Revolutionary Socialism

Revolutionary socialism, linked closely to Marxism, refers to a strand in socialist thought that argues that the only way to achieve socialist goals is to overthrow the existing system and replace it with something substantively different.

This theory developed in the nineteenth century and took various forms. It was very appealing to many at a time when the vote was either completely denied or given to the property owning male. Trade unions were illegal, political parties offering representation to the working class did not exist and workers were given few rights. Revolutionary socialists argued that there was no alternative to revolution because the state itself was not a benign body but an instrument of the ruling or bourgeois class, therefore it could not be reformed but had to be smashed. Therefore they could argue that even if the vote was won, it would be a façade, a trick and a pretence to suggest that the interests of the proletariat would now be acknowledged. Revolutionary socialists use radical means to achieve radical ends. Those ends would include the total abolition of capitalism, class and private property, usually described as communism. This would lead to a redistribution of wealth, the end of class division, and absolute equality. Marx argued that this would take place after a short period called ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ where the revolution would secure itself and remove enemies before the achievement of full communism.

The Russian Revolution in 1917 was the first successful socialist revolution, taking place in a country which had not experienced much industrialisation or attempts to create a more democratic system. Lenin adapted Marx’s ideas of a mass movement to create the idea of an intellectual vanguard class, which would lead the revolution on behalf of the unpoliticised peasants. In the twentieth century, revolutionary socialism inspired many all over the world to rise up against oppressors, and was particularly important in the anti-colonial movement. Socialist revolutions also took place in China and Cuba. The consequences of revolutionary socialism proved disappointing for many socialists.

Marx’s idea that the state would ‘wither away’ proved wrong; in fact, very authoritarian states — replacing capitalism with a collectivised economy — often resulted in a lack of respect for civil rights and restrictions on the media and opposition groups. In order to protect the revolution from its enemies, new governments felt that they needed to be as disciplined and strong as the revolutionaries themselves had been. Today revolutionary socialism is much less relevant, linked to the failure of the USSR and the collapse of communism in 1989/90.

Exam tip : While understanding socialism requires a knowledge of European history , changes in the ideology are connected to specific historical events, such as the growth of the franchise . Particularly useful will be the impact of the industrial revolution, the significance of the Russian Revolution, the Cold War and the collapse of communism in 1989 . However, remember your essays are about political ideas; no detailed description of historical events is needed