Is the pandemic a revolution?

I was lucky to spend the last years of his long life with the Caribbean writer and revolutionary C.L.R. James. Most of what I understand about revolutions comes from him. What follows is a reconstruction from our conversations. He would tell me:

There are only a handful of radical political activists in a country at any one time, maybe 40,000 in Britain today. These people live for turning the world upside down, but the rest just want to keep what they have. This is good. Society would be impossible if everyone wanted to tear it up. Then things change and because of natural catastrophe, economic collapse, war or revolution, those same people realise that they have already lost what they had or are about to lose it. With nothing to hold onto, they now embrace the revolution and fight for a different future, or just to save what they can.

There is a man you see at the bus stop every morning – uptight, rolled umbrella, he looks at no-one, speaks to no-one. When the revolution comes, you can find him organising a street committee. This is when all those tedious political meetings pay off and the masses may accept some professional radicals as their leaders. Don’t ever imagine that, because people are normally conservative, they will inevitably stay out of the revolution.

I was a baby in the Second World War, providing light relief for British adults stuck in bomb shelters overnight. But what happened next (the late 1940s and early 50s) was a world revolution, and I have memories of that period.

This was not just industrial democracies building welfare states, but the Soviet bloc and the anti-colonial movement too. Developmental states of all three kinds aimed to reduce inequality. They focused on workers’ purchasing power and the public services they needed most. Capital flows were controlled and the world economy boomed as never before (or since).

These social democratic gains were reversed around 1979-80 in the interest of capital accumulation, deregulation of markets and the invasion of commerce into public and domestic life. A period of strong states and economic expansion was replaced by one of weakened states and increased inequality at lower rates of development.

My parents’ generation voted overwhelmingly for the most radical government west of Moscow. The British economy only regained its 1939 level in the late 1950s. But public goods were vastly expanded and access to them became more equal. Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal counter-revolution has been with us now for four decades. My question is whether and how this pandemic could trigger its demise.

James’s vision had two components: an involuted radical cadre committed to overthrowing normal society that most people would keep if they could; and times of natural disaster, economic collapse, war and revolution, when normal society is abolished and many are willing to replace what they have lost. Modern societies export violence to vulnerable parts of the world and periodically switch from peace to war at home. This is sometimes called “the trigger mechanism”. It involves the suspension of normal life, which is no longer seen as being inevitable or worth preserving.

This post is not about economic futures, but the pandemic is a historical moment of rupture in human affairs, and it is worth briefly comparing its economic context with similar events in the last century. These include: the First World War; revolution and civil war in Russia and Germany; the 1918 flu pandemic that left 50 million dead, apparently with few political consequences; the 1929 Wall Street crash and Great Depression of the 1930s; the Second World War; the collapse of the post-war order in the 1970s and the neoliberal counter-revolution; the financial crisis of 2008; and now the coronavirus pandemic.

The best guide to all this is still Maynard Keynes. In Essays in Persuasion (1931), he tried to undermine the prevailing belief in capital savings as the key to market growth. His mantra was “spend not save”. His class analysis opposed creditors and savers to debtors. The recipe for economic democracy in the twentieth century was mild inflation.

Who wins and who loses in inflation? The value of money is eroded, so debtors win and creditors lose (as do those who live off fixed savings and pensions). Deflation is the opposite – when money is scarce, prices fall and it buys more. But most of the money vanishes as a result of hidden depreciation. My university grant and scholarship in the early 1960s was 420 British pounds a year. You would need 8000 pounds of today’s money to match its purchasing power.

Neoliberal economic policy seeks to avoid inflation by keeping down interest rates and public expenditure. After a wave of “structural adjustment” in the 1980s, owners of money could move it anywhere in the world without political interference or public obligation. Social citizenship gave way to identity politics. Organized labour was undermined by the threat of exporting production to countries with cheap labour or of importing the cheap labour.

The main function of central banks for four decades has been to keep asset prices up. After 2008 the banks were saved by taxpayers’ money. Now capital markets have reached the limit of political support for the rich. The free money ends up as unpayable debt which has to be liquidated. The pandemic has already cost record losses of production, jobs and sales in a very short time. It bids to rival or outdo the Great Depression with deflation the inevitable result.

C.L.R. James was often asked how he could sound so optimistic when his story of the world was so dire. His buoyancy came from the high of having worked it all out by himself. He would reply that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The most difficult thing, he said, is to identify who the sides are, not to predict who is going to win. We then do our best for our side.

From the isolation of lockdown at near peak first wave mortality, I am in no position to conjure up possible world futures. But I have rediscovered my inner anthropologist, that young man who once found real economic lives in Accra’s slums and joined them there. I can observe how people seem to be coping in this narrow world. And I wonder how permanent this shift from normal to abnormal society will be. Which of our institutions are the most vulnerable and why? How are we being changed by this abnormal situation and will it last?

After two world wars and the Great Depression, the British people had had enough of Winston Churchill and the society he represented. He was a great war leader and we thank him for that. But the British state and its empire were demonstrably not fit for purpose. Money had been no object when it came to killing foreigners; it was now time for money to be no object when it came to saving lives at home. The National Health Service hospitals became the cathedrals of a new socialist society.

That legacy has been wickedly eroded by Tory governments (and Blair’s New Labour) in the interest of “free markets”. Their mismanagement of the current health crisis reflects a knee-jerk commitment to replace public goods with private interests. Boris Johnson’s cabinet of mediocrities and yes men illustrates the point starkly.

At the same time, the pandemic has shown most people the value of those who work for the common good, especially health workers. Is this a political turning point, or will it end up making little political difference like the flu pandemic of 1918? I sometimes wonder if economic misery will lead our world to repeat the 1930s death struggle between fascists, democrats and communists. But the first task is to see how people are being changed by the crisis now.

I get a daily fill of online news and commentary. But direct observation is largely limited to the walls of our Paris apartment. I live there with my wife (a university professor) and our daughter (in her final year of high school). I have long felt that our domestic harmony depends on periodic absences, some of them routine – I stay at home to write, they commute to work and school. I expected the lockdown to put pressure on us -- a permanent Sunday Bloody Sunday.

My situation is an extension of the writer’s lonely life, only now with ever-present company. My wife and daughter have suffered radical disruption of their work and study, with online conferences replacing the daily commute. Yet we are bearing up remarkably well. We spring clean and the flat is looking better than for a long time. My wife has more time to cook, and our evening meals are a delightful ritual. The adults drink a lot more than usual. At 8pm daily we go out on the balcony and clap health workers with neighbours whom we never knew before.

Because we are all three in education, I speculate about the pandemic’s long-term effects for a twentieth-century institution now well past its sell-by date. The universities have been in poor shape since the 1980s. Is school about teaching children or allowing their parents to work? The worst feature of our societies is how kids are dragooned into competition with their peers, and constantly invited to compare their own prospects with those of their age-mates.

I have changed my life radically four times and the digital revolution makes life-long learning ever more feasible. The idea of school as preparation for a job for life went long ago. And why should university education be a rite of passage for adolescents discovering themselves under licences issued by their parents and teachers?

The first fact of life under lockdown is that it is not normal. Foreign students have been stranded here, and many of their home-grown fellows are in desperate straits. Online classes are often disappointing. Administrative meetings online reveal the banality and self-importance of many academics.

The most significant effects of this period will be what individuals take back into the status quo ante. Some students may prefer face-to-face relations in the classroom to online communications. But it is more likely that digital work from home will be boosted in education and in employment.

Equally political criticism of the privatisation of public goods will probably be amplified as a result of this experience. Anyone who says they know what will happen next is deluding him or herself. But the chattering classes will rely on abstract fictions from which most ordinary people are excluded.

Whatever else we are going through, this is the most radical rupture of normal society since I was a child. Is it or could it become a revolution? Revolutions are unpredictable. In January 1917, Lenin gave a speech to Swiss socialists in Zurich. He said he did not expect revolution in his lifetime, but hoped that the younger comrades would fight in one.

The Russian revolution got going in February/March, when the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets took to the streets and the tsar abdicated. In September, Lenin wrote a letter to the party explaining why he called for revolution then, but not in July. By October the revolution was a done deal. Two million Russian soldiers quit the Eastern front between July and September. Many returned home with their weapons. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution takes 1300 pages to cover nine months in 1917.

James returned to Lenin’s role in a 1981 speech to Berkeley students. He spoke about the Guyanese academic and revolutionary, Walter Rodney, who was blown up in a car by an agent provocateur. He tells them that they do not understand revolution and neither did Rodney. No revolutionary organisation should leave its leader unprotected. James was the leading British Trotskyist in the 1930s when he dodged the bullets of Stalinist assassins while researching the Haitian revolution in Paris. He had first-hand experience.

Lenin once advocated a vanguard party. But he abandoned that idea when he arrived at the Finland station in 1917, and found the soviets in the streets. Until then, Lenin wrote, he was just another bourgeois politician with extremist rhetoric. Revolutions change people. Lenin says in his September letter that insurrection is an art, not a science.

In his Berkeley speech, James summarises from Lenin’s letter three components of any revolution. The party had nothing to do with any of them:

Firstly, there must be a clash, a revolutionary upsurge of the people. Then, secondly, there must be a turning point, when the activity of the advanced ranks is at its height; and thirdly, the enemy must be vacillating.

James then recalls a conversation with Trotsky in Mexico in 1938 when he asked:

“How come, time and again, the revolutionary party – this is the party, not the mass movement — was wrong in its analysis of the situation and Lenin turns out to be right and sees it the correct way? How did that happen?”. I expected him to tell me how Lenin knew philosophy, political analysis, psychology, or just knew the revolution. He did not. “Lenin always had his eyes upon the mass of the population, and when he saw the way they were going, he knew that tomorrow this was going to happen”.

The Caribbean revolutionary concluded in American Civilization, written in mid-20th century, that the revolutionary “struggle for happiness” pitched the drive for more democracy in people’s lives against the forces of totalitarian bureaucracy. Our pandemic at least shows us that this struggle is now everywhere.

Observe and reflect on how people are changing themselves, when confronted by combinations of old and new patterns emerging in front of our eyes. Work out what you think the sides are and do your best for your side.

Keith Hart lives in Paris with his family and has a second home on Durban beach. He has worked in 24 countries and divides his time between writing, world travel and the virtual society in his laptop.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

Show Comments