The relevance of revolution

Issue: 125

Jonathan Maunder

John Foran, David Lane, and Andreja Zivkovic (eds), Revolution in the Making of the Modern World (Routledge, 2008), £21.99

The idea of revolution today, whether it is possible and, if so, what forces can bring it about and with what strategy, is the question preoccupying most of the contributions to this book. Most of the contributors to this collection want to salvage some relevance for the concept of revolution in the contemporary world but reject the “traditional” idea of proletarian revolution.

In particular, the legacy of the last “classical Marxist” revolution, the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, is largely judged to be either irrelevant or undesirable (or both). At the extreme, the charge does not even rise to the most basic level of historical analysis. Harald Wydra writes of “mob rule” in Russia in 1917 and makes no reference to the soviets as workers’ councils.

The best analysis comes in the essays co-authored by Andreja Zivkovic and John Hogan, and by Alex Callinicos. Zivkovic and Hogan argue for both the desirability and feasibility of revolution as transformative event, or “rupture”, today. Other conceptions remove any real substance from the idea of revolution.

This emphasis is shared by Alex Callinicos who writes about the importance of “the understanding implied by a strategic conception of politics that a new revolutionary subject will not spontaneously emerge but must be actively constructed”. He points to various movements which might provide the context in which such a subject would emerge—the movements which protested at Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, the global anti-war movement, and the social movements in France against the European constitution and the pro-employer CPE legislation.

Callinicos addresses a potential problem for the Marxist conception of revolution today, which stresses the centrality of the working class. This is that the struggles across the world often seem to point towards a number of different potentially revolutionary movements, in which workers’ struggle is submerged. He writes that “popular self-organisation, based more on community…than on workplace”, might arise in areas where the uneven development of capitalism has resulted in the domination of casual or informal employment.

Despite the many criticisms that can be made of the analyses in some of these essays, it is good that an academic collection is taking the idea of revolution seriously again. In today’s world of environmental destruction, gross inequality and war revolutionaries are the only true realists.