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Revolution in our time

Peter Hogarth and Jesse McLaren

May 29, 2013

Resolved that this body places itself on record as being in full accord with the aims and purposes of the Russian and German socialist revolutions, and be it further resolved that this body gives the executive full power to call a general strike should the allied powers persist in their attempt to overthrow the soviet administration in Russia or Germany or in any other country in which a soviet form of government is or may be established.”
This resolution was passed by the Alberta Federation of Labour in January 1919. The imperial rivalry that produced the scramble for colonies eventually pitted imperial powers against each other in a world war, which social democratic parties all supported. But there was growing resistance that revolutionary organizations helped coordinate.
The Russian revolution was a “festival of the oppressed”—legalizing homosexuality, winning abortion and divorce on demand and communal crèches, granting freedom for religious and national minorities. Workers took over factories, peasants took over the land, and soldiers ended the war.
As British PM Lloyd George frantically wrote “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt…The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.” This was not confined to Europe: there was an Egyptian revolution, an uprising in Afghanistan and Libya, and general strikes in Canada.
In August 1918 a one-day general strike erupted in Vancouver (the first in Canadian history) against the murder of socialist and anti-war activist Ginger Goodwin, and in December there was a mutiny of Quebec soldiers in Victoria refusing to fight against Russia. In May 1919 the people of Winnipeg organized a general strike lasting six weeks, during which they began to run the city themselves.
The wave of radicalism was violently rolled back, in Canada and around the world, and brutal counter-revolution was victorious in Russia and Germany. But it shows that Canada is not immune from the revolutionary waves that capitalism inevitably produces.
The 20th century: a century of revolution
Revolution is so characteristic a feature of the modern capitalist world that the 20th century can be described as a century of revolution.
In Europe, where capitalism began, there were revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917, the Irish rebellion of 1916-21, German and Austrian revolutions in 1918-19, and the Spanish revolutions of 1931 and 1936. Uprisings freed Paris, the cities of Northern Italy and Athens from Nazi occupation in 1944, there was a Hungarian revolution in 1956, massive uprisings in France and Prague in 1968, a revolution in Portugal in 1974, an uprising in Poland in 1980 and in Serbia in 2000.
China saw massive revolutionary activity in 1925-27, Pakistan in 1968, Chile in 1973 and Iran in 1979. Strikes and protests overthrew South African apartheid in 1994 and the Indonesian dictator in 1998, there have been uprising across Latin America for the past decade, and in the past two years revolutions across the Arab world.
None of these were declared by revolutionaries, though the size and influence of revolutionary organization helped determine the outcome. These revolutions all emerged from movements on the ground—beginning with a small, partial challenge to the system, developing through a broadening of involvement and a deepening of radicalization, and fusing political and ideological resistance with the economic power of workers to shut down production and create the possibility for a world based on people not profit.
Life under capitalism
Revolutions are endemic to capitalism, and break out when years of accumulated contradictions reach a crisis point. The Russian revolutionary socialist Vladymir Lenin wrote that a revolution is characterized by two things: “One is that life becomes increasingly intolerable for the mass of the population.” By that he didn’t mean that people couldn’t survive, that everyone was thrown into famine or complete deprivation. What he meant was that the small things that keep people going in the past under capitalist society begin to disappear for them.
There is this idea that everyone is happy under capitalism, but just take a ride on the Finch East bus at 7 in the morning or on the 401 at rush hour, and see how many people are smiling. For many people, life under capitalism means a round of working 8 or 9 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week, for an average wage that is the lowest it has been in over 30 years, with little or no health benefits or pension, at a workplace where you’re told what to do by someone else, you go home in the evening, probably have an argument with your partner about who’s going to feed and put the kids to bed, watch some horrible show on television that you probably fall asleep to, and then the alarm goes off in the morning and you do it all over again.
Saying people are happy with capitalism ignores the daily experience of exploitation and oppression, sharpened by the economic crisis. Massive layoffs in manufacturing in Ontario have taken away the opportunity from thousands of clocking in and being a wage slave for 8-10 hours a day and keeping themselves living in the way they were used to in the past. The anti-choice movement is calling for the defunding of abortion, governments are cutting services for people with disabilities and scapegoating migrants. The fact that voter turnouts are at record lows is not because people are happy or apathetic, but because they don’t see social democracy as a vehicle to improve their lives.
Capitalist crises
The second condition Lenin said for a revolutionary situation to occur was that “the ruling class also cannot continue in the same way.” We are in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the Cyprus government’s move to raid people’s bank accounts shows the despite extent to which the 1% will go to maintain their profits. Canada has not had that level of economic crisis at this point, but it’s integration with the global economy ties Canada to its fate.
Economic crisis has also produced an ideological crisis. After a generation of attacking the “excesses” of government services and extolling the virtues of the free market, governments had to rush to bail out banks and corporations with public funds, and then justify why jobs and services would not be bailed out but instead cut. The inability of social democratic governments to offer any alternatives has heightened political polarization, with the growth of radical left and far right parties.
Economic crisis is also sharpening imperial rivalry, which attack oppressed nations and pit imperial powers against each other: the war in Georgia pitted the US against Russia, the periodic crises in North Korea and resource war in Africa pit the US against China, NATO powers split over Iraq and argued over Libya. The massive demonstrations against the Iraq War—mobilizing at its peak 30 million people around the world (including hundreds of thousands across Canada, stopping our government's direct participation) shows how imperialism can spark resistance.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s war on the environmental and indigenous land is provoking growing resistance—including to Canada’s tar sands and pipelines. As CO2 emissions pass a historic threshold, we can anticipate further “natural disasters” which the 1% will attempt to profit from, and which ordinary people will resist.
From resistance to revolution
Canada is not in a period of broad economic resistance like the general strikes in Greece, or strike waves in revolutionary Egypt. But there have been inspiring fights like Alma, Quebec, and there is political and ideological resistance. The first mass sentiment in the wake of the Egyptian revolution was social democratic reform—through the Orange Wave for the NDP even if the party is unable to stop imperialist wars, economic crises and climate chaos. At the same time, voter turnouts have been at historically low levels—coinciding with the Occupy movement and one of its slogans, “the system’s not broken, it was built this way.” Occupy radicalized people against the 1%, while Idle No More exposes the colonial foundations that need to be uprooted. The Quebec student strike demonstrated the mass democratic structures necessary to mobilize hundreds of thousands of students, a model of the rank-and-file networks necessary to coordinate mass workers strikes.
A revolution in Canada would need to hugely expand and unite all these elements—mass opposition to the 1% and solidarity amongst the 99%, democratic structures to fuse political with economic resistance, and a radical transformation of society and its relationship with nature. Like Egypt, this wouldn’t be a single event but an unfolding process driven by working class resistance, overcoming the separation between economics and politics. As Rosa Luxemburg analyzed in The Mass Strike, “the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle.”
Revolution in Canada, against the Canadian 1%, is both necessary and possible, and even if it can’t be predicted it can be influenced. Revolutions emerge from movements on the ground and progress through struggle, shaped by ideas and organization. With a revolutionary perspective, we can help build movements as broad as possible, connecting anti-oppression and ecological movements to working class struggle, while building revolutionary organization.
If you like this article, come to Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a conference this weekend of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "When revolution swept the world: 1917-1924", "Why is capitalism in crisis", "Why do we need revolutionary organization", "Egypt: class and revolution" and "Fighting fascism: an eyewitness account from Greece."

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