Put Down Your Pitchforks: Why Insurrectionary Politics Doesn’t Work

The Russian Revolution continues to have a significant ideological influence on the socialist Left today, over 100 years after its occurrence. Some socialists want to, in one way or another, replicate the Russian Revolution in a modern Western country by advocating for an insurrectionary overthrow of the government. These revolutionary socialists usually argue that the history of the 20th century has demonstrated that the parliamentary road to socialism is a dead end, and that revolution is the only viable path toward socialist transformation.

Why popular movements opt for electoralism

The problem with this line of thinking is that while democratic socialism has never been attained through parliamentary means, no socialist revolution has succeeded in a Western democracy, either. In fact, there’s never been a historical example of an established parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage being overthrown by any popular revolt, socialist or otherwise. There’s a good reason for this: if a movement can convince a majority of the population to support a revolution against the government, it also has a majoritarian electoral coalition that could take the state peacefully. Popular movements tend to opt for the electoral route on this basis.

Furthermore, if the goal of the popular movement is simply to establish some different kind of democratic state with universal suffrage, it scarcely makes sense to overthrow the existing state instead of simply capturing it by electoral means. If the movement is confident that after the revolution, a majority of the population will vote it into office, it’s not clear why the revolution was necessary in the first place. It’s precisely the flexibility of democratic states, their ability to allow power to shift peacefully from one coalition to another, that make them so resilient to revolutions.

Petrograd Soviet
Meeting of the Petrograd Soviet (1917)

If, on the other hand, the goal of the movement is to replace parliamentary democracy with another form of government, different kinds of problems arise. Some revolutionaries, for example, want to mimic the Russian Revolution by establishing a kind of “soviet republic,” where workers elect delegates to a local council, which in turn elects delegates to a higher level council, and so on in a pyramidal fashion. But our limited historical experience with soviet republics is not very promising. The several layers of indirect elections make them much less accountable to the public than parliaments are, not moreso. When the Bolsheviks decided to dissolve the Russian Constituent Assembly in favor of a purely soviet government, they paved the way for Stalinist absolutism. Local soviets weren’t able to effectively discipline higher level soviets, and as opposition parties were outlawed one-by-one, the soviets became nothing more than a rubber stamp on the decisions of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg predicted this grim result in 1918:

“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule.” – The Russian Revolution

If we want to avoid a replay of Stalinist dictatorship, and stay true to our name as democratic socialists, we should oppose the idea of a soviet republic. And regular working people throughout history have had the good sense to reject soviets, too. During the May 1968 events in France, workers spent weeks on general strike throughout the country and occupied many factories. But the French working class didn’t demand a soviet republic: they simply demanded fresh elections to parliament, so that they could elect a left-wing government. While workplace democracy is worth supporting, it should be viewed as a supplement to parliamentary democracy, not a replacement for it.

The democratic state commands legitimacy

Another reason why popular revolutions simply don’t happen in established democracies is that, for the most part, working people in these societies don’t have sufficiently strong grievances against the state to motivate them to support a revolution. Historically, revolutions have tended to occur when the state loses all legitimacy with its citizens, to the point that the army and the police start to refuse orders from the government and side with the masses. These legitimacy crises are usually caused by bloody, convulsive wars such as World War I or World War II.

But today is by far the most peaceful time in human history. Since 1945, wars between states have declined precipitously, particularly among developed capitalist nations. While resource shortages caused by climate change might lead to a modest uptick in war in the coming decades, we shouldn’t expect a World War III any time soon. National economies are more integrated than ever before, with multinational corporations making up most of the world gross domestic product. This makes it much more difficult for states to justify wars, since the economic interests of the home country are closely tied to the economic interests of neighboring countries.

Additionally, while working people still lack the kind of economic security that socialists advocate, it must be recognized that living standards have increased dramatically since the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian workers who supported the Bolshevik insurrection were used to working 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week, in exchange for wages that assured them a deeply impoverished existence. When workers’ lives are this horrible, it’s understandable why they might support an insurrectionary overthrow of the government. Short of this, however, working people are much more inclined to simply vote different people into office in the hopes of improving their living standards.

When a popular movement wins a commanding majority in parliament, it immediately inherits all the legitimacy associated with the democratic state. As long as the elections are fair, no one can question that the new government is a reflection of the popular will. The same cannot be said of governments borne of insurrections. Revolutionary governments tend to be staffed with military figures, who use naked violence to establish their authority. Opposition voices are often censored, leading to rumbling discontent. This is not what democratic socialists should be fighting for.

The democratic road to socialism

While many social democratic parties around the world were founded on an orthodox Marxist program, which advocated a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, over the 20th century these parties began to shy away from their revolutionary roots and came to see the wisdom of the parliamentary road to socialism. Even many of the Communist Parties, which for decades were staunch defenders of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, came to realize in the 1970s that insurrection simply wasn’t on the cards in advanced capitalist nations. These “Eurocommunists” argued that a socialist transformation could be achieved through mass mobilizations of workers in support of a democratically elected socialist government.

Poulantzas old

Nicos Poulantzas, one of the leading theorists of the Eurocommunist movement, critiqued the orthodox Marxist view of the state, which held that the state is simply an institution of capitalist class rule over the workers that needs to be smashed. Poulantzas recognized that democratic states are much more flexible and dynamic than this. Class struggle occurs inside the state itself, as parties and factions representing differing social groups battle inside parliament and the state bureaucracy to shape state policy. Given this more sophisticated view of the state, Poulantzas argued that socialist parties should seek to capture the capitalist state through elections and thereby transform state institutions to make them suitable for the administration of democratic socialism.

As with any strategy, however, there are many ways in which the parliamentary road to socialism can go wrong. When socialists find themselves at the helm of a capitalist state, they are entrusted with the task of administering capitalism. With each successive socialist policy that is introduced, capitalists are made to feel more and more uneasy. Eventually, the state faces a collapse in “business confidence” wherein employers stop investing and flee the country. This places a nearly irresistible pressure on the state to retreat from its socialist agenda. Elected officials face a choice between familiar, stable capitalism, and a highly uncertain leap into the dark, where social unrest and economic collapse seem to lurk. They also fear that voters will blame them for the economic chaos, and vote them out of office. We have seen this story play out time and time again: France in the early 1980s, and Greece in 2015.

The historical failure of elected socialist governments to move beyond capitalism is itself a product of the tremendous legitimacy that advanced democratic states command. Things simply haven’t gotten bad enough for the state and for workers to make the economic chaos associated with a socialist transition seem worth it. This tells us two things. Firstly, this points to the crucial importance of political integration. Large, politically integrated states have much more freedom to do things that harm capital than smaller states, because they more capable of keeping capital flight under control and can hold out against a drop in foreign trade. This makes the backlash from capitalists less of an issue. Small countries like the UK, France, or Spain simply can’t go socialist on their own. The United States, on the other hand, would be a much more fertile ground for a socialist transition, as would a more politically integrated European Union.

Secondly, socialists need to be prepared to stick out for the long haul. Capitalism can only be ended in response to a severe legitimacy crisis, wherein both the state and the general population become convinced that the uncertain leap into socialism is a more viable path to an acceptable social order than maintaining the capitalist status quo. It will likely take many decades for a crisis like this to occur, but we can be confident the rising tide of automation, which will leave hundreds of millions jobless, will create one. In the meantime, socialists should push the boundaries of social democracy while preparing for the moment later this century when society will be ready to leap into the bright democratic socialist future.