From people’s power to workers’ power
Revolution is back in the news.In Thailand heavily armed cops are shown retreating under a hail of missiles being thrown by demonstrators.
Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan crowds commandeer tanks to help bring down a corrupt regime that has presided over misery. A new government, led by people associated with the revolution, is now in charge.
In both countries thousands have taken to the streets in an expression of popular will against corrupt, dictatorial elites. Protests of this type are often labelled as “people power” – recognition that they involve people of all classes and many political ideas.
And, if the revolt is so serious that it topples the existing order, it has become a “democratic revolution” – a means by which ordinary people can reassert their right to elected government and the rule of law.
Every socialist is in favour of basic democratic rights. After all, they provide us with the space to agitate and organise. But do recent experiences in countries like Ukraine and Georgia prove that democratic revolutions are self-limiting events?
They often end with changed faces at the top, while conditions for those at the bottom remain the same.
Can a fight for basic rights ever go beyond the trappings of parliamentary democracy?
A glance at the leadership of these movements might suggest this is unlikely. They are generally drawn from opposition figures thought to have the necessary credentials for running the state.
It is rare for workers to display the confidence necessary to play this role themselves at the onset of crisis.
But just because workers are not leading a social movement from its inception, it does not follow that class differences are not present within it.
In order to remove the existing order, those who want to take control of the state require the backing of much greater forces. They can seek to harness the power of the working class.
In almost every revolutionary situation it is workers that put their lives on the line in the storming of parliaments and palaces. And only workers have the economic strength to shutdown the country.
The way the issue of what constitutes “democracy” can become a class question is illustrated by events in Thailand.
Supawadee Khamhaeng has always been poor. “But that was all right in past times,” she told The Age newspaper. “My family had some small land, we grew enough rice and, besides, that was the old years.
“It can’t be like that now; they always rich, we always poor.
“That is not democracy.”
For millions of people in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Thailand the price of accepting that any revolution be restricted to purely “democratic demands” is a life permanently on the brink of poverty. Meanwhile, a tiny minority enrich themselves.
Sometimes the spirit of the revolution is so strong among workers that failure to meet their demands can result in renewed conflict.
Friedrich Engels, writing about the revolution in Germany in 1848, noted, “It is the fate of all revolutions that this union of different classes… cannot subsist for long.
“No sooner is the victory gained against the common enemy than the victors become divided amongst themselves… and turn their weapons against each other.”
Engels pointed out that the process of revolution contains the possibility that the working class will raise its own demands.
Beating back the forces of the state requires organisation and confidence that workers do not have in ordinary times. But revolutions are not ordinary times.
Suddenly the most downtrodden can find themselves in meetings that plan how to spread strikes and build barricades. A feeling of power starts to flow into the working class that can overcome decades of force-fed subjection.
This newfound freedom often marks the beginning of independent political organisation that can act as an alternative source of power, and, under certain circumstances, even replace the existing state.
Old certainties – like the inevitability of being ruled by “your betters” – can start to breakdown.
And the new institutions created for the purpose of removing one discredited ruling class can be used against those that replaced them.
Those who answer the question of who runs the factory with cries of “We do,” can start to ask the question of who runs the state.
Whether or not workers can start to provide their own solutions to any crisis are largely dictated by its scale and the extent to which they have built independent organisation in advance of the revolution.
That is why the construction of revolutionary organisation remains the central task of all those who want a complete transformation of society.