Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
In stark contrast with the 20th century that witnessed some three dozen revolutions, some successful, others not so, the dawn of the 21st century was ushered in in a climate of scepticism about the prospects for any further revolutions, not the least because of the extended overhang of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist regimes in and around 1991. To add to the general pessimism in this regard, China’s embrace of capitalism since 1978, despite the hidden potential of capitalist economic development in a country still struggling with pre-capitalist survivals that has so spectacularly raised China’s profile as the new pre-eminent rising power, raised troubling questions about the future of socialism in China. As if all this were not enough, surviving socialist countries such as Vietnam and Cuba have had to make compromises with, and embrace, some elements of capitalism in order to survive. The prospects therefore for the survival of socialism, let alone revolutions, appeared dim.
It seems logical and therefore to be expected that after such a world-historic defeat as in 1991 (critiques of the Soviet Union notwithstanding), and the subsequent difficulties of survival of socialist regimes in North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, etc, not to mention the fading of revolutionary hopes in the Third World, that lack of conviction, commitment and revolutionary fervour characterise the current period of retreat of the Left. This period of defeat and retreat that the Left is passing through is neither the first, nor likely to be the last in history. However, the pall of gloom and quietude it has left in its wake requires some discussion of revolutions per se.
Marxists hold that revolutions occur because the structural nature of the prevailing relations of production and of political power, precisely because they are structural, do not just fade away. In fact the ruling classes resist even the gradual elimination of these relations to the very end. Revolutions therefore tend to emerge as the means whereby the overthrow of the whole gamut of these relations is realised. Revolutions in their very nature constitute a sudden, radical overthrow of the prevailing social, economic and political structures. They are quantitative and qualitative leaps in the historical process. However, revolutions are not everyday occurrences. If examined against the sweep of history, they tend to be the exceptions, not the rule. In pre-revolutionary periods, lack of clarity often does, and in the current period most certainly has, give rise to defeatism, opportunism and illusions. One of the latter, a pattern discernible in almost every period of defeat and retreat in the last two centuries, is a deviation into reformist stances, particularly social democracy. This recurring current essentially puts its faith in reform leading to a better, more just society. But reform remains confined within the boundaries of what the rulers find acceptable, without disturbing their hegemony.
Of course there is no Great Chinese Wall separating evolution (or reforms) from revolution. Quantitative gradual social changes do occur in history, as do qualitative revolutionary ones. Quite often, the former prepare the ground for the latter’s emergence, especially in epochs of the decay of a given mode of production. The prevailing economic and political power relations can be eroded, undermined, increasingly challenged or slowly disintegrated by new emergent relations of production and the political strength of revolutionary classes (or their major fractions) rising in their midst. This represents the conjuncture of the objective (structural decay) and subjective (revolutionary classes’ challenge) conditions that characterise periods of pre-revolutionary crises.
But the erosion and decay of a given social and political order basically differs from its overthrow. Evolution does not equal revolution. Apart from their characteristic sudden overthrow of the ruling structures, revolutions come through huge popular mobilisation, through the massive active intervention of large masses of ordinary people in political life and struggle. This is what marks them off from so-called ‘revolutions from above’.
The abiding mystery of a class society based on the exploitation and oppression of the mass of direct producers by relatively small minorities rotates around the question why this mass in ‘normal’ times by and large tolerates these conditions, albeit with all kinds of periodic, limited reactions. Marxism’s many-dimensional explanation of this phenomenon posits that a combination of economic compulsion, ideological manipulation, cultural socialisation, political-juridical repression (including state violence) and psychological processes (interiorisation, identification, etc) render the oppressed feeling weak before their oppressors in spite of numerical superiority because they are ‘on their knees’. Revolution occurs when this feeling of weakness and helplessness is overcome, best summed up in the sentiment: ‘We won’t take this any longer.’ Suffering and consciousness of injustice are not sufficient to induce large scale revolts (leading to revolution) amongst the broader masses. As Lenin says: revolutions occur when the ruling class is no longer able to rule in the old way and the oppressed masses are no longer willing to be ruled in the old way(1). The decisive role in pitting the masses against the existing order is played by the conviction that their suffered injustice is neither inevitable nor a ‘lesser evil’, i.e. that a better social set up is realisable.
Locally or regionally fragmented revolts tend to act as a brake on direct challenges to a given social and political order. Revolts turn into revolutions when such revolts are unified countrywide. When a majority of the people refuses to be fooled and intimidated any longer, i.e. refuses to remain on its knees and while recognising the fundamental weakness of its oppressors, becomes transformed from seemingly meek, subdued, helpless ‘cattle’ into ‘lions’. They strike, congregate, organise and demonstrate in increasing numbers even in the face of massive, gruesome, bloody repression by the rulers and their powerful armed apparatus. Such conflicts can and do evolve into armed struggles (Cf. the current Myanmar struggle against the military coup and subsequent repression, which by now has grown into an armed struggle by 400 groups). In such struggles, the masses often show unheard of forms of heroism and self-sacrifice and an admirable obstinate endurance. Thereby they may end up getting the better of a disintegrating repressive apparatus. This could be considered to constitute the first victory of every revolution. The final victory lies in the substitution of the armed power of the former rulers by the armed power of the revolutionary class/es.
Social revolutions occur when the prevailing relations of production cannot contain (promote?) the development of the productive forces, increasingly act as fetters on them and cause a cancerous growth of destructiveness accompanying that development. Political revolutions occur when the prevailing relations of political power (forms of state power) likewise become fetters upon the further development of the productive forces within the framework of the prevailing relations of production, a development that is still historically possible. Such revolutions generally consolidate the given social order instead of undermining it.
The materialist explanation of revolutions offered by Marxism is still indispensable for finding the answer to the question: ‘Why, and why just then?’ Revolutions have occurred in all types of societies but just not in a uniform way. This raises the profound question whether there is a universal ‘model’ for revolutions, the search for which has historically produced much tragedy amongst revolutionary movements. The undeniable prerequisite for a revolution to succeed is the incremental collapse of the rule of the oppressors. There are usually objective causes for this decline and eventual surrender. They include increasingly paralysing internal divisions amongst factions of the rulers about how to get out of the mess (Cf. Pakistan today). These irreconcilable divisions give birth amongst the ruling elite to growing self-doubt, loss of faith in the future, and an irrational search for peculiar culprits (conspiracy theories) substituting for realistic objective analysis of social contradictions (Cf. Imran Khan). This combination produces political ineptitude, counterproductive actions and reactions, if not sheer passivity (paralysis). The basic cause, however, remains the rotting away of the system, not the peculiar psychology of one or the other group of rulers.
The basic historical causes of revolutions remain structural, while the factors and events triggering them are conjunctural. The structural causes of revolutions are by no means monocausally ‘economistic’. The contradictions between the productive forces, prevailing relations of production and/or political power relations are not purely economic, but basically socio-economic. They involve all the main spheres of social relations, but eventually find their concentrated expression in the political, not economic sphere. The inability of the rulers to continue to rule is not only a socio-political fact with its inevitable concomitant of an ideological moral crisis (a crisis of the prevailing ‘social values system’). It also has a precise technical-material aspect. To rule also means to control the material network of communications and the centralised repressive apparatus. When that network and control breaks down, the oppressors’ rule collapses. One must never therefore underestimate the technical aspect of successful revolutions.
After this somewhat lengthy theoretical digression, it remains to sum up some characteristics of revolutions described above and examine their implications for us in Pakistan. Revolutions are historical facts of life, but counter-revolutions too are an undeniable reality. In fact counter-revolutions seem regularly to follow revolutions in history. This phenomenon, studied superficially, has given rise to received wisdom such as: ‘Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme chose’ (The more things change, the more they remain the same). But a deeper study may show that things never remain the same after a revolution, even if it eventually succumbs to a counter-revolution. The impulse that triggers revolutions leaves an indelible mark on society. The character of both revolutions and counter-revolutions reflects a unique combination of the general and the specific.
In today’s globalised capitalist world, the general posits the need for a determined worldwide revolutionary movement with bonds of solidarity across the globe. The specific looks back on the long dashed hopes of revolutions in the developed capitalist countries and the equally infructuous promise of national liberation and revolutionary movements in the Third World which, even if they successfully captured power, soon found themselves entrapped in the structural constraints dictated by a globalised capitalist system. The post-socialist countries of what was once dubbed the Second World are still groping their way forward, with the war in Ukraine serving to justify those amongst them who have joined hands with the west and those now aspiring to follow. For them, it seems a long way to go before they can even begin the discussion on their future as societies.
Pakistan not only has typical Third World characteristics as far as its mode of production (mixed), relations of production (oppressed workers and peasants), and political structure (or lack of it) is concerned, it has some specific problems to contend with. Capitalism is not flourishing in Pakistan, or at best marginally, given the stagnation and deindustrialisation of the last half century and the stagnation if not decline in agriculture that is wholly an outcome of neglect, reversal of land reform, and the hegemony of vested interests. The political system only pays lip service to parliamentary democracy but is in fact a showpiece controlled ultimately by the military, a source of collaboration with this powerful state institution having been imbibed and swallowed by all the mainstream parties representing the ruling elite. The struggle remains one for democracy, at the very least a genuine parliamentary one, ideally a people’s democracy that empowers the poor by dismantling the levers of power of the rich.
Notes and References