How do you change society?


By Keara Courtney

The $64 question for anyone who seriously wants to change society is: how? Is it possible to work within the present system, and out of it create something more just and democratic through peaceful, bit-by-bit reforms? Or is the only feasible way to end injustice getting rid of the present system through revolution, an upwelling of people's power?

It's no small question. In fact, the debate between "reform" and "revolution" has raged amongst progressive people for centuries.

One of the latest instalments of this (sure to be ongoing) debate took place at Sydney University in late October when student members of Resistance and the National Organisation of Labor Students (representing the Labor Party) discussed the question.

Labor's representative, Luke Whittington, told us he supports reformism and that the ALP had won many reforms in Australian society, legislating for them in parliament.

He also spoke against mass mobilisation to win reforms, arguing that the participation of large numbers of people in rallies, strikes or demonstrations had little lasting impact and was secondary to the main game, which is played out in parliament.

There are a lot of problems with this line of argument. First, there are no longer many people who look to the ALP as a great force for social change. What's the ALP done for you lately?

It was in government for 13 years, during which it cut taxes for the big companies, multiplied unemployment, introduced fees for education, supported dictatorships like that in Indonesia and introduced legislation restricting Aboriginal land rights.

In NSW, Labor's the party that is going on a binge against young people, giving police all the powers they want. That's not progress.

Even in opposition, the ALP is still clearly a conservative, pro-capitalist party. During the last federal election campaign, Labor refused to promise to close the Jabiluka uranium mine or overturn anti-union legislation. As for the GST, Labor tried unsuccessfully to introduce one in 1985.

Labor might claim to be "the party of the workers", but that is a public relations stunt; its allegiances are all to the "big end of town". At best, Labor represents "capitalism with a nicer face" — big deal.

Secondly, it is simply not true that large-scale actions by people aren't effective. Not one single right or benefit that working people have in this or any other country was granted through the kindness of government or big business. People had to fight for every one of them.

The right to vote was won only after massive struggles, first by working-class men and then in the 1900s by women (the "suffragists").

The 40-hour working week was won through sustained strikes.

The Australian government was forced to withdraw its troops from Vietnam by the biggest political mobilisations in Australian history.

Coordinated public action put an end to the wilderness-destroying Franklin Dam in Tasmania.

A recent example of the effectiveness of mass action was the high school student walkouts against racism earlier this year, organised by Resistance. The politicians and media say that they defeated Pauline Hanson, but what really put Hanson on the back burner was the sustained, public anti-racism campaign, which peaked with the July 24 student walkout and rallies involving 14,000 students around Australia.

There's another issue too. The argument that "rallies and revolutions never change anything, we have to rely on parliament" rests on a single (false) assumption: that this system — capitalism — is the best we can do.

Yet the very cause of all of these social problems is that the whole system is set up to benefit the owners of big businesses and the banks. That means that, if you want to end racism, environmental destruction, the oppression of women and all of the other injustices under capitalism, the only option is to organise all those who are exploited or oppressed to make revolutionary change.

Revolution is possible. Revolutions have occurred throughout history: the slave rebellion of Spartacus in ancient Rome, the US Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789-94, the socialist revolutions this century in Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Vietnam, for example. Social regimes are historical and finite, not eternal.

Revolutions have been a tool of people throughout history because no ruling elite ever gives up power voluntarily. They never say, "Oh yeah, we're sick of bleeding you dry so we can have wonderful, comfortable lives. Here, have the power."

We've seen this again this year with the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia. That happened through people power; it wasn't going to happen any other way.

What is a revolution? It's a complete change in the social order which shifts the power from the hands of the wealthy ruling class into those of a new progressive class. In present society, this is a shift from the tiny minority of super-rich capitalists to the working class — the majority.

In such a revolution, the repressive capitalist state, with its military forces, police force, courts and parliaments, will be replaced by a new system of democratic rule, including a government which represents the wishes and will of the majority. It's only by doing that that a new society can be built — a society without poverty, illiteracy or unemployment and which is free of repression.

Revolutions don't just happen; they must be organised. In every successful revolution this century, there has been a party linked to the people, part of the people, which has led and organised the revolution.

Resistance is proud to be an important part of building such revolutionary organisation in Australia.

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