Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Revolution does not guarantee social progress

Reform, rather than revolution, is the foundation of social change, writes Bryan Blears


The spirit of revolution has become more influential within Labour in the past several years. Due in part to a persistent assault by the Conservatives on the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable, as well as deliberate provocation by foreign states and other third parties, a distrust of the media, politics, and the economy has grown – resulting in a belief by some that the system is so rigged it must be overthrown rather than reformed.

Jeremy Corbyn owes much of his popularity to that belief. He has promised his supporters radical social change in Britain, as well as an internal revolution within the Labour party itself. In particular, Corbyn’s internal ‘revolution’ is embodied by a distinct departure from New Labour. Rather than seeing the New Labour government as one which challenged the established order, Corbyn has made it clear from the offset that he believes it to have been a continuation of that order.

Fidel Castro once said that ‘a revolution is a fight to the death between the future and the past’. It is fair to say that Corbyn’s aim – to put a stop to what he sees as a long line of elite, hawkish governments – is in that sense a revolutionary movement.

The narrative of history for Corbyn and his supporters is one in which Britain’s ruling elite have held the strings of power regardless of which party is elected to government. And while Corbyn has stated throughout his time as Labour leader that he believes that his being elected as prime minister would allow him to change Britain for the better, a segment of his supporters believe that this can never be allowed to happen by the powers-that-be. The logic follows that only a radical departure from both Labour and Britain’s past can bring about the change needed to improve the lives of working class people.

A side effect of this anti-establishment mood has been an unfortunate alliance with foreign foes. Indeed it is not surprising that foreign powers have been working against the British establishment in order to sow discord. Russia pounces on any opportunity to weaken the authority of the governing elite in western democracies. This is why Russian bots were programmed to promote Trump (the anti-establishment candidate) during the presidential election campaign. As a result, the ideas espoused by Corbyn supporters have, on occasion, bolstered conspiracy theories peddled by Russia. A noticeable portion of Corbyn advocates suspected the British government of foul play during the Salisbury nerve-agent attack following Russian denial, and likewise raised accusations that the UN White Helmets were involved in staging a chemical attack in Douma, Syria, earlier this year.

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It is no surprise that the left is more vulnerable to this phenomena than the right. Key to the left’s vulnerability is its rejection of Britain’s past which it sees as imperial and criminal, and its distrust of the modern British establishment. Modern revolutionaries (rightly) point a finger at Britain’s colonial past and of injustices today under the Conservatives, but fail to acknowledge the progress which has been made since then – much of it under Labour.

Labour has demonstrated under Attlee, Wilson and Blair that change is possible. It has shown that in government it is capable of reforming wages and improving working conditions, improving schools, providing better education and employment for children from working class backgrounds and – most importantly – creating long-lasting changes to the system through the Minimum Wage Act, the Human Rights Act, and the National Health Service Act.

That is not to say that any of these Labour governments were without their failures. But it is important to prescribe those failures to the individuals who made them, and not to suggest that they are evidence that a Labour government will, by nature of having been elected, be corruptible, hawkish or open to influence from big business and the elite. Such cynicism inevitably leads to the incorrect conclusion that massive social upheaval is the only way to bring about meaningful social change; a conclusion that is bad for Britain and useful for its opponents.

Contrary to their supporters, revolutions are rarely morally justifiable and are often extremely harmful to the people they are supposed to benefit. Of the six nations primarily involved in the Arab Spring only one, Tunisia, has moved towards constitutional democracy while four – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – have suffered further civil wars harming the lives of millions of civilians. Ukraine’s 2014 revolution directly led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia as well as large scale conflict in Eastern Ukraine, where over a million Ukrainians have been displaced and many thousands killed. If the aim of revolutionaries is to improve living standards, these modern examples are important reminders of the costs of failure. Corbyn should remember this – in particular the desire of foreign powers to provoke the left and incite revolutionary sentiment – when he addresses his Labour supporters.


Bryan Blears is a health campaigner and a member of Salford Labour party. He tweets @BryanBlears


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Bryan Blears

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