Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

What it takes to achieve a true revolution



Our capitalist world is marked nowadays by a condition that might be termed stable crisis. Crisis is no longer the exception; it is the norm. And when a hundred thousand people march in the streets of some apparently strife-torn city (Soweto, Managua, or Tehran), we lift an eyebrow as if to say “all, one more”. The sense of crisis is now so general that we are no longer surprised at the outbreak of massive demonstrations here, an attack by an armed force there.

Nations bomb each other across borders, armies launch into action to teach the other side a lesson. There is a lunatic kind of regularity and familiarity about it all, including the threatening collapse of the world monetary system. Life goes on, restless, filled with disquiet and alienation.

Since it was crisis that brought into being Marxism as a theory and guide to action, it is not surprising that Marxist literature is now flourishing. People are seeking answers to the enormous questions being thrown up within the heart of advanced capitalism and an understanding of the implications of the emergence of revolutionary governments in the Third World, which together with the might of the Socialist bloc has led to a fundamental and irreversible change in the relationship of political forces on a world scale.

For all the surface stability in the centres of advanced capitalism and in the regions under its domination, for all that the sign “business as usual” is still displayed in many parts of the world, there exists the spectre of drastic, and often revolutionary, change around the corner.

“Revolution” is often identified with specific events like mass riots, the slaying of a monarch, a coup d’etat or acts of terror by an armed hand. No doubt this kind of action has occurred in the course of many revolutions but I shall argue that these incidents do not in themselves amount to revolutions.

Even if we were to develop a definition of revolution giving this kind of incident the status of revolution, it would not help us understand the significance of revolutionary events of our day. Revolutions are major events and need to be distinguished from more limited skirmishes with authority.

The really significant revolutions of our time have had a more or less long period of gestation and a coherence of plan and organisation, and they have worked themselves out on a large scale. So we are not concerned with isolated acts, no matter how great an effect they may have made at the time.

Wertheim writes: “Evidently, there is an additional quality inherent in the concept of revolution, which revolt lacks and which basically distinguishes revolutions from any other disturbance, insurrection, or coup d’etat.”

I would suggest that the basic criterion is that a revolution always aims at an overthrow of the existing social order and of the prevalent power structure; whereas all other types of disorder, however they may be called, lack this aspiration to fundamental change and simply aim to deal a blow at those in authority, or even to depose or physically eliminate them.

A feature of the major revolutions in the epoch of industrialisation and the emergence of capitalism is that they have occurred in underdeveloped countries. The Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions all took place in conditions that we now identify with feudalism and colonialism.

These countries, although their conditions differed widely, had in common that class inequalities were extreme, not merely in incomes and wealth but in lifestyles, amenities, political rights and in the total social existence of large sectors of the population.

These class inequalities, often based in feudal social relations, were exacerbated by the further exploitation of the bulk of the population by imperialism and colonialism. The people in the colonial countries compared their circumstances to those of their local rulers and to that of the dominant foreign power. Their appalling and, in general, deteriorating conditions generated numerous rebellions particularly among the peasants and urban proletarians, but these efforts remained disjointed and were easily put down until some kind of revolutionary movement came into existence.

This often took the form of a national movement whose goals included national independence and the elimination of foreign domination, the redistribution of land, and escape from the trap of backwardness in which colonial and feudal rule had placed them.

However, the actual achievement of independence has often proved rather different, particularly in most African states, which are now well differentiated into class systems, the state in the grip of a neocolonial bourgeoisie with a firm base in both public and private sectors.

The claims to pursue socialist and egalitarian goals are now seen to be myth-making and window-dressing. The possible exception is Tanzania. There very real efforts
are being made to curb the ever-present pressure for more wealth and power by the petty bourgeoisie, and a rudimentary democracy is practised.

But the issue is not yet decided and the difficulties of moving in a socialist and egalitarian direction are immense. It is tempting to infer from these African experiences that the claimed transition to socialism was spurious where independence was gained without a clear revolutionary struggle.

The often protracted and carefully staged decolonisation in Africa seems to have ensured that power was handed over to an elite which has since entrenched itself in office; for example, Kenya and Nigeria. Nyerere and Nkrumah subsequently saw this quite clearly.

The picture is certainly very different in those countries that were controlled by more intractable colonial powers and where the struggle was conducted by means of a social revolution directed not only at imperialist rule but also at capitalist/feudal elements within. Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola are instances in Africa while China and Vietnam can be cited elsewhere. In these countries a people’s democratic state has been set up with an orientation to socialism.

The issue of inequality was seen in both national and class terms: independence was seen as necessary to break imperialist control of the economy while the class inequalities within were meant to be overcome by the elimination of feudal and capitalist class privileges and power, leading ultimately, by a process of gradual transition, to a classless society.

The evidence suggests very clearly that only in those former colonial countries where independence was won by a thoroughgoing social revolution involving armed struggle was the power of imperialism and feudalism destroyed and the basis laid for a new popular government.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Ben Turo
Professor Ben Turok is the director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA), publisher of New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. Turok is a former anti-apartheid activist, Treason Trialist, and a former ANC member of parliament.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Basic web lessons for South Africa: Government hacks point to...

Recent cyberattacks at the department of justice and the space agency highlight the extent of our naïveté

‘The children cannot cope any more’: Suicide in Calvinia highlights...

How Covid-19 has intensified the physical and emotional burdens placed on children’s shoulders.

More top stories

Sisters pave the way with ecobricks

The durable bricks are made from 30% recycled plastic, some of which they collect from a network of 50 waste pickers

If the inflation-driving supply strain in the US lasts, it...

In South Africa, a strong trade surplus, buoyed by robust commodity prices, will cushion our economy against pressure arising from US policy

Farmers squeezed by big retailers

It may be beneficial for consumers when supermarkets push to get the lowest price from suppliers, but it can harm the farmers

Covid-19: No vaccine booster shots needed yet

Scientists agree it is important to get most of the population vaccinated before giving booster jabs

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…