Revolution 1: What do we mean by ‘revolution’? – An anarchist answer by Philip Ruff

This article is abridged from a talk by the author to the Cambridge branch of DAM/IWA on 8 August 1985

The Storming of the Bastille, July 14 1789

‘…you ask me what I seek in life. I wish neither to dominate nor be dominated. I wish neither to dissimulate nor deceive; nor do I wish to exert myself to acquire what I am told is necessary, but of which I do not feel the need.’ — N. G. Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done? (1863)

REVOLUTION is a much used term but rarely is it discussed in a way that sheds any light on what the process actually involves. Revolutionaries themselves more often than not refer to it only in passing, or in terms of some historical myth dictated by whatever their particular ideology happens to be. The actual historical events of revolutions are either overlooked or tailored to fit a prefabricated political dogma. So let us get away from this habit and look at what we mean when we talk about revolution.

Revolution is a specific form of accelerated social change

It is often supposed that revolution is something different from, or even in opposition to evolution. But if we bother to examine the history of how society has developed it is evident that revolution and evolution are part of the same process. ‘Revolution’, as Alexander Berkman neatly puts it, ‘is merely the boiling point of evolution’.[i] If we look a little closer at the various points in history when evolution has come to the boil we begin to see that there are two sorts of revolution. The first is political revolution; where all that happens is that one group of people seize the power of a particular state from another group. Who controls society changes, but nothing very drastic is altered on any fundamental level and the nature of that society and the distribution of power remains the same. The second sort of revolution is the one that interests us as anarchists, and it is a relatively modern invention: social revolution. To quote Berkman again:

(1)  a social revolution is one that entirely changes the foundation of society, its political, economic, and social character;

(2)  such a change must first take place in the ideas and opinions of the people, in the minds of men;

(3)  oppression and misery may hasten revolution, but may thereby also turn it into failure, because lack of evolutionary preparation will make real accomplishment impossible;

(4)  only that revolution can be fundamental, social, and successful which will be the expression of a basic change of ideas and opinions.[ii]

Revolution then is not just a question of a transfer of power, but of a transformation of values also; the two can not be separated.

For all our criticisms of the prognostications of Karl Marx, for how a future society should develop, he was a very perceptive observer of the past. Marx looked at history and formulated the development of society into an evolutionary chain of six stages: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. This ‘higher stage of communism’, equating more or less to what we would call anarchism, is obviously a prediction of the future, and the so called ‘transitional’ stage of state socialism crashed in Russia soon after takeoff. For Marx the dynamic elements which cause one stage to change into the next are the ‘dialectical’ creation of social classes, brought into being by the prevailing mode of production; as the mode of production changes so do classes, and because the interests of different classes are diametrically opposed this produces class warfare and revolutionary change. But this struggle of classes is also a struggle of ideas and values (ideologies). For Marx values are only ideological justifications of privilege advanced by the dominant class. ‘What else does history prove’, Marx asks, ‘than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’[iii]

The point of quoting Marx for the purpose of examining revolution is that it brings us right to the centre of what we are dealing with when trying to understand how groups and classes come to power; how they hang on to power; and how that power is occasionally overthrown, or more accurately brought down or made to collapse. Groups remain in power because they can convince the rest of society, either by persuasion or force, that they should do so. A withdrawal of consent, a rejection of belief in the values and ideas of the ruling class, is a rejection of the authority of that class and of their claim to govern legitimately. That is why the recourse to some all-embracing ideology or religion is virtually inevitable by ruling elites to explain and justify their dominant position in society: God, or the Rule of Law, or (for Marxists) History, or whatever fits the bill, gives them the right (nay, duty!) to be where they are – in control. This explains why religious or political heretics and revolutionaries have been so persecuted throughout history; it is what they represent, who they are, and the alternative ideas they hold, which are perceived as so threatening by those who because they hold the power are the orthodoxy.

Anarchists do not fundamentally disagree with Marx’s analysis of history, only with his prescriptions for the future; and with how revolutionaries can best accelerate social change and bring evolution to the boil. Fundamentally this comes down to a rejection by anarchists of The State, both as a principle and as a tactical means of moving from Capitalism to Communism; a rejection of any form of ‘transitional stage’ or ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the process of social revolution. To quote Michael Bakunin:

Bakunin2‘In a word, we reject all legislation, all authority, and all privileged, licensed, official and legal influence, even though arising from universal suffrage, convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interests of the immense majority in subjection to them. This is the sense in which we are really Anarchists.’[iv]

By the anarchist rejection of authority and of its institutionalised form, government personified by the state, the class struggle is simply taken to its logical conclusion, the abolition of classes; or as the French anarchist Anselme Bellegarrigue put it, ‘Anarchy is order, government is civil war’.[v] By ending the division of society into warring classes through doing away with the principle of authority, which rests on the exploitation of the majority by a minority who are protected by the state, Anarchy (the goal of Anarchism) marks the beginning of a truly human development. This is why the anti-authoritarian Bakunin proclaimed:

‘We do not fear anarchy, but invoke it, convinced as we are that anarchy, meaning the full affirmation of unfettered popular life, must inaugurate liberty, equality, justice, the new order and the clash between Revolution and Reaction… it makes precious little difference to us whether authority dubs itself Church, Monarchy, constitutional State or even revolutionary dictatorship. We loathe and reject them all alike as never-ending sources of exploitation and despotism’.[vi]

By the same token governments are equally hostile to anarchism; by their values, which are the dominant ones in society, the prospect of Anarchy is naturally enough seen in the negative sense as being synonymous with chaos and violence; which is the prevailing view among society generally, where there is more often than not no direct contact with anarchist ideas.

The Paradox of Revolution

If we approach the study of revolution in a spirit of honest enquiry we run up against a fundamental paradox: that it is not revolution that produces change, but change that produces revolution. According to the American philosopher Eric Hoffer:

‘We are usually told that revolutions are set in motion to realise radical changes. Actually, it is drastic change which sets the stage for revolution. The revolutionary mood and temper are generated by the irritations, difficulties, hungers, and frustrations inherent in the realisation of drastic change. Where things have not changed at all, there is the least likelihood of revolution.’[vii]

‘The puzzle’, as Tom Wintringham discovered when he examined the history of military mutiny, ‘becomes not why did the mutiny occur, but why did men, for years and generations, endure the torments against which in the end they revolted.’[viii]

The answer to the puzzle is supplied by Peter Kropotkin: people by nature are sociable creatures; the greatest successes in human endeavour are based not on conflict but on co-operation, what Kropotkin called ‘Mutual Aid’.[ix] No one achieves any intrinsic satisfaction in smashing up the furniture at home, there has to be a reason for it. On a social level, rebellion occurs for social, not anti-social reasons. Revolutions and rebellions are a defence of society, or a protest against arbitrary authority, where the government of society itself is perceived as being anti-social. In this context revolution becomes the means of obtaining social justice. Law abiding people, as witnessed during the 1984 British Miners’ strike, see no contradiction in breaking the law when the law itself is seen as illegitimate. What is of interest here is that people are more likely to come to this conclusion when their expectations are greater than the reality of the status quo.

Writing about the French Revolution of 1789, Alexis de Tocqueville says:

Execution of Robespierre (28 Juy, 1794)

‘…experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform! It was precisely in those parts of France where there had been most improvement that popular discontent ran highest. This may seem illogical – but history is full of such paradoxes. For it is not always when things are going from bad to worse that revolution breaks out. On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it.’[x]

So it is not merely oppression that produces revolution; otherwise the autocracy of the Russian Tsar would have been overthrown much sooner, Stalinism would have never lasted a week and General Franco would not have died peacefully in bed.

According to the American sociologist James Davies:

‘Revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal… The crucial factor is the vague or specific fear that ground gained over a long period of time will be quickly lost. The background for political instability is economic progress. A populace in a static socio-economic condition is very unlikely to listen to the trumpet or siren call to rebellion… Progress in other words is most of the time a necessary but insufficient cause for violent political change…’[xi]

Black-Panther-Party1In other words, stable societies do not revolt; it is changing or destabilised societies that have the potential to do so. And it is the checking of rising expectations, whereas before people had no expectations beyond those permitted, that provides the crucial impulse to reject the status quo. An example of this is the black protest movement in America after 1954, which is popularly believed to have been caused simply by a lack of constitutionally provided civil rights for black people and systematic racial segregation. Actually both black and white accepted a stable situation in which black people were viewed as inferior for most of the century after the American Civil War; popularly but wrongly supposed to have been fought to end slavery, when in fact the central issue was the imposition of a unified central government over that of federalist autonomy. Because by and large black people accepted the value system which explained their inferior status, most did not support the early innovations advanced by marginal figures from within the own ranks. The stereotypes held by whites and blacks together were reinforced by the stability of systematic discrimination. What changed this passive attitude and destroyed the social equilibrium of segregation were things which affected black values and expectations. Primarily it was the demands of the Second World War, the mobilisation of black servicemen from the rural south-east sent to European theatres of war and the domestic migration to the more prosperous industrial centres of Chicago and Detroit in the north, which had the most effect; allied to the spectacle of black African republics emerging from the process of post war decolonisation. The overall effect was to mobilise a large, chiefly urban black population that embraced values roughly identical to those of white society, but who now questioned the social system which denied them equal civil rights and equal opportunities. What had been accepted before as a natural order of things was now viewed as illegitimate, unjust and in urgent need of change.

Roots of Revolution

There have always been violent political upheavals, rebellions and revolutions; but it is only from the time of the Great French Revolution in 1789 that there was any attempt to change not just the rulers, but to transform society entirely. It was the French Revolution that really invented the notion of social revolution. The great achievement of the French Revolution was the Declaration of the Rights of Man; the idea that every citizen had rights which rested not on tradition but on reason; formulated as liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.

digscenePerhaps more interesting from an anarchist perspective could be aspects of the earlier English Revolution (1640-1660), where in the midst of what was really not the overthrow of the state but its reaffirmation by a popular militant conservatism, Gerald Winstanley and the Diggers took advantage of the brief period of religious and political freedom that followed the Civil War to create a Commune in 1649 at St. George’s Hill, declaring ‘the earth a common treasury of all mankind’. The Diggers held to a vision of pure communism or anarchism in which there was no place for law or the state. Another radical sect of the period, the Ranters of Abiezer Coppe, wanted to go one better and do away not only with property but the very idea of sin. Needless to say this radical current was ruthlessly suppressed by Oliver Cromwell. The point is that while such experiments were neither the point nor cause of the English revolution, they perfectly illustrate how deeper revolutionary impulses can be unleashed by dramatic social upheaval.

It was in the events in France where we find the three most familiar revolutionary causes first appearing: democracy, nationalism and socialism. The first two of these causes ceased to be revolutionary during the nineteenth century. Democracy was the first to become respectable; universal suffrage was introduced in Germany, twenty years after the European revolutions of 1848, by Bismarck, a conservative. After the national unifications in Germany and Italy, nationalism became a right wing cause. Garibaldi’s Red Shirts of the nineteenth century became Mussolini’s Black Shirts of the twentieth century. Nationalism can only appear in revolutionary guise in the modern world as ‘national liberation struggle’, where the nationhood being struggled for is denied by a more powerful imperialism. But national freedom can only ever be a precondition for social freedom, not an end in itself. Socialism, and its libertarian offshoot anarchism, is the only classical revolutionary current that has endured from the legacy of the Great French Revolution.


Without a doubt it was the Bolshevik myth of the 1917 revolution in Russia that has had the greatest impact on our conception of revolutions. In fact there were two revolutions in 1917; the first in February, when the Tsar abdicated and power fell into the streets, creating a dual power of a Provisional Government and of workers, soldiers and peasants councils (Soviets), neither of which was strong enough to either govern exclusively or do away with the other; the second was in October, when Lenin seized power from both. But contrary to the cinematographic epic by Sergei Eisenstein, there was no mass storming of the Winter Palace. A small group of Red Guards climbed in through a pantry window at the servants entrance, wandered around inside until they found a few government ministers and arrested them in the name of the people; that was the Bolshevik revolution. Six people, five of them Red Guards, were casualties of bad shooting by their own comrades; there were more casualties in the making of Eisentstein’s film, in which the film extras were real soldiers firing live ammunition, than in the actual event. The subsequent Communist monopoly of power was challenged by a significant attempt at a third, truly social revolution, but this was effectively extinguished in 1921 with the rout of Nestor Makhno’s Insurgent Army of Ukraine and the crushing of the sailors’ revolt at Kronstadt.

Recipe for revolution

If we are looking for a pattern to emerge from revolutions throughout history can we isolate anything that is common to such attempts? There seems to be six essential preconditions to revolution:

  1. An unstable government or state – economic or political weakness – the government is unable to govern effectively;
  2. Criticism of government – a crisis of confidence in the abilities of the government to govern, and the legitimacy of government;
  3. A desire for change sparked off by a jolt to people’s expectations;
  4. An absence of safety valves and an obduracy of government. Reform is impossible; revolution is seen as the only way of effecting social change;
  5. Some alternative model – either the existence of a conscious revolutionary minority capable and willing to fill the power vacuum created by ineffective or collapsing government; or the existence of an alternative body of ideas, morality and values;
  6. Some ingredient of chance, an accelerator to the whole process that deprives the government of its ability to enforce social conformity; or that leads a group of revolutionaries to pick a particular moment to act; some quite often accidental occurrence, which when it happens during what sociologists call a ‘power deflation’ or loss of authority acts as a catalyst to insurrection. This is arguably the most important of the six elements, since it tends to be the deciding factor in the whole process.

Our revolution

The anarchist idea of social revolution differs from any other variety by virtue of being libertarian and anti-statist. Proudhon makes the point that:

‘It is a contradiction in terms to say that a government can be revolutionary, for the simple reason that it is the government. Only society, that is, the masses inspired with intelligence, can revolutionise itself, because only society can make rational use of its own spontaneous energy, can analyse and explain the mystery of its own destiny and origins, can change its faith and its philosophy – and finally because only society is capable of struggling against its creator and of producing its own fruit. Governments are… set up to discipline the world. How can you expect them to destroy themselves, engender liberty and start revolutions?’[xii]

A group of revolutionaries that sets itself up as a government and tries to effect social change on behalf of the people by issuing new laws can only rely on coercion to ‘safeguard’ its revolution; by which it means preserving its own power. Inevitably this acts as a brake on or reversal of social change and the usual result is dictatorship not freedom. This is not a matter of personalities but of means and ends. Anarchists by contrast agree with Bakunin:

Bakunin1‘I am above all an absolute enemy of revolution by decrees, which derives from the idea of the revolutionary state, i.e. reaction disguised as revolution. To the system of revolution by decree I counterpose revolutionary action, the only consistent, true, and effective programme. The authoritarian system of decrees in trying to impose freedom and equality obliterates both. The anarchistic system of revolutionary deeds and action naturally and unfailingly evokes the emergence and flowering of freedom and equality, without any necessity whatever for institutionalised violence or authoritarianism. The authoritarian system necessarily leads to the triumph of naked reaction.’[xiii]

An anarchist revolution does not stop with the bringing down of the old regime; its real, constructive task is to stop any new regime from taking over; and to spread the idea and practice of self-management — which is the real point of the social revolution. Indeed it is what happens after the revolution that determines whether there has been a revolution at all. ‘The revolution we want’, says Errico Malatesta, ‘consists in depriving the present holders of their power and wealth and in putting the land and the means of production and all existing wealth at the disposal of the workers, that is of everybody, since those who are not, will have to become, workers. And the revolutionaries must defend this revolution by seeing to it that no individual, party or class finds the means to constitute a government and restore privilege in favour of new or old bosses…’[xiv]

Clearing the ground for social reconstruction by sweeping away the old order is only the first step. ‘The passion for destruction’, to quote Bakunin, has to be ‘a creative passion too’. Something new has to replace what is destroyed. But any ‘transitional’ stage on the road to freedom which adopts the form of a new state, even if it calls itself ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, can only act as a brake on social change and end in disaster. What is needed is an absolute reconstruction of moral values, alongside a complete redistribution of power on horizontal not vertical lines; unless power and responsibility is defused among all of society and everyone is brought into the decision making process there is no social revolution. And unless the consciousness of people is not transformed along with their material conditions then the revolution will remain one sided and incomplete.

Again, Bakunin: ‘…neither the writers, nor the philosophers, nor their books are enough to build a living powerful, socialist movement. Such a movement can be made a reality only by the awakened revolutionary consciousness, the collective will, and the organisation of the working masses themselves. Without this, the best books in the world are nothing but theories spun in empty space, impotent dreams.’[xv]

That is the revolution we want; the collective will made real; society reorganised without the state or the principle of authority; each individual awakened and made conscious of their own desires and able to live them freely.

Philip Ruff

[i] Alexander Berkman, What Is Communist Anarchism? (1929)

[ii] Berkman, , Ibid

[iii] Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

[iv] M. A. Bakunin, God and The State (1871)

[v] Anselme Bellegarrigue, Anarchie, Journal de l’Ordre (Anarchy, a Journal of Order – 1850)

[vi] M. A. Bakunin, Programme and Purpose of the Revolutionary Organisation of International Brothers (1868)

[vii] Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change (1963)

[viii] Tom Wintringham, Mutiny (1936)

[ix] P. A. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid – A Factor In Evolution (revised 1914)

[x] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1937)

[xi] James Davies, Towards a Theory of Revolution (1962)

[xii] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Confessions (1849)

[xiii] M. A. Bakunin, Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis (1870)

[xiv] Errico Malatesta, Fede (1920)

[xv] M. A. Bakunin, Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis (1870)