09 Dec
2017

What is a Revolution?

A good friend came to stay a few days ago and we spent the evening discussing revolution; what, who, when, why and how.  A fairly wide ranging discussion that continued over breakfast and then prompted a lot of thinking during idle moments over the following days.

She is a long time International Socialist and well versed (or at least considerably more so than me) in Marxism. We started from a common agreement that society or civilisation, cannot continue as it is and the only way to produce the changes necessary (whatever they may be) is through a revolutionary approach.

Now I often find when talking with socialists that the first analytical tool that they pull out is ‘class’. When coming from an ecological perspective I have some problems with this.

Firstly, though, let me say that I think that Marx’s class analysis of industrial society is an incredibly useful way of looking at things and provides lots of useful insights about the nature and basis of power relationships between individuals and groups in society. As a model of, or tool for understanding, the way things are it is excellent.

However when thinking about the changes required from an ecological point of view it seems to me to somehow miss the point.

In discussion, and in thinking about it afterwards, it occurred to  me that part of the problem may be in the nature of what is meant by “revolutionary” change. From a marxist perspective, as I understand it, a revolution is literally a turning over of the existing order so those at the bottom of the power structures – the working class in industrial society – become the top. The wheel turns, revolves, a revolution takes place, which inverts the old order. Dictatorship of the proletariat replaces the dictatorship of the capitalists and the rentier class.

That is a change that takes place within the existing (industrial) system. Industrial capitalism gets replaced by industrial communism/socialism with the empowered working class now in control of their destinies. But the underlying paradigm is still an industrial society. It may no longer be exploiting people, but it is still ecologically exploitative. It may even be that economic growth is no longer the goal as redistribution of wealth provides plenty for all, but it is still based on exploitation of natural capital.

It seems to me that after a class based socialist revolution we would still be in a situation where an ecology based revolution will be needed. There was some guff spoken about it all being alright after the socialist revolution as it is not in the interests of the working class to cause ecological instability – unfortunately we’ve been running an experiment on that with  the current ruling class for the last 40 years.

The implications of ecologically damaging behaviours is against the interests of the current ruling class (it is an existential threat), and despite this consciousness the experiment hasn’t exactly worked out well. After 40 years of increasingly strident banging on about it the message is perhaps starting to get through – but far too little too late.

I see no reason to suppose that the newly empowered working class will be any more likely to turn off industrial civilisation – at least until they’ve all got the “renewable” electric personal transporters and had the holiday in the sun that they “deserve” because they’ve “earned it”. Can we afford to run another experiment in practical ecological behaviour change for the next 40 years?

Perhaps “revolution” is the wrong word for what I think is needed. Revolution implies that the wheel turns, but the machine keeps rolling on with a different crew of fools on the footplate.

What we need is a Disjunction not a revolution. It will be painful, people will get hurt and die, but that is what has to happen – a whole new direction to grow a new civilisation (which is itself a problematic word with lots of baggage – but that’s another discussion…).

For now we need to be working for the disjunction.

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