The principles of revolutionary socialism were formed over a hundred years ago. Then, capitalist growth was being fuelled by the technological and logistical developments following the Industrial Revolution. Since then, the history of capitalism has been marked by economic peaks and troughs, two World Wars, the rise and fall of state capitalism, massive advances in science, and widespread shifts in culture and beliefs. The Socialist Party of Great Britain argues that its original principles are still valid despite all these changes. This is because the basic structure of capitalism persists, regardless of differences in the way it is organised. But is this right? Has society changed so much that class structure and the role of the state are significantly different now compared to the 19th and 20th centuries? What effects have these changes had on class consciousness and the likelihood of revolution? And how should revolutionary socialists respond through their theory and activity? It’s always healthy to re-examine our beliefs, to see if they still apply to our ever-changing world.
As socialists we do not believe that using the ballot to wrest state power from the capitalist class is by any means the sole revolutionary activity – although we do advocate the
“When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means had become an end ... The brotherhood of man is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures”.
A socialist majority can both win and retain power via the ballot box if that majority is sufficiently organised and determined and if there is no question as to their democratic legitimacy. The slogan “the people united can never be defeated” is also actually true, to back up an electoral victory too. The Socialist Party insists that political action – as the action aimed at getting control of political power – was paramount, with the industrial organisation as supportive, to back up if need be the verdict of the ballot box as well as to take over and run production immediately after the capture of state power.
The Socialist Party wants a revolution but one involving much more than a change of political control. We want a social revolution, a revolution in the basis of society. A sweeping, fundamental change in political organisation, social structure, economic property control, and the predominant myth of social order, thus indicating a major break in the continuity of capitalism. This could be done non-violently through the ballot box. This has been challenged by those who argue that the entrenched ruling class would never allow such a revolution to happen and that the only way they can be dislodged is through general strikes and armed insurrection. Faced with an impending socialist election victory, their argument goes, the capitalist ruling class would abolish political democracy and, even if they let things go so far as an actual socialist election victory, would not respect it and would carry on ruling regardless.
Our critics are not thinking, as we are, in terms of a majoritarian revolution, one involving the active and democratic participation of a majority of the population. They envisage only a minority-led revolution, with an active minority leading a mass of merely discontented but not socialist-minded workers. It is quite true that faced with such an attempted revolution, the ruling class is likely to resist violently, with a reasonable chance of success. Even if such a revolution were to succeed it would not, and could not, lead to socialism. "The revolution rules in their name, but they do not rule. In their absence from effective participation in the revolution, the same thing happens that happens in a peasant-based revolution: gradually the leaders of a minority-led revolution become a new bureaucracy, a new class of rulers. Modern society is ripe for the domination of bureaucracy, in the absence of a revolutionary working class. Perhaps the leader of a minority revolution is not himself irrevocably lost, but his revolution is." Engels. Unless a majority of people want socialism and organise themselves without leaders to get it then socialism is impossible. On the other hand, if they do want it, nothing can stop them getting it, not even a hypothetical abolition of political democracy by a recalcitrant capitalist government.
No government can continue to govern in the face of active opposition from those they govern. If faced with a socialist election victory, the pro-capitalist government suspended the constitution and attempted to rule by decree the Socialist Party says the state machine cannot continue to indefinitely govern and make capitalism function, in the face of the organised opposition of a majority of Socialists. It is not possible for a minority to maintain its hold in those circumstances. Faced with the hostility of a majority of workers (including, of course, workers in the civil and armed forces, as well as workers in productive and distributive occupations), the capitalist minority would be unable, in the long run, to enforce its commands and the workers would be able to dislocate production and transport. In such circumstances, the capitalists would themselves be divided. Not all of them would be disposed to provoke chaotic conditions in a heroic last-ditch struggle. A look at the way in which governments do behave in face of a hostile majority under existing conditions will show how impossible it is for any minority to retain cohesion and to act decisively when it is conscious of being actively opposed by the majority. It is difficult to name a single instance of a capitalist minority managing to maintain its hold on the machinery of government for any length of time in face of the organised and united opposition of a majority of the population. Nevertheless, The Socialist Party takes comfort from the fact that, once there is a socialist majority, socialism will be inevitable.
Even if a pro-capitalist minority somewhere were to try to prevent a change of political control via the ballot box, the socialist majority will still be able to impose its will by other means, such as civil disobedience and strikes. But we doubt that it will come to that. But if it did, it wouldn’t stop socialism being eventually established, one way or another.