement and were able to channel the council movement into an accommodation with the capitalist parliamentary state.  In Spain in 1936‑37, dual power existed in Catalonia but lack of decisive revolutionary direction among workers and peasants led to its demobilization and repression by the Popular Front government.  Dual power also existed in the Bolivian Revolution of 1952.  Workers’ councils were at the centre of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, crushed by the armed might of the USSR.  In 1972-73, Chilean workers set up elected workplace-based committees called cordones, as well as some similar neighbourhood structures.[1] Elements of dual power emerged in Portugal in 1974-75, and in Poland in 1981 before the Solidarity union movement was put down by Stalinist martial law. The popular committees and assemblies in France in 1968 and Argentina recently were not mass organizations of workers’ democracy, but they pointed in that direction.  

These and other experiences don't give us blueprints for the future.  We don’t know what future socialist revolutions will look like.  But we can draw some important conclusions from history that help us distinguish between what takes people closer to the establishment of socialist democracy and what moves in other directions. Two stand out: 

Successful socialist revolutions will involve general strikes run democratically by workers themselves, mass demonstrations and insurrections.  

Dual power emerges out of mass strikes and other mass mobilizations that display high levels of self-organization. Insurrection is needed to defeat the capitalist state power that will attempt crush the new mass organizations of socialist democracy.  

A working class that doesn't democratically control all aspects of society can't be fully self-governing. 

What working people don’t run for themselves will be under the control of others. So working‑class rule is only partial if institutions of socialist democracy become the public power governing society but workers don't democratically run their own workplaces. Similarly, it isn’t enough for workers to occupy their workplaces and take over neighbourhoods: they need to replace capitalist state power with organizations of socialist democracy.

But is it possible? 

Some people may basically agree with this analysis, but think that this kind of revolution isn’t going to happen again.  After all, it’s been some years since workers’ self-organization anywhere created a situation of genuine dual power.  Why should we believe that such a revolution will ever happen again? 

The only credible and honest way to answer this is to begin by clearly acknowledging that there are no guarantees.  However, we do know that waves of revolutions of various kinds punctuated the 20th century.  In recent years, deep social crises leading to massive social revolts have wracked Argentina, Bolivia and several other South American countries.  Capitalism will continue to produce such crises and popular mobilizations. Although we cannot predict what kinds of struggles from below will break out in response to future crises, it would be rash to forecast that we will never again see revolutions with the potential to establish socialist democracy.  In the era of capitalist globalization, the next situation of dual power will likely be known and discussed internationally with incredible speed.  The experiences of its heights of democratic self-organization will be transmitted around the world and fuel strategic debates among anti-capitalists.

People who come to understand that capitalism must be replaced if humanity is to have a decent future need to decide if we are willing to make what French Marxist Daniel Bensaďd calls “the melancholy wager” that the revolutionary transformation of society is possible.  There is no rational basis for proclaiming the inevitability of socialism.  We can’t have that kind of religious certainty.  We don’t even have reassurance that the odds are good.  We can only look at the stakes and decide if we want to make a wager.  Those of us who decide there are good reasons for refusing to despair have the responsibility to try to make sure our political activity contributes both to meeting the needs of exploited and oppressed people today and to making future possibilities (about which we cannot be certain) more likely. “Revolutionary action is not the imperative of a proven capacity to make history, but engagement in a conflict whose outcome is uncertain.”[2] 

The practical conclusion we should draw from this is the need to foster militant, democratic and solidaristic self-organization and radical consciousness.  This means building both movements of resistance and organized currents within these movements of people committed to a long-term vision of revolutionary change.

There are good reasons to think that people will again create highly democratic forms of self-organization on a large scale – situations of dual power.  What will it take for such revolutionary situations to be resolved in favour of socialist democracy?

Revolution and Political Organization 

The experience of socialist revolutions in the 20th century has demonstrated that it is entirely possible for dual power to emerge, but for the ruling class to prevail.  Only in the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the rule of the exploited and oppressed in the form of socialist democracy able to establish itself on more than a local scale with any degree of stability (a process of democratic decay and bureaucratic degeneration began within a year, as the result of a combination of influences that there is no space to explore here[3]). 

It’s difficult to cut through the thicket of myths, misunderstandings, distortions and lies that has grown up around the Russian Revolution.  But the basic picture is this:  in Russia, a situation of dual power was resolved in favour of the workers and peasants because there were organized political forces deeply rooted within the self-organizing and rapidly-radicalizing masses that a) had a clear strategy for victory (“All Power to the Soviets!”), b) were capable of assisting people to draw the conclusion from their own experiences that if they wanted to win their basic demands they had to take power into their own hands, so that a majority of urban workers came to support soviet power, and c) were able to act decisively and take the steps required to break the power of the already-weakened ruling class in the major cities.   

In other words, there was an organized and consciously-revolutionary minority with enough political clarity and influence to provide effective leadership in the situation of dual power.  By far the most important of the organizations of revolutionaries (whose numbers grew enormously during the course of 1917) was the Bolshevik Party.  In 1917, this party was changed by an influx of radicalized workers.  The experience of revolution also proved that the Bolsheviks’ theory about how revolution in Russia would unfold was partly wrong.  But the party managed to reorient itself and adopted the strategy argued for by VI Lenin and the most advanced working-class activists (including the socialist group around LD Trotsky):  fight for the replacement of the Provisional Government created after the overthrow of the monarchy with the power of workers’ councils. Other revolutionary forces either joined the Bolsheviks (as Trotsky’s group did) or allied with them during the course of 1917.

It’s useful to contrast the Russian experience with the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1937 (portrayed in Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom).  Many workers and peasants rose up in 1936 in response to a military coup against the newly-elected Popular Front government.  Dual power existed in parts of Spain.  Many workers and peasants were willing to struggle to defeat fascism and create a new society.  Large numbers considered themselves anarchist or Marxist revolutionaries.  But most supported the Popular Front (made up of non-revolutionary socialists, the Stalinist Communists, and liberal republicans, soon joined or backed by the leaders of the important anarcho-syndicalist union CNT and the anti-Stalinist Marxist party POUM).  In the name of anti-fascist unity, the Popular Front leadership demanded that there be no anti-capitalist action.  This strategy led the Popular Front to demobilize workers’ and peasants’ militias, end factory and land occupations, refuse to grant independence to Spain’s colonies, and then in 1937 repress the CNT and POUM.  By 1939, the fascists had defeated the Popular Front. 

There were revolutionaries in Spain who had clearly understood that the Popular Front’s path was in fact counter-revolutionary and a recipe for defeat (since taking away the power and gains made by peasants and workers in revolt didn’t leave them much to fight for) and who recognized that neither the leaders of the anarchist movement nor the POUM were pursuing an alternative strategy for victory.  But these clear-sighted radicals were too few and divided to have much influence.[4]  If their forces had been larger and better organized, the outcome of the Spanish Revolution might have been different.  

The conclusion that we should draw from these and other revolutions in the 20th century is not that the Russian Revolution is a model that can be copied.  Nor is it that the absence of a revolutionary party is the only reason why other revolutions were not victorious (as many Trotskyists end up arguing).  However, the political leadership of influential organizations of socialism from below activists rooted within mass movements has an indispensable role to play in revolutions. Mass organizations of workers’ democracy are not enough.  Nor are organizations of socialists that participate in struggles and disseminate ideas about revolution enough.[5]  

In a situation of dual power, every political current in society will argue about how to resolve the crisis.  The consciously-revolutionary minority must have a winning strategy for the establishment of socialist democracy, and be up to the challenge of actively helping to create majority support within the masses for going all the way.  This doesn’t mean preaching at the masses, but rather by proposing initiatives  (concretely applying what has been learned from past struggles and from what is going on).  It is impossible for socialism from below activists to do this without being effectively organized.  Socialist organizations need to be able to draw lessons from unforseen developments and to revise their strategy and tactics, since there is no road map to victory.  When the self-organized masses are prepared to resolve a crisis of dual power, organized revolutionaries must be able to act decisively to ensure that institutions of socialist democracy replace those of capitalist rule.  Yet at all times they must avoid the mistake of substituting their efforts for the self-activity of the exploited and oppressed, who must come through their own experiences to the conclusion that going all the way to establishing their control of society is necessary.  This calls for revolutionary organizations that refuse the temptation to take power over the masses or through them, which keep their eyes on the ultimate goal, are resolutely internationalist, and will not assume governing responsibility without the conscious support of the majority.[6]  

There is great scope for debate about precisely what form political organizations of socialism from below activists should take (although for the extremely weak socialist movement in the Canadian state today this is hardly the most pressing issue!).  I address one influential model in the appendix below.  The question of how socialist political organizations should organize should be approached concretely:  the purpose of such organizations is to help socialists carry out our tasks in a specific time and place.  There is much to be learned from past organizing efforts, although the lessons are often about what not to do.  It is not helpful to try to apply inherited models (such as the Leninist organization championed by the early Communist International and defended by Trotskyism, or the model found in the Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists defended by “platformist” anarcho-communists).  The form of organization best-suited to supporters of socialism from below in, say, the Philippines (where state repression and assassinations carried out by Maoists against other left currents are real threats) will be different from what is most appropriate in the Canadian state.  There is plenty of room for experimentation and learning, providing that we are trying to organize in ways that fit our circumstances and tasks today and are consistent with our revolutionary vision.   

Appendix: On Leninist Organizing 

Since the 1920s, the most important reference point in discussions about revolutionary organization among supporters of socialism from below has been the approach advocated by the Comintern before it came under Stalinist control.[7]  This was presented by both its defenders and its critics as how the Bolsheviks organized prior to the Russian Revolution. 

In brief, this approach (dubbed “Leninist” after Lenin’s death, when the ruling bureaucracy in the USSR was codifying its ideology) maintains that revolutionary socialist organizations do not seek to represent the entire working class, since there are many different ideological currents among workers.  Instead, they seek to organize the minority of conscious revolutionaries within the class and build support for revolutionary politics. 

It also argues that revolutionary parties should be organized along the lines of democratic centralism.  This is often summarized by its supporters as free discussion followed by unity in action.  However, the Comintern was clear that “The main principles of democratic centralism are that higher bodies are elected by lower bodies, all directives of higher bodies are absolutely binding on subordinate bodies and a powerful Party centre exists whose authority between congresses is unquestioned by all the leaders of the Party” (from “The Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution”).  

Daniel Bensaďd has written that “The Leninist question – who will come out on top? – is that of political leadership: which class will be capable of resolving the contradictions which are stifling society, capable of imposing an alternative logic to that of the accumulation of capital, capable of transcending the existing relations of production and opening up a new field of possibilities?”  This is indeed the question posed by situations of dual power.  It flows from a recognition that the inevitably-divided working class cannot become the united core of social forces capable of transforming society without going through all sorts of complex ideological clashes between different political currents, each of which has its proposals about what to do and how to do it (the essence of political leadership).  The insistence that revolutionaries need to organize independently[8] of other currents (shared by some non-Leninist supporters of socialism from below, myself included) flows from the need to be able to intervene in tumultuous social struggles with decisive proposals that can be shown in practice to address the needs of the exploited and oppressed better than those of other political currents. 

However, Trotskyist and other anti-Stalinist Leninist organizations have too often acted in ways that haven’t strengthened self-organization (“substitutionism” -- substituting the actions of a minority for the self-activity of the exploited and oppressed).[9]  Some supporters of socialism from below have acknowledged this problem and sought to correct it while remaining within the framework of Leninism.  These “critical Leninists” have insisted that small revolutionary socialist groups must not be confused with vanguard parties (mass revolutionary organizations that really are based on substantial layers of revolutionary workers), and that to try to organize small groups as if they were large democratic centralist parties tends to produce sects.  Critical Leninists have pointed out that in most parts of the world today there are no layers of revolutionaries (vanguards) in the working class but only scattered individuals and groups.  They have also argued that internal democracy in socialist groups is crucial.  Some critical Leninists have gone further and concluded that the existence of different experiences and political viewpoints not only within the masses but within vanguard layers and groupings means that socialist organizations need to be pluralist in character, and have criticized aspects of Lenin’s theory and practice.[10]

These are very important correctives.  But they do not go far enough.  We can appreciate the need for independent revolutionary organizations capable of providing political leadership to win majority support for establishing socialist democracy without accepting that such organizations should be built along democratic centralist lines.  The vertical structure and enormous authority this model grants to elected leadership bodies (especially central ones) is a constant invitation to authoritarian and substitutionist kinds of political activity.  This is not to say that democratic centralism always leads to these results.  Nor does democratic centralism create these problems.  Pressures that push radicals into doing politics in substitutionist and authoritarian ways arise because consciousness and self-organization among the exploited and oppressed are so uneven.  But organizing on democratic centralist lines does little to help socialists deal with these pressures, and sometimes adds to them. 

It is true that democracy in socialist organizations is meaningless if decisions are not collectively implemented.  Without this, there is no shared activity that can test decisions in practice.  However, the formulae of democratic centralism are not the only ways that such an activist democracy can exist.  Despite the Comintern’s insistence that victory requires democratic centralist “iron proletarian discipline,” in reality the Bolsheviks themselves were more free-wheeling and flexible than this in 1917.[11]  Critical Leninists who have come to accept pluralism in socialist organization should stop clinging to the Comintern inheritance of democratic centralism.  Taking this step moves beyond Leninism altogether.  This is a step that can be taken without giving up the positive contributions made by critical Leninist supporters of socialism from below.

End Notes

[1]Almost all the recent commemorations of the Popular Unity government overthrown by military coup in 1973 failed to even mention these organizations, let alone appreciate that dual power was coming into existence in Chile.  An exception is Frank Gaudichaud’s “Voices from a revolution” in Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), Sept. 2003.

[2]Daniel Bensaďd, Marx for Our Times, 71.

[3]I know of no fully satisfactory study of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration.  For those interested in this experience, the best place to begin is Samuel Farber’s book Before Stalinism. 

[4]These included anarchists like the Friends of Durruti group, Trotskyists and the left wing of the POUM.

[5]This is the kind of socialist organization favoured by supporters of socialism from below like  CLR James and many anarcho-communists.  Socialist organizations need to be able to do more than participate and spread general ideas:  they need to propose what is to be done to advance struggles to victory, and how to do it -- the essence of political leadership.

[6]See “What does the Spartakusbund want”? (1918) in Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings.

[7]This was laid out in documents like “The Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution” (1920) and “The Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Contents of their Work” (1921).  This has been a major influence on Trotskyism, but also on  other anti-Stalinist Marxists such as the currents that developed in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.

[8]That is, in organizations with political clarity on the socialist goal and on what strategy to pursue to try to achieve it.  Depending on circumstances, this may mean organizing as a separate group or as an organized current within a broader party or movement.

[9]Anarchist and other non-Leninist socialist organizations have also sometimes acted in substitutionist ways – this is definitely not just a Leninist problem!

[10]A sophisticated example is the essay “Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!” by Daniel Bensaďd, online at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj95/bensaid.htm

[11]See Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin.