Can There Be a Revolution in Britain?

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Report from a Marxist Forum in Bristol

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in April, 30 of us got together in Bristol for one of our regular Marxist forums. Sitting round cafe tables in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, we discussed the possibility of revolution in Britain. We were of different ages and varying political backgrounds, but what we had in common was a concern about the society we live in and a desire to change it.

Huw, a social worker, introduced the forum. Revolution is necessary, he said, firstly because we can't rely on parliament to bring about fundamental change. Even if MPs voted to deliver power and wealth into the hands of the working class, the state, which is not neutral, would deploy all its resources to maintain the status quo and protect the rich. Secondly, he argued, it is only through revolutionary struggle that the working class can rid itself of all the rubbish that the capitalist system instils in our heads.

Huw then dealt with the argument that there will never be a revolution in this country because British workers have comfortable living standards and a strong belief in parliament. He argued that there have been times when the British working class has challenged its rulers such as in 1919 when Britain was at the brink of revolution, 1926 when there was a General Strike, or during the 1984-85 miners strike.

Huw also looked at the role of the Labour Party. In the past Labour has been able to reflect people's aspirations and direct the unrest into safe channels. As the party is no longer identified with such popular demands as renationalisation its influence is waning. Trade union leaders can still exert control, but workers in Britain are aware of the huge anti-privatisation demonstrations on the continent. They know that 'something is going on', and they want to be part of it.

As soon as Huw had finished speaking there was a rush of questions. Elizabeth, a community activist and a candidate for the Socialist Alliance, wanted to know, 'What is your definition of a revolution?' Nick, who works in further education, asked, 'How do we get from here to there? What are the conditions for revolutionary change? Do we have to be desperate?'

Linnet, a civil servant, acknowledged that there was a fragmentation of support for New Labour but said, 'People believe in "reformism" still. That's the hardest bit--convincing people.' Dave was concerned about violence, and asked if it was inevitable in a revolution. 'What will happen afterwards?' asked Vicki, a third year student. In another contribution the idea that a revolution meant the total and fundamental transformation of society was discussed--ordinary people would control every aspect of life, economic and political, and there would be a huge expansion of democracy.

Caroline, who works in a law centre, referred to Rosa Luxemburg's description of how mass strikes build the revolutionary movement, developing from economic demands to political ones. The question of violence was taken up by Martin, a hospital technician. He acknowledged that there might be some violence in a revolution. 'But', he said, 'that pales into insignificance compared to the levels of violence this system inflicts on millions of people every day.'

Denis, a housing officer, described how throughout history workers involved in revolutionary struggle have organised themselves into democratic structures based in the workplaces and communities. It is through these elected bodies that the working class debates, decides, exerts control and builds the future society.

There was a final question from Dave. 'It's the idea of revolution that frightens people,' he said. 'Is it total, or are we talking about a process of change?'

In the last ten minutes Huw brought together the points raised in the discussion. He emphasised that there is a qualitative jump from massive demonstrations to revolution, from workers thinking, 'We hate the bosses,' to deciding, 'We don't need them.'

Revolutions arise from crisis, when the ruling class can't continue as before and the masses refuse to. To begin with, people will act more revolutionary than they think. But it takes mass struggle to transform workers' consciousness.

Revolutionary movements will always meet political challenges. Leaders of the trade unions or old political parties will put forward ideas that seem to make sense, for example that the workers' councils should simply confine themselves to economic matters.

The more successful the revolution, the less violence there will be. A successful outcome depends on the presence of workers committed to revolution growing from a minority of the class to a majority. They help to carry the revolution forward. In Russia in 1917 the slogan 'Bread, peace and land' required revolutionary methods for them to be achieved.

It had been an enlightening, challenging and inspiring afternoon.