Social Revolution

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Social Revolution


a way of passing from a socioeconomic formation that has become historically obsolete to a more progressive one; a radical qualitative change in the entire socioeconomic structure of society.

The classic definition of revolution was given by K. Marx in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations, a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophical—in short, ideological—forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 13, p. 7).

The character, scale, and concrete content of every revolution are determined by the socioeconomic formation that the revolution must eliminate and also by the specific characteristics of the socioeconomic system for which it is clearing the ground. With passage to higher stages of social development, the revolution’s dimensions broaden, its content deepens, and its objective tasks become more complex. In the early stages of the history of society, during the transition from the primitive communal system to the slaveholding system and from the slaveholding system to the feudal system, revolutions occurred for the most part spontaneously and consisted of sporadic, in most cases local, mass movements and uprisings.

With the transition from feudalism to capitalism, revolutions became a nationwide process in which the conscious activity of political parties and organizations played an increasingly large role. In the era of transition from capitalism to socialism, a world revolutionary process unfolds in which the conscious political activity of the vanguard class becomes the essential condition for the development and victory of the revolution. Revolution finds its fullest expression in the socialist revolution, which frees society from all forms of exploitation and oppression and prepares the way for the communist socioeconomic formation, in which, according to Marx, “social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 185).

The economic basis of revolution is the deepening conflict between the growth of society’s productive forces and the antiquated, conservative system of production relations. The conflict manifests itself in the exacerbation of social antagonisms and in intensified struggle between the ruling class, which has a vested interest in preserving the existing system, and the oppressed classes. The revolutionary struggle of the oppressed classes, either spontaneous or conscious, reflects the growing need for the emancipation of productive forces from the fetters of the obsolete system of production relations.

The motive forces of revolutions are the classes and social strata whose objective position in the system of production relations gives them an interest in overthrowing the existing system and makes them capable of participating in the struggle for the victory of a more progressive system. Revolutions are never the result of conspiracies by individuals or of the arbitrary actions of a minority isolated from the masses. They arise only through objective changes that impel mass forces and create a revolutionary situation.

A social revolution inevitably encounters an obstacle in the form of the political power of the ruling class. Hence, the first act of a social revolution is political revolution, the attainment of state power by the revolutionary class. “Every class which is struggling for mastery,” wrote Marx and Engels, “even when its domination, as is the case with the proletariat, postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of domination itself, must first conquer for itself political power” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 32). The question of political state power is the main one for every revolution. “The passing of state power from one class to another,” V. I. Lenin noted, “is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term” (Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 31, p. 133).

In addition to being historically inevitable, revolution is also open class struggle, the sharpest class struggle, which may take such varied forms as armed uprising, coup d’etat, civil war, and peaceful means of struggle. Revolution develops through confrontation with counterrevolution. In the final analysis, the objective requirements of social progress determine the victory of revolution. However, at each concrete stage, the outcome of the confrontation is not a certainty, but depends on the real correlation of class forces, on the maturity of the subjective factor in the revolution, and on the ability and readiness of the revolutionary classes and political parties to solve the problems facing them. “Revolutionary periods,” Lenin emphasized, “are mainly such periods in history when the clash of contending social forces, in a comparatively short space of time, decides the question of the country’s choice of a direct or a zigzag path of development for a comparatively very long time” (ibid., vol. 16, pp. 8–9).

When the mass revolutionary forces are not sufficiently organized and are not prepared to carry out the revolutionary tasks that have objectively evolved, a revolution may assume an elitist character, for example, the Turkish (1908) and Portuguese (1910) bourgeois revolutions. In contrast to popular revolutions, in which the vast majority of the people participate actively and independently, the elitist revolution is inconsistent and half-way and usually ends in class compromise.

The founders of Marxism-Leninism decisively opposed the doctrinaire ideas according to which social revolution automatically results from the growth of productive forces and is carried out only when objective development itself guarantees complete success without persistent struggle, without losses, and without the risk of temporary defeats. “In revolution,” wrote Engels, “as in war, it is of the highest necessity to stake everything on the decisive moment, whatever the odds may be. It is a matter of course that, in every struggle, he who takes up the gauntlet risks being beaten; but is that a reason why he should confess himself beaten, and submit to the yoke without drawing the sword?” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8, pp. 80–81). The energetic, self-sacrificing activity of the mass forces of the revolution—this is the deciding factor in its successful development and victory.

The question of the role of revolution in social development is the subject of sharp ideological struggle. Exponents of the bourgeois “sociology of revolution” contend that revolution as a form of social development is ineffectual and futile, that it entails enormous “costs,” and that in all respects it is inferior to evolutionary forms of development. Following the bourgeois ideologists, the theoreticians of reformism and right-wing revisionism deny or minimize the role of revolution in the historical process. On the other side, exponents of petit bourgeois ultraleft revolutionism reject the objective laws of the revolutionary process and believe that a revolutionary vanguard, an “active minority,” can carry out a revolution under any conditions.

In generalizing from historical experience, Marxist-Leninist theory proves that revolutions are a powerful motive force of social and political progress. Marx called revolutions the “locomotives of history” (ibid., vol. 7, p. 86). The great historical role of revolutions is the elimination of obstacles on the path of social progress. A revolution signifies a giant leap in social development, a transition to new, more progressive forms of social life. In revolutionary eras, the rate of social development is speeded up to an unusual degree. According to Lenin, in such periods the limits of what is possible expand a thousand-fold.

Revolutions draw into energetic political activity the popular masses, who during ordinary times are prevented from taking part in politics by the ruling classes. The content of social creativity is enriched and its dimensions grow. “Revolutions,” wrote Lenin, “are festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the mass of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order, as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the limited, philistine yardstick of gradualist progress” (Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 11, p. 103).

Particularly great in the history of humanity is the role of the revolution of the proletariat, initiated by the Great October Socialist Revolution. The proletarian revolution ushered in the era of the passage of human society from capitalism to socialism.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. Klassovaia bor’ba vo Frantsii. Ibid., vol. 7.
Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta. Ibid., vol. 8.
Engels, F. Revoliutsiia i kontrrevoliutsiia v Germanii. Ibid.
Marx, K. “Predislovie” [K kritike politicheskoi ekonomii]. Ibid., vol. 13.
Lenin, V. I. Dve taktiki sotsial demokratii v demokraticheskoi revoliutsii. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 11.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh II Internatsionala.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia. Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn’ “levizny” v kommunizme. Ibid., Vo1. 41.
Programma KPSS. Moscow, 1974.
Dokumenty Soveshchaniia predstavitelei kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii. Moscow, 1969.
Kovalev, A. M. Sotsial’naia revoliutsiia. Moscow, 1969.
Seleznev, M. A. Sotsial’naia revoliutsiia. Moscow, 1971.
Leninskaia teoriia sotsialisticheskoi revoliutsii i sovremennost’. Moscow, 1972.


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