What is a revolution? A revolutionary period opens when the subterranean economic, social, and political pressures burst suddenly to the surface, splits emerge in the ruling class, and the masses storm onto the stage of history to seize their destiny into their own hands. There are political revolutions which result in a transfer of power from one layer of a class to another, and social revolutions that result in a change of ruling class altogether.
A brief look at history shows that revolutions are not as infrequent as one might think. However, successful revolutions have been few and far between. In fact, just as most strikes end in failure, most revolutions over the last century have gone down in defeat despite the heroic exertions of the masses. A convergence of contingent factors—above all, the presence of a farsighted leadership willing to push beyond the limits imposed by capitalism—are needed for revolutionary success. But even in defeat, profound lessons are learned by the direct participants and by the Marxists, who synthesize the experience of the working class’s efforts to change society in the form of theory, thus allowing future generations to learn from the successes and mistakes of the past.
Fifty years ago, a worldwide revolutionary wave gave a tiny glimpse of what is possible when the working class moves into action—and what happens when the necessary leadership is not prepared in advance. In France, we saw the most magnificent revolutionary general strike to date betrayed by the Stalinist Communist Party. In Pakistan, a classic proletarian revolution unfolded that had the potential to change the course of history throughout the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and beyond. In Mexico, a mass student movement shook the rotten PRI regime to its core—and was drowned in blood. In Czechoslovakia, the masses moved to throw the Stalinist yoke off their backs, which could have sparked a broader political revolution and the introduction of workers’ democracy throughout the Eastern Bloc. In Vietnam, the audacious Tet Offensive shocked American public opinion and spelled the beginning of the end of US imperialism’s efforts to subjugate that country. And in the US itself, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, New York City teachers launched a major strike, protesters at the DNC were met with vicious police repression, and the anti-Vietnam War movement kicked into high gear.
In a world where the contradictions in society are even sharper than they were half a century ago, the idea of world revolution as a way out of the global crisis of capitalism represents a mortal threat to the system. Donald Tusk, who heads the European Council and led the charge to impose austerity on the Greek people, noted in 2014:
I am really afraid of the ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis . . . this radical leftist illusion that you can build some alternative [to a capitalist EU] . . . For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.
With a messy Brexit all but inevitable and polarization accelerating in Italy, the EU crisis is still far from over—and the memory of 1968 continues to haunt the ruling class. As history prepares a new worldwide 1968 on an even higher level, we invite our readers to explore the events of the momentous year in the pages of this issue of Socialist Revolution and at Marxist.com.