Capitalism must be replaced. But what are we supposed to do about it? Suppose we want a socialist revolution: what can we do today that will make one more likely?
Let’s start with what socialists already know. Capitalism is a system that, at its core, is based on economic exploitation. A minority control the production of wealth, which means they also control the lives of their workers, who are threatened with poverty unless they obey their bosses. That means that genuine freedom is never going to be possible as long as our economy is run for the profits of the capitalist class.
We know that this system prioritises profits above human life. One result of this is that we are charging headlong towards a global climate catastrophe, and the tiny policy improvements currently being debated in the mainstream won’t be anywhere near enough to save the ecosystem. To put human life into balance with the natural world, the whole economic structure of society is going to have to change.
And we know that the powerful in society want to keep us divided and disorganised. So wherever capitalism goes, it reproduces all kinds of oppression, discrimination, prejudice and superstitions like racism, sexism, nationalism and homophobia.
What would it take to change this? The system we’re fighting is a global system, ruled by an organised and violent class. So we’ll need a global movement, based on the collective participation and courage of the majority, to challenge that—a movement that is just as highly coordinated, conscious and organised as the people we’re fighting against.
The good news is that we’re living in a period of history when mass movements keep emerging to challenge aspects of the capitalist system. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was easy to think that revolutions were a thing of the past. But since 2011, when the Middle East and North Africa exploded in simultaneous revolutions, movements have sprung up all around the world (except, so far, in Australia). In recent years, protests, strikes and revolutions demanding authentic democracy and economic equality have broken out from France to Belarus, Chile to Sudan.
The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 was one of the biggest street protest movements in human history. It reverberated around the world precisely because capitalism makes racism a global phenomenon. The fake-communist leaders of China, who use red flags to disguise their administration of a hyper-capitalist dictatorship, have been challenged by a powerful movement demanding democracy in Hong Kong, proving that the masses have common interest around the world. In many wealthy Western countries, history-making protests have been taking over the cities time and time again demanding urgent action on the climate crisis.
So we know that the injustices of capitalism generate resistance. We don’t have to wait for the powerful to act: ordinary people in their millions want to take action, and they’re often willing to risk or even sacrifice their lives in the struggle for a better world. The collective courage and creativity of these movements give us a glimpse of a society powered by real democracy, meaning the active participation of the people in deciding our own future.
But looking reality in the face, we also have to say that these movements have failed to eradicate the ultimate cause of the injustices that they protest—because they failed to challenge the capitalist system itself. They’ve challenged one or another outcome of capitalism, but they haven’t been able to uproot that basic structure of economic exploitation. That has meant the ruling classes have been able to re-establish dictatorships in some countries, or made token “democratic” reforms in others while leaving the underlying corruption and inequality to fester; racism and climate change have not been uprooted despite the incredible power of the movements against them.
We need mass movements to develop into socialist movements: revolutionary struggles whose participants understand that the economic exploitation of capitalism must be replaced by collective economic democracy. So what can we do to help these uprisings develop into a global socialist revolution? That’s the first question we have to answer.
And there’s a second question demanding an answer. It’s one thing to participate in a mass movement and try to take it in a socialist direction, but what should we do in countries where there isn’t a revolution breaking out, where radical ideas are marginalised, where big protests are rare, where the majority of the population seem to accept the status quo or are too frightened to challenge it? When revolution isn’t on the immediate agenda, what can we do now so that a revolution is more likely to be successful when it does arrive?
These two questions are answered in the same way. What the mass struggles of recent years have been missing is an organised current of socialists: a revolutionary party, made up of experienced activists, who can take part in the movements, help them develop forms of struggle—like strikes and factory occupations—that can build the power of the working class and encourage the movement’s development towards a break with capitalism. Revolutionary parties aren’t created overnight, and they don’t emerge automatically once a revolution begins. The foundation for them must be built in advance, through the patient work of socialist activists in the years before a revolution breaks out.
By organising together, they can construct a network of activists who understand the nature of socialism—international workers’ democracy, rather than Stalinist dictatorship or capitalism-with-reforms. They can gain experience in activism by calling demonstrations, taking part in social movements, debating rival currents and doing whatever they can to push society in a more radical direction—whether by organising a contingent of students to a climate protest or organising a strike in their workplace. They can educate themselves and each other collectively on the history and theory of socialism, and debate how to apply it to current challenges. Importantly, they can advocate for socialism and try to win more people to the cause, building up their forces as much as possible.
A group like this won’t become a revolutionary party until society is deeply radicalised. A revolutionary party that can shape the outcome of a movement would need tens or hundreds of thousands of working-class activists. As long as capitalism is stable, the audience for radical ideas is limited. But as we have seen in recent years, capitalism can suddenly be shaken by movements that reveal to millions of people their own power to change the world.
In those circumstances, revolutionary organisations can grow by leaps and bounds. But whether they are able to do so depends on how well prepared they are. If a mass movement breaks out in your country, it’s much better to have a thousand organised, experienced and confident revolutionary socialist activists, with branches in every major city, than to have a couple of dozen, scattered and cut off from one another.
So the most important thing a socialist can do today is to organise. All around the world, socialists are doing this, often taking enormous risks to do so: in dictatorships like Egypt and Iran, revolutionaries produce socialist literature and smuggle it into workplaces and universities, risking imprisonment, torture and death. In capitalist democracies, the task is a little easier. But it’s equally important. To challenge capitalism as a global system, we need socialist movements in every country, ready to take on our own capitalist state when it faces an uprising from below.
That’s why Socialist Alternative—the group that publishes Red Flag—organises the way we do. We study socialist theory and history together; we debate strategies for social movements, participate in whatever activism we can, call demonstrations and public forums and produce socialist literature. We learn activist skills—how to convince someone to come to a protest, how to design a leaflet, how to speak in a union meeting—and help radicals become experienced militants with a grounding in revolutionary theory.
We’re trying to build an organisation that can help answer the question: what should I do today if I’m a socialist? Over several decades, we’ve built up a national network of experienced revolutionaries throughout Australia. And every new person who gets involved helps to make it that much more likely that when a big social movement emerges in Australia, we’ll be able to help build a radical, revolutionary socialist wing in that movement, and contribute to the task of getting rid of capitalism forever.
In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote The Crisis of Social Democracy while in jail for her anti-war activism. In it, she criticised the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for betraying working-class internationalism with their support for the First World War. The pamphlet was smuggled out in April that year and published a year later. Distributed illegally under the pseudonym Junius, it’s commonly known as the Junius pamphlet.
From early in her political career, Rosa Luxemburg was concerned with the struggle against imperialism and war. Her analysis and the tactics she advocated weren’t all correct, but she was always on the side of the working class and its independent organisation, and of the oppressed. That was true in her approach to the “national question”, her responses to wars and her theory of imperialism.
“You know, I hope nevertheless to die at my post, in a street-battle or in a hard-labour prison”, wrote Rosa Luxemburg to a comrade in 1917. This was not rhetorical flourish or hyperbole: Luxemburg gave everything she had to the fight for socialism. Including, in the end, her life.
The carnage of World War I was ended by revolution in Germany. It began in November 1918 with a mutiny of sailors in Kiel. The revolt spread like lightning among Germany’s war-weary and increasingly rebellious workers. All over the country, workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected and held effective power. Within a matter of days, the monarchy collapsed.
“Fighting the System, Rebuilding the Left” was the theme of Socialist Alternative’s 2022 Marxism Festival. The event is usually held in Melbourne, but this year was spread across Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Around 1,000 people attended across the five cities.
The received wisdom of capitalism is that progressive reforms are gradually won as ideas slowly evolve and enlightened leaders gain positions of power. The 1917 Russian Revolution provided an entirely different model of social change—one in which revolutionary workers radically changed the society around them almost overnight through their own collective action.