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Even Vladimir Lenin was surprised when the Russian Revolution began in 1917.
Is this just an interesting historical tidbit or a profound example of how fast seemingly stable political, social and economic systems can collapse?
The subject of how long lasting our current system really is comes up frequently in discussions about global warming and what we can do about it.
Usually the conversation goes something like this:
“Scientists tell us we’re getting close to the point of no return. We don’t have much time left to drastically cut our carbon emissions.”
“Yes, but corporation keep investing billions in the tarsands, in coal, in building ever more private automobiles. The oil sector, that’s where the money and jobs are.”
“Even the people who understand global warming is a problem need jobs.”
“Governments pay lip service to combating global warming, but in reality they follow the money too. Big corporations buy them off. They run everything.”
“The problem is capitalism. Capitalists require ever-expanding profits and will do anything to keep them flowing. That’s just the way the system is.”
“So what can we do about it?”
“Get rid of capitalism.”
“How likely is that?”
“I guess it depends on how many people come to the same conclusion and are willing to do what it takes to change the system.”
“In other words, it’s hopeless.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Look around, people don’t care. They’re too busy shopping or worrying about their own private problems. People are too scared to join a union, let alone overthrow capitalism.”
“Things can change, very quickly.”
And that’s where the story about how the Russian Revolution surprised everyone comes up.
For those of us who understand the importance of acting quickly to reduce carbon emissions and that capitalism is incapable of dealing with this urgent problem, the question of how fast we could build a new, environmentally friendly economic system is critically important.
Is there time or are we cooked? Literally.
The answer depends, in large part, on one’s views about how “revolution” occurs.
If you believe that major change only happens after long years of organizing by dedicated, professional revolutionaries building a party that can lead the masses into a brave new future, then human beings today are probably like a lobster in a pot just before the chef turns on the burner: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. This water seems quite comfortable to me.” It’s doubtful if we have the time to develop the cadre necessary for taking over a system as complex and all-encompassing as world capitalism.
On the other hand, if you believe in the power and ability of ordinary people to rise up when confronted by a crisis that affects us all, then it is possible to be optimistic. If the system you want to build begins with working people around the world taking over the reins of the economy and replacing capitalist minority rule with economic democracy, then that could happen relatively quickly. Yes, it still requires “leaders” working hard, talking and organizing, but history offers many examples of ideas spreading quickly and then people acting upon them.
The critical element — the “objective conditions” — already exists. Capitalism itself has created an economy overwhelmingly dominated by social labour. This gives the working class the potential power to take over almost every part of the economy in the vast majority of major economies around the world.
Most people in most countries are workers. If we chose to do so, we could easily expand one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is most of our economy. We could limit private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others. We could move to a system of social ownership where multiple democratic owning communities based on the appropriate level of government — local, state/provincial, national, international — replaced corporations. If we did these three things the system of greed that propels capitalists to earn profits, regardless of the consequences to our environment, would no longer exist.
Saving the planet from global warming and ensuring a future for our grandchildren are powerful incentives for billions of working people to participate in this necessary global movement.
Can it happen quickly enough? Yes.
Will it happen quickly enough? That is up to us.
Gary Engler, an elected union officer and long time Vancouver journalist, is co-author of the New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite.